Naval Officer Earned Medal of Honor, Gave Nation ‘A Lesson in The Brotherhood of Man’

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

From Defense Media Activity

In the military, service members often refer to themselves as “brothers and sisters in arms.”

For Navy Capt. Thomas J. Hudner, a Korean War Medal of Honor recipient, that brotherhood existed across all spectrums, even in a time of deep racial tension. 

Thomas J. Hudner received the Medal of Honor from President Truman at the White House, on April 13, 1951. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy

Believed by many to be a man who embodied the ethos of the Navy, Hudner attended the Naval Academy and was commissioned as an officer in 1946. He became an aviation officer in 1949.

On Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner and his squadron were providing air support to American troops during the Korean War battle of the Chosin Reservoir. One of Hudner’s squadron mates, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first African-American to be trained as a naval aviator, was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire.

Hudner saw that Brown was still alive in the wreckage and, fearing that if he didn’t land, Brown would succumb to his wounds or suffer capture at the hands of the enemy. In an effort to render aid to a fellow aviator, Hudner crash-landed his own aircraft near Brown’s downed plane.

His attempt to save Brown came just two years after the Navy had desegregated. For the rest of his life, Hudner claimed that the reason he landed to save Brown was because Brown, like all service members, would have done the same for him.

Before his death, Hudner described meeting Brown at Quonset Point, Rhode Island.

“I was changing into flight gear, and he came in and nodded, ‘Hello,’” Hudner said of their first encounter at the naval air station.

“I introduced myself, but he made no gesture to shake hands. I think he did not want to embarrass me and have me not shake his hand,” Hudner said. “I think I forced my hand into his.”

Soon after, Hudner and Brown were flying Vought F4U Corsairs, attempting to relieve pressure on American forces seeking to break Chinese Army encirclement at the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir.

During one run, Brown’s Corsair was hit by ground fire, and he crashed, sending his plane into flames.

Passing overhead, Hudner was shocked to see Brown waving from the cockpit and struggling to get out of the smoldering wreckage. Acting immediately, he crashed his own plane in an attempt to save his friend from the enemy.

He found him conscious, with his head and hands uncovered, exposed to the frigid cold.  Hudner placed his own wool cap it on his friend’s head and wrapped a scarf around his numbed hands. He circled the wreckage of Brown’s plane, packing it with snow to extinguish the flames. 

Ens. Jesse L. Brown was the Navy’s first black pilot. He was killed when his plane crashed due to enemy fire in 1950. Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

“We’ve got to figure out a way to get out of here,” Brown told Hudner, but Hudner could not free Brown’s leg, which was stuck between the fuselage and the crushed control panel.

Hudner “returned to his crashed aircraft and radioed other airborne planes, requesting that a helicopter be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher. He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action and, with the assistance of the rescue pilot, renewed a desperate but unavailing battle against time, cold, and flames,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.

As nightfall approached and temperatures dropped, Hudner and the helicopter pilot were forced to leave Brown, knowing they’d be unable to fly in the dark. 

Brown was “motionless and slowly dying,” Hudner said, but he told him, “We’ll come back for you.”

Brown died shortly after and would later be posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Hudner’s actions were praised by African-American media outlets, with The Norfolk Journal and Guide, a leading black weekly, told the story of Brown and Hudner under the headline, “A Lesson In The Brotherhood Of Man.”

A letter to the editor said, “I never thought a white man would help out a black man like that.”

Ens. Jesse Brown’s widow, Daisy, greets Hudner at his Medal of Honor ceremony in 1951. Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

Through the years, Hudner remained a close friend of the Brown family, even paying for Brown’s widow, Daisy, to attend college. In 1973, he joined her for the commissioning of the frigate USS Jesse Brown.

At that ceremony, Hudner said Brown “died in the wreckage of his airplane with courage and unfathomable dignity. He willingly gave his life to tear down barriers to freedom for others.”

In 2013, Jesse Brown’s daughter and granddaughter were in attendance for a ceremony commemorating the beginning of construction on the guided-missile destroyer Thomas J. Hudner. The ship is scheduled to be commissioned in 2018.

Hudner passed away Nov. 13 at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 93.

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Naval Officer Earned Medal of Honor, Gave Nation ‘A Lesson in The Brotherhood of Man’