Last surviving Korean War Medal of Honor recipient honored at Maine Maritime Museum

Posted April 12, 2013, at 7:28 p.m.
Korean War hero Capt. Thomas Hudner, the namesake for the US Navy's DDG 116 destroyer, was honored Friday at Maine Maritime Museum.
Courtesy Maine Maritime Museum
Korean War hero Capt. Thomas Hudner, the namesake for the US Navy's DDG 116 destroyer, was honored Friday at Maine Maritime Museum.

BATH, Maine — Capt. Thomas Hudner said Friday that pure instinct led him to intentionally crash-land his plane in the Choisin Reservoir in Korea in 1950 in an attempt to save his squadron mate, Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American naval aviator.

Hudner, now 88 and the only surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War, never thought that his actions would be recognized with the nation’s highest military laurel. Nor did he ever imagine that friends, family and colleagues would gather at the Maine Maritime Museum on Friday to acknowledge his lifetime of achievements, which now include serving as the namesake for the future USS Thomas Hudner, an Arleigh Burke class DDG 116 destroyer being built by Bath Iron Works and scheduled for delivery in 2017.

On Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner and Brown were flying what was supposed to be a three-hour search-and-destroy mission in the Choisin Reservoir, where “They were outnumbered about 10-to-1,” Adm. Gregory Johnson of Harpswell told nearly 200 people gathered at the Maine Maritime Museum on Friday — including Hudner, his family and members of Brown’s family.

About 20 minutes into the mission, Hudner, who now lives in Massachusetts, received a report that Brown’s plane was streaming oil — likely from an ammunition strike — and his aircraft had begun losing power.

Brown crash-landed his plane, badly damaging it in the process. Initially Hudner and his squadron mates thought the pilot had been killed, Johnson said. Then they noticed Brown waving, but his right leg was pinned by the cockpit and the plane was smoking, so they sent a mayday signal.

“Realizing that Ensign Brown was badly injured, and that smoke and fire were increasing in intensity, and (concerned about) exposure to the weather … Hudner made a spontaneous decision at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, to land, and to try and help extract Ensign Brown from the wreckage,” Johnson said. “Then the two of them could fly safely out.”

Hudner intentionally crashed his own plane within 100 yards of Brown’s, and tried, in vain, to free his squadron mate. But they couldn’t put out the fire or free Brown’s leg, and the weather was worsening.

“With Ensign Brown near death, running out of daylight and no means to extract him from the wreckage, they had no choice but to leave,” Johnson said, adding that Hudner faced “a crushing choice.”

In a short film by Charles Stuart, a fellow alumnus of Phillips Academy Andover, screened on Friday, Hudner reflects on the last moments with Brown, noting that the two “talked a little, but it was a struggle for him to talk.”

His last words, according to Hudner, were for his wife: “If I don’t make it, tell Daisy I love her.”

Speaking quietly to the camera, Hudner says, “Staying there would have been suicide. We told him [Brown] that we had to get more equipment, that we would be back, knowing it was a bald-faced lie. I’m quite sure that when we left him, he had passed away.”

For his efforts to save Brown, Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman on April 13, 1951. Brown’s widow, Daisy, was present at the ceremony.

Hudner spoke only briefly on Friday. Standing and smiling to applause, he expressed gratitude for support given “not only to me, but to all the people who have been serving in the military.

Following the ceremony, Hudner said he’s uncomfortable being called a hero, and instead focused on Brown, who he said was “idolized” by the men in their squadron.

“He was a naval aviator who was doing a great job,” Hudner recalled clearly, “and he was highly respected.”

Jamal Knight, Brown’s grandson, was present at Friday’s luncheon, along with his mother, his sister, and his sister’s fiance.

Knight said he is proud of his grandfather, who put himself through Ohio State University before entering the Navy, and of Hudner, with whom his grandmother, Daisy Brown, has stayed in touch through the years.

Members of his family “draw a lot of our inspiration from what [Hudner] tried to do,” Knight said. “It warms my body every time I’m in his presence.”

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