BATH, Maine — At 91 years old, Thomas J. Hudner Jr. sat among family and friends, as well as officials from Bath Iron Works and the U.S. Navy on Monday morning in the shadow of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that will carry the Medal of Honor recipient’s name, for the ceremonial keel laying of the vessel.
Hudner, who served in the Navy, is the last surviving Korean War Medal of Honor recipient from that war. The former naval aviator was honored for his actions trying to save the life of another pilot, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir on Dec. 4, 1950.
Hudner and Brown were flying what was supposed to be a three-hour search-and-destroy mission in the Chosin Reservoir that day when they were outnumbered about 10-to-1, Adm. Gregory Johnson of Harpswell said in 2013 during a ceremony at Maine Maritime Museum honoring Hudner.
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 in 2013. 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 the trapped pilot. 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.”
On Monday, Hudner’s son, Thomas J. Hudner III, said the actions for which his father received the Medal of Honor are “just one prominent example of the way in which he always led his life.”
His father and other pilots were warned at the time that any “foolish” actions on their part would prompt severe disciplinary actions, but “crash landing his own plane was the right thing to do,” his son said.
The ceremony Monday marked the “laying of the keel,” a Navy tradition dating to the days of sail when the ship’s keel served as the foundation of the wooden hull.
In modern times, ships have no keel, so Monday’s ceremony marked the completion of the first hull segment.
Beneath a plaque marking Hudner’s service, and Hudner’s name welded into the steel keel plate last year, Barbara Miller, wife of former Superintendent of the Naval Academy VADM Michael Miller, welded the last few marks of her initials into the plate, which will be installed in the ship.
Hudner’s grandchildren, including Thomas J. Hudner IV, sat bundled up in down parkas Monday, gazing up at the partial hull of the ship, where a banner bearing their grandfather’s name hung.
Hudner’s son, Thomas J. Hudner III, said the older children understand the actions taken by their grandfather that earned him the Medal of Honor.
“I am speechless,” the elder Hudner said following the ceremony. “I’m proud of our Navy, and proud that this ship would be named after me.”
The future USS Thomas J. Hudner Jr. will go into the water about a year from now, according to Capt. Mark Vandroff, program manager for the destroyer line.
On Oct. 31, the future USS Rafael Peralta, which is about 80 percent complete, was christened at Bath Iron Works. That vessel is scheduled for sea trials in the late summer or early fall of 2016.
Construction of components of the DDG 118, the future USS Daniel Inouye, began recently at the shipyard’s Harding Facility in Brunswick.
The yard is also building three DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, including the USS Zumwalt, which is slated for sea trials next month. The DDG 1001, the future USS Michael Monsoor, is under construction with christening expected in the summer of 2016, and the DDG 1002, the future Lyndon B. Johnson, is more than half complete, BIW spokesman Matt Wickenheiser said.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Hudner was the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War. He is the last living Naval Medal of Honor recipient from that war.