BATH, Maine — Nearly 70 years ago, during a search-and-destroy mission in Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, Thomas Hudner Jr. landed his plane on a mountainside near that of fellow pilot Jesse L. Brown — the first African-American pilot in the Navy — in an attempt to rescue the injured man.
On Saturday, the former Naval aviator — the last surviving Korean War Medal of Honor recipient — will be honored at Bath Iron Works during the christening of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer bearing his name.
Hudner, now 92, is scheduled to attend the christening. He and his family were last in Bath in November 2015 for the ceremonial keel laying of the vessel.
Prior to that, in April 2013, Hudner’s friends, family and colleagues gathered at Maine Maritime Museum for a ceremony to acknowledge his lifetime of achievements, and to hear Adm. Gregory Johnson of Harpswell recount Hudner’s actions on Dec. 4, 1950, for which he received the Medal of Honor.
Hudner met Brown, then an ensign, while the two were stationed at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. In the fall of 1950, both were assigned to the USS Leyte when it was dispatched to Korea.
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, Johnson said.
Initially Hudner and his squadron mates thought the pilot had been killed. 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 crash-landed 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.”
Speaking quietly following the 2013 ceremony, Hudner said, “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.
Saturday’s ceremony will begin with a welcome from BIW president Dirk Lesko, followed by remarks by each member of Maine’s congressional delegation and Navy officials.
The ship is sponsored by Hudner’s wife, Georgea Hudner, and Barbara Joan Miller, wife of Vice Adm. Michael Miller, the former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
The future USS Thomas Hudner Jr. is 510 feet long, 67 feet across and can travel more than 30 knots per hour, according to a release. It carries a crew of 279, as well as two SH-60B helicopters, a 5”/62 caliber gun, a CIWS close-range aerial defense system, 96 vertical launch system cells for various missiles and 6 MK 50/46 torpedo tubes.
The Hudner is the second Bath-built Arleigh Burke since the Navy restarted the program. The first ship built at BIW since the restart, the USS Rafael Peralta, is due to leave the shipyard next month.
Two other DDG 51 destroyers, the future USS Daniel Inouye (DDG 118) and the future USS Carl M. Levin (DDG 120), are under construction at the shipyard, along with the final two DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, the future USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001) and the future USS President Lyndon B. Johnson.
A group of peace advocates plan to protest the christening outside the shipyard gates on Saturday. Bruce Gagnon of Bath said Friday that he and others plan acts of civil disobedience to protest “the mission of these offensive warships [which] are helping to mount serious tensions across the globe.”