Lieutenant Hudner watched in fear and hope as Jesse Brown fought the controls of his Corsair. The engine was out, there was no power, and no place to run. The terrain was simply one mountain after another. As Ensign Brown's plane neared the side of the nearest mountain, the other pilots began a circling pattern. The mountains were swarming with camouflaged Chinese Communist soldiers, and if Jesse was able to land his crippled craft successfully they would need to move in swiftly to provide cover fire to protect him.
Flying into the wind, it was going to be a "wheels up, dead stick landing" on a near vertical, snow-covered mountain slope. The other pilots held their breath, then watched in horror as Jesse Brown's aircraft slammed hard against the mountain side. The impact created an immediate cloud of flying snow that momentarily masked the other pilots' view of the crash scene. Then, as the snow cleared, they could see Jesse Brown's shattered plane lying in ruins. The engine had been ripped away and the fuselage was ruptured at the cockpit, twisted at an almost 45 degree angle. Sunlight glinted off the glass of the closed cockpit and Jesse Brown's wingmates released a sigh of despair, fully aware that the Navy's first black pilot had died in the crash on a North Korean mountainside. Before turning away, they circled a second time. Suddenly Tom Hudner noticed something. The canopy was now OPEN! He descended for a closer look and there, sitting in the open cockpit, Jesse Brown waved back at his wingman. Somehow he had survived the impact.
Lieutenant Commander Cevoli quickly broke away from the other fliers to gain altitude and radio for a rescue helicopter. The other pilots continued a low altitude circle of the downed airman to insure that the enemy didn't reach their comrade before the rescue crew. As they anxiously watched the surrounding terrain, they also kept an eye on Jesse Brown. Something was wrong. He was sitting up, waving from time to time, but he wasn't making any effort to get out of the ruptured cockpit. Then Thomas Hudner noticed smoke rising from the nose of the Corsair. The plane appeared to be on the verge of erupting into flames which, because of the direction of the wind, would quickly engulf the cockpit....and Jesse Brown. The fact that his friend hadn't got out of the plane meant one of two things. Either Jesse was too badly hurt to extricate himself, or he was somehow pinned in the wreckage. Without a second thought Lieutenant Hudner prepared to do the wrong thing, because it was the right thing to do.
"I'm going in," Tom radioed his commander, knowing that there was only one way to do that. Any landing would be disastrous, but Lieutenant Hudner had just decided to crash a perfectly good American fighter plane on a steep mountainside heavily controlled by the enemy. He didn't wait for an approval from anyone, he just did it.
The other pilots watched from their tight circles as Lieutenant Hudner headed his Corsair toward the steep mountain slope, searching for anything resembling a level area to land. Flying into the wind and up the slope in a carrier-like approach, he settled towards the ground. It would be a planned, wheels-up crash landing. Then he was down, about 100 yards slightly upslope from his friend. As he hit the rock-hard ground and bumped to a stop his thought was, "What in the hell am I doing here!" And then he was out of the cockpit and running to the side of his "brother".
Jesse Brown was in horrible pain. Tom could see it in his eyes and on his face. But Jesse remained calm, speaking to his wingman from time to time. Lieutenant Hudner could see that the brave Ensign was indeed trapped. The buckling cockpit had pinned him beneath the hard metal of the instrument panel. And Jesse was cold. He had been on the ground for almost half an hour, exposed to sub-freezing temperatures at more than a mile above sea level. In working to free himself from the wreckage he had removed his flight helmet exposing his head to the wintry blasts that hung over the mountain. He had also removed his gloves to release himself from his parachute harness. They dropped from his numb fingers. He had struggled to retrieve them but, pinned as he was, they were out of his reach. "By the time I got there," Hudner says, "his hands were like claws....totally frozen."
Lieutenant Hudner worked to release his friend from the metal tomb, but to no avail. The wreckage held him too tightly. The helicopter that would be coming to rescue the two men would be useless unless they could free the trapped man. He knew his radio was still operational, knew also that by turning on the battery to power it he risked igniting the fuel that leaked about the plane. So once again Lieutenant Hudner did the wrong thing....because it was the right thing to do. Returning to his own Corsair he powered the radio and told the rescue helicopter to bring an ax to chop the wreckage away and free Jesse, as well as a fire extinguisher.
After sending the message, Tom Hudner returned to his friend's side. He had retrieved a wool scarf and cap that he had carried in his flight suit for emergencies, and now he gently lowered the cap over Jesse's head. "Wrapping the scarf around his frozen hands was more of a gesture than a remedy," Hudner says. "Everyone knows when limbs are already frozen that a wrap won't warm them back up. But it was all I could do."
Jesse was still conscious and spoke from time to time, but he spoke very slowly. It was apparent that his body was broken up inside, but Jesse never cried out or complained. Meanwhile Tom Hudner began to scoop up the cold snow and tossed it at the spot where the smoke was coming from under the cowling, but the smoke didn't diminish. After about half an hour both mean could hear the throb of the rescue helicopter arriving, then landing on the steep slope. Marine Lieutenant Charles Ward brought the fire extinguisher and ax to Tom Hudner. The extinguisher was small and quickly expended. Then the two men began frantically beating against the metal cockpit with the ax without any effect. It was getting dark, time was running out. Jesse spoke less and less frequently, more and more slowly, and began to fade in and out of consciousness as the two rescuers vainly attempted to free him. The ax simply bounced off the metal. They made no headway.
As the sun set over the cold mountain, Lieutenant Ward informed Tom that his helicopter was not equipped to fly at night. They would have to give up soon, or at the very least fly out for additional help. Everything they had done was fruitless. Perhaps if they could fly back and get torches to cut the metal.
Lieutenant Hudner sensed Jesse was trying to say something and leaned closer to his friend. "If I don't make it," he whispered, "Please tell Daisy I love her."
Tom Hudner promised his friend that he would. Lieutenant Ward informed Tom it was time to go, that nothing more could be done. In the fading twilight Lieutenant Thomas Hudner peered once more into the shattered cockpit of the Corsair. Jesse no longer spoke. He was unconscious and fading fast. Tom Hudner had crashed his plane on a mountain side to rescue a friend, something the Navy would certainly frown on. In the end, it had been for naught. As the helicopter lifted off Thomas Hudner looked back one last time at the crash site, and Jesse Brown sitting motionless in the open cockpit.
"One of the worst things when something has happened to you is the feeling that you're alone," Thomas Hudner later said. "Just being with him to give him as much comfort as we could was worth the effort." Tom Hudner is also quick to point out that he would have done the same for any of the other men in the squadron, and they for him. "I just happened to be the one that went in that day," he says. "If it hadn't been me, it would have been one of the others (pilots)."
In the days that followed it became impossible to recover either Jesse Brown's body or the two downed Corsairs. When Tom returned to his ship, he reported the circumstances to the ship's captain. Then, to prevent the Chinese from gaining access to the crash site, the captain dispatched a flight of aircraft to the mountainside where they dropped napalm on the two aircraft and Jesse's body. It was the most dignified burial the men of Fighter Squadron 32 could have afforded their brother. As the napalm blanketed the hillside, Jesse and his Corsair vanished into history, a hero that we can not afford as a Nation to ever forget.
Jesse LeRoy Brown
13 Oct 1926 - 4 Dec 1950
Tom Hudner and Lieutenant Ward landed in Hagaru-ri at the foot of the Chosin reservoir through which thousands of Marines were withdrawing from an overwhelming Chinese force, then flew to Koto-ri where they were the weather held them for three days. When the weather lifted, Tom was flown back to the USS Leyte, where he was informed upon arrival that Captain Thomas Sisson wanted to see him on the bridge. Lieutenant Hudner approached uncertainly, convinced that he was about to be reprimanded for for his actions. "There are still people who think I did the wrong thing," he told me recently. "They say I destroyed a perfectly good, multi-million dollar fighter plane for one man. But what is a life worth!"
Captain Sisson listened to the brave Lieutenant's account of that horrible day on the mountainside and understood. Sometimes it takes more courage to do that which you know is RIGHT, than to simply give in and do what others think is right. Captain Sisson recommended Navy Ensign Jesse Brown for one of our Nation's highest awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross. He submitted Jesse's wingman and friend, Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Hudner for the Medal of Honor.
|Four months later on April 13, 1951, President Harry S Truman
invited the Hudner family to the White House where he presented the Medal of Honor to Navy
Lieutenant Thomas Hudner. It was a moment of great joy for the Hudner family.
Attending the ceremony and standing quietly to the side holding a large bouquet of roses was a young black lady. She smiled through her tears and shook hands with Lieutenant Hudner. He had delivered the message, "Tell Daisy I love her."
When Lieutenant Hudner returned home, Fall River proclaimed "Thomas Hudner Day" and hosted a wonderful celebration. The appreciative citizens presented the young pilot with a check for $1,000, a considerable sum in 1951. Lieutenant Hudner didn't cash it. Instead he endorsed the back and sent it to Daisy Brown who had returned to school.
On March 18, 1972 the Navy christened a new
member of its fleet:
Read Thomas Hudner's Medal of Honor Citation
Shortly after posting this story I received the following e-mail:
Thomas Hudner (Personal Interviews)
Above and Beyond, Boston Publishing
Korean War Heroes, by Edward F. Murphy
In November, 1998 the first full biography of Jesse Brown was published. Written by Theodore Taylor with full co-operation by Daisy Pearl Brown Thorne and Jesse's brothers, you can click on the button above to order it from Amazon.com ($16.10) While I don't want to ever commercialize the Hall of Heroes web site, this is ONE BOOK that should be read by EVERY AMERICAN. As should be quickly apparent, I read a lot of books. THIS BOOK is one of the very best I have ever read.
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