Never heard of Thomas Hudner? You’re about to learn a lot more about him and his exploits very soon (more on that later).
The story of Tom Hudner is really the story of two men: Thomas Hudner and Jesse Brown.
In many ways the two men followed similar career paths.
Tom was born in 1924; Jesse in 1926. Tom graduated from high school in 1943, where he was a standout athlete, captaining the track team while also playing football and lacrosse. Jesse, graduating in 1944, was also a three-sport athlete: track, basketball and football. Tom served as a high school class officer and in the student council; Jesse was the salutatorian of his class. Tom attended college (the U.S. Naval Academy); Jesse studied at Ohio State. Tom earned his wings as a naval aviator in 1949; Jesse in 1948.
That’s where the similarities end.
Tom was white; Jesse black.
Jesse’s father was a sharecropper. Tom’s father owned a series of grocery stores, and helped found a country club.
Jesse’s family of eight lived in a tin-roofed shack in Lux, Mississippi, near Hattiesburg. The home, located near train tracks, lacked a phone, plumbing, electricity, and central heat. The family had no car. Tom’s family of seven lived in a three-story Victorian, complete with Irish maid, in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Tom’s family dressed for dinner; Jesse and his siblings wore shoes only for Sunday church services. Tom attended the prestigious Phillips Academy prep school, as had his father and uncle before him; Jesse moved in with an aunt in Hattiesburg in order to attend a better, but still segregated, public high school.
Tom reluctantly applied for flight school after some urging from his friends; Jesse dreamed of being a pilot ever since his father brought him to an air show as a child.*
And yet, in 1949, Tom and Jesse ended up in the same Fighter Squadron, VF-32, based on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Leyte, flying F4U Corsairs. And despite their very different backgrounds, Tom and Jesse, the first African American carrier pilot in the U.S. Navy, bonded, professionally and personally.
When Jesse and Tom reported to their squadron aboard the Leyte the world was technically at peace but the Cold War was becoming increasingly warm. The Berlin Airlift had just recently ended; China was in the throes of a civil war; and Stalin and the USSR were becoming increasingly belligerent. But it was in faraway Korea that things quickly heated up in June 1950.
Without warning, North Korean forces overran the unprepared and undermanned armed forces of South Korea. Things looked bleak until a hastily assembled United Nations force, led by the United States, not only stopped the onslaught, but went on the offensive, driving North Korean forces north of the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. Then China entered the war, and a stalemate ensued. Meanwhile, the Leyte’s training cruise in the Mediterranean was cut short and the carrier dispatched to the Korean peninsula for air support.
By December 1950, 30,000 US Marines (and some Army units) found themselves surrounded during the coldest winter in memory by approximately 130,000 Chinese troops near the Chosin Reservoir. All available UN planes were tasked with protecting the beleaguered Marines, a process hampered by the wintry weather and often poor visibility.
On December 4, Jesse, Tom, and eight others took off from the Leyte on their 20th combat mission. Although Tom outranked Jesse, Jesse had more flight time, and so Tom served as his wingman. Their mission was to fly low behind enemy lines in the mountainous area north of the Chosin Reservoir, looking for targets of opportunity and scouting enemy strength.
The raid was uneventful until Jesse’s Corsair was hit by small arms fire, causing an oil leak. As his plane’s engine began to seize up, Jesse, too low to bail out, spotted an open patch of snow-covered ground high atop a nearby mountain. Without power, he crash-landed his plane there. Tom, fully aware of Jesse’s predicament, witnessed the landing, and while circling over the crash site, saw that Jesse had survived the landing, but appeared unable to exit his plane. With smoke beginning to rise from Jesse’s engine, Tom feared the worst for Jesse: burning to death in his plane; or freezing to death in the subzero weather; or dying at the hands of the Chinese.
Ignoring standing orders not to risk another plane when attempting to assist a downed pilot, Tom elected to crash land his own plane on the same plateau. Despite incurring a back injury on landing that would take years to fully heal, Tom exited his plane and made his way through the snow to Jesse in the fading afternoon light. Jesse was conscious, but his right leg was crushed between his instrument panel and the damaged fuselage, and even with Tom’s help he could not be pulled from the cockpit. Tom radioed for helicopter help, requesting a fire extinguisher and an ax to help cut Jesse free.
Chinese troops were known to be in the area, and undoubtedly were aware of the crash; only the circling US fighters provided any deterrence. While waiting for the helicopter Tom had time to contemplate whether, if attacked, he would save his last two bullets for Jesse and himself rather than risk capture and torture at the hands of the enemy.**
It was late in the afternoon when the rescue helicopter finally arrived, and even the ax proved useless; Jesse could not be extricated, nor could his leg be amputated. By now, in shock and exposed to freezing temperatures, Jesse was slipping in and out of consciousness. But his last words were for his wife: “Tell Daisy how much I love her.” Inasmuch as the helicopter was not equipped for night flying, Tom and the helicopter pilot were reluctantly forced by approaching nightfall to abandon their rescue efforts and leave Jesse behind. It is believed he perished soon thereafter.
Jesse Leroy Brown was 24 years-old when he became the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean War. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart. Having successfully overcome so many challenges in his young life, who knows what Jesse Brown could have accomplished had he survived.***
Tom returned to the Leyte grief-stricken and convinced he faced a court-martial for his actions. Instead, he was nominated for a Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award, for conduct above and beyond the call of duty. The captain of the Leyte later wrote: “There has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.” Jesse was given a warrior’s funeral when, three days later, napalm was dropped over his crash-site to prevent any desecration of his body by the Chinese.
On April 13, 1951, President Harry S. Truman presented Tom with the Medal of Honor, the first Medal of Honor awarded during the Korean War. Jesse’s widow, Daisy, had been invited by the White House to attend the award ceremony as well. Amazingly, when she travelled to Washington, DC she was unable to find a hotel room, as DC hotels still refused to serve Black guests. Despite losing a husband in the service of his country, despite a personal invitation from the President of the United States, despite the passage of 174 years since the Declaration of Independence declared all men to be equal, Black citizens of this country were treated—in our nation’s capital no less—as if they still lived in the antebellum South.
Both Jesse and Tom would eventually have Navy ships named after them. On March 18, 1972 a Knox-class frigate, the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown, was launched, the third US ship to be named after an African American. Jesse’s widow Daisy was the sponsor, his daughter Pamela the maid of honor, and Tom gave the christening address. On April 1, 2017 an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the U.S.S. Thomas Hudner, was christened in Boston harbor; Jesse’s family attended the ceremony along with Tom.
In July 2013 Tom, one month shy of his 89th birthday, returned to North Korea in an attempt—ultimately unsuccessful—to locate and return Jesse’s remains.
Tom and Daisy remained close friends until her death in July 2014.
A feature length movie version of Tom and Jesse’s story, entitled “Devotion,” is set for general release on November 23, 2022. It is based on a book of the same name, written by Adam Makos. Makos’ writing could have been better, but the story is so powerful that the overall work still packs a punch. I was in tears several times while reading final 75 pages.
Several years ago I attended a history conference, and as I waited in a long line to register at the hotel’s front desk, I realized that I was standing directly behind Thomas Hudner, one of the event’s featured speakers. I introduced myself; we chatted for a bit, and he signed the book I had with me, about Medal of Honor recipients. I’ve never forgotten his graciousness.
Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. passed away on November 13, 2017, age 93. Among the high points of my life, one that I will always cherish was the chance to shake Tom Hudner’s hand.
* Jesse also avidly read about the exploits of black pilots as a paperboy delivering the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American newspapers of its day.
** 38% of American POWs died in captivity during the Korean War. This compares to 34% in Japanese POW camps during World War II, 14% in North Vietnamese camps, and 4% in German internment camps.
*** Just as Jesse chose to attend Ohio State because his childhood hero, Jesse Owens, had, his life and example inspired Seaman Apprentice Frank E. Petersen to become the first African American Marine Corps aviator, flying over 350 combat missions, and, in 1979, the first African American Marine Corps general. In 2010 Petersen was appointed to the Board of Visitors to the U.S. Naval Academy, Tom Hudner’s alma mater.