Medal of Honor Recipient Captain Thomas Hudner (ret.)

On September 10, 2011, while on assignment at the National Championship Air Races, in Reno, Nevada, I had the unexpected privilege and honor of meeting Medal of Honor(MOH) recipient Captain Thomas Hudner (retired). For those that do not know the Hudner story, don’t feel bad, I didn’t know it either. Unfortunately many heroic stories of the Korean War have slipped through the cracks and aren’t as well known as the stories of valor occurring during other conflicts.

What brought Captain Hudner (in addition to Tailhook 2011) to Reno was that F4U -4 Corsair owner, Doug Matthews, had painted his Corsair in “Hudner colors”, including Hudner’s name on the right canopy rail and Brown’s name on the left canopy rail. I later spoke with Doug Mathews regarding his Corsair.

Mathews bought the Corsair about five years ago and when he purchased it was painted in a Marine Corps scheme. With this being the year of the Naval Centennial, Doug wanted to paint it in Navy colors, but soon found that all the World War II aces had all been done. So, Mathews moved on to The Korean War and soon found Captain Hudner’s story. I confessed to Doug that I had never heard of the Hudner/Brown story. Mathews confessed that, he was equally embarrassed that he didn’t know the story until a very short time ago either.

Corsair owner Doug Matthews (left) and Hudner (note name on canopy rail- Ensign JJ Brown). Photo by Jose Ramos.

On the ramp, prepared to take photos of this historic occasion, was Jose Ramos. Frankly, I owe Jose a huge thanks because had he not told me who Hudner was (including a very brief recap on Captain Hudner’s MOH story), I might have possibly moved down the ramp, taking photos, completely missing this once in a life time opportunity.

Captain Hudner sits in a Corsair painted in his 1950s era VF-32 F4U-4 colors. It was almost 61 years ago when Hudner crash landed his Corsair on the snow capped mountains near the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea in order to rescue his friend - Ensign Jesse Brown. Photo by Jose Ramos.

Around 5:00pm, Mathews arrived flying his Hudner painted Corsair. I had asked Jose if I could grab a quick picture or two after his photoshoot with Hudner, Mathews, and the Corsair was completed. Jose said no problem. Jose later approached me and asked if I could help him with his lighting.  Let me think, get up close and personal with a MOH recipient and a world class military aviation photographer, “what do you need me to do” was my quick response to Jose! So for the next 30 minutes, I followed Jose around the Corsair holding his light box, learning a few things as I watched him work. As quick as the photo shoot started, it ended and Hudner was gone.

Not knowing the story and due to Captain Hudner’s tight timeline, I wasn’t able to get a personal interview but, I did conduct some research and the following is a synopsis of various articles and video interviews I found regarding the event of December 4, 1950.

On December 4, 1950, VF-32 Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Tom Hudner was part of a six ship flight of F4U-4 Corsairs flying armed reconnaissance over the snow capped mountains near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. On this flight, Hudner was flying as wingman for Ensign Jesse Brown.

Brown was the first African American Naval Aviator, getting his wings in October 1948.  Ensign Brown, a decorated combat pilot, already had 20 combat missions completed over the skies of North Korea.    

During a staffing run, Brown’s Corsair was hit. He made a radio broadcast that we was losing power and would have to “go in.” Brown was able to find a suitable landing zone in the 6,000 foot snow covered mountainous region and subsequently crash landed.  The impact of the crash bent the fuselage, trapping Brown in the cockpit. In addition to being trapped in the aircraft, there was Chinese Communist in the surrounding mountain area that would soon be making their way to the crash site.

Hudner, overhead, saw the crash, and initially thought Brown had been killed in the crash.  After a few passes, Hudner saw Jesse waving from the cockpit, but that he wasn’t getting out. Hudner thought Brown was either trapped and/or to badly injured to get himself out of the cockpit. Lt (JG) Thomas Hudner then made the biggest decision of his life. Hudner, later said in an article…Leave no one behind! The rescue helicopter was 30 minutes away, but Hudner didn’t think Jesse would last that long.

Once Hudner made the decision to land, he made a low, tree top pass, to orient himself on the landing zone. So, after dumping his remain fuel and ordnance, Hudner extended his flaps, lowered his Tailhook, and crash landed next to his shipmate, friend, and wounded comrade – Ensign Jesse Brown.

Landing about 100 yards, in zero degree temperatures, Hudner made his way through the 1 ½ feet of snow to Brown’s stricken Corsair.  There he found, Jesse, in terrible pain. With his fingers numb, he tried to free his friend from the twisted wreckage, all to no avail. After approximately 30 minutes, the rescue helicopter arrived. The helicopter pilot and Hudner tried again to free Brown, again with no success. 

As time went on, Brown who had been on the ground for about an hour was fading in and out of consciousness and it was getting dark!  Helicopters of this era were not equipped to fly at night. While tactical decisions were being made, Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown succumbed to his injuries.

Not being able to recover his body, without putting numerous air crews at risk, the decision was made to send in a flight of four Corsairs next day and napalm the crash site.       

Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions over North Korea.  Lt (JG) Thomas Hudner was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor on April 13, 1951. Hudner went on to have a long career in the Navy before he retired in 1973 at the rank of Captain. 

I would like to give my deepest thanks and appreciation to Jose Ramos. Jose, took me under his wing, provided a junior aviation photographer with some great “pro” tips and allowed me to be part of this extraordinary photo shoot. In addition, Jose graciously allowed me to use his photos in this article. If you want to see some world class military aviation photos, please go to his website (www.ramosaviationphotos.com).

Medal of Honor recipient Captain Tom Hudner (retired) and I. Photo by Jose Ramos.

Next, during my research, I found an incredible illustration by Matt Hall (www.matthallart.com) called “Devotion” that depicts the events of December 4, 1950. I spoke to Mr. Hall and he completely supported me using his artwork for our article on Captain Hudner. So a special thanks to Mr. Hall for allowing the use of his artwork.

Last but not least, I would like to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to Captain Thomas Hudner for doing the “right thing” to save a wounded comrade on that cold December Day in 1950 and then going on to provide two decades of  service in the United States Navy.