Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Hudner Receives Medal of Honor for Attempting to Rescue Downed Wingman

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Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Hudner Receives Medal of Honor for Attempting to Rescue Downed Wingman

Lt. (j.g.) Hudner (r) receives Medal of Honor from President Truman,
April 13, 1951 at White House ceremony
U.S. Navy photograph, courtesy of National Archines
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: December 4, 1950

[Owing to the recent death of MOH recipient Thomas Hudner, I felt this would be the proper time to re-post the story of Mr. Hudner's deeds which I originally published in on the BurnPit in December of 2014.]

Today's story from the Medal of Honor archives highlights a U.S. Navy aviator who initially had no interest in flying, but eventually learned to fly, and demonstrated exceptional courage trying to rescue his wingman near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in December of 1950.


Thomas J. Hudner Jr. was born August 31, 1924 in Fall River, Massachusetts, the oldest of four brothers. His father ran a chain of grocery stores. The beginning of the Second World War inspired him to apply for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1946 – too late to participate in the conflict. Among some of his more notable classmates at Annapolis were James Stockdale (highest ranking U.S. naval officer held as a POW during the Vietnam War), Stansfield Turner (former CIA director), and former President Jimmy Carter.

After graduation, Hudner held a number of communications positions until he acquired an interest in naval aviation. He applied to flight school in 1948 and completed his course of study and Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola at Pensacola, Florida. He was then sent to NAS Corpus Christi, in Texas where he completed advanced flight training and qualified as a Naval Aviator in August, 1949. He was eventually assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the USS Leyte, piloting the F4U Corsair.

F4U-4 Corsair with Korean War-era USMC markings
F4U-4 Corsair with Korean War-era USMC markings

Korean War

At the start of the Korean War in June of 1950, the USS Leyte and Lt. (j.g.) Hudner were in the Mediterranean Sea. In August, all U.S. Naval vessels were placed on alert. On August 8 the Leyte received orders to sail for the Pacific to join UN forces fighting the North Koreans. Naval commanders felt the pilots on the Leyte were better trained and prepared than those of other available carriers, and so they were among the first dispatched to the theater.

The ship joined Task Force 77 off the northeast coast of the Korean Peninsula, part of a fleet of 17 ships from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, including the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea, the battleship USS Missouri, and cruiser USS Juneau. Hudner flew 20 missions in the country including attacks on communication lines, troop concentrations and military installations.

Following the entrance of the Chinese army into the war in late November 1950, Hudner and his squadron were dispatched to the Chosin Reservoir, where an intense campaign was being fought between the Chinese army and the U.S. X Corps. Almost 100,000 Chinese troops had surrounded 15,000 U.S. troops, and the pilots on the Leyte were flying dozens of close air support missions every day to prevent the Chinese from overrunning the area.

Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, December 4, 1950

On December 4, 1950, Hudner was part of a six-aircraft flight supporting  Marine ground troops who were trapped by Chinese forces. At 1:38 pm, he took off from the Leyte with squadron executive officer Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli, Lieutenant George Hudson, Lieutenant (j.g.) Bill Koenig, Ensign Ralph McQueen, and the first African American Navy pilot Ensign Jesse L. Brown, who was Hudner's wingman. The flight traveled 100 miles from Task Force 77's location to the Chosin Reservoir, flying 35 to 40 minutes through very harsh wintry weather to the vicinity of the villages of Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri. The flight began searching for targets along the west side of the reservoir, lowering their altitude to 700 feet in the process. The three-hour search-and-destroy mission was also an attempt to probe Chinese troop strength in the area.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, Lt. (j.g.) Hudner's wingman; U.S. Navy photography (photographer unknown); Courtesy of National Archives collections
Ensign Jesse L. Brown, Lt. (j.g.) Hudner's wingman
U.S. Navy photography (photographer unknown)
Courtesy of National Archives collections

Though the flight spotted no Chinese, at 2:40 pm Koenig radioed to Brown that he appeared to be trailing fuel. The damage had likely come by small arms fire from Chinese infantry, who were known to hide in the snow and ambush passing aircraft by firing in unison. At least one bullet had ruptured a fuel line. Brown, losing fuel pressure and increasingly unable to control the aircraft, dropped his external fuel tanks and rockets and attempted to land the craft in a snow-covered clearing on the side of a mountain. Brown crashed into a bowl-shaped valley near Somong-ni, 15 miles behind Chinese lines and in 15° weather. The aircraft broke up violently upon impact and was destroyed.

In the crash, Brown's leg was pinned beneath the fuselage of the Corsair, and he stripped off his helmet and gloves in an attempt to free himself, before waving to the other pilots, who were circling close overhead. Hudner and the other airborne pilots thought Brown had died in the crash, and they immediately began a mayday radio to any heavy transport aircraft in the area as they canvassed the mountain for any sign of nearby Chinese ground forces. They received a signal that a rescue helicopter would come as soon as possible, but Brown's aircraft was smoking and a fire had started near its internal fuel tanks.[

Hudner attempted in vain to rescue Brown via radio instruction, before intentionally crash-landing his aircraft, running to Brown's side, and attempting to wrestle him free from the wreck. With Brown's condition worsening by the minute, Hudner attempted to drown the aircraft fire in snow, and pull Brown from the aircraft, all in vain. Brown began slipping in and out of consciousness, but in spite of being in great pain, did not complain to Hudner. A rescue helicopter arrived around 3:00 pm, and Hudner and its pilot, Lieutenant Charles Ward, were unable to put out the engine fire with a fire extinguisher and tried in vain to free Brown with an axe for 45 minutes. They briefly considered, at Brown's request, amputating his trapped leg. Brown lost consciousness for the last time shortly thereafter. His last known words, which he told Hudner, were "Tell Daisy I love her."

The helicopter, which was unable to operate in the darkness, was forced to leave at nightfall with Hudner, leaving Brown behind. Brown is believed to have died shortly thereafter of his injuries and exposure to the extreme cold. No Chinese forces threatened the site, likely because of the heavy air presence of the VF-32 pilots.

Hudner begged superiors to allow him to return to the wreck to help extract Brown, but he was not allowed, as other officers feared an ambush of the vulnerable helicopters resulting in additional casualties. In order to prevent the body and the aircraft from falling into Chinese or North Korean hands, the U.S. Navy bombed the crash site with napalm two days later, reciting the Lord's Prayer over the radio as they watched Brown's body being consumed by flames. The pilots observed that his body looked to have been disturbed and his clothes stolen, but he was still stuck in the aircraft. The remains of both Brown and the aircraft were never recovered. Brown was the first African-American U.S. Navy officer killed in the war.

Medal of Honor Citation: Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas J. Hudner Jr.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Fighter Squadron 32, while attempting to rescue a squadron mate whose plane struck by antiaircraft fire and trailing smoke, was forced down behind enemy lines. Quickly maneuvering to circle the downed pilot and protect him from enemy troops infesting the area, Lt. (J.G.) Hudner risked his life to save the injured flier who was trapped alive in the burning wreckage. Fully aware of the extreme danger in landing on the rough mountainous terrain and the scant hope of escape or survival in subzero temperature, he put his plane down skillfully in a deliberate wheels-up landing in the presence of enemy troops. With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and struggled to pull him free. Unsuccessful in this, he returned to his crashed aircraft and radioed other airborne planes, requesting that a helicopter be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher. He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action and, with the assistance of the rescue pilot, renewed a desperate but unavailing battle against time, cold, and flames. Lt. (J.G.) Hudner's exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion to a shipmate sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service


The December 4 incident grounded Hudner for a month, as he injured his back in the landing, an injury he later said persisted for 6 to 8 years. He flew 27 combat missions during the war, serving there until January 20, 1951, when the Leyte was rotated back to the Atlantic Fleet. On April 13, 1951, Hudner received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman, meeting Brown's widow, Daisy Brown, in the process. The two stayed in regular contact for at least 50 years following this meeting. He was the first servicemember to receive the medal during the Korean War, though several others would receive the medal for actions which occurred before December 4, 1950. He was the only Naval aviator – and graduate of the Naval Academy – to receive the MOH during the Korean War.

Footnote #1: Thomas Hudner retired to Concord, MA with his wife Georgea. After his retirement, he worked for a time for the USO. From 1991 to 1999, Hudner also served as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services. Mr. Hudner died on November 13, 2017 at the age of 93.

Retired Capt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr. at US Naval Academy, Annapolis MD; Unveiling of his portrait in Bancroft Hall, December 15, 2008
Retired Capt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr. at US Naval Academy, Annapolis MD
Unveiling of his portrait in Bancroft Hall, December 15, 2008

Footnote #2: On February 17, 1973, days before Hudner's retirement, the Navy commissioned the Knox-class frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089), the third U.S. ship to be named in honor of an African American. Present at the commissioning ceremony in Boston were Daisy Brown Thorne, who had remarried, her daughter Pamela Brown, and Hudner, who gave a dedication. The ship was decommissioned on July 27, 1994 and sold to Egypt.

Footnote #3: During my search for appropriate illustrations for this post, I found a website which showed a magnificent art print entitled: "Devotion: Wingmen to the End – December 4, 1950." It illustrates Lt. (j.g.) Hudner crash-landing his F4U Corsair in a desperate effort to save his wingman Ensign Brown, while the other members of the flight fly cover above. Rather than risk the wrath of the website's owners, I give you the web address so you may see it for yourself.

Footnote #4: The USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) is a planned addition to the Navy's fleet of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. It will be the 66th vessel of a planned class of 75 destroyers. The ship was christened on April 1, 2017 with commissioning set for late 2018.

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