At the height of one of the most brutal battles in the Korean War, Thomas Hudner Jr was among the Navy pilots sent on a mission to support the American troops on the frozen rocky slopes surrounding the Chosin Reservoir on December 4, 1950. What should have been a very short confrontation dragged on for months, rapidly becoming an unpopular war among the American public. But the opinion back home was the least of the deployed forces’ concerns as they fought relentlessly, hoping to return home before Christmas.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Hudner watched in horror as the F4U Corsair of his wingman Ensign Jesse L. Brown, crash-landed in the snow-covered, enemy-surrounded mountains over Korea’s northeast peninsula. The Naval aviator thought he had lost Brown but breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted the latter opening his canopy and waving at him. Brown was alive but could not pull himself out with his legs stuck in the wreckage. With an explosion growing imminent and losing blood in the below-zero temperature and the crash-landing site situated behind enemy lines where dozens of advancing Chinese Communist Forces could anytime appear, Hudner knew he had to do something to save his wingman—and quick.

Hudner’s Early Life and Education

Hudner was born and raised on August 31, 1924, in Massachusetts, to a well-off family, with his businessman father owning a chain of grocery stores. Continuing a family tradition, the eldest of the four Hudner boys attended the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and actively participated in school organizations.

Following the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Hudner was among millions of young men roused to join the military as the United States catapulted headlong into  World War II. At 19, he was among the students from Philips to be accepted and enter the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and graduated in 1946. However, the war had ended by the time he received his commission.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown (left) and Captain Thomas Hudner Jr later in life (right) / (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

He went on to serve as a communications officer aboard several surface ships, with no initial interest in becoming a naval pilot. What changed his mind was when after serving two years of his tour, he saw aviation as a new challenge and soon applied to flight school, attending the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. After completing his basic flight training, he proceeded to advanced training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas, where he would pass his qualifying test and become a full-pledge naval aviator.

Hudner briefly served in Lebanon in the late 1940s to the early 1950s before being transferred to the VF-32 fighter squadron aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32) as an F4U Corsair, where he would be when the Korean War broke out in the summer of 1950.

That Fateful Day at The Frozen Chosin Reservoir

The Korean War unexpectedly dragged on for over five months as General Douglas MacArthur’s ultimate plan to end the war failed.

Lt. (j.g.) Hudner and his wingman Ensign Brown boarded their respective single-seat, single-engine F4U Corsair fighter aircraft on the afternoon of December 4 and launched off USS Leyte as part of the six-plane recon unit to assist the struggling troops on the ground over the icy mountain of the Chosin Reservoir.

Around this time, the extremely outnumbered United Nations forces, with the majority composed of the US Marine Corps, were beyond exhausted and desperate to withdraw as a large-scale of Chinese troops encircled the area. Not to mention that the temperature on the rocky slope has dropped as low as -36 degrees Fahrenheit, causing men to not just perish in bullet wounds but also from frostbite.

US Marines fighting extreme cold and hundreds of Chinese forces at Chosin Reservoir, circa 1950 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The six F4U Corsair fighter aircraft’s main objective was to provide much-needed aerial support and protect the 1st Marine Division from the advancing Chinese forces.

Then the inevitable happened. During the low patrol over the freezing hot zone, ground fire spotted and critically hit the aircraft of Brown, forcing the Ensign to crash-land his F4U Corsair on the icy slope. The squad saw Brown get downed and immediately radioed Mayday to call any rescue chopper when Hudner caught a glimpse of his wingman waving, prompting him to circle the wreck to confirm that Brown survived. And the Ensign did.

Opening his canopy, Brown waved above to signal his fellow Naval aviators that he made it. However, he was stuck, his legs pinned beneath the trampled fuselage of the aircraft. He couldn’t get himself out. The rescue transport helicopter would take at most 30 minutes to arrive, and knowing how time was rapidly running out, Hudner made the biggest decision that would later become a defining moment in his life and career as a Naval aviator.

“I’m going in,” Hudner said over the radio before crash-landing his aircraft on the freezing rocky slope behind the enemy line. The aviator attempted the rescue mission without asking permission and decided right there and then to see what he can do to save his buddy.

 Uncommon Valor

After the risky landing, Hudner ran over to Brown and shoved snow with his bare hands into the burning wreck to prevent the downed aircraft from exploding and burning his trapped wingman alive. After that, he went on to pull the severely injured pilot out, but his efforts were futile. Unsuccessful and with Brown’s deteriorating condition, the Lieutenant returned to his wreck aircraft to radio other airborne planes.

When a rescue helicopter finally came, they attempted another round of vain prying Brown from his misery using an axe for 45 minutes. At some point, they even considered amputating the trapped pilot’s leg to free him, but with the severity of his injuries plus the exposure to extreme cold, Brown soon succumbed to his injuries and died.

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Brown was the first African American US Navy officer killed in the Korean War. He was also the nation’s first black naval aviator, breaking through the remaining racism that had plagued the armed forces for years.

Apart from going beyond the call of duty, Hudner’s uncommon valor demonstrated how race or skin color didn’t play a factor in saving a fellow aviator’s life.

In a later interview, Hudner recalled this decision as something he had to do and that it would be worth the risk.

A year later, Hudner received his Medal of Honor, presented to him by then-President Harry Truman. Below is the excerpt from Hudner’s Medal of Honor citation awarded on April 13, 1951.

“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 […] Hudner’s exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion to a shipmate sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the US Naval Service.”

Watch below as Thomas Hudner recounts the defining experience he had gone through during the Korean War and what its Medal of Honor award represents.

After receiving the nation’s highest military honor, Hudner remained on active duty for 22 more years, including 27 combat missions in Korea. He also saw action in the Vietnam War, serving aboard the supercarrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) as an executive officer before becoming a Massachusetts Commissioner of Veterans Services.

Both Brown and Hudner will respectively have their namesakes to Navy commissioned ships, with the latter witnessing the commissioning of the third USS Jesse L. Brown, a Knox-class frigate, just days before his retirement in 1973.

In 2012, the US Navy named an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer after Hudner, and he witnessed the ship’s christening in April 2017. However, he did not live to see the ship’s commissioning in 2018, as the veteran hero passed away in November 2017. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to his official biography released in 2015, the 2022 film Devotion, directed by J. D. Dillard, features Thomas Hudner and his valiant rescue efforts for his downed wingman.

Book recommendation: Check out Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, the epic story of the US Navy’s most famous aviator duo, written by Adam Makos here!