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.