“Time was becoming critical. I decided to make a wheels-up landing, pull him out of the cockpit and wait for the helicopter.”
By David Poyer
ONE OF AMERICA’S most modest heroes died this month.
Silver-haired and straight-backed, Tom Hudner had a hundred stories from his four-decade flying career. (Such as the time he took off with his F-8E Crusader’s wings still folded.) What came across loud and clear in interviews was an old-fashioned word these days – character, from a time when schools and family built men who could meet any test with quiet competence.
Hudner was studying at Phillips Academy, a prestigious prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, when America entered the Second World War. Still 17 at the time, he watched older friends and classmates enlist to fight, including a future U.S. president, George H. W. Bush.
“He didn’t inspire me to aviation, but I knew him,” recalled Hudner. “Airplanes just didn’t interest me.” Hudner hoped to serve aboard a destroyer.
He got his chance in 1943, when he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
After graduating in 1947, the newly minted ensign put his chit in for destroyers. Instead he drew a cruiser, the USS Helena, CA-75. It was only later that he volunteered for aviation training, albeit grudgingly.
“The other ensigns shamed me into putting my chit in,” he remembered. The putative pilot arrived at Pensacola in mid-April 1948 for flight training. “We did our basic in SNJs, then went to Corpus Christi for Advanced in F4Us – Corsairs.
“The Corsair was a good airplane — by some comparisons, better than the F-51,” he recalled. “[It had] a lot of power, but the nose was so long you can’t see on carrier approach. You had to fly in sideways to see the LSO (landing signal officer).”
Hudner earned his wings on Aug. 12, 1949, at Cabaniss Field. He joined Fighter Squadron 32 in November of 1949. The next May, the squadron deployed from Quonset Point aboard USS Leyte (CV-32) as part of Air Group Three. Leyte was off Naples when word came that North Korea had invaded the South.
The carrier and air group arrived off the Korean Peninsula on Oct. 10, three weeks after the landing at Inchon. From then through January 1951, Leyte and Air Group Three would spend 92 days at sea and fly 3,933 sorties against communist forces. One of those sorties, on Dec. 4, would make Hudner famous.
In the mountains around the Chosin Reservoir, 15,000 Marines were surrounded and outnumbered nearly 10-to-one by Chinese forces. The Americans were trying to break out though a narrow road covered by up to two feet of snow while facing nighttime temperatures down to -35 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a desperate situation, and the airmen of Task Force 77, built around USS Philippine Sea (CV-47), USS Missouri (BB-63) and USS Leyte, had been flying with little rest for several days to lend close air support.
Just after 1:30 p.m. that afternoon VF-32’s exec, Lt. Cmdr. Dick Cavolli led a six-plane recon mission off Leyte’s deck. It included Cavolli’s wingman, George Hudson, Lt. (JG) Tom Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first African-American combat aviator. Hudner knew all his fellow pilots, of course, including the trailblazing Brown.
“I first met Jesse in the locker room when I was changing for a flight,” remembered Hudner. “He was a friendly person, someone who right away was the type of person you knew you would like.”
Probably unknown to Hudner then, Jesse Leroy Brown had already proven his own heroism many times over. Born of sharecroppers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1926 – a town that had seen nine lynchings since 1890 – Brown caught the flying bug watching cropdusters and barnstormers at the local dirt strip. Howard Hughes’s 1930 film Hell’s Angels sealed his ambition to fly. Brown had gone north as soon as he graduated from high school, and worked his way through Ohio State loading boxcars at night. The moustached, boyish-looking Brown had endured slurs and racism in Pensacola, winning his wings in a navy that up to then had only assigned blacks jobs as cooks, messmen, or stewards – not as officers and pilots in combat. By Dec. 4, Brown had flown 19 combat missions and had been awarded the Air Medal for pressing home attacks despite antiaircraft fire.
After taking off into a gray, overcast afternoon, heavy with 500-pound bombs, HVAR rockets, a 150-gallon external fuel tank, napalm pods, and 2,400 rounds each of .50-cal, the flight headed inland for the mountains. Over the previous 69 sorties the pilots had encountered heavy small-arms fire that had left bullet holes in several aircraft. Earlier that day, ground fire had brought down a Marine Corsair. The pilot had crash-landed and been killed. VF-32’s skipper had warned his pilots not to go in too low.
The mission area was 50 miles inland over mountains that rose to 6,500 feet. The planes flew 1,000 feet above the peaks, with the frigid December cold seeping into the cockpit and through the pilots’ flight suits. Just after 2:30 p.m., the planes descended to 500 feet, low and slow, along the west side of the Chosin to search for targets. Minutes later, one of the tail-end pilots noticed vapor coming from Brown’s Corsair. “You’re dumping fuel,” he radioed.
Hudner heard the warning too.
“The first I knew of Jesse’s trouble was when he came over the radio,” he said.
Brown reported he was hit and losing oil pressure. “No Mayday, no panic. Just a calm announcement from Jesse that he was going down,” remembered Hudner.
Cavolli told Hudner to look for a crash landing site, but Brown had already seen one, a bare patch on a mountainside, and was headed for it.
“I went over with him a checklist of the things he should do,” Hudner said.
He remembered watching as Brown’s plane strike the ground with tremendous force.
“The fuselage buckled at the cockpit and his canopy was slammed shut because of the force of the landing,” Hudner said. “We didn’t think there was any possibility of survival.”
The other aircraft circled the crash site looking for signs of life.
“We noticed that [Brown] had opened the canopy and was waving at us to let us know he was alive, but he did not get out of the cockpit.”
Cavolli climbed to improve his radio transmission and called back to Leyte for a rescue helo. Meanwhile, the orbiting pilots observed smoke seeping from the cowling of the crashed Corsair.
“We couldn’t understand why Jesse didn’t get out of his Corsair,” Hudner remembered. The carrier responded that a helo would be there in 20 minutes. Hudner worried that the downed plane was about to burst into flames, which would mean certain death for Brown if he was trapped in the cockpit.
“Time was becoming critical,” he remembered. “I decided to make a wheels-up landing, pull him out of the cockpit and wait for the helicopter.”
He didn’t tell Cevoli of his plans.
“I don’t know whether he’d have given me permission to land, but I doubt it,” Hudner said. “I let down, fired off my rockets and ammunition into the hillside and slowed to 85 knots indicated airspeed. I made a pass over Jesse’s plane with my wheels up and flaps down to get the feel of a carrier-type approach, then circled and let down close to the ground with the idea of flying up onto the slope to minimize the impact.”
Hudner described it as the hardest landing he’d ever made. 
“The ground under the foot of snow was like cement,” he said. “The windshield cracked, probably because it was so brittle from the cold and the force of the impact.” He’d injured his back in the crash. Despite his own pain, he exited the aircraft and trudged the hundred yards to the other Corsair. When he got there, he made a horrible discovery.
“Because of the way [Brown’s] plane buckled, it caught his leg in between the side of the fuselage and a hydraulic control panel under the instrument panel,” he remembered. “It pinned him in so that he could not move.”
The next hour was both tense and frustrating. As the other aircraft orbited, ready to drop hell on any enemies who approached the crash site, Hudner went back to his own plane and radioed the helicopter to bring along a fire extinguisher and an axe to cut through the fuselage. He threw snow on the fire and tried to keep Brown warm as best he could.
When the helo arrived, Hudner recognized 1st Lt. Charlie Ward at the controls. He remembered that Ward’s helo had bad brakes, a liability on a steep mountainside, but at last he got it down. When Hudner and Ward got to Brown, they found they couldn’t reach the fire to extinguish it. Worse, the axe just bounced off the fuselage. The two men tried to climb up the wing and fuselage to where they could pull Brown from the cockpit. As it was, he was high above their heads and both slipped and fell each time they tried. Meanwhile, Brown was drifting in and out of consciousness, both from the freezing cold and blood loss.
“There was absolutely no panic in his voice,” Hudner recalled. “His attitude was one of resignation. His manner gave me inspiration.”
By that point, night was closing in and the situation was getting desperate.
“[Ward] and I, in our emotion and panic, discussed using a knife to cut off Jesse’s entrapped leg,” remembered Hudner. “Neither of us really could have done it, and it was obvious Jesse was dying. He was beyond help at that point.”
Ward’s helo was not equipped to fly at night; the chopper pilot announced that they had to leave. With Brown unresponsive, Hudner reluctantly agreed.
“We had no choice but to leave him,” he remembered. “I was devastated emotionally. In those seconds of our indecision, Jesse died.”
It took Hudner several eventful days to make his way back to Leyte through bad weather and the chaos of the UN retreat. When he arrived, he advised the carrier’s CO to incinerate Brown’s aircraft and body with napalm rather than risking more lives to retrieve his remains from Chinese-held territory. This was done on Dec. 7.
Hudner received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at the White House on April 13, 1951. It was the first presentation of the medal since the end of the Second World War. The armed services had only been racially integrated the previous year. Although, Hudner’s courage certainly deserved recognition, it’s possible that Truman’s approval of the medal for a white man who risked his life rescuing a black man might also have reflected the President’s personal investment in military desegregation.
“Whether the decision to award me the medal (was) because of the color factor, I don’t know,” Hudner said. “I’d like to think it didn’t, but I’m sure there were those who wanted to take advantage of the situation, especially since the war was not going too well for us at the time.”
Captain Tom Hudner retired from active duty in 1973. After years in industry, he became deputy commissioner, then commissioner of Veterans’ Services for Massachusetts. In 2006, Hudner received the Naval Academy Alumni Association’s Distinguished Graduate Award. He died at his home in Concord this month, at the age of 93.
This article is a condensation of one that appeared in Shipmate, the alumni magazine of the U.S. Naval Academy. Dave Poyer’s latest novel is HUNTER KILLER: The War with China – the Battle for the Central Pacific (St. Martin’s Press, November 2017. Visit his website at http://www.poyer.com/. Special thanks on this piece are due to Tom Hudner, Gail Nicula of the Joint Forces Staff College, Dorothea Abbott of Nimitz Library, Emma McElfresh of Phillips Academy, and Nick Thrasher of the National Naval Aviation Museum.
Hudner, Thomas J. “On a Wing and a Prayer.” Foundation, Fall 1999, Pg. 28-30.
Personal interview of author with Thomas Hudner on Jan, 4, 2011. The quoted material below is from Hudner himself unless otherwise noted.
“Captain Thomas J. Hudner, Jr.” biographic summary from Special Collections and Archives Division, Nimitz Library, USNA. Thanks to Dorothea Abbott.
From Bio summary, Ibid.
Hudner, Thomas. “Jesse’s Down.” Foundation magazine, Spring 1998. Pg. 46.
“USS Leyte, CV-32.” From <http://www.navysite.de/cv/cv32.htm>, accessed 25 Jan 2011.
Weems, John E., “Black Wings of Gold.” Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1983, Pg. 35.
Log of USS Leyte for 4 Dec 1950, cited in Weems.
Collins, Michael J. “Mayday over Chosin.” Shipmate, March 1999. Pg. 10.
Weems, Pg. 35.
Frank, Tim. “Valor in the Frozen Chosin.” Naval Aviation News, March-April 1998. Pg. 22.
Taylor, Theodore. The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown. Avon, New York, 1998. Summary by author. Also see “Jesse’s Down,” Pg. 50.
Weems, Pg. 37.
Hudner, “Jesse’s Down”, pg. 48.
Taylor, Pg. 2; Marine pilot killed, page 4.
“Jesse’s Down,” pg. 48.
Taylor, Pg. 5.
“Jesse’s Down,” Pg. 48.
 Frank, Pg. 24.
This and following quoted 3 paras from Hudner, “Jesse’s Down,” Pps. 50-51.
Clyde McDonnell, “Thomas Jerome Hudner,” <http://clydemcdonnell.blogspot.com/2010/08/thomas-jerome-hudner.html>, accessed 30 Jan 2010.
Jesse’s Down,” Pg. 51.
Frank, Pg. 25.
“Jesse’s Down,” Pg. 52.
Weems, Pg. 38.
Frank, Pg. 25.
Navy Wire Service. “Hudner Takes His Place in History.” Trident, 7 Feb 1997. From Hudner file at Nimitz Library.
Weems, Pg. 38.
Harry S Truman Library and Museum, “Desegregation of the Armed Forces: A Chronology,” <http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/desegregation/large/index.php?action=chronology>, accessed 1 Feb 2011.
Email from TJH, Feb 23, 2011.
USNA Public Affairs Office, “Naval Academy Honors Alumni with Distinguished Graduate Award.” Story Number: NNS060401-03 Release Date: 4/1/2006.