Nov. 13, 2017 bore witness to the passing of one of America’s true and great heroes. At 93 years of age, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner’s passing leaves behind a legacy of heroism, service with honor, brotherhood, equality, and dedication to his country.
After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1946, Hudner became a pilot during the Korean War and quickly earned a humble reputation as a prolific pilot and friend. Just one year after qualifying as a naval aviator, Hudner stamped his name in the Naval history books while assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard USS Leyte (CV 32), as part of U.S. 7th Fleet Task Force 77.
On the coattails of the desegregation of the military in 1948, Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American naval aviator, was assigned to the same squadron as Hudner and had been etching his own name in history scrolls as a talented fighter pilot. Brown and Hudner, Brown’s wingman, were on mission in Dec. 1950 providing air support during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir when Brown’s plane was shot down over North Korea. Noticing that brown was still alive after the plane crash but apparently trapped in the plane’s cockpit, Hudner jettisoned his own plane in the snowy mountains and attempted to rescue Brown before he was discovered by converging North Korean troops.
Hudner was unable to extinguish Brown’s burning aircraft with snow, even with assistance from a rescue helicopter crewmember, Lt. Charles Ward. As dusk crept in, Hudner and the rescue helicopter, unable to operate in the approaching darkness, were forced to leave the still-trapped Brown. Hudner begged superiors to conduct an extraction mission for Brown’s body, but all requests were denied because the possibility of ambush was too great.
“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…” is what Hudner’s Medal of Honor citation would later read. Hudner’s actions made him the first Medal of Honor recipient since WWII.
Hudner’s actions could have been single-handedly responsible for breaking stigma of a desegregated military. Even at the risk of court martial for intentionally crashing his plane, the selflessness of this “color” blind hero paved the way toward equality in the years to come. Throughout the remainder of his career, Hudner worked tirelessly to convince naval authorities to name a ship after Brown. In 1973, Hudner retired from the Navy at the rank of captain but saw his efforts come to fruition that same year with the commissioning of Knox-class frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF 1089). The frigate was commissioned in February 1973 and served as a reminder of Brown’s service and sacrifice for a little over 20 years, before being decommissioned in 1994.
In retirement, Hudner went on to work with the United Services Organization (the USO), served as commissioner for the Massachusetss Department of Veterans’ Service and regularly worked with veterans groups.
In honor of Hudner’s heroic and selfless actions, future Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116), the next evolutionary stage in tactical excellence in surface warfare, is expected to commission in Boston in the Fall of 2018.
The ship will be one of the nation’s most technologically advanced and capable warships. It will be the first of the “technology insertion” destroyers, which means it will gain elements of the next generation Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The improvements will include better onboard power-generation, increased automation, and next generation weapons, sensors and electronics.
The Medal of Honor and future USS Thomas Hudner are momentous achievements that represent the Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment and will hopefully resonate with future generations of Sailors and Americans as he is laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
Even through the United States lost a true American hero, his legacy will carry on in the crews that will man and sail the future USS Thomas Hudner across the seven seas and to ports across the globe.
Fair winds and follow seas shipmate.