Patriot of the Month- Hero in Our Midst
Thomas J. Hudner, Jr.
U.S. Navy - Korean War, Medal of Honor
Ted Tripp - (05/07/07)
Tom Hudner was sitting in the commons area after
lunch at Phillips Academy in Andover when word spread
that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. As with
most young people of the era, he had no idea where Pearl
Harbor was but he knew it meant the U.S. was at war. And
like many of the students in the Class of 43, Tom
expected to become part of the war effort after
graduation. But fate would take him to the U.S. Naval
Academy at Annapolis where he would not graduate until
1946, well after the conclusion of World War II.
Four years after Annapolis, however, Tom would find
himself in another war, the Korean War. Here he would
lead a heroic effort to save a downed pilot when his
flight was on patrol over the Chosin Reservoir. For this
extraordinary rescue attempt, President Harry Truman
would present the first Congressional Medal of Honor of
the Korean War to Tom Hudner.
Born in 1924, Tom grew up in Fall River, Mass. where the
family had a chain of meat and grocery stores called
Hudners Markets. His father and uncle had attended
Phillips Academy and later he and his brothers would do
so as well. While at Phillips, Tom was co-captain of the
track team, a member of the football and lacrosse teams,
a senior class officer and student council member. These
endeavors would later help prepare him well for the
responsibilities of a military career.
Toms father had attended Harvard after Phillips,
but Tom had always thought about going to Annapolis and
subsequently into the Navy. In 1943, Congressman Joe
Martin, then Speaker of the House of Representatives,
appointed Tom as his second alternate to the U.S. Naval
Academy. As luck would have it, a position opened up and
Tom was told to report to Annapolis on July 7, 1943.
During the next few years Tom would train to be a naval
officer. His ultimate goal was to be stationed aboard a
destroyer or battleship. In 1946 Tom graduated from the
Academy and now Ensign Thomas Hudner was assigned to the
cruiser USS Helena. That September, Tom became a
communications watch officer on the Helena stationed off
of Tsing-Tao, China, about 150 miles north of Shanghai.
Although the Nationalists were still in control of China,
the communists and Red Army were making it increasingly
difficult for Americans. It was Toms duty to read
incoming and outgoing messages, decode/encode them, and
pass them along to interested
After six or seven months on the ship, the Helena sailed
back to Long Beach, California. There, Tom received new
orders to report to Pearl Harbor as a communications
officer. Unhappy at his new post because he was not at
sea, several classmates serving with him eventually
convinced him to put in a request for flight training.
Tom was accepted and in April 1948 reported to Pensacola
Naval Air Station in Florida for flight school. He
learned to fly in the North American SNJ, the naval
equivalent of the Air Force T-6 trainer. He had to
complete six successful, arrestor-hook carrier landings
Then it was on to Corpus Christi, Texas for advanced
training with the Corsair F4U and finally back to
Pensacola where he received his aviator wings in August
of 1949. His first duty was at the Naval Air Station at
Quonset Point, Rhode Island where he was assigned to
VA-75, an attack squadron of Douglas AD-1 Skyraiders, as
part of Air Group 7. About a month later, VA-75 was
decommissioned and he was reassigned to VF-32, a Corsair
squadron aboard the USS Leyte aircraft carrier. On May 1,
1950 the Leyte sailed to the Mediterranean for a
Tom was now Lt. j.g. Tom Hudner.
It was at Quonset Point where Tom would first meet Ensign
Jesse Brown, another aviator assigned to the same
squadron. Ensign Brown was the Navys first black
aviator. Although the Tuskegee Airmen had paved the way
for black aviators in World War II, it still took years
for the other services to accept this cultural change.
Brown had grown up in Mississippi, was valedictorian at
his high school, and attended Ohio State University.
While at Ohio State, a naval officer encouraged him to
apply to the Navys flight school. Jesse had always
wanted to fly, so this became his goal. He eventually
went through the same training as Tom Hudner, first at
Pensacola and then Corpus Christi. Tom believes Jesse was
eventually assigned to Quonset Point to get him away from
the bigotry that was still widespread in the South.
The USS Leyte was off the coast of Cannes, France, about
a month and a half into its deployment, when North Korea
attacked South Korea. Like Pearl Harbor, the first
question on most peoples minds was Where is
Korea? On August 8th, five to six weeks after the
initial attack, and after being relieved by another
carrier stationed off Lebanon, the Leyte was ordered to
Korea. The first port of call was back to Norfolk for war
preparation and to take on six Marine Sikorsky
helicopters and ten Marine pilots. The USS Leyte left
Norfolk and after traversing the Panama Canal headed west
into the Pacific. She dropped off the Marines and their
helicopters in Japan and then arrived off the east coast
of Korea on 8 October 1950. The Leyte joined with three
other carriers to provide close ground support to U.S.
troops ordered in that summer by President Truman.
The Leyte at this
point had one squadron of Grumman F9F-2 Panther jets, two
squadrons of Chance Vought Corsair F4U-4 fighters, and
one squadron of Douglas AD-1 Skyraiders. The jets were
the superior fighters, but they could only stay in the
air half as long as the other aircraft. Thus, close
ground support missions were generally left to the
Corsairs and Skyraiders.
Flight operations started immediately and consisted of
12-hour days where Tom, Jesse and the other pilots would
fly one, sometimes two, missions a day, standing down
every fourth day for replenishment and refueling. Every
one-and-a-half hours the carrier was launching or
recovering aircraft. Early on, one of the Leyte pilots
brought back word that the Chinese appeared to be
entering the war.
When hoards of Chinese troops suddenly appeared
everywhere on November 28th, all hell broke loose. Air
operations then shifted to protecting the retreating
American troops, now well north of the 38th Parallel.
On December 4, 1950, Tom Hudner, Jesse Brown and four
other Corsair pilots left the USS Leyte at about 1330
hours to fly an armed reconnaissance mission over the
northwestern part of the Chosin Reservoir, a mountainous,
snow-covered, inhospitable area about 70 miles from the
Chinese border. They were flying low, only 500-700 feet
above the terrain, looking for enemy targets of
Suddenly, Jesse radioed that he was losing oil pressure
and power. He would have to land. Another pilot noticed a
small clearing only about a quarter mile in size on the
side of one of the slopes and radioed the location to
Jesse. Tom also radioed to him, Jesse, make sure
your shoulder harness is locked and the canopy is open!
Then Jesse, wheels up with no power, brought his Corsair
in for a hard, crash landing. The impact buckled the
fuselage at the cockpit.
Other flight members who were circling the area at the
time first thought he had been killed because of the
force of the impact. The flight leader had even started
climbing to a higher altitude so he could radio for a
helicopter to come in and retrieve the body. But then
some of the pilots could see Jesse waving from the
damaged craft. He was still alive although he didnt
appear able to get out of the aircraft. There was also
smoke coming from the cowling, an ominous sign.
It was obvious that Jesse was trapped and, with the
imminent threat of a fuel fire, he needed immediate help
to survive. The helicopter wouldnt arrive in time
to do any good. Then Tom Hudner radioed the rest of his
formation, Im going in to get him out!
He says there was silence on the radio after that. No one
tried to talk him out of it.
Then he turned towards a nearby hillside and fired off
all his rockets and ammunition to both lighten the plane
and reduce the hazards of a crash landing. Looking for
how best to land, he slowed to about 85 knots and
maneuvered the Corsair into an area near Jesse on a slope
of about 20 degrees. Wheels up, he landed hard about 100
yards from Jesses Corsair. The snow didnt
help the impact at all, as the ground below was frozen
solid. The crash landing broke his windscreen and injured
his back. Tom later said, That was the hardest
landing I ever made.
With adrenaline pumping, Tom ran through the snow to
Jesses plane. It was cold, perhaps no more than 5
or 10 degrees. He didnt see any enemy soldiers, but
wasconfident that his
air cover, now increased to 10-12 planes, would keep them
away. When he reached Jesse, he saw that he had his
helmet off and his gloves were missing. Tom surmised that
Jesse had taken the gloves off to unbuckle his chute and
dropped them. Tom then put a woolen watch hat on Jesse
and wrapped his hands in a scarf that he had brought with
him. Jesse was obviously badly injured.
A quick glance showed that Jesses knee was pinned
between the bent fuselage and the central instrument
column. The snow made it slippery and Tom struggled to
maintain his footing as he leveraged himself to free
Jesse. It didnt take him long to realize that he
would need some kind of tool to help. Tom returned to his
plane and radioed his flight leader to have the
helicopter bring an ax and fire extinguisher. Then he
returned to Jesses plane to consider what else he
could do. He started packing snow into the cowling
openings to suppress the smoldering fire. At this point,
Jesse was fading in and out of consciousness from the
injuries and the cold.
Meanwhile, the helicopter which had been launched from a
nearby Marine camp was already in the air when it got
word that that there were two pilots on the ground and
they needed an ax and fire extinguisher. The news meant
that the chopper had to return to base and drop off the
crewman that the pilot had taken with him and pick up the
requested items. Finally, in what seemed like forever,
the helicopter arrived over the crash scene.
As it circled the area, Tom fired a flare/smoke emitter
to show the pilot how the wind was blowing. But the
helicopter took its time landing because, as Tom later
learned, the brakes on the chopper were poor and the
pilot was afraid that if he landed on a slope the
helicopter might slide off the hill. Also, the engine on
this chopper had a history of trouble starting so the
pilot would have to leave it running.
The Sikorsky finally landed and out stepped 1st Lt.
Charlie Ward. Instantly, Tom recognized him as one of the
Marine pilots the Leyte had ferried to Japan several
months earlier. The two then hurried over to Jesse to try
to free him. But the ax was ineffective on the metal
fuselage no matter what they did. Try as they might, they
could not get Jesse out of the aircraft. At one point
when Jesse was conscious, he told Tom, If anything
happens to me, tell my wife Daisy I love her.
It was now getting late in the day and Ward turned to Tom
and said, We have to leave. I cant fly out of
these mountains in the dark. Tom reluctantly
agreed. He then turned to Jesse and told him they had to
leave to get some equipment. He knew, however, that there
was no chance they could get back before morning and
Jesse wouldnt survive the night.
Charlie and Tom then
boarded the chopper and flew south to the Marine base
camp at Hagaru-ri. It was cold and Tom would have to
spend the night in a tent. A young Marine appeared and
gave Tom his bedroll. He said, Sir, tonight I think
you will need this more than me. Tom says he didnt
sleep at all because of the cold and his thoughts of
The next morning, December 5th, Tom was flown to another
Marine base at Yonpo where he would spend the next two
days because of bad weather. Finally, on December 7th a
Skyraider from the Leyte came in to take him back to his
ship. On the way to the carrier, Tom learned that the
captain wanted to see him as soon as he came on board.
Radio communication had been poor over the past several
days and Captain Thomas Sisson had little information on
what actually happened.
After listening to Toms story, Capt. Sisson said he
would send in a helicopter with a flight surgeon to
retrieve Jesses body. Tom advised him that would be
too dangerous and needlessly risk the lives of two more
men. The captain then said he had a backup plan. He would
send in planes with napalm to incinerate the crash area
a makeshift warriors funeral. Within the
hour, seven aircraft from Squadron 32, all flown by Jesses
friends, left the carrier for the crash site. Six carried
napalm and while they were diving to drop their
ordinance, the lone seventh plane climbed above them in
the traditional tribute to a fallen comrade.
After the mission had been completed, Capt. Sisson
started the process recommending Tom for the Medal of
Honor. Meanwhile, Toms injured back now started to
really bother him and he was grounded for the next month
while recovering. Shortly after he returned to flight
operations, the USS Leyte got orders to head back to San
Francisco. In mid-February, VF-32 returned to Quonset
On April 1st Tom got word that the Joint Chiefs of Staff
and Congress had approved him for the Medal of Honor. On
Friday, April 13, 1951, President Truman presented the
medal to Tom in a White House ceremony before family and
Tom would also find out later that Charlie Ward, the
Marine helicopter pilot, received the Silver Star for his
heroic efforts on that day. Jesse Brown was posthumously awarded the
Distinguished Flying Cross for his Korean War combat
Tom now settled in as a career Navy aviator. He spent
time as an instrument instructor, admirals aide,
assistant air officer, executive officer of an aircraft
carrier, exchange pilot flying Air Force interceptors,
and finally a tour with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the
Pentagon before retiring in April 1973 with the rank of
Tom returned to Massachusetts and over the years worked
for several Boston area companies in various consulting,
management and administrative capacities. In 1988
Governor Dukakis appointed him to Deputy Commissioner of
Veterans Services. He eventually became Acting
Commissioner and in 1991 Governor Weld appointed him to
Com-missioner, where he remained until retirement in
1999. Tom is currently vice president of Battleship Cove,
the USS Massachusetts war memorial and museum complex in
In 1963, while undergoing jet training in San Diego, Tom
met the recently widowed Georgea Smith at a Christmas
party. They started dating and were married in August of
1968. The Hudners have a son, Tom, who lives in Concord.
Georgea has three children from her prior marriage:
Kelly, Stan and Shannon. Between them, the Hudners have
Captain Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., we thank you for your
extraordinary service to our country.
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The MAY 2007 Edition of
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