BATH, Maine — Naval aviator Thomas Hudner watched helplessly as a fellow fighter pilot’s plane turned into a death trap after a crash-landing behind enemy lines during the Korean War. The injured pilot was pinned in the cockpit, unable to escape from the burning plane.
The lieutenant did the only thing he could to help: He crash-landed his own plane, climbed out and tried to save his comrade, Ensign Jesse Brown.
“What Tom did is one of the greatest feats of bravery in any war,” said Adam Makos, who wrote a book about the aviator called “Devotion.”
The 92-year-old Medal of Honor recipient watched Saturday as the future USS Thomas Hudner was christened during a snowstorm at Bath Iron Works in Maine.
The wet and cold spectators included Hudner’s wife, Georgea, one of the ship’s sponsors, their children and other family members. Brown’s daughter and two brothers were also there. Also on hand were two other Medal of Honor recipients, along with Marine Corps veterans who credited naval aviators for saving their skin during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where both enemy bullets and brutal cold claimed the lives of Marines.
“Without the fighter pilots, we wouldn’t be here today,” said John “Red” Parkinson, a Marine corporal during the battle who commented that the snowy weather seemed appropriate.
The ceremony celebrated heroism — and friendship.
Brown was the African-American son of sharecroppers in Mississippi who became the first black aviator in the U.S. Navy. Hudner, who’s white, was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and son of a well-to-do grocery store owner in Massachusetts. The two squadron mates hit it off despite their differences.
Fletcher Brown, one of Jesse’s brothers, said both men were driven and loved to fly. “From what I know about Tom and what I know about Jesse, they were probably two of a kind. The only difference is one was wealthy and one was a cotton picker,” he said.
On the fateful mission, on Dec. 4, 1950, the two flew from the aircraft carrier USS Leyte to protect outnumbered Marines who were encircled by Chinese soldiers.
Brown’s gull-winged Corsair began leaking oil after being struck by ground fire, and he crash-landed on a snowy mountainside in enemy territory. Brown survived the hard landing but suffered injuries and was trapped inside the burning airplane.
Circling overhead, Hudner saw that Brown was unable to escape. So Hudner did a wheels-up belly landing in his own plane and ran to his friend’s aid.
It was a race against time. If the crash injuries or the flames didn’t claim Brown, then the bitter cold surely would. The temperature was just above zero.
There was no happy ending, however.
Neither Hudner nor the crew of a rescue helicopter could free Brown despite taking an ax to the plane. Brown lost consciousness.
“An aviator is calculating by nature and all he had to do was look around to know he wasn’t coming home. That’s when he glanced up at me and said his last words, ‘Just tell Daisy how much I love her,'” Hudner said before the event, referencing Brown’s wife.
Hudner promised to return, and he did return years later. But Brown’s remains were never found.
A U.S. Navy frigate was named for Brown in 1973.
On Saturday, speakers praised Hudner’s selfless act during the ceremony in which Champagne was broken on the ship’s bow to christen the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
Hudner said he was just helping a shipmate. “If it had been me down there on the ground, Jesse would have done the same thing for me,” he said.