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The Medal of Honor Recipient Who Crashed His Plane On Purpose To Get To His Downed Wingman

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 19, 2024 3:01 am

The Medal of Honor Recipient Who Crashed His Plane On Purpose To Get To His Downed Wingman

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 19, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the Navy commissioned a destroyer on April 1, 2017, and named it after a man who deliberately crash-landed a perfectly good aircraft behind enemy lines. But the man who became the first American serviceman in the Korean War to receive the Medal of Honor—and the man who lent his name to the USS Thomas Hudner had a darn good reason, perhaps the best of reasons. Here’s the History Guy with the story.

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His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages all over YouTube. The History Guy is also heard here at Our American Stories. It might seem like an April Fool's joke. The Navy commissioned its newest destroyer on April 1, 2017 and named it after a man who deliberately crash landed a perfectly good aircraft behind enemy lines.

Here's the History Guy with the story. The beginning of October 1950, United Nations troops were moving deep into North Korea and it seemed that the Korean War would be over soon. UN commanders felt that there was a good chance that the Koreas would be reunited by the end of the year. But everything changed on October 19th when the Chinese decided to enter the war. The UN forces were caught off guard by the Chinese offensive and by November some 30,000 United Nations troops, U.S. Marines and soldiers, as well as troops from the United Kingdom and South Korea were surrounded by 120,000 Chinese troops near a man-made lake called the Chosen Reservoir. Among those participating in the battle were flyers from the U.S. Navy that were flying close support missions from nearby aircraft carriers. The Vought F4U-4 Corsairs of Task Force 77 flew mission after mission in support of the outnumbered UN troops. Among the pilots of Task Force 77 were Ensign Jesse L. Brown and Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas J. Hudner Jr.

They were wingmen and friends despite coming from very different backgrounds. Jesse Leroy Brown was born October 13th, 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. One of six children of an impoverished family who lived in a home that had neither central heating nor indoor plumbing, Brown was of African-American, Chickasaw and Choctaw heritage. He was an unlikely candidate to become a U.S. naval aviator, evidenced by the fact that prior to Brown, no African-American had ever done so. Thomas J. Hudner Jr. came from the other side of the tracks.

Born August 31st, 1924 in Fall River, Massachusetts, where Brown's father worked in a grocery warehouse, Hudner's father owned a chain of grocery stores. Whereas Brown walked to school at a one-room schoolhouse, Hudner attended an elite preparatory school called Phillips Academy. Although coming from different worlds, they were both star athletes who would follow different paths to become naval aviators. Brown, who was described as serious, witty, unassuming and very intelligent, wanted to become a pilot from a young age and grew up reading about the exploits of fliers like Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman.

Hudner was inspired to join the Navy by a speech by the Phillips Academy headmaster following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Brown attended Ohio State University, a university where African-Americans were still a rarity. His advisors had suggested that he attend a historically black college but he felt he could compete with white students and sought the more prestigious degree. He studied architectural engineering and in his junior year entered the Navy's aviation cadet program. The program worked with universities to train naval aviators but the program did not operate in any historically black colleges.

The only way for an African-American to get into the program was to be like Brown, the rare African-American at a primarily white university. Hudner obtained entry into the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1946, too late for the Second World War. Among his classmates at Annapolis was future US President Jimmy Carter. He was not initially interested in becoming a pilot, upon graduation served on the cruiser USS Helena and at naval base Pearl Harbor. In 1948 he applied for flight school seeking a new challenge. Brown enlisted in the US Naval Reserve in 1946 and joined Ohio State's Naval Reserve officers training program.

The stipend from the ROTC helped him to finish financing his degree. He was still facing an uphill climb however, of the some 5600 NROTC cadets nationwide in 1947, only 14 were black. When he began training as a naval flight officer in March, Brown was the only black man in the program. In October 1948 he became the first black man in US history to earn his naval aviator badge.

The achievement was noted nationally and it was profiled by both the Associated Press and Life Magazine. Hudner qualified as a naval aviator in August 1949. Both men were assigned to Navy Fighter Squadron VF-32 stationed aboard the light aircraft carrier USS Wright. In August 1950 VF-32, including the two now experienced pilots, was moved to the Essex class carrier USS Leyte, bound for Korea, arriving off the Korean Peninsula in October. The pilots aboard USS Leyte were conducting dozens of missions every day, attacking Chinese positions with rockets, bombs and napalm. On December 4th six aircraft of VF-32, under the command of the squadron executive officer, took off on a search and destroy mission over Chosen. Hudner and Brown were among the six pilots. The pilots flew low, 700 feet, looking for targets and probing Chinese positions. During the course of the mission Brown radioed, I think I may have been hit.

I'm losing fuel pressure. One of the other pilots noticed that Brown's plane seemed to be trailing fuel. The cause was likely small arms fire.

Chinese troops were trained to fire in concert at aircraft and someone had gotten a lucky hit. Losing fuel pressure, Brown's plane was never going to make it back to the Leyte. He had no choice but to crash land the plane. Hudner, Brown's wingman, followed him down as Brown crash landed in a bowl-shaped valley some 15 miles behind enemy lines around 3 p.m.

It was a hard crash. The fuselage buckled and the nose of the plane twisted underneath the wreckage. Hudner waited to see Brown exit the cockpit but Brown did not climb out. The pilots could see Brown waving his arms. The rest of the pilots were circling, trying to do what they could for Brown.

Their presence may have held the Chinese at bay. The squadron was told that a rescue helicopter had been dispatched. But Hudner could see smoke starting to billow from Brown's plane. His wingman, his friend, was trapped in the plane and it was catching fire. Hudner knew that Brown would not survive in time for the helicopter to arrive.

He made a desperate decision, he radioed, I'm going in. Standing orders were clear if one plane crashed a pilot was not allowed to risk another plane to try to save it. Hudner knew that he risked his career and his life when he performed a wheels up or belly landing in the snow near Brown's aircraft. The two were more than wingmen, they were friends. Brown had married his high school sweetheart Daisy Pearl Nix while he was still in flight school.

They had married in secret since pilot cadets were not supposed to marry until they completed their training. Their daughter Pamela Elise Brown was just two years old. When he reached Brown's plane he found Brown severely injured and lapsing in and out of consciousness. The control panel had collapsed as the fuselage buckled, trapping Brown's leg. Hudner desperately tried to free Brown but had no luck. He pulled off his scarf and wrapped around Brown's freezing hands and Hudner used his own hands to shovel snow with Brown's engine dousing the fire. Unable to free Brown he went back to his plane and radiated for the helicopter to bring an axe to help free Brown. When the helicopter arrived Hudner and the helicopter pilot Lieutenant Charles Ward worked for 45 minutes with an axe trying to free Brown but without luck. Throughout Brown remained calm, a fact that was said to be comforting to Hudner.

But the cold and blood loss was draining Brown. Before he slipped into unconsciousness he said to Hudner, tell Daisy how much I love her. I will, Hudner replied, but it was growing dark and the helicopter could not operate after dark. Hudner and Ward had to leave.

As he reluctantly left Hudner yelled back, we'll be back for you. It isn't clear if Brown was still alive but he could not have lasted long in the freezing cold. Hudner wanted to go back the next day to retrieve Brown's remains but the Navy decided it was just too dangerous with the Chinese troops nearby. In order to prevent the Chinese from recovering Brown's body as well as the wrecks of the two corsairs the squadron dropped napalm over the site two days later.

As they did one of the pilots recited the Lord's Prayer. 24 year old Jesse Leroy Brown, the United States Navy's first black aviator, also became the first US black naval officer to die in the Korean War. Hudner fully expected to be court-martialed but the captain of the Leyte decided instead to decorate him. He said in a message to the press, there has been no finer action of unselfish heroism in military history. On April 13th 1951 Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his attempt to save Brown. Daisy Brown was at the ceremony and the award was presented by President Truman who was said to have remarked they would rather have been awarded the Medal of Honor than become a president. Jesse L Brown who broke the color barrier for US naval aviation inspired an entire new generation of black aviators. He was possibly awarded the Purple Heart, the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Tom Hudner who eventually reached the rank of captain remained in close contact with Brown's widow Daisy throughout her life.

She passed away in 2014 at the age of 87. Thomas J Hudner Jr. recipient of the Medal of Honor passed away in November of 2017 at the age of 93. And a terrific job on the production and storytelling by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to the history guy for sharing this remarkable piece of American history. The story of Medal of Honor recipient who crashed his plane on purpose to save his down wingman.

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