font-family: 'Arizonia', cursive; Michael Stichauf - "As I understand it now...'til it changes": An Incredible, Courageous Act of Heroism

Sunday, February 9, 2014

An Incredible, Courageous Act of Heroism

Lt (J.G.) Thomas Hudner
I saw this story on the Smithsonian Channel. The link I posted here is to another site that has a great written account of the act.

Korea- 1950. Somewhere over the Chosin Reservoir.

Lt. JG Thomas Hunter, flying as "wingman" to Ensign Jesse Brown was an unusual situation. The Lt JG was a superior officer to the Ensign. What was even more UNUSUAL about the situation was the fact that the Ensign was African- American to boot! Yet, in the Navy at that time, "lead" and "wingman" assignments were handed out according to experience and Ens. Brown had more flight hours. Although the two pilots didn't "hang out" together while not flying, they both acquired tremendous respect for one another and considered each other friends. 

On 4 December 1950, the two pilots were on a mission over enemy territory. Suddenly, Ens. Brown's F4U Corsair was hit by enemy fire and started to go down. He crash-landed on the slope of a mountain near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Assuming he was dead, his wingman was shocked when he saw Brown slide his canopy back and wave to him, signaling, "I'm alive!" Knowing Brown didn't stand a chance behind enemy lines, Hudner made a split second decision! He would stay with his friend and help him to get back to safety! The other pilots on the mission called for the rescue helicopter as they watched in amazement as Hudner crash-landed his Corsair 100 yards from Brown. 

When Hudner reached his friend, he realized that Brown was in trouble. Brown's right leg was crushed underneath the instrument panel of the plane! Hudner tried desperately to free his friend but it was too difficult by himself. Fifteen minutes after Hudner crashed his plane, the rescue Helo arrived. Both men (Hudner & the Helo pilot) tried valiantly to extricate Brown from his plane but to no avail. As darkness descended, they HAD NO CHOICE but to leave. Hudner promised Brown that they would return in the morning with heavier equipment to rescue him and they departed.

That night, severe weather blew in and no one could fly a helo out to the crash site to rescue Ensign Brown. I’m sure, considering his empathy for his fellow pilot and friend, Hudner worried about Brown’s condition. What was going through Jesse’s mind as he sat helpless and hopeless in his destroyed plane? How was he dealing with the weather? Korea is legendary for its tremendously cold winters. Did the North Koreans finally find him? Maybe, mercifully, he had passed out due to blood loss or cold and didn’t have to suffer the mental and emotional torture that he was sure to undergo. The bad weather continued for a total of three days. As one day turned to two and two days turned to three, no one, even his friend Thomas Hudner, expected Jesse Brown to still be alive. Days later, to honor their comrade, the navy pilots flew over Brown's plane and dropped napalm on it. It was the pilots' why of giving Brown a "Valkyrian" sendoff.

What makes this story so tremendous is not the fact that a pilot, with NO DAMAGE TO HIS OWN PLANE, deciding to risk his life by crash landing to help his fellow pilot. It's also not the fact that, even if he was successful, he could face court-martial for destroying gov't property and disobeying orders! What makes this story so tremendous is the fact that, with these two scenarios A DEFINITE POSSIBILITY, Hudner decided to risk life and career for an African-American! Remember, this event happened during a time when race relations were starting to heat up. African- Americans, after honorably serving their country in WW2, were home now and EXPECTING TO BE TREATED AS HUMAN BEINGS! The fact that Ensign Jesse Brown was African- American NEVER ENTERED HUDNER'S MIND when he decided to crash land his plane and risk not only his career but his life to save A FELLOW AMERICAN! Yes, simply doing what he did made Hudner's actions incredible but the fact that he did it for an African- American, in the 1950’s, was TRULY HEROIC!

For a period of time, Thomas Hudner wasn’t sure if he would be court-martialed. There was talk of this occurring but eventually cooler heads prevailed and Hudner’s actions were finally seen to be what they were- “...conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty...”. That’s what the citation reads for the awarding of the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant (J.G.) Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr., U.S. Navy. Hudner went on to a distinguished career with the Navy. Although it shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering the times, Hudner received what most people would refer to as “hate mail” from some sections of the country for risking his life in order to save an African- American. Of course, “African- American” is not how they referred to Ensign Jesse Brown in those letters. Yet, to Lt. Thomas Hudner, Jesse Brown was simply, “FRIEND”.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “...his exceptional courage, airmanship, and devotion to duty in the face of great danger.”
And that’s “As I Understand it Now... ‘til it changes”.
Thank you for reading,

Michael K. Stichauf