“We are not made in a crisis. We are revealed.” Jack Kinder
December 4, 1950 – Over North Korea: On an early December afternoon, Navy Ensign Jesse Brown and Navy Lt. Tom Hudner were part of a six-plane contingent launched from the USS Leyte to provide close air support for marines on the ground at the Chosin Reservoir. Roughly 9,000 marines were surrounded and outnumbered by 100,000 Chinese troops.
The planes, Navy F4U Corsair propeller-driven fighters, were cruising at 700 feet when a bullet from a Chinese rifle pierced Jesse’s oil line. His engines began to seize. He was going down and would have to make an emergency landing. Jesse spotted a flat plateau on a snowy mountainside and notified Tom he was going down. He crash-landed 17 miles behind enemy lines in the coldest winter on record.
Tom, 26, and Jesse, 24, were the most unlikely of friends. Tom was a white New Englander with a country club and prestigious prep school background. His father owned a chain of 10 grocery stores. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Tom met Jesse in flight school at the Narragansett Bay training facility in Rhode Island. They were assigned as wingmen in Fighter Squadron 32nd on the aircraft carrier USS Leyte.
Jesse was the son of a sharecropper in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His family was dirt poor. He fell in love with airplanes the afternoon a local pilot buzzed the field while he picked cotton. He attended Ohio State for two years before dropping out to join the Navy. Despite overwhelming odds, Jesse became the Navy’s first black aircraft carrier pilot. He roomed with Tom at Narragansett Bay, and they became best friends. At 22, Jesse completed flight training and was commissioned to fly the Corsair.
Tom saw the oil plume from Jesse’s plane and watched him go down. When he flew in for a closer look, he saw Jesse raise the canopy, look skyward and raise his hands. Jesse was alive. Tom could not leave his buddy down there. He cued his radio. “I’m going in,” he told his squad leader.
Tom knew the consequences of his decision. His skipper had instructed the young pilots, “If a plane goes down, you don’t go in after it. If you do,” he threatened, “I will personally have you court-martialed.” It was better to lose one pilot than two.
Tom pulled back on the throttle and headed for Jesse’s crash site. He was going to attempt a carrier landing on a mountainside. His navy blue Corsair made a belly landing and plowed through the deep snow, finally coming to rest against the rocks. Tom, uninjured, trudged through waist-deep snow.
He found Jesse calm and shivering in the below-zero cold. He had internal injuries; worse, his right knee was pinned in the wreckage. Tom tried repeatedly to pull Jesse from the plane but could not budge him. He removed his scarf and wrapped Jesse’s frozen hands. “We’ve got to get help,” he said. With Jesse fading, Tom radioed for helicopter support. Jesse gave Tom a final message: “Just tell Daisy how much I love her.” When the helicopter arrived 45 minutes later, Jesse was gone.
Tom rode in silence as the helicopter returned to the carrier. He had lost his best friend and expected to be court-martialed for his actions. As soon as Tom stepped on the carrier deck, he was summoned to the bridge to see Captain Sisson. He prepared himself for the worst, but Sisson shook Tom’s hand instead. The captain had already wired the admiral, “There has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.” There would be no court-martial.
Four months later, on April 13, 1951, President Harry Truman presented Tom Hudner with the Medal of Honor, the highest honor bestowed by the military. Tom met Daisy at the ceremony and shared Jesse’s last words.
Tom served in the Navy for 22 years, flying 27 combat missions in Korea. During the Vietnam War, he served aboard the USS Kitty Hawk as executive officer. Tom and Daisy became good friends. They traveled the country sharing Jesse’s story and promoting the cause of racial integration in the U.S. military.
Fully aware of the extreme risk of crashing in mountainous terrain, with the presence of enemy troops and the small hope of survival in sub-zero cold, Tom Hudner went in to help his friend. He was confident that Jesse would have done the same for him.