Comrades in armsBy BETH BUNCH,
On Monday, The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers, as well as network affiliates across the nation posted stories and broadcast news of the death of Thomas Hudner Jr., 93, of Concord, Mass.
To those in the Pine Belt, the news probably passed without a second thought, if they even heard of the former U.S. Navy captain and pilot’s passing.
But the Pine Belt family of Jesse L. Brown, a war hero in his own right and the first African American naval aviator, this man meant everything. Hudner, a lieutenant junior grade and 26 at the time, was the man who had tried to save their loved one’s life back on a December day in 1950 in the icy Korean mountains where his plane had been shot down.
Brown’s daughter, Pamela Brown Knight, is a Hub City resident and was just shy of two years old when her father passed away that day.
Hudner and Brown were among six Navy Corsairs on a three-hour “roadrunner” mission, according to a report in The New York Times.
Certain that their comrade had died in the smoky crash, they were shocked when the canopy rolled back and Brown waved.
Numerous publications reported that seeing smoke coming from the burning plane, Hudner was sure his friend would die – from the fire or the intense cold – and decided to go in after Brown, who was lodged in the plane’s fuselage. The Washington Post reported, “Hudner simply swept in, to do what his comrade would surely have done for him.”
“I couldn’t conceive of leaving a friend alive like that, under those circumstances,” he was quoted as saying.
Hudner crashlanded his plane in the vicinity of enemy troops, packing the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from Brown as he struggled to free him, his leg trapped. He requested a helicopter be dispatched and remained by Brown’s side, but wasn’t able to save his friend.
Hudner told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I was devastated emotionally.” Brown asked Capt. Hudner to tell his wife, Daisy, that he loved her.
For his heroism, Hudner was awarded the first Navy Medal of Honor in Korea by President Harry S. Truman on April 13, 1951, in a White House ceremony, just months after the incident. Brown’s widow, Daisy, was on hand for the ceremony.
And it was Mrs. Brown that would forge a relationship with Hudner and his family during the early years, mostly through correspondence such as Christmas cards and letters. That relationship would continue to build and strengthen through the years.
During a phone interview on Wednesday, Knight, Brown’s only child, said she considered Hudner a distant surrogate uncle.
“I’m privileged to have known him,” she said.
It wasn’t until Knight was a bit older that she had a relationship, such as it was, with Hudner and his family. She remembers meeting him for the first time when she was about 7.
“My entire family has been interactive with his through the years,” she said. “My son is friends with his son. They are about the same age.”
Knight said Hudner was happy to talk to her about her father, but only when she asked. And she did inquire more and more as she got older.
In April, members of the Brown family were on hand on a snowy day in Bath, Maine, as the Navy christened a new destroyer, the USS Thomas Hudner. Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus, who served as Secretary of the Navy, was also on hand for the christening. Knight said at that time they knew Hudner’s health was not as good as it had once been.
“But he was a real trooper and you couldn’t tell he was as sick as he really was,” she said.
Knight described Hudner as a very special, quiet and unassuming man, who was always willing to come and be a part of special events commemorating her father’s legacy. She said Hudner had been to Hattiesburg on several occasions and visited the tribute to her father housed at the African American Military History Museum downtown.
“He also had been down, at the city’s invitation, to speak during a Memorial’s Day celebration in the park downtown,” she said.
Knight said when she received the news of Hudner’s death, it was “a shocker, and something you didn’t want to believe,” even though they knew his health was failing. According to Hudner’s son, Tom III, his father died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease.
Knight’s daughter, who lives in Washington, D.C., will be traveling to Massachusetts to represent the Brown family at funeral services.
“I’m not much of a flyer,” laughed Knight, “even though I’m the daughter of a Navy flyer.
“He (Hudner) has been there to support us in the past and now it’s our turn to be there and support his family,” she said of the man she described as an integral part of their family.
Knight said it was special knowing of the extraordinary relationship that Hudner and her father forged during that time when things were just starting to become integrated.
Brown, 24, was described in articles as the son of Mississippi sharecroppers and the first African American naval aviator, while Hudner, a future captain, was white, a New Englander from a well-to-do family and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Both would be remembered as paragons of the newly-integrated U.S. military forces.
One publication gave the following account of Hudner and Brown’s first meeting.
“I was changing into flight gear and he came in and nodded ‘Hello,’ ” Capt. Hudner told the New York Times, remembering his first encounter with Brown. “I introduced myself, but he made no gesture to shake hands. I think he did not want to embarrass me and have me not shake his hand. I think I forced my hand into his.”
Capt. Hudner attributed his egalitarianism to his father, who, he told CNN, had taught him that “a man will reveal his character through his actions, not his skin color.”
Brown, who had nurtured a love of airplanes from childhood, by all accounts won the admiration of his squadron with his skill.
The two are remembered as ace pilots and heroes of the Korean War
Brown continues to remembered across the Pine Belt and Mississippi with facilities named in his honor and memory. There are the Jesse Brown Lodge, the tax building in downtown Hattiesburg, the Bachelor’s Quarters at the base in Meridian and the Kellogg Foundation had a sign posted at the intersection of Jesse L. Brown Street and Country Club Road in the Hub City. The USS Jesse L. Brown, a destroyer built by Avondale Shipyards in Westwego, La., was christened in his honor in March 1972. It was decommissioned in July 1994 after 21 years.
“I will forever be grateful that he (Hudner) risked his life to save my father’s life,” Knight said.