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Tom Hudner was sitting in the commons area after lunch at Phillips Academy in Andover when word spread that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. As with most young people of the era, he had no idea where Pearl Harbor was but he knew it meant the U.S. was at war.
Four years after Annapolis, however, Tom would find himself in another war, the Korean War. Here he would lead a heroic effort to save a downed pilot when his flight was on patrol over the Chosin Reservoir. For this extraordinary rescue attempt, President Harry Truman would present the first Congressional Medal of Honor of the Korean War to Tom Hudner.
Flying one thousand feet above the icy Korean mountains, the Corsair’s engine cut out. At such a low altitude, the pilot, US Navy Ensign Jesse Brown, couldn’t bail out or clear the mountain. He spotted an opening that looked more or less flat, and in any case, it was his only choice. A wheel up, dead stick landing. The Navy’s first African American aviator probably thought that he had been through worse than this, being hazed and harassed throughout his pioneering Naval career.
Suddenly, Jesse radioed that he was losing oil pressure and power. He would have to land. Another pilot noticed a small clearing only about a quarter mile in size on the side of one of the slopes and radioed the location to Jesse. Tom also radioed to him, “Jesse, make sure your shoulder harness is locked and the canopy is open!” Then Jesse, wheels up with no power, brought his Corsair in for a hard, crash landing. The impact buckled the fuselage at the cockpit.
The F4U went down heavily and smashed into the rough terrain, folding up at the cockpit. Sliding through the deep snow, the big fighter started smoking immediately.
Lt. (Jg) Thomas Hudner and the other VF-32 pilots studied the situation on the ground as they circled overhead. This close to the Chosin Reservoir, Chinese Communist soldiers would be along soon. The crashed and burning aircraft was a hopeless wreck.
At first the Navy fliers thought that Ensign Brown was dead. Then his wingman and roommate, Lt. William H. Koenig, noticed Brown waving to them through the open canopy of his Corsair (Bureau # 97231). A rugged, prop-driven, big-nosed WWII design, the Chance Vought F4U normally could take a lot of damage. On this day, 4 December 1950, Brown had been tragically unlucky; some North Korean flak gunner had hit the plane in a vulnerable spot.
Smoke began to come from the engine cowling and Hudner realized that Brown must be trapped or he would exit the aircraft and the danger of explosion or spreading flames. Try as he might, he could not extricate Jesse so he called for the Helo to bring an axe.
Realizing Jesse could not help himself and the helo was still too far away to make it in time, Hudner decided to forceland his Corsair nearby Brown risking the same fate. He put his aircraft down on the snow covered slopes and could hear thumps of larger rocks hidden by the snow as the aircraft slowed to a stop. He unstrapped and trudged through the snow to his wingman and began using snow to pack into the engine compartment to put out the flames. He found Jesse’s legs were pinned by the instrument panel that had compressed rearward after the Corsair had impacted a large rock hidden by the snow.
As the time passed, Jesse lapsed in and out of consciousness due to unknown injury. Tragically, he died in Hudner’s arms while still trapped in the cockpit. Hudner was rescued by the Marine Helicopter and returned to VF-32 eventually with threat of a court-martial looming over his head for his intentional forcelanding of his F4U Corsair. Fortunately, his chain of command thought otherwise and he was awarded the Medal of Honor that he would have traded to have Jesse rescued.
Because of his heroism, this Corsair pilot was awarded with the first Congressional Medal of Honor of the Korean War.