Navy's first black pilot could finally come home from Korea

Posted By GABRIELLE LEVY,  |  July 19, 2013 at 11:53 AM
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Thomas J. Hudner Jr. came home from the Korea War, but he never forgot what he left behind -- and what he the promise he made when he came home.

Now after more than 60 years, Hudner is headed to Pyongyang to bring back a friend who he lost in the midst of battle.

On December 4, 1950, the plane flown by Hudner's wingman, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, went down when a bullet ruptured a fuel line. Brown survived the crash, but was trapped in the wreckage of his plane.

Although a rescue helicopter was on its way, Brown's plane caught fire near its fuel tanks. Rather than wait, Hudner crash-landed his own plane, struggling in vain to free Brown and douse the fire.

Even after the chopper arrived, after 45 minutes, the fire still burned and Brown was still trapped. The helicopter had to leave before darkness, and Brown was losing consciousness.

"Tell Daisy I love her," he told Hudner, giving his friend a message for his wife.

Hudner's superiors refused to let him try to go back to the crash site and extract Brown, and two days later, the Navy bombed it with napalm, reciting the Lord's Prayer, burning the craft to keep it from falling into Chinese or Korean hands.

Although pilots were afterwards forbidden to crash-land to try to save downed wingmen, Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman.

Hudner met Daisy Brown, Jesse Brown's widow, and she was at his side at the medal ceremony. He promised her he would try to bring her husband home, and for six decades, he has worked to keep his word.

At long last, Hudner is due to land in North Korea Friday to finally follow through.

“I’ve thought about a lot of things,” Daisy Brown said. “He was the love of my life. And if they find him, bring him home, I am going to have a military burial.”

Although details of the mission have been kept quiet amid concerns over upsetting the volatile North Korean regime, and access to American investigators has been limited, Hudner had the help of Chyon Kim, one of the Korean War Memorial organizers with close ties Pyongyang.

"He dreams about traveling to the Democratic Republic of Korea and visiting the wreckage of Brown’s Corsair, to pay his respects to his fallen comrade and search for any trace of his remains,” mission information describing the trip said.

Hudner will turn 89 this year, but his mission goes beyond loyalty to a fallen friend.

Brown was was the first African-American pilot in the Navy. Hudner was white.

Their friendship, and Hudner's heroic attempts to save Brown, are considered key to the nascent racial integration of the U.S. military.

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