The date was December 4, 1950. The place was the skies above the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Thomas Jerome Hudner Jr., a U.S. Navy pilot and graduate of the Naval Academy, was leading a six-plane flight on an armed reconnaissance mission, flying close air support for the Marines fighting on the ground below.
Hudner, known as "Lou" to his friends, had already completed a successful bombing and strafing run when he looked back and saw that one of the planes in his flight, an F4U Corsair piloted by his friend and fellow naval aviator Jesse L. Brown, had been hit by enemy ground fire and was trailing smoke. Brown, the Navy's first African American pilot, was struggling to maintain control of his badly damaged aircraft.
Hudner quickly assessed the situation. Brown's plane was losing altitude fast, leaking oil and spewing smoke from its ruptured engine. He wouldn't be able to make it back to the carrier. Hudner radioed Brown, who confirmed his fears: "I'm going down. I'm not going to make it."
With no hesitation, Hudner made a decision that would earn him a place in history: he was going to try to save his fellow pilot. Though pilots were under strict orders not to abandon their aircraft, leaving a downed comrade behind was unthinkable. He radioed "I'm going in," and turned his Corsair into a steep dive toward Brown's faltering aircraft.
As he rapidly lost altitude, Hudner struggled to maintain control. He knew he would have just one pass at this - his own plane could crash or get shot down if he lingered too long in enemy territory. Getting the angle and speed right on this one approach was critical.
Lining up on Brown's plane, Hudner slowed to landing speed and dropped his wheels, trying to make his intentions clear since both pilots had previously agreed not to open fire on an aircraft with its wheels down. No return signal came from Brown. Hudner would be landing blind.
Hitting the snowy slope at more than 100 miles per hour, Hudner managed to bring his Corsair to a skidding stop only 100 feet from Brown's smoking aircraft. In an instant he had popped open the cockpit and sprinted across the snow.
Reaching the crashed Corsair, Hudner saw that Brown was trapped in the cockpit, his leg pinned by the twisted instrument panel. The airplane had pancaked in, crunching down on itself and freezing Brown in place. Frantically, Hudner climbed onto the wing and tried unsuccessfully to extract his friend from the wreckage. Despite Hudner's efforts, Brown's leg remained pinned. And now, both men were stranded in enemy territory.
As the minutes ticked by, Hudner refused to give up on his trapped wingman. He attempted in vain to put out the growing fire using a hand pump from his own survival kit, but the flames continued to spread. Nightfall and subzero temperatures were descending rapidly. Enemy troops would arrive soon to investigate the crash. Brown was weakening, drifting in and out of consciousness.
Crouching in the snow, Hudner reassured his friend that help was on the way. Over the radio, he requested a rescue chopper, but was told it would be at least 30 minutes before one could arrive. Brown's condition was deteriorating. His life now measured in minutes, not hours.
Knowing his fellow pilot's time was quickly running out, Hudner made the painful decision to save himself and get airborne before the approaching night or the enemy made flying impossible. With a heavy heart, he said goodbye to Brown over the intercom. There was nothing more he could do.
As Hudner reluctantly climbed back into his own damaged plane, Brown slipped into unconsciousness. By the time the rescue helicopter arrived some 45 minutes later, Jesse Brown had died. The Navy's first Black pilot had given his life for his country. But thanks to Thomas Hudner's courageous and selfless actions, he had not died alone.
Hudner's airplane, leaking oil from its damaged fuselage, barely made it back to the carrier USS Leyte. Upon landing, its engine seized up from lack of lubrication. The plane had to be pushed over the side. But Hudner's actions that day went down in history.
For deliberately crash landing his plane in an attempt to save a fellow pilot, an act of tremendous courage, unparalleled determination, and loyalty to a fallen comrade, Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for military valor.
The official citation praised "his valiant attempt to save a fellow flyer despite the certainty of his own death." It went on to say his "selfless courage and unswerving devotion to his friend reflect the highest credit upon himself and uphold the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service."
Thomas Hudner downplayed his heroism, saying simply, "I figured if I couldn't get Jesse out of the cockpit nobody could. It was just something you do for a wingman."
The story of two pioneering naval aviators, one who gave his life and another who risked his own in an attempt to save it, touched the hearts of Americans, both civilian and military. But the drama that unfolded over the snowy slopes of North Korea on that December day carried an even deeper meaning for African Americans and the nation as a whole.
Jesse Brown had shattered racial barriers by becoming the Navy's first Black pilot. His friendship with Thomas Hudner, from an elite white military family, symbolized hopes for a more integrated America. Hudner's selfless efforts to save Brown showed that loyalty and human decency could cross racial lines.
Years later, in 1973, Thomas Hudner returned to North Korea on a mission to locate Jesse Brown's remains and finally bring his wingman home. Though unsuccessful, it was further proof of an enduring bond forged in the skies over Korea between two pioneering aviators, and an unforgettable act of wartime valor that still resonates today.