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Humble hero could get lofty honor

A call to name a Navy ship for a flier who risked all to try to save another

Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe

Retired Navy Captain Thomas J. Hudner talked about how he tried to save the life of Ensign Jesse L. Brown during the Korean War.

CONCORD - As America’s first black naval aviator took to the sky over North Korea one frigid December afternoon in 1950, skeptics still questioned the wisdom of a racially integrated military. Critics feared that prejudice would bleed onto the battlefield, especially when valor demanded risking your life for a fellow serviceman who happened to have a different color skin.

The pilot, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, embarked on a treacherous mission in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. His wingman was Thomas J. Hudner Jr., a 26-year-old white fighter pilot from Fall River. Brown took fire and went down in a mountain clearing. He survived the crash, but became trapped in the burning wreckage, unable to free his leg. Circling above, Hudner made a decision: He intentionally crashed his own plane and lumbered through waist-deep snow, trying but failing to save Brown.

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“The only thing to do was go down and get Jesse,’’ Hudner, now 87, said Friday in an interview in his Concord home. “I didn’t agonize over it at all because I’d made up my mind. Jesse and I weren’t that close, but he was a good man.’’

Now, more than six decades later, Massachusetts’ two US senators are pressing Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to name a warship after Hudner, a rare honor for a living person. Exceptions have been made for presidents, high-profile lawmakers, and legendary Navy admirals, or singular personalities inextricably linked to the military, such as Bob Hope.

Hudner received a Medal of Honor for his bravery in Korea, fought in Vietnam, and came home to serve as the state’s commissioner of veterans’ services.

“He’s a man who deserves to be honored in his lifetime,’’ said Guy Simmons, 68, a retired Navy captain from Boxford, who initially petitioned Mabus to name a ship after Hudner.

Mabus is familiar with Hudner. In a January speech at Harvard University, Mabus, with Hudner in the audience, told of Brown’s special qualities and of the valiant effort to save him.

‘His story is . . . a great example of self-sacrifice. ’

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Brown, he said, was “born in Hattiesburg, Miss., in the segregated South in an era of Jim Crow laws, and had to fight . . . to be the only African-American in a school of 600 aviators going for naval aviation.’’

Ship names are traditionally reserved for states, cities, or famous battles. The Navy named a warship the USS Jesse L. Brown, but it was decommissioned in 1994.

Among the few living persons receiving the honor recently was former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose recovery after an assassination attempt inspired millions. In Hudner’s case, Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown have joined the cause.

“His story is legendary,’’ Kerry, a former Navy officer who served in Vietnam, said Friday. “It is a great example of self-sacrifice at a time when I think it is important for people to remember those kinds of acts of valor.’’

Brown, an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, said he has come to know Hudner personally and as a political supporter and was convinced that because of his service, he stood out.

But former Navy secretary Richard Danzig said there is a reason why the honor is usually reserved for the dead.

“The reasons for that are good and analogous to why the Catholic Church might require an interval before deciding on sainthood,’’ Danzig said. “It shouldn’t be a decision of the moment, but for someone who has stood the test of history.’’

Jesse L. Brown’s widow, Daisy Pearl Thorne, has not forgotten what Hudner did that day for her husband.

“I’m very happy they are thinking of doing this for him,’’ she said from her home in Mississippi.

After crashing his plane, Hudner struggled, slipping in his icy boots, as he climbed onto the wing of Brown’s smoldering plane. Hudner pulled his own hat over Brown’s head, wrapped the wounded pilot’s frozen hands in his scarf, and began throwing handfuls of snow at the raging fire.

Brown could not be freed, and as darkness descended behind enemy lines, Hudner had to leave him behind. “Tell Daisy I love her,’’ Brown said before losing consciousness.

After returning from the war, Hudner recalled he received a handful of letters from strangers about what he did in Korea. One came from an African-American man who wrote on stationery that appeared stained with tears.

“I never thought that would happen,’’ the letter read, according to Hudner’s recollection. “I never thought that a white man would help out a black man like that.’’

Hudner became quiet as he thought about that day so long ago.

“I will never understand why the Lord chose Jesse.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.
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