WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts’ Senators Scott P. Brown and John F. Kerry are lobbying the Navy to name a new warship after a Bay State war hero and longtime veterans advocate, in what would be a rare honor for a living person usually bestowed only on American presidents and other political leaders.
Brown, a Republican, and Kerry, a Democrat, on Thursday urged Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to back a proposal to name a vessel after retired Navy Captain Thomas J. Hudner, a Fall River native.
Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, by President Truman in 1951 after purposefully crash-landing his fighter plane during the Korean War to try to pull his wingman, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, from the burning wreckage of his aircraft. Brown, who was the first African American naval aviator, did not survive.
The senators urged Mabus to follow through with the recommendation. “Doing so,’’ they wrote, “would serve as both a fitting and lasting tribute to the selfless actions of Captain Hudner, as well as his wingman.”
Hudner, now 87 and living in Concord, also served in the Vietnam War, where he was the second ranking officer on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. He joined the Navy in 1943 during World War II after graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover and was selected to attend the US Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1946.
After retiring from service in 1973, Hudner worked for the United Service Organizations, or the USO, and was also Commissioner for Massachusetts’ Department of Veterans Services from 1991 to 1999.
Hudner’s name was first submitted for Mabus’s consideration earlier this week by retired Navy Captains C. Andrew McCawley, president of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, and Guy Simmons of Boxford.
“It would be an especially great honor if the naming could be effected immediately and during Captain Hudner’s lifetime,” McCawley wrote. “Tom’s personal testimony about the events leading to his Medal of Honor would help highlight and honor his wingman, Ensign Jesse L. Brown and his service and pioneering role.”
Simmons, in a separate letter, said “Hudner has distinguished himself as a selfless leader and Patriot, and there is no one more deserving of the honor of having a ship of the United States Navy bear his name.”
Mabus, who has the sole authority to name ships, singled out Hudner at an event in January hosted by the Harvard Business School Association of Boston, calling him one “of the outstanding people that this country has produced.”
In recounting the details of Hudner’s rescue attempt on December 4, 1950, Mabus said “to know somebody like Tom Hudner is an absolute honor and privilege.’’
A spokeswoman for Mabus, Captain Pamela Kunze, said the secretary plans to review the proposal along with the other recommendations he regularly receives from lawmakers, veterans, industry leaders, and private citizens.
“He will give this and all other recommendations every consideration,” she said in an e-mail.
Ships are usually named some years before their construction is complete, but few are named after living persons.
Among those that have recently been named for living persons include the USS John Warner, after the former senator and Navy secretary, and the USS Gabrielle Giffords, for the former congresswoman who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt.
Those ships are under construction. The only vessels currently part of the fleet whose namesakes are alive are the USS Jimmy Carter, a submarine, and the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier.
Brown and Kerry acknowledged that while it is rare for the Navy to name a warship after living persons they believe some exceptions are justified.
“We realize and appreciate that the Navy very rarely names ships for living persons,” they told Mabus. “However, since the 1970s there have been 11 vessels named for individuals who were still living when the name was officially announced. We assert that commemoration of the service and sacrifices of these two wingmen is more than worthy of an exception to the standard practice.”
The lobbying campaign came as news to Hudner.
“I am very surprised and really flattered by what they are doing,” he told the Globe when reached by phone Thursday at his home in Concord.
Hudner, too, noted that in his experience such an honor is only bestowed on the highest profile Americans.
“Whether it will go through or not I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said. “There are a lot more people you want to name ships after than there are ships.”
A Navy frigate was named for Hudner’s wingman Brown in 1973. That vessel was decommissioned in 1994.