BATH, Maine — Thomas Hudner Jr., a Korean War veteran from Concord, Mass., sat bundled in a wheelchair Saturday beneath the towering guided-missile destroyer about to be christened in a steady snowstorm.
The warship above him, a 509-foot-long amalgamation of deadly force and cutting-edge technology, would bear his name in testimony to the former Navy pilot’s startling courage during the horrific Battle of Chosin Reservoir nearly 67 years ago.
“For the United States of America, we christen thee Thomas Hudner. May God bless this ship and all who sail in her,” Hudner’s wife, Georgea, said as she grasped a hefty bottle of Champagne.
The familiar strains of “Anchors Aweigh” filled the air beside the Kennebec River, confetti streamed through a biting wind, and a few Korean War survivors who had served with the 92-year-old Hudner lifted their bowed heads and applauded.
“Today we are in the presence of true bravery,” US Senator Angus King of Maine said of the Medal of Honor recipient.
The day was Hudner’s, but close to his thoughts was the mortally wounded wingman he had tried to rescue in a near-suicidal mission behind enemy lines on Dec. 4, 1950. That aviator, Ensign Jesse Brown, was a 24-year-old sharecropper’s son from Mississippi who became the first black fighter pilot in Navy history.
Brown had been flying an F4U Corsair when his carrier-based plane was struck by small-arms fire while supporting besieged American and allied ground troops. The fighter lost power and crashed on a snowy mountainside, where Hudner noticed the smoking wreckage from above.
Defying prior orders not to sacrifice his plane, Hudner crash-landed beside his squadron-mate and tried unsuccessfully to pull Brown, who was alive and calm, from the twisted metal of his cockpit.
A rescue helicopter arrived too late. Brown had died from his injuries, and Hudner was forced to leave.
The commander of the USS Leyte, the aircraft carrier that launched the squadron, chose not to subject Hudner to a court-martial. Instead, Captain T.U. Sisson summarized the feat this way: “There’s been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.”
Brown’s family has not forgotten.
They flocked to Maine on Saturday from points south and west — from Hattiesburg, Miss., Richmond, Tex., and Los Angeles — to pay respect to Hudner’s selflessness and friendship. They also sat in the bitter weather to honor the sacrifice of a man — a brother, father, and grandfather — who had beaten daunting odds simply to fly.
“He went through hell to do what he did,” said his brother, 85-year-old Fletcher Brown of Los Angeles. “I think of him all the time — the memories we had, and what his life would have been like had he lived.”
Fletcher joined the Air Force, and another brother served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. But Jesse Brown led the way from the cotton fields of segregated Mississippi.
“People would tell him he was crazy because there had never been a black [Navy] pilot before,” Fletcher Brown recalled. “But he said he would be the first.”
Hudner also never forgot, even though his background — affluent home, Phillips Andover prep school, and the US Naval Academy — was a world apart from his wingman’s. He helped Brown’s widow, Daisy, with her college expenses, and he maintained a friendship with the pilot’s daughter and extended family that endures to this day.
That bond reflects Brown’s loyalty to others.
“He was loyal to Daisy, loyal to the squadron, loyal to the naval service. ... In return, people were very loyal to him,” Hudner said in an interview. “When I was a boy, my father gave me some advice that he’d learned running his grocery stores with employees from all walks of life: ‘A person’s actions will reveal his character, not his skin color.’
“I took this to heart and still believe it,” Hudner said.
His commitment to Brown even took him to North Korea, where he traveled in 2013 with his biographer, Adam Makos, to persuade the government of that isolated country to locate Brown’s remains.
Kim Jong-un, the country’s new leader, agreed to resume a search for missing US servicemen, beginning with Brown, whose remains have not been recovered.
Makos, whose book “Devotion” chronicles the relationship between the two pilots, said he never envisioned a day when a ship would be named for Hudner, a native of Fall River, Mass. But the tribute is deserved, said Makos, who spent seven years on the book.
“These were selfless men, and our society these days is becoming quite the opposite,” Makos said. “Tom Hudner has been a quiet hero his whole life. This is a salute from his country to him.”
Hudner retired from the Navy in 1973 and later served as the Massachusetts commissioner of veterans’ services in the 1990s. The current Massachusetts veterans secretary, Francisco Urena, traveled to Maine to attend the christening.
Rare events such as Saturday’s — the christening of a ship named for a living person — are precious, Urena said before the ceremony. Veterans of the Korean War, the so-called “forgotten war,” are quickly dwindling in number.
“A decade from now, where will this aspect of history be? Only in textbooks,” Urena said.
But for years to come, that history also will be embedded in the name of the USS Thomas Hudner, christened at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works for a man who long ago risked his young life for another’s.Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.