When it was time for the homily, the Rev. Austin Fleming stood in the pulpit of Holy Family Parish in Concord, looking down at the casket that held the body of Tom Hudner.
“What is it about humble people that makes us want to lift them up?” Fleming asked.
Tom Hudner, a genuine American hero, was a humble man, and we wanted to lift him up because he lifted us up, by the example he set, by the way he lived, by the way he served, by the way he risked his life for, and never forgot, Jesse Brown.
By most measures, they couldn’t be more different. One black, one white. One raised in poverty, the son of a sharecropper in Mississippi, a product of schools with ragged books and dirt floors. The other the son of a prosperous merchant from Fall River, a legacy at one of the nation’s top prep schools, a graduate of the Naval Academy.
Tom Hudner’s father, Tom Hudner Sr., had once told his young son that he hired people from every conceivable background at his grocery stores because color meant nothing. A person’s skin color revealed nothing, the senior Tom Hudner told the junior Tom Hudner; character reveals everything. That lesson sank into Tom Hudner Jr.’s brain and never left.
Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first African-American pilot, revealed his character by the way he carried himself in a newly desegregated military, the way he flew, the way he tackled missions.
War has a way of blurring distinctions, be it race or class, and when the Korean War broke out, Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner became wingmates, brothers from other mothers.
In December of 1950, Brown and Hudner were flying side by side, part of a Navy formation over the frozen Chosin Reservoir in support of some Marines who were pinned down by Chinese forces.
Brown’s Corsair was strafed by anti-aircraft fire, and after quickly losing oil and altitude, Brown managed to crash-land into the side of a mountain. Moments later, Hudner did the same, in an audacious attempt to rescue Brown.
But when he got to a badly injured Brown, Hudner found him pinned in the cockpit, his mangled legs trapped in the fuselage. Hudner packed snow against the burning plane so it wouldn’t explode. But he couldn’t pull Brown out.
Charlie Ward, a Marine helicopter pilot, landed his chopper nearby, but the ax he brought couldn’t free Brown from the wreckage. With night falling, and Ward’s chopper unable to navigate in the dark, they left a mortally wounded Brown, vowing to return. Their superior officers ordered them not to go back, that it was a suicide mission.
Jesse Brown’s body was never found.
For his selfless act of heroism, Tom Hudner received the Medal of Honor from President Truman. Hudner used that honor to honor Jesse Brown. He put Brown’s widow, Daisy, through college. He remained close to the Brown family the rest of his life, and, after the Navy decided to name a ship after him, he spent the last few years of his life practically begging the Navy to name a destroyer after Jesse Brown. A frigate named for Brown in 1973 was sold to the Egyptian government 23 years ago and renamed.
In one of his last letters to the Navy secretary, Hudner wrote: “As our nation once again struggles with racial division, we could send a strong message by remembering Jesse in this manner. It would show that in our Navy, men and women of all colors are accepted as equals. It would show that Jesse’s legacy lives on, long after we, his friends, have left this earth.”
Ninety-three years after entering it, Tom Hudner has left this earth, leaving an example this nation sorely needs, about decency, about loyalty, about service, about equality, about empathy.
As a priest, Father Austin Fleming is in the business of using parables to teach us lessons so that we can be more decent human beings. But as he stood there, looking down at Tom Hudner’s casket, the parable was self-evident: the friendship, the virtual brotherhood, of a black man and a white man in a time of war, defending a country which at the time didn’t even agree that the races should mix, much less that they were equal.
“What joy there will be in Heaven when Tom Hudner is reunited with Jesse Brown,” Father Fleming said.
As he spoke, Jessica Knight Henry sat in one of the pews, nodding, almost imperceptibly. She never got to meet her grandfather, Jesse Brown, but she knew of his character because Tom Hudner came back home and made sure everyone knew.
After Communion, Thomas Hudner III climbed into the pulpit and remembered a father who embraced every day of the 67 years he got to live after Jesse Brown’s plane went down. Tom Hudner Jr. never forgot how lucky he was to be able to hug his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren when Jesse Brown didn’t get to live to see his own.
The son wrote his father’s epitaph when he looked out at us and said, “He treated everyone with respect.”
Funerals are by their nature sad. But as Tom Hudner’s body was brought down into Monument Square after Mass, and an American flag replaced the pall covering his casket, it wasn’t sad as much as life-affirming. The soldiers who carried his casket, the sailors who stood at attention on Bedford Street, the three members of the firing party who fired three volleys into the air, they looked like Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown: They were white and black and everything in between.
As Tom Hudner’s widow and wife of 49 years, Georgea, was being helped into the limousine parked next to the church, she paused, then stood straight up and smiled and waved at the lines of sailors and Navy officers who stood at rapt attention across the street
As they are expected to, the sailors and officers remained still, in rock-solid formation. But some of them couldn’t help themselves. They smiled back at Georgea Hudner.Kevin Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org