Thousands gathered Saturday on a South Boston pier and paid tribute to men who sacrificed for country and comrades, with the hope that a selfless act on a freezing, faraway mountainside 68 years ago might inspire future heroism.
Service members and civilians in dress uniforms and heavy topcoats assembled at the Flynn Cruiseport terminal for the commissioning of a destroyer named for retired Navy captain Thomas J. Hudner Jr., a Fall River native and Korean War hero who died last year at 93.
The solemn ceremony commissioning the USS Thomas Hudner honored its namesake, along with his squadron mate, Jesse L. Brown, the Navy’s first African-American aviator, who died in combat in 1950 despite Hudner’s efforts to save him.
Speakers also paid tribute to two Massachusetts-born veterans who died last week, including Milton-born former US president George H.W. Bush.
Bush was a fellow Navy pilot and graduated from Phillips Academy one year before Hudner. Bush died Friday in Houston at 94.
Army Sergeant First Class Eric Michael Emond was, like Hudner, a Fall River native. Emond, 39, was killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday in the deadliest attack against US forces in Afghanistan this year.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston encouraged those present to visit the nearby Massachusetts Fallen Heroes memorial, which Emond co-founded.
“We pray for his family and for those he served with,” Walsh said of Emond, “and we stand in awe once again at the sacrifice [that] every single service member and every single military family . . . makes for our country.”
Admiral William F. Moran, in his remarks, remembered Hudner alongside “his fellow naval aviator, our dear president, George Herbert Walker Bush, who ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ . . . hours ago.”
The phrase “surly bonds of Earth” is borrowed from a poem by John Gillespie Magee Jr., a World War II fighter pilot killed in a mid-air collision at 19. Then-president Ronald Reagan used the phrase for his speech honoring the astronauts killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Hudner, who lived his final decades in Concord and served as Massachusetts commissioner of veterans affairs in the 1990s, was remembered Saturday as “a true American hero” who risked his life for a comrade and believed in racial equality in an era before that view was commonplace.
On Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner, then 26, crashed the plane he was flying near North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir in an effort to save Brown, 24, who had been shot down in subzero cold during a mission supporting Marines surrounded by enemy troops.
Hudner struggled to pull his friend from the wreckage, but he was trapped and badly injured. When a rescue helicopter arrived, Hudner was forced to leave Brown behind.
Then-president Harry S. Truman had ordered full military integration only two years earlier, and many were unsure whether white service members would risk their lives for black comrades.
Hudner proved they would.
Truman presented Hudner with the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded during the Korean War. Brown posthumously received a Distinguished Flying Cross.
After Brown’s death, Hudner became a lifelong friend to Brown’s widow, Daisy, whose college education he funded. The families remain close, and multiple members of both attended Saturday’s commissioning.
Thomas J. Hudner III remembered his father as “a very humble and understated man, one who always deflected praise and attention.” When the elder Hudner learned in 2012 that the ship would be named for him, “he was overwhelmed and he was grateful,” his son said.
The younger Hudner said his father “never thought of himself . . . as extraordinary” and believed he had only done what anyone would do.
“Neither the extreme danger a rescue attempt represented nor the color of Jesse’s skin were factors in Dad’s decision to crash-land to try to save Jesse,” Hudner said. “Jesse was a friend and squadron mate who needed help. So Dad went in.”