By Steve Herman – PYONGYANG — A U.S. Navy pilot from the Korean War arrived in North Korea on a commercial flight Saturday to search for the remains of the fellow aviator he unsuccessfully tried to rescue 63 years ago – an act for which he was awarded America’s highest military honor.
Thomas Hudner, who is 88, is part of a private American search team given permission by North Korean authorities to look for the remains of his friend, U.S. Navy Ensign Jesse Brown, and their F4 Corsairs at Hagaru-ri at the foot of the Chosin reservoir.
“Jesse Brown is entitled to every bit of help he can get even though it’s well after death,” Hudner told VOA.
The unprecedented mission in the country, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States, hopes to shed light on a poignant story from combat aviation history.
“When this opportunity came up [to go back to North Korea], at first, I was very skeptical,” he said. “It’s almost unbelievable and I’m delighted that so many people would take an interest in it.”
Risky crash landing in enemy territory
Jesse Brown was the first African-American to be trained by the U.S. Navy as an aviator. On his 20th combat mission in the Korean War, he crash landed his plane on a near vertical snow-covered slope on December 4, 1950.
Pilot Jesse Brown is seen in this undated file photo from around 1950 provided by the US Navy.
Brown and Hudner were each flying as part of a mission providing air support for 8,000 Marines badly outnumbered by Communist Chinese soldiers in sub-freezing weather.
From his own plane, Lt. Hudner realized Brown had survived the impact and was alive in the crumpled jet.
Hudner decided to crash land his plane some 100 meters away from Brown. A Marine helicopter, at Hudner’s request, dropped an ax so that he could try to free Brown from the crumpled metal cockpit.
Hudner did not succeed. He was persuaded by Marines to be lifted to safety before nightfall and took with him Brown’s dying words: “Tell Daisy I love her.”
Thomas Hudner was initially reprimanded for deliberately destroying his multi-million dollar aircraft in what some superior officers considered a foolhardy act. But the military later had a change of heart.
President Harry Truman ultimately chose to acclaim Hudner as a hero and award him the first Medal of Honor since World War Two for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life.”
Returning 60 years after armistice
An armistice in 1953 halted the Korean hostilities but not before the three-year conflict devastated the peninsula. Several hundred thousand combatants died and more than two million civilians were killed or wounded.
The forces that opposed each other – the U.S.-led United Nations troops, (which included South Koreans) and the North Koreans and Chinese on the other side never have signed a peace treaty, meaning a technical state of war persists with the 38th parallel continuing to serve as the de facto border.
For a U.S. Medal of Honor recipient to fly into the North in 2013, whatever the noble cause, could generate criticism of Hudner back home.
“Yes I’m concerned about that,” he acknowledged. “But I think there are enough people in the United States who are for the man [Jesse Brown] and for what he stands for and certainly wouldn’t want to stay in the way to find him because many years ago I gave up the idea of being able to recover him. I felt by this time they surely would have found the wreckage.”
Among those hoping the belated recovery effort will succeed is Brown’s widow.
“She is overjoyed at this,” said Hudner. “Her son, her daughter and grandchildren are almost as anxious as the widow is,” said Hudner.
A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.