Navy vet goes to North for 60-year-old promise
A chopper hovered nearby. Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner could save himself, but not his friend. With the light fading, the threat of enemy fire all around him and Brown losing consciousness, the white son of a New England grocery-store magnate made a promise to the black son of a sharecropper:
“We’ll come back for you.”
More than 60 years have passed. Hudner is now 88. But he did not forget. He has come back.
Hudner, now a retired Navy captain, arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday with hopes of traveling in the coming week to the region known in North Korea as the Jangjin Reservoir, accompanied by soldiers from the Korean People’s Army, to the spot where Brown died in December 1950.
The reservoir was the site of one of the Korean War’s deadliest battles for Americans, who knew the place by its Japanese name, Chosin. The snowy mountain region was nicknamed the “Frozen Chosin,” and survivors are known in U.S. history books as the “Chosin Few.”
The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir lasted for 17 brutal days. Some 6,000 Americans were killed in combat, and thousands more succumbed to the cold. Brown and many others who died there are among more than 7,910 Americans still missing in action from the war.
Though the fighting ended with an armistice signed 60 years ago July 27, North Korea and the U.S. remain technically at war. Efforts to recover remains have come in fits and starts, with little recent progress.
Next week’s mission is to pick up where search teams have left off by locating the exact spot of Brown’s crash. Armed with maps and coordinates, they hope to work with North Korean soldiers to excavate the remote area, a sealed site controlled by the North Korean military.
Approval for the unusual journey comes as North Korea prepares for festivities marking the upcoming armistice anniversary. Pyongyang is expected to use the milestone to draw international attention to the division of the Korean Peninsula as well as to build unity among North Koreans for new leader Kim Jong-un.
Hudner does not plan to stay for a massive military parade expected on July 27. But he said he hopes his visit will help to foster peace and reconciliation on the tense Korean Peninsula.
Hudner and Brown were members of Fighter Squadron 32, dispatched to the region deep in North Korea’s forbiddingly mountainous interior to support the trapped ground troops and carry out search-and-destroy missions.
Theirs was a close-knit squadron. But the two men, both in their 20s, came from completely different worlds.
Hudner, of Fall River, Mass., was a privileged New Englander who was educated at prep school and had been invited to attend Harvard. Brown, of Hattiesburg, Miss., broke the Navy’s color barrier for pilots in 1948, months after President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces.
It wasn’t an easy role for Brown to take on, Hudner recalled. “People who didn’t know him gave him a hard time just because he was black.’’
But those who got to know Brown grew to respect the serious, unfailingly considerate young man who impressed his peers with his dedication to flying - and his gentle sense of humor.
“The squadron, almost to a man, protected him any way they could,” Hudner told The Associated Press before his departure, his pale blue eyes sparkling. “He was a friend who, I’d say, was beloved by almost everybody who knew him. A very special person.”
Late the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1950, Brown and Hudner were part of a six-plane formation over the Jangjin Reservoir, one like dozens of missions in the months previous.
This time, ground fire struck Brown’s plane, forcing him to land behind enemy lines. When Brown waved for help from his crumpled, smoking cockpit after slamming into the mountainside, Hudner acted quickly.
“I thought: ‘My God, I’ve got to make a decision,’” he said. “I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his plane burst into flames.”
Hudner crash-landed his plane in high winds and snowy rocks about 100 yards from the downed fighter. As flames engulfed Brown’s plane, and still under the threat of attack, Hudner scrambled to pack the fuselage with snow, burning his hands in the process. He took his cap off and pulled it over Browns’ ears, then radioed for help as Brown remained trapped in the cockpit, bleeding heavily, his leg crushed and his body temperature dropping in the subzero conditions.
A Marine helicopter arrived, but the pilot and Hudner could not extract Brown from the wreckage.
Hudner reluctantly got into the rescue helicopter. Brown is believed to have died soon after. The next day, U.S. military planes dropped napalm on the wreckage to keep the enemy from getting his body.
Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award, for trying to save Brown. Brown posthumously received the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A few years ago, Hudner was contacted by author Adam Makos about doing a book on his wartime heroics. It was Makos, Hudner said, who suggested returning to the crash site. Hudner hadn’t thought it possible, given the abysmal state of U.S.-North Korean relations.
They enlisted Chayon Kim, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen who had been involved in the campaign to build a Korean War Memorial in Washington, and who took the Harlem Globetrotters and former NBA star Dennis Rodman to North Korea earlier this year. She also has built ties over the years with the North Korean military, asked the army to supply soldiers to help with the search.
Hudner and the team don’t know if they’ll find Brown’s remains or the wreckage of the two planes.
But Makos, who intends to make the trip the last chapter of his book about the two men, said Brown’s place in history makes it especially important to make the attempt.
“He’s a Jackie Robinson in many ways. He’s a Joe Louis,” he said. “He’s a historic figure, yet he’s lying on a Korean mountainside.”