|Thomas Hudner, U.S. Navy Medal of Honor recipient, signs an autograph during the EAA lifetime member dinner on Tuesday.
|Lucas Benish, a Young Eagle turned Eagle Scout, received the Scholarship of Honor medal and scholarship from the Brian LaViolette Foundation Tuesday at the EAA lifetime member dinner. The award is presented annually in honor of Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Navy Captain Tom Hudner. From left are Doug LaViolette, Benish, Hudner, and and Renee LaViolette.
By Barbara A. Schmitz
Thomas Hudner has relived the events of December 4, 1950, in his mind many times. But he says there is nothing more he could have done to save the life of his fellow wingman.
"I've given it lots of thought," said Hudner, a former U.S. Navy captain who was the first to receive the Medal of Honor in the Korean War. "In hindsight, there are always things you would do differently. But I don't think there is anymore that could have been done without extra sets of arms."
Hudner was the wingman for Jesse Brown, the Navy's first black pilot. While strafing enemy positions at a low altitude, Brown's fuel line was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Smoking badly and without power, Brown was forced to crash-land.
Hudner recalls that he and fellow aviators first thought that Brown died in the crash. But then the canopy popped open, and Brown waved to the crews above.
However, Brown didn't get out. Knowing that rescue helicopters were 30 minutes away and seeing smoke from the cowling, Hudner decided to take action himself.
"I made the decision to make a wheels-up landing and crash close enough to Jesse's plane so I could pull him out of the cockpit and wait for the helicopter," Hudner said. But once down, he discovered that the fuselage had pinned Brown's knee in the plane. Hudner couldn't just pull him out.
While he waited for the helicopter to arrive, Hudner scooped up handfuls of snow and threw it under the cowling to dampen the fire. When the helicopter arrived, both pilots tried to remove Brown from the wreckage.
"After a few squirts under the cowling, the fire extinguisher did no good whatsoever," Hudner said, "and the ax just bounced off the fuselage."
Brown started going in and out of consciousness. Finally, nearly an hour later and with night approaching and temperatures dropping to below zero, Hudner and the helicopter pilot left.
"I told Jesse we were going back to get equipment, and I don't know if he heard me," he said. "I worried about him being left alone. But I'm sure he had passed away before we left."
The next morning, reconnaissance showed that Brown's body, still in the cockpit, had been stripped of clothing during the night by enemy soldiers. Because of hostile forces in the area, it was impossible to retrieve it. So four Corsairs napalmed the plane. "Jesse died a warrior's death," Hudner said.
Later, Hudner would meet Brown's family. "I told them he was one hell of a good guy and a friend to all of us," he said. "His death was a huge loss, and he...was an inspiration to a lot of black youth."
Hudner received the Medal of Honor in February 1951, while Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
This May, Hudner received another honor when the Navy named the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer the USS Thomas Hudner.
"That was completely unexpected and such a surprise," Hudner said. "It happened over two months ago, but I'm still trying to get over the news."
Hudner encouraged others to consider a military career and gave advice to those currently serving. "Take full advantage of the opportunities you are provided to learn and work with other people," he said. "It's unlike anything you can find in any other aspect of life."
Hudner came to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh to present the Scholarship of Honor medal, which is given in his name by the Brian LaViolette Foundation. However, Hudner said he is looking forward to also seeing all the planes.
That's a dramatic change from 1946 when he graduated from the Naval Academy and wanted only to serve aboard a ship. "I just wasn't interested in flying," he said. "But my friends literally shamed me into putting in a request for flight training. I was the first to go to fighter school, and I never regretted it. I've loved aviation ever since."