Gelzinis: Vet risked rank, life for flyer


Embedded in every act of heroism is an act of pure, selfless love.

Thomas Jerome Hudner Jr. died at his home in Concord yesterday at the age of 93, wrapped in his family’s peaceful and loving embrace.

Tom Hudner would also be the first person to tell you he could have, and by all accounts should have, died 67 years ago on a frozen mountaintop in Korea.

In that brutal December of 1950, the 26-year-old naval aviator was ready and willing to die in a defiant and heroic attempt to save the life of his fellow pilot, Ensign Jesse Brown.

Just about everything Tom Hudner did on that fateful day in Korea could have gotten him court martialed or, at the very least, drummed out of the Navy.

Instead, President Harry Truman draped the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck.

“While attempting to rescue a squadron mate whose airplane was struck down by anti-aircraft fire,” his citation reads, “Hudner put his plane down skillfully in a wheels up landing in the presence of enemy troops.

“With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and tried to pull him free.”

What Tom Hudner did that day flew in the face of all the rules — both military and, in a great many ways, civilian.

It was two years ago on Veterans Day that Tom Hudner sat in his Concord living room and told me, “We were told not to do what I did, but I just couldn’t live with the thought for the rest of my life if I hadn’t made the effort, in some sort of way, to get Jesse out of that airplane.”

Tom Hudner did not succeed and nearly died trying. He was a graduate of both Phillips Academy and the Naval Academy. Jesse Brown, the squadron mate he tried in vain to save, was the son of a Mississippi sharecropper and the Navy’s first black combat pilot.

And all of this took place on the ridge of a frozen mountain, half a world away from Mississippi, where black men like Ensign Jesse Brown were prohibited from eating at lunch counters or voting.

The last words Jesse Brown left with Tom Hudner as the flames of his burning wreck closed in were about his wife and high school sweetheart. “Tell Daisy how much I love her,” Hudner’s wingman told him.

Indeed, Tom Hudner became a surrogate uncle to his fellow pilot’s family over the years.

“Tom has helped to humanize my grandfather for me,” Jesse Brown’s granddaughter told me two years ago. “He’s been a great source of comfort to me and my family.”

Yesterday, we lost a…



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