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For Medal of Honor recipient Hudner, Army-Navy coin toss continues history

When retired Navy aviator Thomas J. Hudner Jr. walks toward midfield at Lincoln Financial Field Saturday afternoon for the coin toss to start the 111th Army-Navy game, the 2010 Navy cocaptains accompanying him will both be African Americans.

Medal of Honor recipient retired Capt.Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. in 2008.
Medal of Honor recipient retired Capt.Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. in 2008.Read more

When retired Navy aviator Thomas J. Hudner Jr. walks toward midfield at Lincoln Financial Field Saturday afternoon for the coin toss to start the 111th Army-Navy game, the 2010 Navy cocaptains accompanying him will both be African Americans.

Wyatt Middleton and Ricky Dobbs will make a fitting honor guard for Hudner, an 86-year-old Medal of Honor recipient whose remarkable life has intersected on at least two historic occasions with black pioneers of the U.S. Navy.

In 1945, at the start of Hudner's final year there, Wesley Brown arrived at Annapolis. Four years later, Brown became the first African American to graduate from the Naval Academy.

Then, on a snowy and bloody afternoon in 1950, despite fierce enemy fire and 30-below temperatures, Hudner somehow landed his plane on a tiny patch of Korean mountainside in an effort to save a downed pilot, Jesse Brown of Hattiesburg, Miss., the Navy's first black aviator.

"I wasn't going to leave him there," said Hudner of that day. "What I had to do was clear."

Sixty-five years after Hudner made his first visit to Philadelphia for the 1945 Army-Navy game (the wartime games had been played on the service academies' campuses and in Baltimore), he will return to renew old friendships and, along with five other Medal of Honor recipients, participate in the pregame ceremony.

"I guess the boys need some advice from me," Hudner joked Thursday before traveling here from his Massachusetts home.

Philadelphia and the world are different places. So is the Naval Academy, where today 22 percent of the brigade of midshipmen is African American.

But the game-day scene in South Philadelphia that Hudner, the only living Naval Academy grad with a Medal of Honor, will experience hasn't changed much since he sat in Municipal Stadium's stands in 1945 watching his No. 2-ranked Midshipmen lose "the Game of the Century" to Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, and No. 1 Army.

"Oh God," he said, "those were some great games."

At 145 pounds, Hudner never rose above junior-varsity football at Navy. Later, though, he would outshine all the varsity, all his classmates.

Aiming for the sky

Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown were born 1,250 miles apart in two different worlds.

While Brown (no relation to Wesley), a sharecropper's son, attended blacks-only schools in Jim Crow Mississippi, Hudner, the white son of a prosperous Fall River businessman, went to prestigious Phillips Academy before entering Annapolis.

But Brown persevered. The salutatorian of his Eureka High School class, he likely never considered the Naval Academy. As of 1944, only five African Americans had ever enrolled there and, having endured various indignities, none had made it beyond their first year.

Brown rejected the advice of those who pointed him toward a small black school and picked Ohio State. That was the alma mater of his idol, Olympic legend Jesse Owens.

Hudner, meanwhile, after graduation from Annapolis in 1946 (study then was compacted into three years; he, technically, is in the Class of 1947), had various assignments at sea and on land, none of which terribly interested him. He was aiming for the sky.

In 1948, he applied for and was accepted at the Naval flight-training school in Pensacola, Fla.

Brown, who had been fascinated by the planes he watched fly over the field his family farmed, also dreamed of being a pilot. At Ohio State, he joined the Navy Reserve.

But the military's segregated walls had not yet crumbled, and he was rejected repeatedly, advised by some that "no [black men] would ever pass the test," his widow, Daisy, once told a Hattiesburg newspaper.

Finally, after graduation and World War II, Brown was enrolled in flight school at Ottumwa, Iowa. Six hundred men, all but one white, began the training session. Only six, including Brown, successfully completed it. In 1949, the year after President Harry S. Truman issued an order desegregating the military, Brown was commissioned a Navy ensign.

Both Brown and Hudner ended up with Fighter Squadron 32 in the Korean conflict. Though Hudner, as a lieutenant junior grade, had a higher rank, Brown had more experience, and the Mississippi farmhand soon had the Naval Academy grad as his wingman.

They became friends and flew numerous missions together, Section Cmdr. Brown receiving the Air Medal for his role in successful raids on Wonsan, Songjin, and Sinanju.

Then, on Dec. 4, 1950, the two were part of a formation of eight F4U Corsairs on a reconnaissance mission near the Chosin Reservoir. An American force of 15,000 Marines battled 100,000 Chinese and North Korean troops there. Planes from the USS Leyte were called in for support.

"We didn't have set targets, but we'd destroy what we'd find," said Hudner. "We were flying pretty low that day, low enough to see people on the ground, and we had to be concerned with the mountains."

Enemy flak hit several of the planes. One round apparently struck Brown's fuel line, and, flying at an altitude of only 1,000 feet, he went into a crash dive.

Nosing into the rocky terrain, the plane slammed into a mountainside. His squadron mates circled back to survey the scene, fearing Brown, 24, had perished. Suddenly, one of them said he'd seen the downed pilot waving.

A rescue helicopter was summoned. Hudner knew that would take time and a pilot trapped in an aircraft that appeared to be burning didn't have much of that.

"I'm going in," Hudner radioed his commander.

He dumped his plane's fuel, circled the spot a few times and, with artillery fire all around and his wheels up, slammed his own plane into the rocks, trees, and snow with a jarring thump.

"I wouldn't have landed that way if I hadn't known the helicopter was coming," Hudner said.

He could see smoke coming from the rear of Brown's Corsair. The pilot was trapped in the cockpit.

"He was alive, but badly hurt," Hudner recalled. "I couldn't get him out of the cockpit. His right leg was crushed and entangled in metal and instruments."

Without an extinguisher and fearing the fire would soon spread, Hudner packed snow around the cockpit as a makeshift fire wall. He put his knit hat and scarf on Brown's icy body but couldn't extricate his friend.

The helicopter arrived with the ax Hudner had requested. The men chopped futilely at the steel wreckage.

"It was late afternoon, and the light was fading. The helicopter couldn't fly at night. We talked about using a knife to cut off Jesse's entrapped leg," Hudner said. "But neither of us really could have done it. It was obvious Jesse was dying. He was beyond help at that point.

"We had to leave. We had no choice. I was devastated emotionally."

A day later, four planes flew over Brown's downed aircraft and napalmed the charred remains.

"Back on the ship, our captain wanted to try to retrieve the body," Hudner said. "But the terrain was too bad, and there were too many enemy soldiers in the area. So to make sure nothing would be done to Jesse's body, he ordered the napalm."

Still feel the cold

Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1972, with a soon-to-retire Hudner on board, the Navy christened a new Knox-class frigate the USS Jesse L. Brown, the first time an African American had been so honored.

On April 13, 1951, Hudner had the Medal of Honor draped around his neck by Truman in a White House ceremony that included Brown's widow. He spent 30 years in the Navy, serving as, among other things, the chief executive officer on the USS Kitty Hawk.

The citation that accompanied his medal tells the story as well today as then.

"Quickly maneuvering to circle the downed pilot and protect him from enemy troops infesting the area, Lt. (J.G.) Hudner risked his life to save the injured flier who was trapped alive in the burning wreckage. Fully aware of the extreme danger in landing on the rough mountainous terrain and the scant hope of escape or survival in subzero temperature, he put his plane down skillfully in a deliberate wheels-up landing in the presence of enemy troops. . . . He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action and, with the assistance of the rescue pilot, renewed a desperate but unavailing battle against time, cold, and flames."

Tom Hudner can still feel the cold, still see the flames. Time has not helped him forget.

"It's been 60 years," he said. "And not a day goes by that I don't think of that day. And Jesse."

Friday's Army-Navy Events

Here are some events in Philadelphia Friday that are related to Saturday's Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field:

Open to the public. Patriot Games Event 1 - the Rocky Relay on the steps of the Art Museum, Eakins Oval, 8:30-9 a.m.: Army and Navy competitors kick off the annual Patriot Games by running a relay up the famous Rocky Steps.

Open to the public. Pep rally, 17th and Market Streets, noon to 1 p.m.: Pep bands, cheerleaders, and Army-Navy fans get fired up for the big game. Patriot Games Event 2 - Hole-in-one challenge: Army and Navy competitors try their hand at miniature golf. Parking is available on 17th Street between the Westin Hotel and Chestnut Street.

Invitation only. Patriot Games Event 3 - 3616 South Galloway St., 2:30 p.m. The Cadets and Mids give back to the community by teaming up with Philabundance to pack boxes of food for needy families.

Open to the public. Swimming clinic, Kroc Center, 4200 Wissahickon Ave., 4:30 p.m.: The Army and Navy swim teams hold an indoor clinic for young swimmers.EndText