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This MOH Recipient Crashed His Plane On Purpose To Get To His Downed Wingman
It might seem like an April Fool’s joke: The Navy commissioned its newest destroyer on April 1 and named it after a man who deliberately crash-landed a perfectly good aircraft behind enemy lines. But the man who lent his name to the USS Thomas Hudner had a damn good reason, perhaps the best of reasons.
It was Dec. 4, 1950, during the Korean War, and Navy Lt. Thomas Hudner was flying an armed reconnaissance mission in his F4U Corsair over the Chosin Reservoir. The battle raging in the reservoir basin pitted nearly 100,000 Chinese troops against 15,000 United States Marines and soldiers. Cut off and surrounded, the Americans on the ground depended on the support of combat pilots like Hudner and his wingman, Ens. Jesse Brown.
Brown, a seasoned pilot and the Navy’s first African American aviator, was the son of a sharecropper who grew up in a Mississippi shack with no electricity or central heating. Hudner, who is white, was born into an affluent New England family. Their backgrounds were completely different, yet the two men forged a deep bond at a time when the military, and the nation, was deeply divided on racial lines. Theirs was an incredible friendship that would be brutally tested that day.
The pilots were scouting enemy positions when Brown took ground fire, which pierced an oil line.
From the cockpit of his Corsair, Hudner heard Brown calmly announce: “Losing power. My engine is seizing up.”
Too low to bail out, Brown had no choice but to crash-land his plane in a clearing on the side of a snow-covered mountain. The impact crumpled his plane, bending the fuselage 30 degrees. Amid the plumes of snow kicked up in the crash, smoke began rising from the crash site.
U.S. Navy Ens. Jesse Brown.Photo courtesy of Adam Makos
As Hudner circled above, he noticed the canopy of the scuttled aircraft was open, and there was Brown, waving to indicate he was still alive. But he didn’t leave the cockpit, even as fire and smoke rose from the aircraft.
What Hudner did not know then — even if he had, it’s unlikely he’d have done anything different — was that Brown was trapped inside the downed plane. When Brown crashed, the aircraft’s twisting and bending pinned his leg down in the cockpit. Miles behind enemy lines, with the nearest rescue helicopter 30 minutes away, Hudner made a decision: He wasn’t going to stay in the air while Brown was trapped on the ground.
“When I realized that Jesse’s airplane may burst into flame before it could get there, I made a decision to make a wheels up landing,” Hudner told the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in an interview, explaining that he was going to “crash close enough to [Brown’s] airplane to get there, pull him out of the cockpit, and wait for the helicopter to come.”
In the moments after Brown crashed, Hudner radioed the remaining Corsairs, saying simply: “I’m going in.” The other pilots didn’t know what he’d meant until he showed them.
Bringing his aircraft around, Hudner deliberately crash-landed on the side of the mountain. It was a daring and selfless decision, but also an incredible feat of airmanship, explains Adam Makos, author of 2015’s “Devotion,” a detailed account of Hudner and Brown’s lives, military service, and friendship. Both pilots’ survival after their crashes spoke highly of their training as carrier pilots, Makos says.
“What Tom did that day had never been attempted before, and has never been repeated since,” Makos told Task & Purpose. “In fact, before Tom made it back to his aircraft carrier, the captain had already wired a message to the fleet that ‘there has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.’ It’s considered by many to be one of the bravest acts in the history of warfare.”
U.S. Navy Lt. Thomas Hudner.Photo courtesy of Adam Makos
On at least three separate occasions during World War II, pilots landed behind enemy lines to rescue a downed wingman, Makos says. Once, in Romania, a P-38 pilot plucked up his wingman, and the two men had to share the cramped one-person cockpit on the flight to safety. In Germany, a P-51 pilot rescued his wingman in the same fashion, and in the Pacific, a SBD Dive Bomber pulled off the same feat.
But until that day in Korea, nobody had ever crash-landed on purpose, placing himself in an untenable position: on the side of a mountain, in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures, with the nearest ground forces miles away and preparing to withdraw in the opposite direction.
There were only three functioning helicopters at the nearest friendly base, and they had thousands of frostbitten Marines to evacuate.
“When Tom did that, the thought that a helicopter was really going to come and get him, it was more of a wish. Almost a delusion,” Makos says. “That’s not why he did it though. He saw Jesse Brown in need. He saw his friend about to burn to death in the most horrific way.”
As Hudner made his way to Brown’s aircraft and clambered atop the wreckage, his friend and wingman was slipping in and out of consciousness. Hudner could do little on his own — he lacked any tools to free Brown from the plane.
Miraculously, a helicopter was dispatched to aid the two aviators, and it arrived 30 minutes later. But time was running out. Fuel was leaking from the wreckage, and Brown’s health was deteriorating. Marine 1st Lt. Charles Ward made his way from the helicopter to the crash site, but try as they might, he and Hudner couldn’t get Brown free of the wreckage. The fire extinguisher stopped working in the extreme cold, and the axe bounced uselessly off the fuselage, hardly making a dent.
As the sun began to set and temperatures continued to plummet, Hudner was faced with a terrible decision. The helos were not equipped to fly at night. Hudner could either stay with Brown, or he could go back and try to return again in the morning.
“It would have been suicide to stay. Jesse had been wavering in and out of consciousness,” Hudner said in a Congressional Medal of Honor Society interview. “I made the decision to go with Charlie.”
By the time Hudner left, Brown had succumbed to his injuries and the cold. Before he lost consciousness, Brown made a simple request. He wanted Hudner to give a message to his wife: “Just tell Daisy how much I love her.”
After Hudner arrived back on the carrier, it was deemed too dangerous to recover Brown’s body, and on Dec. 7, 1950, seven planes were dispatched to drop napalm on the two downed aircraft.
“Jesse died a warrior’s death, in a funeral pyre,” Hudner said in the Medal of Honor Society interview.
On April 13, 1951, Hudner was presented the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Hudner kept his promise to Brown — and along with his shipmates, he took up a collection for Jesse’s daughter, who was 2 at the time. The crew raised the equivalent of $24,000 today for her college fund, according to CNN.
Years later, Hudner’s and Brown’s story of sacrifice, heroism, and friendship endures.
The Navy's USS Thomas Hudner.Courtesy photo by Michael C. Nutter, General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works
Hudner retired from the Navy in 1973, but in 2013, he returned to that same mountain to search for Brown’s plane and attempt to recover his remains. And this year he attended the April commissioning of his namesake Burke-class destroyer. In time, Hudner — now 92 — hopes another vessel will be commissioned bearing Brown’s name, so the two can sail together, he told Navy Times.
More than half a century after President Harry S. Truman integrated the military in 1948, Hudner and Brown’s legacy is evident, explains Makos:
“These two men, Jesse was a pioneer, and Tom was a hero, but together they helped pave the way for the military we have today.”
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‘I made promises to the people that I lost’— How the Iraq war forged a Navy SEAL’s path to Harvard Medical School and NASA
Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.
However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:
New Vietnam War movie 'The Last Full Measure' takes some well-deserved shots at the military’s award process
Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.
On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.
In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.
Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.
The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.
After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.
There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.
At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.
When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.
Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)
As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.
In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.
"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.
"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."
The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.
There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.
The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.
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"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.