Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Tom Hudner is the only surviving Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from Massachusetts in the Korean War now commemorating its fortieth anniversary.
Click here for audio. Audio file is in .mp3 format.
The Korean War has been a part of my life in a very significant way, particularly in the past three or four years when a group of Korean War veterans got together to remind the American people in their way that there was, in effect, a war between World War II and Vietnam. I think this was brought about by one of the veterans, who while working with his daughter in preparing some history lessons, had her go to her local library and get some information about the war in which he had fought. She came back and reported that there was almost nothing about the Korean War, but many, many volumes about both World War II and Vietnam. He at that time vowed that he would make the American public as aware as he could that there was a very bitter and brutal war fought those three years from 1950 to 1953.
In 1950, when the war started, I was in a fighter squadron that was home ported at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, which is just across Narragansett Bay from Newport. In the summer of 1950 we were aboard the USS Leyte, an aircraft carrier, on a routine deployment to the Mediterranean which was scheduled to last approximately six months from the time we left until the time we returned. On the 25th of June 1950 we got the information that the North Koreans had, completely without warning, attacked South Korea across the 38th parallel. I would have to say that most of us weren't even sure at that time where Korea was because it's very rarely, if ever, mentioned during the war in the Pacific. Our carrier and our squadron embarked on board operated for about another month and a half. At the time we were in Beirut, Lebanon, we got the word that we would come home and go through the Panama Canal and join our forces off the Korean coast. We were selected because the carriers and other ships out in the Pacific fleet were in such small numbers because there was really no thought that they would need a large Navy at that time. We were in a good status to go because we were in a phase of our training where we had been operating almost two months since we left port.
We left Beirut, Lebanon, as I remember, on the 10th of August and came back across the Mediterranean back into Newport News, Virginia, spent 10 days down there, and then we went down through the Panama Canal up to San Diego, out to Hawaii and out to Yokosuka, Japan, which is the Navy's main base out in the Far East. After two days there in Yokosuka, Japan, we went around to the Sea of Japan and started operating off Korea on the 10th of October. This was less than a month after the now famous amphibious invasion which was masterminded by General MacArthur at Inchon.
After the North Koreans had invaded South Korea, the South Koreans and the United States were so completely taken by surprise that they did not have the number of forces, nor were those they had, trained nearly well enough to withstand the onslaught by the North Koreans. The North Koreans quickly swept down the peninsula of South Korea until finally the Americans, now reinforced by troops brought over from Japan and several other bases in the South Pacific, were able to set up a stronghold in the Pusan perimeter, which is the southeastern end of Korea. They started moving slowly up north now with their new strength, but after the Inchon invasion on the 15th of September, our forces were able to cut the North Korean's forces practically in half, which cut them off from their lines of supply and enabled the South Korean forces and United States and other United Nations forces to move quite steadily up north again.
They had been on this move north for several weeks by the time we entered the combat area. As we flew our various missions every day, our forces were getting stronger in moving up to the north, and then there was a lot of talk about going all the way up to the Yalu River, which was the dividing line between North Korea and Manchuria. We were moving almost without strong opposition so that MacArthur was even making promises of having his American troops home by Christmas.
As I remember, it was the latter part of October when some of our pilots made the first reports of seeing troops on the ground which did not appear to be North Koreans. Not that we could recognize them from their faces or anything, but from the way they were dressed and from the way their formations were spread out on the ground. This was the first knowledge that we had that there were, in effect, Chinese troops on the ground. We continued our advance - the Marines and elements of the United States 8th Army.
There was a great deal of concern at this time back in Washington, both in the State Department and the military forces through the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Chinese might come down in large numbers to try to stop our advance up to the north, but MacArthur put all these arguments and warnings aside and continued to the north and seemed to completely disregard the warnings from Washington. The problems MacArthur was having with Washington, which was not only the State Department and the Department of Defense, but probably of most importance, President Truman. That's a different story beyond the scope of what we're talking about today.
The incident you asked about was on the 4th of December, 1950. We sent a flight of eight aircraft, as I remember, to conduct an armed reconnaissance mission in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir, which was probably about 100 miles north of the 38th parallel. We were going out there in support of the Marines. I should back up a bit. It was on the evening of the 27th or 28th of November that the Chinese finally showed themselves in great numbers, numbers estimated from anywhere from 115,000 to 150,000 troops, to come down to surround our forces which numbered approximately 15,000 total, both Army and Marine. By sheer force of numbers they were moving our troops very quickly back down to the south under just terrible conditions. It was ruggedly mountainous terrain up there, and the roads that our troops were using to go north were very narrow mountain roads, probably only wide enough for a truck to go by without any possibility of traffic passing one another in either direction. So the situation was quite desperate on the 4th of December when we started this flight.
There were eight aircraft in our flight, two flights of four aircraft flying armed reconnaissance, which meant we had rockets and napalm and a full load of 50 caliber ammunition. We were flying about 5-10 miles north of the northern-most point of the Chosin Reservoir when my wing man was apparently hit because he reported on the radio that he was losing power. He was going to have to crash land. His name was Ensign Jesse Brown, who happened to be the Navy's first black aviator. Although the area for the most part that we were flying over was heavily infested with trees, he was able to find a relatively clear spot to make his landing.
When his aircraft hit the ground, it hit with such force that the fuselage broke, and at the cockpit it was bent at about a 30-40 degree angle. It hit with such force that we were convinced that Jesse was killed in the crash. We circled the crash site for a couple of minutes, and one of our aircraft climbed to a high altitude to radio to the south to try to contact our Marine helicopter squadron to see if they could send up a helicopter to try to rescue the pilot. While that aircraft was calling up for help, Jesse opened the cockpit of his aircraft and waved to us to indicate that he was alive, but for some reason he didn't get out of the airplane. In a short while, smoke began to come out from the cowling of the aircraft which really did bother us because, in spite of the fact that it was burning, although we couldn't see flame at all, we were concerned that if he didn't get out, that he could have been consumed by fire that was probably going to result, from what we saw.
We then got the word that there was definitely a helicopter coming up to help Jesse. Because of my concern that the plane would burst into flame, I made a decision to make a crash landing next to his aircraft to pull him out of the cockpit and await the helicopter coming up. So, after having made this decision, I dropped down to a fairly low altitude and dropped my napalm and fired off my rockets and fired my guns into the ground to make the aircraft as light as I could, made a slow approach simulating a landing the first time to get a feel for it, and then the second time, with my wheels up and flaps down, using power, landed probably about 100 yards away from Jesse's aircraft.
My airplane was relatively undamaged, if you want to say that, although I knew from the first that it would be unflyable. But I went over to his aircraft, and, incidentally, the snow was about 10 to 12 inches deep, which in itself wasn't too deep but it made it rather treacherous footing for us because that snow was packed on the soles of my boots, and later on the other pilot's boots, so that we had difficulty standing on the wing of Jesse's aircraft. The aircraft we were flying was a Corsair F4U, and for those who are familiar with them, they know that the wing extended down about 30 degrees from the fuselage for about four feet and then bent upwards giving the appearance of an inverted gull wing. Normal access into the aircraft was by stepping on that downward portion of the wing, and with snow packed on the soles of my boots, it was almost impossible to stand there without holding on with both hands to the edge of the cockpit.
Jesse was trapped in the aircraft because where it had broken, his knee was pinned in so that he couldn't move at all. He was conscious when I got there. We spoke for a while; he spoke with some effort. He was very distinct in his speech, but he seemed to be suffering quite a bit of pain but was not gasping or anything except that he was speaking rather deliberately, you might say. The temperature my guess was probably about 10 degrees above zero, and he had taken his gloves off to try to unbuckle the straps of his parachute and dropped his gloves in the process, so his hands were frozen solid when I got to him. There was nothing I could do to help him out.
In general, I assured him that we would get him out of there, although I was very pessimistic about it but had to give him some words of consolation. I think he realized how desperate the situation was, but he was very calm through this whole thing. Matter of fact, he was so unbelievably calm under the circumstances, he gave me great strength and determination to get him out of there.
After I surveyed the situation initially, I went back to my airplane, and the radio operated all right, so I asked the aircraft flying overhead to call back to the helicopter pilot to bring up a fire extinguisher and an axe, hoping I could extinguish any fire there was under the cowling and an axe, for whatever reason I don't know; it is the only thing I could think of to try to cut away whatever I needed to.
I think it was about a half hour after that that the helicopter did arrive. The pilot had great difficulty landing his helicopter in a place where he could feel comfortable that it would be safe because he had learned that the brakes on his helicopter were not too reliable. The spot where the two aircraft had landed was on an upslope about 20 degrees. He had to find a level spot so he wouldn't have to be too concerned about the aircraft rolling away, which meant down the side of this mountain.
The helicopter pilot was a first lieutenant, and his name was Charlie Ward. We had brought him and nine other Marine pilots and six of those helicopters over from Norfolk, Virginia to Japan, and I think we recognized each other as soon as we saw one another, although we hadn't at any time met each other on the ship. But he knew that it was one of our planes that needed help because he recognized our call sign, and I knew from his call sign that he was one of those in the squadron that we brought around. At any rate, Charlie and I worked for probably about a half hour to see if there was any way we could free Jesse, and we were just unable to do so. Jesse was talking less and less as time went on. You can well imagine, with the way the aircraft was so badly damaged, it was very much of a surprise that he had survived the crash at all.
The day was getting well along, and although it wasn't getting dark, the sun was about to go down, and Charlie knew that he had to get out of there because he could not fly his helicopter after dark in that mountainous terrain because he didn't have the instrumentation. So the two of us discussed the situation away from the aircraft, and it was decided that we were going to have to leave the area, but at some time, we weren't sure, but we thought Jesse had passed away because he seemed to be getting weaker in his talking. His periods of talking were less and less. I told Jesse that we were going to have to leave him for a while, that we were going to get more equipment to help him get out. One thing he did say to me "Well, if anything does happen, to make sure I told his wife that he loved her." At the time, he had a five-year old daughter named Pamela. Those were his last words, but those were not his words as we left because at the time we left we had the intention of coming back if we could find any equipment to help him out.
We made an uneventful flight back to a small landing strip at the foot of the reservoir called Hagaru-ri where Marines were straggling in from across the reservoir and down the mountain beside it. This was right in the middle of this withdrawal of about 15,000 troops, less those that had been killed during that period of time. We were not able to find more equipment, and as darkness was just about on us, the helicopter couldn't go back up to the crash site. The only thing he could do then was to leave there, and the two of us went down to another small strip fifteen miles to the south called Koto-ri where he and I spent that night. During the night the temperature was about 25-30 degrees below zero.
The next day we flew down to an airfield farther to the south, an airfield called Yonpo which was near Hamhung, one of the major seaports on the east coast of Korea still in the north.
Three days later, on December 7th, Pearl Harbor day, an aircraft came in from the ship to pick me up to fly me out to the ship. When we got out there, the captain of the ship said that he was ready to take the carrier as close to offshore, send a helicopter in with a flight surgeon and go to the crash site and get Jesse's body out of the cockpit and bring it back for a decent burial.
The decision was finally made that it was not worth the risk because of the possible enemy activity in that area, so the captain dispatched several aircraft to go back there with napalm and find the crash site and drop napalm on the aircraft with the body in it to cremate it. The body was still in the cockpit and the clothing had been taken from the body, which indicated that the soldiers or the peasants were so desperate for clothing that they took it off his body. That was on the 7th of December. Napalming the body was like a funeral pyre for a deceased warrior. The captain was very desirous of doing this so that his body wouldn't be just left out there for wild animals or whatever there was; it was the most humane thing the captain could think of under those circumstances.
There was a fast frigate named after Jesse Brown which is still in commission. Its home port down in Charleston, South Carolina. It was interesting on the day after Washington's birthday, February 23, 1973, the ship was in Boston for a final commission, and Jesse's widow was invited up to be the sponsor of the ship, and I was invited to be there at the ceremony. Since that time, the Jesse Brown had been up to Boston a number of times, and that crew is very proud of Jesse because of the person he was.
Jesse was a very quiet, soft-spoken person, who I think was very conscious of the responsibility he had as someone who had broken the racial barrier, which was very strong in all of the services, and particularly in the very strong, tradition-bound Navy. Up until that time, blacks had very little opportunity to get very far in the Navy except in relatively servile positions. Although the Navy had a few officers, no one had gotten into the flight program, and when he was finally selected for the program, it was extremely difficult for him because every place he went he was faced with bigotry, people openly calling him names to his face.
Even though he was not married at the time he started flight training, he did marry his childhood sweetheart, and when they were together, they were both embarrassed by some of the things that were said to them, which was apparently quite a popular sport in many parts of the country. Jesse got married about six months into his flight training. He felt he needed companionship that he definitely was not getting in that program, so he and Daisy were secretly married. Whenever they could get together they did, and they had to do so secretly because if he had been found out, he would have been thrown right out of the flight program because students at that particular time were not allowed to be married while going through flight training.
After he got his wings, he was able to tell that he was married, but the Navy then was faced with the problem of where they could send a black pilot like this so he could live a reasonably normal life. So they ordered him to Quonset Point, which is across Narragansett Bay from Newport. It was one of the shames of our history that even up in New England, the two of them were subjected all the time to indignities and all sorts of problems in trying to find a decent place to live. But they were very well received in our squadron and by everybody in our air group, and I think under the circumstances, particularly when people like them were virtually an oddity in our Navy, they were nevertheless accepted very warmly into our squadron, and I think they felt very comfortable being with our squadron and they mixed fairly well socially.
Jesse was rather laid back, very popular. He had a great sense of humor, and yet he was somebody who did not go out to make friends. He realized the situation he was in and never wanted to make the mistake of trying to force himself on somebody who resented his being there. So he made friends by having people come over to him to make the advance of being friendly to him, which was a good approach because I'd never heard anybody who resented his being with us. He was probably one of the best examples of somebody who could be integrated into a completely white man's world.
The day was Friday, the 13th of April, 1951 when I received the Congressional Medal of Honor. I was very excited, as was my whole family. We were invited to go to Washington to be guests of the Navy Department. My mother's family from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is about 100 miles away, and my family from home, Fall River, and some of my friends from both Fall River and the Washington area were down at the White House. It was a particularly significant experience for me at that time as only two days earlier President Truman had announced that he had fired General MacArthur. This was the President's first public appearance since he made that announcement, so that at the time of the ceremony, which was in the Rose Garden outside the White House, there were over a hundred reporters. I think the great majority were there just to be able to get a look at the President and try to get a statement from him because he had just fired a very popular military general who made quite a name for himself during World War II and in effect World War I.
In my squadron we didn't know very much about General MacArthur and we didn't really talk very much about it. The news came as quite a shock because we were at an age at the time we didn't do an awful lot of reading and serious discussion about what was going on. But I do think that as I do remember generally, the sentiment was against the President having done that, although certainly to read the history and find out what problems the President, and the Chief of Staff, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the State Department and everyone else was concerned with, it was understandable that they couldn't continue to operate with a military commander in the field doing whatever he wanted to do and making whatever statements he wanted to make, and in disobedience of what he was told to do from Washington.
I was 26 at the time and the only recipient that day. This was the first award since World War II. Other actions took place in Korea prior to the 4th of December, but mine was the first one that the President actually presented subsequent to World War II. I was told beforehand, maybe by one of the reporters, but he said as the President fixed the ribbon around my neck he'd say, "I'd rather have this than be President," and I sort of passed that off as probably an old wives tale, but sure enough, that's what he did say at the time. He was a very charming person. I have to say my mother's family from Pennsylvania were almost rabid Republicans and they commented several times beforehand that the only thing spoiling this whole thing was that Truman was going to put it on. But he charmed them to the point where he completely won them over and they allowed as how it really wasn't too bad an experience after all because he seemed to be a pretty good guy.
I wasn't surprised when the word came from Washington, but I was surprised back at the ship because the word got around from somebody that I was recommended for it. There is a long chain in the chain of command. The citation is written up by the senior officer on the scene who observed this, and then that would have to be endorsed by the commanding officer, and then you go up through his superior, and through his superior, and all the way up until it finally gets to the Secretary of the Navy. It had to even get further approval until it finally got through for approval to be awarded in the name of Congress. As I remember, there were about 12 different levels that it had to go through, everyone approving it before it went all the way. At the time, I was a lieutenant junior grade, which is equivalent to first lieutenant in the Army or Marine Corps, and I retired from the Navy as a captain. It was my career.
The job that I have now is Deputy Commissioner of Veterans Services for the Commonwealth. Of course the business that I'm in when I'm associating all the time with veterans of the various services, the decoration is immediately recognizable. But there are times if I'm not in that particular area, I can be many places in society where literally I could go for months and months and either people don't know anything about it or have absolutely no idea what the decoration is. Just like anything else, it doesn't mean anything unless you're with people who recognize what it is.
I was Acting Commissioner of Veterans Services but that changed last Friday. I will say for the record, it wasn't too much of a surprise, but it was very definitely a political decision on the part of Governor Dukakis. He had appointed me as Deputy Commissioner two and one half years ago in spite of the fact that I'd advised him that I was Republican and he told me my politics did not matter. But last Thursday, he made the decision that he was going to appoint somebody else to be Commissioner because he could not have a Republican in that position, primarily because of the upcoming elections. I will still be Deputy Commissioner until the new administration comes in sometime after the first of January.
Our office oversees the implementation of a program of providing benefits to Massachusetts' veterans, who are veterans within a very narrow definition of the term. A veteran has to have been in the service during a war, and subsequent to Korea he actually has to have been in a combat area; in other words, just being a stateside veteran or in a service during stateside doesn't necessarily qualify him for these benefits. But if he has a financial need, this veteran or bona fide dependents, such as a spouse or children or even dependent parents or dependent adopted children, the state will see that these veterans will get financial assistance as necessary to enable them to live with some dignity. The program provides for medical care as well as necessary living expenses, rent, heat and food.
Every city and town in the Commonwealth has a veterans agent, and a number of these veterans agents represent two or more cities or towns. It is they who make themselves available to the veterans and under the supervision of our office, these veterans agents provide the veterans with the benefits to which they are entitled according to some rather stringent guidelines. So, there is very little arbitrary action taken by the veterans agents; they have to do all of this within rather rigidly defined guidelines.