Thomas Hudner ’43 Awarded Highest Navy Honor for Heroism in Korean War

After serving as a navy pilot over 60 years ago aboard the U.S.S. Leyte during the Korean War, Thomas J. Hudner Jr. ’43 will receive one of the United States Navy’s highest honors.

In a ceremony on Tuesday in Boston’s Charleston Navy Yard, the Navy officially named a new guided-missile destroyer the U.S.S. Thomas Hudner in honor of Hudner’s heroic participation in the Korean War from 1950 to 1951.

Naval destroyers are fast-moving warships used to escort larger naval vessels. The Navy has traditionally named these ships after war heros, according to the website of the U.S. Department of Defense.

However, the honor of a ship naming is rarely bestowed on a living person, according to “The Boston Globe.”

Ray Mabus, Naval Secretary, decided to name the next guided-missile destroyer for Hudner after Scott Brown and John Kerry, Senators of Massachusetts, campaigned to honor the veteran, according to an article on CBS Boston’s webiste.

“Thomas Hudner exemplifies the core values of honor, courage and commitment the Navy holds dear. Naming the Navy’s next [guided-missile destroyer] for him will ensure his legacy will be known, honored and emulated by future generations of sailors and Marines who serve and all who come in contact with this ship,” wrote Mabus in an article for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Former President of the United States Harry S. Truman presented Hudner with the first Congressional Medal of Honor of the Korean War on April 13, 1951, after Hudner deliberately crash-landed in order to save his flight leader Jesse Brown in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

On December 4, 1950, Brown, the first black fighter pilot in the Navy, was shot down by ground fire but survived the crash and was stuck in his cockpit. Hudner and his squadron called a Marine helicopter for help, but Hudner that noticed that Brown’s plane was smoking, so he crash-landed near Brown in order to help him out of the cockpit.

“My only thought was to get him out of the cockpit and clear of the airplane until the rescue helicopter came. I was very concerned that even though we got a positive response for a helicopter rescue, anything could have happened, which fortunately didn’t,” said Hunder.

Even after attempting to use an axe and fire extinguisher from the helicopter, Hudner was unable to help Brown out of the cockpit. Hudner realized that it was getting dark and that Brown would almost certainly pass away and had no choice but to leave him, according to Hudner.

Hudner said, “The helicopter saved my life, but Jesse Brown was too injured to survive, and when the helicopter pilot told me that we had to leave at the time, I felt very bad about it, but there was nothing else I could do about it.”

Hudner said that he first responded to the naming of the ship with skepticism. He had never imagined that he would earn such a great honor.

“I was surprised, honored and humbled by the decision to name that ship. The Secretary of the Navy was courteous enough to call me to get my permission to do so. Within the past week or so, I saw copies of the letter that our Senators sent to the Secretary of the Navy to name the ship ‘Hudner.’”

Hudner continued to serve in the Navy for another 22 years before retiring and becoming a management consultant. In 1991, William Weld, former Governor of Massachusetts, appointed Hudner to be Commissioner of Veterans’ Services. Hudner served in that position until his retirement in 1999.

Hudner believes that his high school years at Andover prepared him well for the military.

“I can’t say specifically how, but the discipline that we learned in studying is sort of transferable to a demanding organization like the military. I loved Andover right from the first day I got there, and it is made up of the greatest people that I have ever associated with. It was a delight as well as a privilege to have gone to Andover,” said Hunder.

At Andover, Hudner was a member of the football and lacrosse teams, Co-Captain of the track team, Senior class officer, assistant house counselor in Foxcroft Hall and a member of Student Council.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Andover Athletics Hall of Honor.

Hudner’s best memory of Andover came after he graduated when he received a Christmas card from 10th Headmaster Claude Moore Fuess.

Hudner had some advice to share for current Andover students.

“The same old thing is just as true today as it always was. That’s to study hard, set your sights high and maintain your integrity by not cheating and trying to get things done the easy way instead of the right way. Andover prepares you for almost any walk of life, and the harder you work, the more likely your desires will be met,” said Hudner.

Seth Moulton ’97, founder of “Andover and the Military,” an alumni group that recognizes members of the Andover community who have served in the armed forces, wrote in an e-mail to The Phillipian, “I of course felt very proud to hear that the Navy had chosen to honor such a courageous American, someone who earned his place in history not through fame or fortune but simply through service. And to have that be an Andover graduate—someone who truly lived up to the school’s ideal of Non Sibi—is a particular honor for all of us associated with PA.”

Hudner currently lives in Concord, MA, with his wife Georgea.