News / USA

US Aviator Returns to N. Korea in Search of Fellow Pilot's Remains

Former US Navy pilot and medal of honor recipient Thomas Hudner, seen here arriving at Pyongyang airport July 20, 2013, is greeted by North Korean officials. (VOA/S. Herman)
Former US Navy pilot and medal of honor recipient Thomas Hudner, seen here arriving at Pyongyang airport July 20, 2013, is greeted by North Korean officials. (VOA/S. Herman)
A U.S. Navy pilot from the Korean War arrived in North Korea on a commercial flight Saturday to search for the remains of the fellow aviator he unsuccessfully tried to rescue 63 years ago - an act for which he was awarded America's highest military honor.
 
Thomas Hudner, who is 88, is part of a private American search team given permission by North Korean authorities to look for the remains of his friend, U.S. Navy Ensign Jesse Brown, and their F4 Corsairs at Hagaru-ri at the foot of the Chosin reservoir.

“Jesse Brown is entitled to every bit of help he can get even though it's well after death,” Hudner told VOA.

The unprecedented mission in the country, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States, hopes to shed light on a poignant story from combat aviation history.

“When this opportunity came up [to go back to North Korea], at first, I was very skeptical," he said. "It's almost unbelievable and I'm delighted that so many people would take an interest in it.”
 
Risky crash landing in enemy territory
 
Jesse Brown was the first African-American to be trained by the U.S. Navy as an aviator. On his 20th combat mission in the Korean War, he crash landed his plane on a near vertical snow-covered slope on December 4, 1950.
 
Pilot Jesse Brown is seen in this undated file photo from around 1950 provided by the US Navy.Pilot Jesse Brown is seen in this undated file photo from around 1950 provided by the US Navy.
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Pilot Jesse Brown is seen in this undated file photo from around 1950 provided by the US Navy.
Pilot Jesse Brown is seen in this undated file photo from around 1950 provided by the US Navy.
Brown and Hudner were each flying as part of a mission providing air support for 8,000 Marines badly outnumbered by Communist Chinese soldiers in sub-freezing weather.

From his own plane, Lt. Hudner realized Brown had survived the impact and was alive in the crumpled jet.

Hudner decided to crash land his plane some 100 meters away from Brown. A Marine helicopter, at Hudner's request, dropped an ax so that he could try to free Brown from the crumpled metal cockpit.

Hudner did not succeed. He was persuaded by Marines to be lifted to safety before nightfall and took with him Brown's dying words: “Tell Daisy I love her.”
 
Thomas Hudner was initially reprimanded for deliberately destroying his multi-million dollar aircraft in what some superior officers considered a foolhardy act. But the military later had a change of heart.
 
President Harry Truman ultimately chose to acclaim Hudner as a hero and award him the first Medal of Honor since World War Two for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life.”
 
Returning 60 years after armistice

An armistice in 1953 halted the Korean hostilities but not before the three-year conflict devastated the peninsula. Several hundred thousand combatants died and more than two million civilians were killed or wounded.

The forces that opposed each other - the U.S.-led United Nations troops, (which included South Koreans) and the North Koreans and Chinese on the other side never have signed a peace treaty, meaning a technical state of war persists with the 38th parallel continuing to serve as the de facto border.

For a U.S. Medal of Honor recipient to fly into the North in 2013, whatever the noble cause, could generate criticism of Hudner back home.

“Yes I'm concerned about that,” he acknowledged. “But I think there are enough people in the United States who are for the man [Jesse Brown] and for what he stands for and certainly wouldn't want to stay in the way to find him because many years ago I gave up the idea of being able to recover him. I felt by this time they surely would have found the wreckage.”

Among those hoping the belated recovery effort will succeed is Brown's widow.

“She is overjoyed at this,” said Hudner. “Her son, her daughter and grandchildren are almost as anxious as the widow is,” said Hudner.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: David Boyd from: Hanover Maryland
July 23, 2013 6:40 AM
A little fact checking may be useful here. An F4<U> Corsair was not a "multi-million dollar aircraft" nor was it a jet. It was a large radial engine, prop driven aircraft used for ground attack in the Korean War. Let's honor these heros by getting the facts right.

by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
July 23, 2013 12:09 AM
So truce has been made but confrontation continues between NK and SK even after cold war has been ended. Devided Germany and Berlin were eventually united. When will divided Korea be united? I hopefully feel such a day would come unexpectedly suddenly and before long. Economical sunction is working and intelligence can not be concealed to nationals for ever.

by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
July 22, 2013 9:56 AM
Permission to the American pilot to find the body of a dead pilot after 63 years in North Korea is a propaganda stint by North Korea in the midst of capture of the North Korean ship from Cuba with missiles and arms, by Panama. How many American military personnel are still MIA in DPRK?

by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
July 21, 2013 9:42 PM
Why does NK permit him to search for his fellow's remains at this time? Is it related to its smuggling attempt of weapons at the Panama canal?

By the way, how come a peace treaty has not been sighned between each sides? It means a civil war is still continuing in the Korean peninsula even now.
In Response

by: Mark T
July 22, 2013 6:58 AM
a truce was signed, putting an end to the fighting, but not to the war...it took both sides nearly two years during the fighting to come to such an agreement. Korea suffered pretty much the same sad fate that Germany did after WWII, being divided between North and South with controlling interests of the U.S. (democratic) in the South and Soviet (communist) in the North. Japan controlled the peninsula from 1910 until its surrender in 1945. Unlike Germany, however, Korea was not a belligerent nation in WWII, its was just another unfortunate one caught up in imperialistic designs and kept divided to keep one side from gaining political dominance in a American-Soviet struggle.

I have a particular interest in the Korean Conflict, my father having served in the Army and had fought there, and my own experience being stationed in Kunsan AB while I served in the Air Force 30 years later. You will not find a more stubborn group of people anywhere in the world than you will in Korea.

by: Naturalized Citizen from: Delaware
July 21, 2013 5:20 PM
Thank you Mr. Brown for serving our country. I want to remember this terrific story so I can be thankful for so many brave African Americans who died for serving this country! And thank you Mr. Hudner for your heroic act to attempt to save Jesse and now taking this trip wrapping up this touching story. Thank you again!

A naturalized Chinese American citizen

by: JC from: Canada
July 21, 2013 1:18 PM
I wish you nothing but success in this endeavor to bring your friend and this hero home. From one vet to another...tally ho!

by: Mark T
July 20, 2013 2:58 PM
Bring your friend home, old Soldier, may God grant you success in completing your actions of 60 years ago. (stands and salutes)
In Response

by: Anonymous
July 21, 2013 10:13 AM
A Hero is always a Hero. Please find and bring Mr. Brown home.

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