To Our American Legion Family –
“Wheels up in twenty” – you’ve heard this term used before. Practically speaking it’s a verbal heads up, or warning that an air transport you’re somehow connected with will be departing in twenty minutes – be attentive. Of course, other meanings exist as well.
What you’re about to read will unequivocally redefine how you process and think of the term “wheels up”. Please bear with me – this ”blurb” is longer than usual – I hope you will agree it’s worth your time and effort.
Many of you undoubtedly heard of, or even know the story of a Fall River born Naval Academy Graduate. Prior to entering Annapolis, this Massachusetts native attended Phillips Academy; a mere 20 minutes away from our Post. The young Midshipman may have missed WWII, as he was the Class of 1946; yet another conflict stirred on the horizon. You may also have heard of a couple of his Annapolis classmates: Stanfield Turner and Jimmy Carter.
During the same period, far, far away geographically and culturally speaking – a Mississippi native attended a one room school house. At the early age of six, he attended an airshow with his father where he caught the “bug” and aspiration of becoming a pilot. This student went on to become the Salutatorian of his 1944 High School Class. In following the footsteps of Jesse Owens, this student went on to Ohio State University. At that time, the Navy ROTC program only had a participation rate of .0025% Black students nationally; statistics illustrated that only 14 African-Americans out of over 5,600 total students were enrolled in the program.
As fate would have it, the two Naval Aviators with distinctively contrasting beginnings found themselves assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the Essex Class Aircraft Carrier; the USS Leyte (CV-32). During the Korean War CV-32 flew nearly 4,000 missions and earned two Battle Stars while assigned to Task Force 77. Fighter Squadron 32, or the VF-32 Swordsmen flew the F4U-Corsair fighter-bomber aircraft. That same squadron sharing a proud legacy dating back to the Korean War is known today as FVA-32 currently flying F/A -18F Super Hornets. On August 8, 1950, The USS Leyte was sent to Korea as part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.
December 4, 1950 began in a similar fashion to those previous 20 combat missions for Ensign, Jesse L. Brown from Mississippi. The F4U Corsair flew interdiction raids and supported US Marines on the ground. A little after 1:30PM, six aircraft launched off the deck of the carrier for a “search and destroy” mission that day. 100 miles from the task force, somewhere near Somong-ni, 15 miles behind enemy lines, Jesse’s aircraft took on small arms fire from Chinese ground forces. There were no options to make it back to the Task Force – he had to ditch his aircraft “wheels up” in the snow covered mountainous terrain with below zero temperatures.
Among the five other circling Corsairs was Jessie’s Wingman, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR), Thomas Hudner, Jr. eagerly observing as Ensign Brown crashed his plane below. The pilots looked on with limited hope for anyone to survive such a horrific crash like that. LCDR Hudner spotted Ensign Brown with his helmet off and barely moving his arm; unfortunately stuck in the wreckage.
LCDR Hudner then executed not only the unthinkable, the unexpected, but also disobeyed a direct order…… The following is part of the Medal of Honor Citation presented to him on April 13, 1951 by President Harry S. Truman:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty……… 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. With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and struggled to pull him free. Unsuccessful in this, he returned to his crashed aircraft and radioed other airborne planes, requesting that a helicopter be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher. He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action……….
This link below, will provide you with actual video coverage of President Truman presenting the Medal of Honor to LCDR Hudner, you will see Ensign Brown’s wife in attendance at the ceremony. It was certainly with a heavy heart that LCDR Hudner carried Ensign Brown’s last words, when Brown asked Hudner to “Tell Daisy I love her”.
Two Naval Aviators crash landed their F4U Corsairs that day – both with “wheels up”. The first was Ensign Brown, the first African-American pilot in the U.S. Navy, and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Also the first African American killed in the Korean War. Twenty three years later, the Navy commissioned the Jesse L. Brown FF-1089 (Fast Frigate) in his honor in 1973.
The second man to intentionally crash “wheels up” that day; heroic wingman, Medal of Honor recipient, and a member of American Legion Post 0221 was Thomas J, Hudner, Jr. We are proud of all our members to whatever extent they served in our Armed Forces. Tom Hudner will never tell you is a hero – that’s exactly how heroes see themselves. LCDR Hudner was also the first service member to receive the Medal of Honor in the Korean War.
The first mention of that fateful event on December 4, 1950 in the American Legion Magazine was November 1951. That issue also celebrated the 33rd American Legion National Convention. Yes, that was 65 years ago. Since then several articles and mentions have emblazed the pages of countless newspapers, magazines, TV shows, including many more instances in our AL Magazine.
When LCDR Hudner left the crash site, his wingman had succumbed to his wounds. What a comfort it must have been for Ensign Brown to have a friend by his side, one who put his own life in harm’s way to try and save him. Tom made a promise to his wingman that we would come back for him; a promise he continues to hold near and dear. There are Americans in North Korea scouring the mountainsides for those two Corsairs – ultimately hoping to repatriate the remains of Ensign Brown.
We, as Americans, vow to never leave anyone behind. As more and more Veterans return home from combat, or tours of duty across the globe, our appreciation for their, and their families’, sacrifices take on new dynamic meanings. For it is within our own means to demonstrate support for whatever their needs may be; that is what the American Legion Family does. Too many are coming home with invisible scars of PTSD in addition to visible scars, or lost limbs – all need our support.
This year marks the 98th American Legion Convention to be held in Cincinnati, OH. In two years, we’ll be celebrating the 100th Anniversary Convention in Minnesota. Much has changed over the last hundred years. Yet one thing remains constant – Americans will answer the call to protect freedom – Freedom Is Not Free. It’s also incumbent upon us, not only continue our worthy efforts to support all Veterans in our community, but to also take a hard look at what else we can do to improve on those efforts.
Back in December 1950, LCDR Hudner made a decision to help save his wingman. In the summer of 2013, Tom continued to make good on his promise “we’ll be back for you” when he visited North Korea asking for and receiving permission for expeditions to search for those two Corsairs. That’s a living example of undeniable commitment.
It has been a humbling honor to learn and write about a man like LCDR Hudner; a member of our Post. He continues to set one of the most resilient examples of commitment that I know of. As Commander, I ask all of us in the American Legion Family of Post 0221: What are we willing to do for those who have served and continue to serve? There are members of the Legion, the ALA, and the SAL, who perform tirelessly week after week; I applaud them to no end. Yet, they are but a very small minority of our entire membership. There are many programs here at the Post that could use additional support and encouragement. Some require as little as an hour a month. Spread the word about hall rentals. Please let us know what you might be willing to do to assist us here. At the very least, come down and visit us in the Members Lounge.
With Sincerity and Deepest Respect,
These links will offer more insight on the LCDR Hudner’s story – I encourage you to dig deeper into the history of the Korean War, the association of our own Post Member, and an incredible legacy.