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Tom Hudner ’95 reflects on lessons from his war hero father and the remarkable man he tried to save in North Korea.
By Melissa Babcock Johnson
any children grow up believing their father is a hero. Thomas J. Hudner III ’95 grew up knowing his was—Thomas J. Hudner Jr. had received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest accolade.
The story culminates on a remote mountaintop in North Korea on Dec. 4, 1950, when Hudner Jr., a Navy fighter pilot, intentionally crash-landed his plane to try to save his wingman and friend Jesse Brown, who had been shot down during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir while supporting Marines on the ground. Jesse was trapped in his flaming Corsair 17 miles behind enemy lines.
Amid hostile presence and temperatures, Hudner Jr. ran across the rugged terrain to Brown and packed the plane’s fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from his friend, whose leg was pinned by the wreckage against the instrument panel. He ran back to his own crashed airplane and radioed for a helicopter to be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher.
Hudner Jr. and the rescue pilot who arrived were unable to free Brown with the ax, and he eventually lost too much blood. His last words to Hudner Jr. before dying were, “Just tell Daisy how much I love her.” He was 24 years old and left behind his wife, Daisy, and a toddler daughter, Pamela. Hudner Jr. was forced to leave Brown where he was.
But Hudner Jr.’s devotion did not end on that mountaintop in 1950. In July 2013, when he was 88 years old, he returned to North Korea and battled significant red tape to try to bring Brown’s remains back to his family and to Arlington National Cemetery for a proper burial with military honors.
Unfortunately, it was monsoon season, and the roads to the Chosin Reservoir and up into the mountains were washed out, so the expedition to the crash site was canceled.
Although the 10-day quest was unsuccessful on that front, the expedition members were treated like dignitaries and supportive North Korean military officers, including the nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un, vowed to continue recovery efforts, calling the return of war dead a humanitarian—not political—issue.
Joined by a bond that transcends their beloved pilots, the Hudner family remains close friends with the Brown family to this day.
Hudner III recently watched a Hollywood actor play his father on the big screen in the movie Devotion, released in November 2022 and based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Adam Makos. An author of military history, Makos met Hudner Jr. by chance at a veterans’ history conference at which Hudner Jr. spoke in Washington, D.C., in 2007.
Makos approached Hudner Jr. and asked to interview him for a magazine article. But the story’s magnitude soon became apparent—this was book material. After years of research and writing, including endless hours interviewing members of the Brown family and other squadron members and their families, and accompanying Hudner Jr. on his journey to North Korea in 2013, the book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice was published in 2014.
Hudner III says Makos became a close and trusted friend of the family. “When I read the draft before it was published, I told Adam that it felt like it was a gift to me personally, because there was so much detail in that book that I never knew about my dad’s story.”
The book’s title is taken directly from Hudner Jr.’s Medal of Honor citation, which says, in part, “Hudner’s exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion to a shipmate sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”
Makos, who was instrumental in facilitating the trip to North Korea in 2013, told Radio Free Asia at the end of last year that he wanted to re-attempt the recovery of Brown’s remains, which are still on the mountain.
Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first Black aviator to complete the Navy’s basic flight training program. Born into poverty in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1926, Brown graduated salutatorian of his segregated high school class in 1944 and went on to earn an architectural engineering degree from Ohio State University.
During his sophomore year at OSU, Brown learned of the Navy’s V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1946 and was admitted to the aviation program, becoming a member of OSU’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. He was one of just 14 Black NROTC students in 1947 out of 5,600 NROTC students in the nation.
In July 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 mandating the desegregation of the U.S. military. Six months later, Brown was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the USS Leyte, where he met Hudner Jr. While some on the base were openly racist toward Brown, Hudner Jr. went against the tide. This doesn’t surprise his son.
“A lot of the opposition to integrating the military was the feeling that no white soldier or airman would ever risk his life for a Black soldier or airman,” says Hudner III. “Dad’s action was important to fly in the face of that sentiment and to prove it wrong. I think Dad was just a good, earnest, kind person.”
Those characteristics trace back to the first Thomas Jerome Hudner, his grandson says. “My grandfather’s lesson to my dad was that people show their character through their actions and behavior and not through the color of their skin,” says Hudner III. “Where they grew up, their background or socioeconomic means, or what have you—all of that stuff was irrelevant in terms of someone’s true character and integrity.”
HUDNERS IN HOLLYWOOD
Glen Powell, the actor who would play Hudner Jr. in the movie, visited the Hudner family in Concord, Massachusetts, on Memorial Day 2017, a few months before the elder Hudner would pass away at the age of 93. The meeting reassured the family that the story would be handled with care.
Hudner III says, “Glen wanted to meet Dad and tell him how he felt about the story and why it resonated for him, and share his hope to have the movie made and to portray him. That gave us a lot of faith and confidence that he, in particular playing Dad, and the team that he was working to assemble, would have the right things in mind.”
He added, “I told Glen that I would rather a movie not be made than for it to be done in the wrong way. I think in the wrong hands, the characters of my father and Jesse Brown could become caricatures—the privileged white New Englander and the Black son of a sharecropper from Mississippi.”
Hudner III has a cameo during the scene portraying his father’s Medal of Honor ceremony, for which he provided the actual medal and his father’s Naval Academy class ring, which Powell wears in the scene. Hudner III says it meant a great deal to him to give his father a physical presence on the set.
He recalled some downtime on the set between takes when he was standing with the actors playing the squadron members. Joe Jonas, who played Ensign Marty Goode, received a video call. After chatting for a few minutes, he held up his phone and told the caller, Matthew McConaughey, to say hi to everyone.
“There I was on the set of the White House Rose Garden, in a scene portraying this key moment in my father’s life, and then Joe Jonas introduces me to Matthew McConaughey on a FaceTime call. That was one of many surreal experiences,” Hudner III says with a chuckle.
More than meeting famous actors, Hudner III was impressed by the kindness everyone on set showed him even before they knew who he was, and the lengths the production company went to, including building a full-scale aircraft carrier superstructure on an airfield in Statesboro, Georgia, to film real takeoffs and landings for the scenes on the carrier.
“You’re watching real Corsairs from that period in World War II and Korea doing these incredible aerial maneuvers and takeoffs and landings,” says Hudner III. “I met the pilots and the guys who own and maintain those aircraft, and they were so psyched to see Dad’s Medal of Honor and his logbook with all the missions portrayed in the movie documented in his own handwriting.”
Hudner III and his wife, Jennifer Preuss Hudner ’94, have two daughters, Lily and Reese, and a son named—you guessed it—Thomas J. Hudner IV, who at age 5 thought the Navy destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) was actually being named after him and not just his grandfather.
In January 2023, Hudner III hosted a screening of Devotion at Conn for the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. It was a full-circle event for the former soccer and lacrosse captain, who was inducted into the Connecticut College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012. He also earned the Anita DeFrantz ’74 Award, given annually to the male and female members of the graduating class whose athletic ability, leadership and sportsmanship best exemplify the qualities of the Olympic medalist for whom the award is named.
“I was honored to be asked to come down and talk to the team,” Hudner III says. “My experience on those teams was awesome and certainly central to my Connecticut College experience.”
When asked about his time in the classroom, Hudner III, an English major, recalled being a student of James Joyce expert John Gordon, who retired as professor emeritus in 2015. “It’s pretty incredible to be taught by these folks who have a depth of understanding and scholarship that’s pretty hard to attain.”
While he appreciated the tutelage of top-notch professors, Hudner III focused much of his attention on the field. His father was a frequent spectator. “My parents would be on the sidelines of most of my soccer and lacrosse games,” says Hudner III. “No one would have had any idea that Dad was a war hero. And he would be the last person to tell them, of course.”
Hudner III notes a connection between his sports experiences and his father’s time in the military—both revolve around teammates.
He says, “While I played at Connecticut College, the most important elements were that the needs of the team are above your own, and individual accolades are meaningless if the team doesn’t work well together. The best athletes and the best leaders that I played with had that same attitude. Whether you’re in the military or not, I think my dad’s and Jesse’s actions and selfless service are good examples of those lessons.”
Hudner Jr. saw himself as a regular guy who believed men and women everywhere performed selfless and heroic acts throughout history that were never recognized or even witnessed, his son says. “It’s the sentiment of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The attitude was always, ‘I was just doing my job’ and ‘I was just doing the right thing.’ You think, ‘What would I do in that circumstance? Would I have the bravery, the wherewithal, to do something like that?’ And you hope you would.”
Hudner III says his father, if he were still here, would shy away from the Hollywood fanfare, but he would be immensely pleased that the movie is bringing Jesse’s story to a wider audience.
“Dad felt like he got more attention than he deserved,” Hudner III says. “When he was honored, he accepted humbly, but he also said he wore the medal for all the men and women who have served and are serving, and especially for those like Jesse who gave their lives for their country.