Thomas J. Hudner Jr. '43
Building blocks for gallantry, intrepidity
By Tana Sherman
The swell of patriotism and attention to America’s World War II heroes following the release of the movie Pearl Harbor and Tom Brokow’s book The Greatest Generation has evoked poignant memories for many Andover veterans, especially Thomas J. “Lou” Hudner Jr.
On the Monday morning after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Headmaster Claude Fuess held a special all-school meeting and told the boys they’d all be affected. Hudner remembers the school throwing itself fully into support of the war. U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Class of 1883, was president of the academy’s Board of Trustees. “A lot of faculty were reserve officers. Eventually, they left on wartime assignments,” Hudner says. Soldiers were billeted in Graves Hall and could be seen marching to breakfast in Commons early every morning.
Hudner had followed his father, Thomas ’11, and uncle, Harold ’21, to Andover, as his brothers James ’44, Richard ’46 and Philip ’54 did later. Thomas became track co-captain, member of the football and lacrosse teams, senior class officer, assistant house counselor and student council member.
“Those positions were certainly building blocks for the responsibilities of the military,” he says. “Leadership, initiative, getting to know the people who were working with you—it was good training for the military; Andover provided an outstanding education.”
A few days after graduation, many members of the Class of ’43 were already in the military. Hudner and nine classmates were appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. By the time they graduated from Annapolis in 1946, the war was over.
Hudner began training as a Navy pilot and served for 27 years, seeing action in both Korea and Vietnam. As a young pilot, he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for crash-landing his aircraft behind enemy lines in North Korea in an attempt to rescue a downed fellow aviator during the historic battle of Chosin Reservoir.
“On Dec. 4, 1950, my squadron was flying armed reconnaissance to hit any targets endangering our troops, who were withdrawing from an attack by more than 120,000 Chinese troops,” says Hudner. “My flight leader, Jesse Brown, was apparently hit by ground fire and had to crash-land in the mountainous terrain near the Chosin Reservoir. His plane hit the ground with such force the fuselage buckled at the cockpit. We took it for granted he perished in the crash, but after a while, he waved to us to let us know he had survived.
“We called for help to the Marine helicopters in the area. One responded he was on the way. Because Jesse’s plane was smoking, I worried a fire could eventually spread into the cockpit. I decided to make a wheels-up landing close to his airplane and pull him out. When I got to his plane, I saw he was pinned in. No matter what I did, there was no way I could get him out.
“The helicopter pilot arrived with an ax and fire extinguisher, but they were of no value whatsoever. There was about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, so we couldn’t get any footing. When we saw further effort would be futile, the helicopter pilot said he had to leave. He couldn’t fly through the mountains after dark.
“Jesse was fading in and out of consciousness. He must have suffered a lot of internal injuries. He passed away at some point while we were working to free him,” Hudner concludes. “We had to leave him.”
The following April, President Harry Truman presented Hudner, with his family around him, the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded during the Korean War. The special ceremony in the White House Rose Garden was Truman’s first public appearance since he announced the firing of General Douglas MacArthur. The Rose Garden was filled with reporters. “My family were rabid Republicans,” says Hudner, “but they were charmed by the president, who claimed he’d rather have the medal than be president.”
After retiring from the Navy in 1973, Hudner worked as a management consultant. In 1991, Massachusetts Governor William Weld appointed him commissioner of veterans services, a position he held until 1999. Now retired, he lives in Concord, Mass., with his wife, Georgea.