OSHKOSH, Wis. -- The Navy's first African-American aviator to fly in combat was calm when he crashed his plane in North Korea in 1950 and didn't complain even though he was pinned under flaming wreckage and facing certain death, his would-be rescuer recalled Wednesday.
Thomas Hudner Jr., now the only living naval aviator recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Korean War, crash-landed his plane to try to help his wingman, Ensign Jesse Brown, who had just gone down behind enemy lines.
"When I approached him after getting on the ground there was no indication of desperation or despair in any way," Hudner, 87, of Concord, Mass., said in an interview Wednesday, after recounting the story at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual convention in Oshkosh.
"As a matter of fact, under the circumstances he gave me consolation rather than the other way around."
After the forum, Hudner signed autographs and shook hands while wearing his medal. The convention, which runs through Sunday, typically gets more than a half million visitors from around the nation and world.
Hudner crash-landed his own plane after Brown went down in the snowy, mountainous terrain near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Brown was pinned in, and Hudner and the helicopter pilot who later arrived couldn't free him.
Night was falling and the helicopter wasn't equipped to fly in the dark, so Hudner had to leave with the pilot or he would have faced certain death in subzero temperatures.
"When I saw that it was a completely hopeless situation under the circumstances I told Jesse that we had to get some more equipment in order to get him out of the cockpit and he said to me, `If anything happens to me tell my wife, Daisy, how much I love her.' And he was very much in love with his wife. In love, very much."
Hudner wrote her a letter, telling her Brown's last words. Hudner said he also met Brown's wife four months later at the Medal of Honor ceremony and was struck by her strength.
"How she did it without breaking down in any way I don't know," he said.
Salvatore A. Giunta
Serving in Afghanistan, Sergeant Giunta braved heavy fire to pull a colleague to safety. He and two colleagues then counterattacked against Taliban fighters who were trying to surround them, throwing volleys of grenades. Giunta then saw the leader of one of the platoon's teams, Sergeant Joshua Brennan, being dragged away by two Taliban. He killed one of them, and shot the other, then staying with his colleague while waiting for medical aid. Brennan died from his wounds a few hours later. Sgt Giunta was the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor in nearly four decades.
Sammy L. Davis
On November 18, 1967, Private Sammy Davis was part of an artillery unit near Cai Lay in Vietnam that was under heavy attack from the Vietcong. Davis was providing covering fire with a machine gun when the main howitzer gun operated by his unit suffered a direct hit, knocking the crew from the weapon. Davis was blown sideways and he lost consciousness. While unconscious, he suffered wounds in his back and buttocks. When he regained consciousness, he decided to fire one more artillery round from the howitzer before they were overrun. He fired it point blank at the advancing troops, then continuing to fire everything he had, including a white phosphurus shell and finally a propaganda shell filled with leaflets. He then heard other GIs shouting from across the river that they were cut off there. He could not swim due to his injuries, so he paddled while holding onto an air mattress, scrambled up the bank, and found three wounded soldiers, one of them seriously. He gave them all morphine, got the gravely wounded warrior across the river, then went back for the other two soldiers. He then made his way to another crew and continued the fight. Exactly one year and one day afterwards, he received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson.
Ola L. Mize
On June 10, 1953, Sergeant Mize was part of a unit defending a position in Korea being attacked by Chinese troops. Firing constantly, he killed about 40 men. All of the company's officers were dead or wounded; Mize worked frantically to establish a defensive position, dragging the wounded into makeshift shelters. He then spent several hours in hand-to-hand fighting, leading a patrol from bunker to bunker, firing out at the enemy to make them think that they were facing a large force. He also killed ten enemy soldiers about to take an American machine gun position, and ran through enemy fire to his company command post. After helping reinforcements to resecure the position, he then got permission to take his wounded colleagues back to the American lines. Mize was knocked down several times by grenades, and his uniform was shredded by shrapnel, but he escaped serious injury.
Gary G. Wetzel
Private Wetzel was a door gunner in a helicopter in Vietnam that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and then trapped under heavy enemy fire. Two of the crew were killed in the firefight. While going to the aid of his commander, Wetzel was blown into a rice paddy by a grenade that shredded his upper left and and caused severe wounds to his right arm, chest, and left leg. Despite profuse bleeding, he staggered back to his gun position, tucked his mangled arm into his waistband, and started to fire. His machine gun was the only weapon placing effective fire on the enemy. Wetzel remained at his position until he had taken out the emplacement inflicting heavy casualties. Passing in and out of consciousness, Wetzel sustained a stab wound to his right thigh from a bayonet. He then returned to aid his crew chief, who was attempting to drag their wounded commander to safety. He continued to pull other wounded to safety, while losing consciousness and blood. His arm was later amputated in a field hospital.
Richard A. Pittman
Lance Corporal Pittman was at the rear of a company column that was ambushed by the North Vietnamese Army. As he moved forward, he nearly collided with a Marine holding a machine gun, staring blankly at the events ahead. "You gonig to use this weapon?" Pittman asked. The Marine just stared. Pittman grabbed the gun and moved to the center of the fighting. When his helmet was shot from his head, he hit the ground, then destroyed the two positions firing on him. He then stood and moved to the front of the column where the Americans were being rushed by the enemy. He was attacked by thirty to forty men. He established a position and continuing firing until his gun was struck by enemy fire, and disabled. He picked up an AK-47 left behind by an enemy soldier, and continued firing until it ran out of ammunition. He then picked up a pistol and shot two soldiers bearing down on him. Finally, he threw his only grenade. The remaining enemy inexplicably retreated. Back at his own lines, Pittman learned that two thirds of his company had been killed or wounded in the engagement.
Lewis L. Millett
Captain Millett was in charge of a hundred soliders in Korea, walking in subzero temperatures when they came up against a superior Chinese force, embedded in the hills above their position. With his men running low on ammunition, Millett ordered them to fix bayonets, and he led a charge up the hill. He bayoneted two enemy soldiers, then used his rifle as a club until the enemy began to retreat. He was wounded by grenade fragments but refused evacuation until the position was secured.
George T. Sakato
In August 1944, Private Sakato was part of a combat team fighting its way through France. In late October, they were fighting an entrenched German line firing down from the top of a hill. Just before midnight, Pte Sakato's company were ordered to flank the Germans and get behind their position. It was so dark that they had to hold onto the back strap of the man in front while moving forward. At dawn, Pte Sakato led the assault, killing five German soldiers. They secured the hill - and then the Germans counter attacked. One of Sakato's close friends was hit, and died in his arms. He took charge of the squad, fighting with an enemy rifle and pistol, killing seven Germans and leading his platoon in capturing 34 more. He held the position until it was relieved. Pte Sakato was told he would be given the Medal of Honor, but was in fact awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). His award was upgraded to a Medal of Honor fifty-five years later, as part of a Pentagon review of DSC recipients. He received his medal from President Clinton in 2000.
Walter D. Ehlers
Three days after the D-Day landings, Staff Sergeant Ehlers's platoon came under heavy machine-gun fire. Ehlers climbed up a hedgerow, and called on his men to follow. He spotted a German patrol coming up from the other side, and killed four of them. Ordering his men to fix bayonets, and firing from the hip, he destroyed a machine-gun next and scattered a mortar crew. Next he attacked a second machine-gun next, killing three more soldiers. The next morning, the platoon came under intense fire from both sides. The company commander ordered a withdrawal, and Ehers realized that someone had to provide cover. He and his rifleman scrambled to the top of a mound of earth and began to shoot at the German positions, drawing their fire. Ehlers was hit in the back but managed to kill the man who shot him. When the rifleman was injured, Ehlers dragged him to safety. Ehlers was treated at a field station. He insisted on returning to action. Because his injuries precluded him from wearing a backpack, he strapped on two bandoliers of ammunition, picked up a rifle and returned to his men.