Korean vet recounts the harrowing tale of his best friend's death

By Rose Minutaglio
December 04, 2015 04:05 PM
Courtesy US Navy (2)

Their reunion was one for the books.

Lt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr., 91, was given a heartwarming surprise last month when the family of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, Hudner’s best friend who was shot down more than 60 years ago during the Korean War, showed up to greet him in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.

Thomas Hudner surrounded by his extended family, family of Jesse Brown and Adam Makos at surprise reunion
Photo by John Hurley

On December 4, 1950 – exactly 65 years ago – the lieutenant’s wingman and dear pal Ensign Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first African-American pilot, was killed in enemy territory during the battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Brown became trapped in his cockpit after his aircraft crashed on the side of a mountain just north of Pyongyang.

When he saw his friend’s plane go down, Hudner Jr. did the unthinkable – he deliberately crash-landed his own plane in an attempt to rescue his comrade.

But Hudner Jr. couldn’t save Brown.

“My last words to Jesse were, ‘We don t have the tools to free you now and we’ve got to go. But we’ll be back for you!'” Hudner Jr. tells PEOPLE. “It ripped me apart to have to leave him there.”

Last month’s Veterans Day reunion came as a complete shock to the 91-year-old veteran. In attendance was Brown’s daughter, Pamela, and his grandchildren, Jamal and Jessica, as well as Hudner’s son, Tom Hudner III, and his extended family.

The touching surprise took place at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts, and was arranged by close friend Adam Makos, who wrote Devotion, a book detailing the inspirational account of friendship and bravery that took place over six decades ago.

“As dad approached the Browns, he started smiling and when he embraced Pamela, he began crying,” Hudner Jr.’s son, Tom Hudner III, tells PEOPLE. “It was so meaningful to him.”

Thomas Hudner Jr.
Charles Krupa/AP

Tears continued flowing as the two families reconnected and recounted stories about Hudner Jr. and Brown’s friendship – but for Hudner Jr., the reunion was a reminder that “friendship is colorblind.”

“As much racial turmoil as there is today, it shouldn’t be this way!” he says. “If you know somebody, if you’re a nice person, who cares what color you are. It didn’t matter to me and that was 60 years ago.”

A Navy ship honoring both Lt. Thomas Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown is currently being constructed by Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.

The guided missile destroyer, aptly named USS Thomas Hudner, will join the fleet in 2018. Its crest will feature the tail numbers of Hudner’s plane, 205, and Brown’s plane, 211 – symbolizing their unyielding comradeship.

“I know that if Jesse were here, he would say to me me, ‘Geez, you shouldn’t have done that!’ That s the kind of man he was, he wouldn’t have wanted me to expose myself to danger the way I did,” says Hudner Jr. “And I’d say, ‘Jesse, I know damn well you’d have done it for me.’ “

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