BATH — An American hero who crash-landed into a desolate mountain crawling with the enemy to try to save his friend during the Korean War was honored Saturday with the christening of a Navy ship bearing his name, the future USS Thomas Hudner.
Having a naval ship named after him was confounding to the modest 92-year-old from Concord, Massachusetts, his son Thomas Hudner III told the nearly 1,000 people who attended the 90-minute outdoor ceremony during a wet and windy snowstorm.
As several speakers noted, the nor’easter was nothing compared to the conditions encountered by Lt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr. in an attempt to rescue Ensign Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black pilot and Hudner’s close friend, during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Maine’s congressional delegation turned out for the christening of Bath Iron Works’ latest vessel, a 510-foot, 9,200-ton ship that will carry a crew of 279 and reach a cruising speed of 30 knots. A guided missile destroyer called the DDG 116, the Hudner is the 66th of a planned 75 ships in the Arleigh Burke-class of naval warships. The Bath shipyard was awarded the $663 million contract to build it in 2012.
The elder Hudner, who was accompanied by about 50 family members from across the country at Saturday’s ceremony, is a Medal of Honor recipient who dropped onto a mountaintop on Dec. 4, 1950, to try to save Brown, whose plane had crashed nose-first after taking fire. Hudner, who had been flying beside him, saw that Brown was still inside the cockpit of the smoking wreckage.
Hudner crash-landed his plane, ran through the thick snow in subzero temperatures to Brown’s plane and packed the smoldering engine in snow. Brown was trapped in the cockpit. Hudner stood by his friend, while others in the squadron attacked from above approaching enemy soldiers. Brown died before Hudner and a rescue helicopter pilot could extract his body from the plane. They had to leave Brown’s body behind.
“We cannot tell the story of Hudner without telling the story of Brown. What happened that day is not forgotten,” said Allison Stiller, the main speaker at the ceremony and the principal civilian deputy performing the duties of the assistant secretary of the Navy for research development and acquisition.
The ceremony included the USS Constitution ceremonial color guard, the Navy band Northeast, a procession by the Hudner’s future crew, and speeches filled with patriotic words and sentiments.
Dirk Lesko, president of General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works’ parent company, echoed Stiller’s praise.
“When the USS Hudner takes to the seas, it will be with a fearless spirit of an American hero,” Lesko said.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin also offered words of praise to Hudner, the shipyard and the Navy.
“At a time when the world is in turmoil, the ability of our Navy to project power is never more critical,” Collins said.
King noted that the national anthem ends with a question: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
“It’s a question that has to be answered by every generation. And I believe we will remain the land of the free as long as we are the home of the brave. And today we are in the presence of true bravery, Captain Thomas Hudner, and the men and women of our armed forces who express that bravery every day,” said King.
The crowd raised a cheer as the ship was officially christened and a burst of streamers swept through the air.
The crowd appeared undeterred by the weather conditions.
Ninety-seven-year-old retired Navy pilot Capt. Herbert Childs of Keene, New Hampshire, told his daughters – Sarah Gagnon of Brattleboro, Vermont, and Becky Miller of Montpelier, Vermont – that the christening was worth it. Childs’ only outerwear was his bomber jacket.
“We couldn’t get him to wear anything warmer,” Miller said.
But Childs left his uniform at home.
“Because he was afraid he would fall and he didn’t want to disrespect the uniform,” Gagnon said.