As the other Corsairs concentrated on keeping the enemy troops away from the downed aircraft, Hudner decided that he would not leave his wingman behind. He would belly-in as close to Brown’s Corsair as he could and attempt to free him from the wreckage.
Although outclassed by the new generation of jet fighters the venerable F4U Corsair was chiefly used in the close air support role by US Navy and Marine Corps squadrons in combat against the North Koreans.
As told by Warren Thompson in his book F4U Corsair Units of the Korean War, the most memorable event involving a Corsair in the Korean War took place on Dec. 4, 1950, just 24 hours after the famous Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Two divisions of F4U-4s from VF-32 had been ordered to head into the same general area in an effort to ease the pressure on the beleaguered Marines. Again, the weather was bad and the ground blanketed in heavy snow. One VF-32 aircraft (BuNo 97231) was being flown by the US Navy’s first black fighter pilot, Ens Jesse Brown.
Attacking Chinese troops at low altitude, the Corsairs encountered a hail of small arms fire as they strafed communist forces found out in the open. Brown radioed that his F4U had taken a hit and was losing oil pressure. He had no choice but to belly in with wheels up, landing on the side of a snow-covered slope behind enemy lines near Koto-ri. For a few fleeting seconds it seemed that Brown had not survived the crash because his canopy remained closed.
Minutes later, Lt(jg) Thomas Hudner (in BuNo 82050) circled the site and saw that the canopy had now been rolled back. However, Brown was making no effort to climb out of the cockpit. He was either too badly hurt or he was trapped. As the other Corsairs concentrated on keeping the enemy troops away from the downed aircraft, Hudner decided that he would not leave his wingman behind. He would belly-in as close to Brown’s Corsair as he could and attempt to free him from the wreckage.
Hudner successfully force-landed and quickly ran over to Brown’s Corsair. It quickly became evident to him that Brown was badly hurt, and trapped by the cockpit instrument panel that had been pushed back into the pilot’s legs during the crash. Hudner could not free Brown, so he rushed back to his own aircraft and radioed his still circling squadron-mates to notify the rescue helicopter’s crew to bring an axe and a fire extinguisher, as smoke was now pouring from Brown’s engine cowling. His hands were frozen stiff, and the only thing Hudner could do was don the extra cap and woollen scarf he carried on cold weather missions.
When the rescue helicopter arrived, its crew was also unable to free Brown. As night was falling, they had to take off without him. By this time Brown was unconscious, and his situation was deteriorating rapidly. Hudner departed with the helicopter, deeply upset that he had been forced to abandon his fellow pilot. In an effort to prevent the enemy from having access to the two downed Corsairs, and to Ens Brown, a flight of aircraft was launched to destroy the wreckage with napalm.
For his valiant efforts to rescue a fellow pilot, Lt(jg) Hudner received his nation’s highest award for bravery in combat, the Medal of Honor.
Records state that these two aircraft were the US Navy’s 35th and 36th Corsair losses of the war. A further 11 US Navy and Marine Corps F4Us would be lost to all causes before the year was out.
F4U Corsair Units of the Korean War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy