Lest We Forget: Wingmen

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Knowing that a rescue helicopter would not arrive for at least 15 minutes and that enemy soldiers were closing on the helpless pilot, Hudner decided to join his wingman on the ground so that he might remove him from the aircraft before it exploded and help him evade capture.

Tightening his harness and dumping his remaining fuel and ordnance, Hudner dropped his flaps and tailhook and aimed for a spot less than 100 yards from Brown’s wrecked aircraft. Hudner’s Corsair slammed into the rocks and snow, and feeling the rush of sub-zero air, the young pilot briefly wondered if he had made the right decision. But he survived the landing and, rushing to his wingman’s aid, tried to pull Brown from the aircraft. But Hudner discovered that Brown’s right leg was crushed and tangled with the aircraft’s twisted metal, making it impossible to extricate him. Desperate to do something to help, Hudner began packing snow around the smoking cowling with his bare hands, hoping to subdue the fire within.

When the rescue helicopter arrived, with enemy soldiers approaching, the prudent decision would have been for Hudner to leave while he still could. But he and the helo pilot instead worked together, trying to remove Brown from the wreckage, who by now had lost much blood. Try as they might, the two would-be rescuers could not get Brown free. As darkness settled in and enemy troops neared, they considered trying to amputate Brown’s mangled leg. As the two men frantically wrestled with this terrible situation, Jesse Brown died, ending their dilemma. At last, Hudner and the helo pilot reluctantly escaped into the darkening sky.   

In 1973, the former wingmen were brought together in spirit, as then-Captain Hudner—wearing the Medal of Honor “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity”—stood beside Jesse Brown’s wife, Daisy, and together they watched the brand-new frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089) slide down the ways to join the Fleet. Not a storybook ending perhaps, but fittingly bittersweet nonetheless. 

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .
 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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