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Finneran: An American Soldier

Friday, November 17, 2017


Much has been written this week about Tom Hudner, much of which would make him blush.

He was an American soldier and a very modest man.

To say that he served his country would be the understatement of all time. He was a remarkable man.

Joseph Kahn’s story and obituary of Tom Hudner in the Boston Globe is worthy of your attention. It is a timeless story of courage, devotion, and the brotherhood of man.

The scene was North Korea near the infamous Chosin Reservoir. It was in early December of 1950, in the early months of the Korean War. Tom Hudner was a young American pilot flying missions off the deck of the USS Leyte. Jesse Brown, a fellow Navy pilot in Hudner’s squadron, was shot down and crashed into a snowy mountainside. Brown survived the crash but was trapped in the smoking wreckage. Pilot Hudner could see Jesse waving from the site and he made a bold decision to crash land his own plane in order to pull Jesse from his twisted smoking plane. His efforts failed and as night approached Hudner was evacuated by helicopter, promising Jesse that he would come back for him.............

Back on the carrier Leyte, commanding officers vetoed the promised rescue mission as being too risky.

If the story ended there, it would be yet another story of the amazing comradeship of brothers-in-arms, of loyalty, of courage, of the “I’ve got your back” devotion of men in foxholes. But the story had a twist, a uniquely American twist.....................

For you see, Tom Hudner was white. Jesse Brown was black. Each was an example of America at its best.

Tom Hudner, a native of Fall River, was blind to skin color. Jesse Brown, son of a Mississippi sharecropper, was forging forward in a poignant example of struggle against powerful racial forces. That they were friends as well as “brothers” is a testament to their shared humanity.

Keep in mind that the year was 1950. America’s armed forces had been integrated a few short years earlier by President Truman’s executive order. There was great controversy about that order and serious questions about the willingness of black and white soldiers to risk their lives for each other. Tom Hudner put an emphatic paid to that question.

America in 1950 was not Shangri-La for black folks. America in 1950 was not the America of 2008, the year of Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency. In 1950 lunch counters were off limits to black people. Drinking fountains were separate too—“colored” drinking fountains separated from “whites only” drinking fountains. Rest rooms as well.............Martin Luther King was barely 21 years old and 10 year old John Lewis was many years away from leading civil rights marches in Alabama. It was a shameful time in our history.

I sometimes wonder about the Tuskegee Airmen or the 92nd Infantry “Colored” Division of World War II. They wore American combat fatigues and they faced German and Japanese bullets with the same devotion to duty, the same aplomb amidst danger as any white soldier. Yet, at home in the States they were treated worse than enemy prisoners-of-war.

Why did they fight? Why did they stand up for an America that would not stand up for them? Was it faith? Was it hope? Or was it a confidence and a knowledge that there were Tom Hudners and Jesse Browns out there throughout American society who saw the dark forces of segregation as evil and who saw their own racial relationships as evidence of better days ahead? The questions linger............

The Tom Hudner-Jesse Brown story ended this past week when Tom died at the age of 93. For his courage in combat, Tom was awarded the Medal of Honor. For his faithful devotion to his friend Jesse Brown and for his post-war devotion to Jesse’s widow Daisy, I suspect that God has a special medal to award as well.

Those two once-young airmen, American soldiers, are now re-united in a place where love and laughter reign. May they rest in peace.

Tom Finneran is the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, served as the head the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and was a longstanding radio voice in Boston radio.


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