If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location to fight a war, the unanimous choice would have been Korea,” said Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
On December 4, 1950, a flight of four Vought F4U-4 Corsairs of the US Navy’s VF-32 from the USS Leyte went on an armed reconnaissance mission to support US Marines fighting near the Chosin Reservoir. In that flight was Ensign Jesse Brown (the first African-American Naval aviator) and flying on his wing was Lt (JG) Thomas Hudner. Chinese soldiers were pouring over the Yalu River and surrounding the troops as the flight came upon the 6,000ft snow-covered high mountains. That’s when the routine mission became no longer routine.
“Jesse called out losing power, couldn’t maintain altitude and was going to have to crash land,” said Hudner during a recent interview. “He hit the ground and the aircraft was bent at the cockpit at about a 30 degree angle and the engine was torn off the aeroplane.” Hudner went on to say: “The canopy had opened and Jesse waved to let us know he had survived, but he didn’t get out of the aeroplane.”
Seeing smoke from the Corsair and on hearing the helicopter wouldn’t arrive for 30min, Hudner decided to make a wheels-up landing and crash close enough to Jesse’s aeroplane to pull him out of the cockpit and wait for the helicopter. Hudner successfully put his Corsair in the foot and a half of snow in an attempt to save his friend.
Hudner, 26 at the time (Brown was 24), got down safely and went over to help his friend:
“The fuselage had buckled and pinned him at the knees. On the Corsair there isn’t a horizontal surface on the whole aeroplane so getting up to look in was difficult,” Hudner explained. After about a half an hour a helicopter piloted by Charlie Ward landed and came over to help. Brown was in and out of consciousness and not doing well. After 20min with only an axe, having no success in extracting Brown, a fateful decision was made. Night was falling, the temperature hovering around zero and expected to reach minus 35° and a helicopter not equipped for night flying, Ward & Hudner decided to leave Brown there. It was most likely he had already passed.
On April 13, 1951, Harry Truman presented Lt (JG) Thomas Hunder with the Medal of Honor for his action that day in December. Hudner was the first Korean War Medal of Honor recipient.
From war to the silver screen
The F4U-4 Corsair (BuNo 97359) commemorating Lt (JG) Hudner now flown by Doug Matthews has had an illustrious career — from war to the silver screen to education.
Built in late 1945, the US Navy took receipt of it in March 1946 where it served with VF-44 during the last days of the Korean War.
After being withdrawn from active duty in July 1956, it went to Central America. Its history there is a little murky, with rumours of it serving in the Honduran Air Force. It came back on to the radar in 1959 when it was one of a number of Corsairs purchased by Robert Bean of Hereford, Arizona. It was relocated to a small airstrip in Tolleson, Arizona, where it spent the next 15 years in outdoor storage.
Bean moved his Corsairs to Tucson Airport in the early 1970s where BuNo 97359 was refurbished and then sold to Tom Friedkin of Houston, Texas. Then the F4U-4 became part of folklore appearing in the Baa Baa Black Sheep television series from 1976-78. Baa Baa Black Sheep in Hollywood style depicted the exploits of fighter ace Pappy Boyington during his service flying Corsairs in the Pacific during the Second World War. While Friedkin grew his warbird collection he decided to sell the Corsair in 1988.
The Corsair was crated up and shipped across the Atlantic to its new owner Ray Hanna and his Old Flying Machine Company based in Duxford, England. Hanna painted the Corsair in New Zealand colours and operated it for the next three years before selling it back across the Atlantic. Norm Lewis, a retired US Navy pilot from Louisville, Kentucky, bought it and repainted it in its “original” markings of the VF-44 squadron with which the Corsair originally flew in Korea. After seven years, the Corsair was sold to Max Chapman. He painted and refitted the F4U-4 in the unique VMFT-20 squadron scheme with broad green and white stripes on the fuselage and wings. The Corsair went on to win the “Reserve Grand Champion Post-WWII” award at its debut at the 2000 EAA AirVenture show at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
In 2005, after a legal entanglement, the Corsair changed owners again and ended up in the hands of Michael Potter of Vintage Wings of Canada. There it flew for several months when in 2007, Doug Matthews bought BuNo 97359 and took it back to the US. For the next couple of years, Matthews displayed the Corsair at many air shows and raced it at the Reno Air Races starting in 2009.
In 2011, Doug Matthews wanted to “refurbish” the Corsair and looked for a pilot to honour. “I wanted a Second World War ace but they had all been done, so I looked at Korea and there were no Corsair aces but there is the Hudner story,” Matthews said. “No one had ever done this story and it is incredible. Plus he is a Naval Academy fellow alumni. Also Jesse Brown was the first black USN aviator and most folks don’t know that.»
Just prior to the Reno Air Races in September, the Tail Hook Convention was held in Reno. Upon learning Hudner would be attending, it was arranged for him to meet with “his” aircraft. His reaction to seeing “his” Corsair after all these decades was as one might expect: “He was quite taken, as was his wife — very emotional. It was the first time he ever saw his name on a Corsair,” Matthews said of that afternoon.
Bringing the F4U-4 back to its present spectacular presentation took a lot. In prep for the restoration, Matthews said: “I gathered several articles, internet stuff and USN documents, plus the Medal of Honor citation. I spoke with Hudner often and those who flew with him.”
With bombs and rockets made by Bombs Away in Ohio, paint by John Lane in Idaho and with a minimum investment of $35,000 (not including ordnance), this spectacular aircraft made its debut at Sun ‘n Fun, to rave reviews. At Oshkosh in 2011, it was a crowd favourite with thousands checking out its highly detailed and accurate rockets. With the wings raised up, they can’t but help f to get your attention! What few ever get a chance to see is the amazing detail put into the cockpit which, other than some modern avionics, looks factory fresh. The Corsair is gorgeous!
This F4U-4 doesn’t live in a museum, but is flown from ocean to ocean attending many air shows on display for the public to see as well as racing at the Reno Air Races. At air shows it is totally “loaded” with its entire ordnance that the public loves to see. But this is all removed for racing, which takes about six hours. When it comes to flying this gorgeous bird, Matthews said: “It is a dream except in strong crosswinds for taxi and landing. It has a great cockpit and good power. I love the range with dual drop tanks.”
And as for its future? Matthews said with a big smile that it will: “Stay in my collection.” Thanks to Doug Matthews and his team at Classic Fighters, our aviation history will be shared with the next generation and the story of a brave aviator and his best friend, Thomas Hunder and Jesse Brown, is not forgotten.