Retired Capt. Thomas Hudner received the Medal of Honor in the Korean War
He returned to North Korea to search for the remains of Navy aviator Jesse Brown
North Koreans tell Hudner and another veteran the country wants to help with search
Editor’s Note: CNN is one of three news organizations accompanying Korean War veterans on their trip to North Korea.
The last time Thomas Hudner was in North Korea, he was fighting for his life.
On Sunday, more than six decades later, he paid his respects to the ruler who led that fight against him and his fellow Americans.
Hudner, a retired U.S. Navy captain, is leading a delegation to search for the remains of Ensign Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first African-American aviator. Hudner and fellow Korean War veteran Richard Bonelli went to Pyongyang’s Palace of the Sun – the most hallowed site in North Korea – on Sunday.
Following protocol, each man stopped and bowed before the glass caskets of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder, and his son Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 18 years following his father’s 1994 death.
“It was a matter of respect,” Hudner, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his attempt to save Brown, told CNN.
The visit comes ahead of the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended three years of fighting in Korea on Saturday. Hudner, Bonelli and the rest of the group are scheduled to travel to North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, the scene of some of the most desperate fighting of the conflict, in search of Brown’s remains.
There was heavy rain in northeastern North Korea, the site of Brown’s crash, making it impossible for travel. Bridges and roads were out from the rains. The Americans said they didn’t plan to stay for the July 27 massive military parade on what Pyongyang calls “Victory Day,” but the meeting with the North Koreans seemed to go well.
Hudner told CNN that he believes the discussion with the North Koreans, at which CNN was present, would work to help foster better diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea.
The North Korean military said it would do everything to help Hudner and Bonelli track down the remains of their former colleague.
In a promising sign for the recovery of Brown’s remains, a senior North Korean colonel said at the meeting that North Korea wanted a joint recovery effort to continue.
Hudner’s biographer, Adam Makos, said the 88-year-old former pilot showed great dignity by paying respect to the North’s former leaders, as protocol required.
“He wears the gold medal for bravery, but it also represents character,” said Makos, who first suggested the trip to Hudner. “Because when you study the action of how he earned that medal, it is about great character, risking his life to save a friend. And today, he put his ego aside and he said. ‘You know, I’m going to show respect to a man once considered our foe.’ And that’s the ultimate sign of a warrior.”
Brown’s F4U Corsair crashed in December 1950 while providing air cover for American troops who found themselves battling Chinese forces near the frozen reservoir. Hudner, then a lieutenant junior grade, was his wingman.
Hudner deliberately crashed his plane near Brown’s to try to save him, but Brown was trapped in his cockpit and died shortly afterward. Hudner was awarded America’s top military decoration for the effort, while the Navy named a frigate after Brown in 1973.
“It was very different,” Hudner said of his first experience of North Korea. “That time we were bitter enemies. And I hope that our trip here can foster relations, which will be good not only for our two countries but for the whole world to see this.”
In the visitors’ book at the newly renovated Palace of the Sun, Hudner wrote, “It was a memorable experience.” He now knows more about the achievements of the Korean people, he wrote.
Chosin – known in North Korea as Jangjin – Reservoir was one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War. More than 3,000 American soldiers and Marines and an estimated 35,000 Chinese troops were killed during a two-week withdrawal under fire by U.S. and allied forces.
Hudner and Bonelli, who was one of those badly outnumbered Marines, also saw two rooms filled with the leaders’ medals, plus the train carriages used to travel around the country and beyond. North Korean officials said Kim Jong Il died in one of those coaches.