Veteran etches name on namesake ship’s gear
Mechanic welder Bryant K. Houle welds the name of U.S. Navy Ret. Capt. Thomas Hudner into a ship's propulsion gear during a ceremony for Hudner at Steel-Fab, Inc., in Fitchburg last month.
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U.S. Navy Ret. Capt. Thomas Hudner, of Concord,, left, examines a diagram with mechanic welder Bryant K. Houle, at Steel-Fab, Inc., in Fitchburg last month. Purchase photo reprints »
FITCHBURG — Thomas Hudner deliberately crashed his F4U Corsair into a North Korean mountain to rescue a downed pilot in December 1950, and received the nation’s highest military honor for his bravery.
In May the U.S. Navy announced it will name the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer DDG-116 after the Medal of Honor recipient when construction is done.
Last week, Hudner walked carefully to the side of a massive gear built for the ship’s propulsion system at Steel-Fab Inc., on Crawford Street and used a Sharpie to sign his name on it with workers, dignitaries and well-wishers watching.
The gear is one of the first parts to be manufactured for the Navy ship being named in his honor.
Steel-Fab worker Bryant Houle then used a welding torch to trace the signature so it will be permanently emblazoned on the gear, which is expected to last the 30- to 40-year life of the ship.
Construction is scheduled to start at Bath Iron Works in Maine next summer and the ship is expected to be commissioned in about four years.
“Although we are usually just a nameless, faceless, link in the supply chain, today we have the honor of personalizing the USS Thomas Hudner through this small ceremony,” said Steel-Fab President Mark Freeman.
Hudner, of Concord, is at 88 the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Korean War, according to the Navy.
He received the Medal of Honor for trying to save a fellow pilot who was shot down on a mountainside in North Korea in December 1950.
He resisted the idea when friends suggested a ship be named for him.
“When I heard of it, I thought is was so ridiculous,” Hudner said. “I wanted to tell them not to waste their time.”
Friends of his approached U.S. Sens. Scott Brown and John Kerry, who in turn went to the secretary of the Navy with the idea.
As a lieutenant junior grade, Hudner outranked Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the Navy’s first African-American combat pilot, but was flying as his wingman during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
“I outranked him, but operationally, he outranked me because he had a year’s more experience than me,” Hudner said.
Brown’s F4U Corsair was struck by enemy anti-aircraft fire and crashed on the side of a mountain at least 10 miles north of the demilitarized zone, Hudner said. The engine cowling was smoking, but Brown just sat in the cockpit and calmly waved at his comrades in the air, he said.
Hudner knew Brown was trapped in the plane.
Once he learned the Marines were sending a rescue helicopter, Hudner deliberately crashed his Corsair to start the rescue.
“As soon as we got assurance (a helicopter) was coming, I crash-landed next to him to pull him out,” Hudner said.
There was a field on the mountain with about 2 feet of snow, so Hudner could not see what was hidden underneath as he crashed.
He crashed his plane with the wheels up and got out in below-zero temperatures.
Brown was badly injured and pinned in the plane.
Hudner couldn’t free him even with the help of the helicopter pilot.
The sun was setting and they eventually had to give up the rescue effort.
“He was probably dead when we had to leave him,” Hudner said.
Hudner flew 27 combat missions in Korea and was executive officer of the USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War.
He finished his 30-year career in the Navy as a captain in 1973, then retired as commissioner of the state’s Department of Veterans Services in 1990.
“We should all be honored to be in the same room with this gentleman,” said state Rep. Stephen DiNatale, of Fitchburg, who was also in the Navy.
The gear made by Steel-Fab is 12 feet, 6 inches in diameter and weighs about 24,800 pounds, said plant manager Scott Houle.
It was built over about 16 weeks for Philadelphia Gear, of King of Prussia, Penn., and is being sent to the company’s plant in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., for assembly into a 70,000-pound gearbox for one of the ship’s two engines, said Carl Rapp, president of Philadelphia Gear.
“Although she won’t sail for a few years, when called to duty this massive gear will spin one of the propellers that carries the ship and her crew around the world,” Freeman said. “Everyone here today will remember that Cap. Hudner himself was able to put his fingerprints on the first major component built for his ship.” The alloy metal gear required that it be kept at 350 to 400 degrees while workers at the plant built it, Freeman said.
Steel-Fab will make another gear for the ship’s second engine, Freeman said.