Roy Exum / December 20, 2010

The Game’s Coin Toss

Shortly before the Army-Navy football game was played for the 111th time at Philadelphia’s jam-packed Lincoln Financial Field, the two Navy captains, Wyatt Middleton and Ricky Dobbs, escorted Mr. Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. to the middle of the field where he will dutifully performed the coin toss just before kickoff.

Mr. Hudner, as part of the game’s gloried tradition, was celebrated as the official “starter,” for lack of a better word, as many other Americans heroes have also done throughout the years. He is now 86 and was thrilled at the honor. But there is more. Mr. Hudner, who was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in the spring of 1946, is white. Both Wyatt and Ricky are black.

One’s race means nothing in sports today, nor does it at the academies, but once it did, and the march with Mr. Hudner to the mid-stripe probably meant more to the two Navy seniors than most of us will ever be able to comprehend.

Allow me to explain. Both Middleton, a defensive safety, and Dobbs, a quarterback, are from the south. Wyatt played in high school at Marist in Atlanta while Ricky starred not far away at Douglasville, Ga. Both senior captains are fantastic; Wyatt starting every game for four years while Ricky has set all sorts of records. But next year, instead of going to the NFL, their next duty assignment will be in “surface warfare,” i.e. battleships, destroyers and such.

The same was true for Mr. Hudner back in the ‘40s. He vividly remembers during his senior year in '45 when, in “The Game of the Century,” Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard led No. 1 Army to a 32-13 win over then second-ranked Navy for the national championship. By the next year Mr. Hudner was also in “surface warfare,” serving as an officer on a Navy ship.

Well, the Korean Conflict was heating up after Mr. Hudner had served a couple of years so, in 1948, he went to Pensacola and learned to fly jets. About the same time, a black guy from Mississippi, Jesse Brown, had the same dream. He went to college at Ohio State but his heartbeat for America was just as strong. Jesse was in the Naval Reserve and, despite being told that “no black man would ever pass the test,” he too forged his way into Navy aviation.

Jesse Brown, as all blacks were back then, was rejected repeatedly in his quest to fly for the Navy but after President Truman desegregated the military in 1949, there were 600 men who enrolled in flight school at Ottumwa, Iowa, and Jesse was the only black that got it. Only six of the 600 were finally accepted as pilots and, once again, Jesse was the only black who was duly commissioned as an Ensign.

In the way things go, Mr. Hudner and Jesse were soon both members of Fighter Squadron 32 in Korea. Because Jesse had more flight experience, his wingman was a Lt. (jg) named Tommy Hudner. And that brings us to Dec. 4, 1950, when the two pilots were part of eight F4U Corsairs on a reconnaissance mission during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign.

Historians will affirm that at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea at the time 15,000 Marines fought 100,000 Chinese and North Koreans. Jesse and Tommy’s Corsairs were called off the USS Leyte to lend support. They were flying low, just about 1,000 feet in the 30-below temperatures, when heavy flak hit Jesse’s fuel line. Ensign Brown’s plane went into a crash dive, slamming into a snow-covered mountain.

The other Corsairs circled, certain he had been killed, but they saw him waving and a rescue helicopter was called. But Mr. Hudner saw Jesse’s plane was now burning and knew that to wait for the rescue team would be futile. With a crisp, “I’m going in,” he jettisoned his remaining fuel, circled Jesse a couple of times and with his wheels still up, bellied his own plane into the side of that forsaken mountain.

Mr. Hudner, who is white, raced from the wreckage to find his close friend Jesse, a black man, trapped in the plane. “He was alive but badly hurt. I couldn’t get him out of the cockpit. His right leg was crushed and entangled in metal and instruments.”

So Mr. Hudner took off his scarf and knit cap to keep Jesse warm while he frantically built a fire wall, as best he could, out of the frozen snow. The helicopter finally arrived and the rescue team had an ax. The men chopped madly at the steel wreckage, the fire dangerously burning, but there was no way they could get Jesse out. They even talked about amputating his leg but, as Mr. Hudner later recalled, “neither of us could do it.”

With light fading, it was now obvious Jesse was dying quickly. “He was beyond help. We had to leave his body. We couldn’t get him out. We had no choice and I was devastated.”

Don’t you see? Race had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Tommy and Jesse were brothers, brother in arms.

Now you know why, just before the start of the Army-Navy game, Thomas J. Hudner was escorted by the Navy captains to midfield. He is legendary as the last living winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor who was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He was awarded the Medal of Honor because he crashed his plane in an attempt to save his brother.

Wyatt Middleton and Ricky Dobbs, teammates, realize best that Mr. Hudner was the wingman for Jesse Brown, the first black aviator in the history of the U.S. Navy. “It’s been 60 years,” Mr. Hudner said this week, “but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of that day. And Jesse.”

And that is why the Army-Navy game has always been, and will always be, very special. It is a game played between brothers.

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