(PYONGYANG, North Korea) — An 88-year-old American Korean War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient has been granted rare permission to enter North Korea to fulfill a final promise and search for the remains of his friend and wingman — the U.S. Navy’s first African American pilot.
Thomas Hudner, an octogenarian U.S. Navy captain from Massachusetts, entered the capital city of Pyongyang as North Koreans gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.
Escorted, sometimes hand-in-hand, by a young North Korean, Hudner’s goal was to locate his friend and wingman, Ensign Jesse Brown, whose body was never recovered.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be back here,” Hudner told ABC News.
ABC News was part of an international press pool invited by the North Korean government to cover this week’s events, joining various tour groups that have come to witness the event.
Hudner crashed his own plane to try to save Brown, who was shot down over North Korea behind Chinese lines in December 1950, and was unable to escape his damaged aircraft. Hudner vigorously attempted to free Brown, but was unable to, and ultimately had to leave his unconscious comrade behind when a rescue helicopter arrived.
Adam Makos, who is writing a biography on Hudner, told ABC News of the captain’s last words to Brown.
“He told Jesse, ‘I’ve done all I can, Jesse. We’re going to go back to try to get more tools but we’ll come back for you,’ Makos said. “That was his last promise to him, and so when I asked Tom a couple of months ago, ‘Do you want to try and keep that promise?’ He said, ‘By all means.’ And that’s how we wound up here.”
Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
When Makos and his family heard this story, they decided that they want to help. They took the lead on obtaining permission for Capt. Hudner to travel to the country he fought against — one of the most closed-off countries in the world — so he could finally fulfill the promise.
Dick Bonelli, a Marine who lost 15 of his friends in that war, has joined Hudner on his journey.
“I think it will take a little time, but by inviting us over, that’s a big breakthrough,” Bonelli said. “I think it’s a good step.”
They had planned this week to land and head quickly to the north — but the summer monsoon and the flooding kept them out.
“The torrential rains and everything being washed away — I pray that there are some remains there,” Bonelli said.
So, with the anticipated culmination of this week’s events a massive military parade in Kim Il Sung Square on Saturday, the searchers will have to try again — an endeavor this group vowed to renew, despite the often belligerent rhetoric North Korea’s government aims toward Americans.
“With the help of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s government, we are going to come back,” Makos said.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Ralph Ellis, Ben Wedeman and Michael Pearson, CNN
Jim Acosta, Elise Labott, Nicole Gaouette, Kevin Liptak and Allie Malloy, CNN Newswire