PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) — The last time Thomas Hudner was in North Korea, he was fighting for his life.
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 won 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 July 27. 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.
Weather reports indicated heavy rain was likely in the northeastern North Korea, where Brown’s crash site is located. The Americans don’t plan to stay for the massive military parade on what Pyongyang calls “Victory Day,” but expressed hope that whether they get the chance to look for Brown’s remains or not, the visit will improve severely strained relations between the two countries.
Hudner’s biographer, Adam Makor, 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 Makor, 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 F-4U 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 and save him, but Brown was trapped in his cockpit and died shortly afterwards. 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 says 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 say Kim Jong Il died in one of those coaches.
By Paula Hancocks