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New Navy Destroyer Reunites 2 Families Bonded By Act Of Bravery05:47
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This circa 1950 photo released by the U.S. Navy shows Jesse Brown in the cockpit of an F4U-4 Corsair fighter at an unidentified location. Brown, the first African-American naval aviator, died when he crashed behind enemy lines during the Korean War. Fellow aviator Thomas Hudner crash-landed his own plane in a futile attempt to save Brown. (U.S Navy via AP)
This circa 1950 photo released by the U.S. Navy shows Jesse Brown in the cockpit of an F4U-4 Corsair fighter at an unidentified location. Brown, the first African-American naval aviator, died when he crashed behind enemy lines during the Korean War. Fellow aviator Thomas Hudner crash-landed his own plane in a futile attempt to save Brown. (U.S Navy via AP)
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It's a connection that's lasted more than 60 years.

On Dec. 4, 1950, Navy aviator Thomas Hudner deliberately crash-landed his plane into a Korean hillside. He was trying to save another pilot, Ensign Jesse Brown, after Brown's plane had been shot down and landed on the hill. Hudner wasn't able to rescue Brown and he was evacuated.

Brown had been the Navy's first black pilot. His remains have never been recovered. Hudner received the Medal of Honor for his actions.

"Jesse and Tom's stories have been intertwined since that fateful day," says Jessica Knight Henry, Brown's granddaughter.

The Navy's new guided-missile destroyer, the USS Thomas Hudner, is being commissioned Saturday in Boston. That means it's officially going on active duty. Descendants of both Hudner, a white man from Fall River, Massachusetts, and Brown, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers, will be in attendance together.

Henry is named after her grandfather, and she has been part of the connection between the two families since she was very young. She remembers Hudner as a grandfather figure, like Brown would have been if she had ever known him.

"It was just this natural thing," she tells Here & Now's Lisa Mullins. "[In] a lot of ways, I didn't even realize the epicness of the story and who they were, because [Hudner] was just another person who was very familiar."

Retired Capt. Thomas Hudner, in 2011 (Courtesy Petty Officer 3rd Class Mikelle Smith/U.S. Navy)
Retired Capt. Thomas Hudner, in 2011 (Courtesy Petty Officer 3rd Class Mikelle Smith/U.S. Navy)

It takes years for a new Navy vessel to get to the point where it's commissioned and starts its career. Hudner didn't live to see it happen. He died in November 2017 at age 93, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in April of this year. Saying goodbye to Hudner was another occasion when the two families came together.

Saturday's events will be bittersweet, Henry says. But the fact that both men are gone is a bookend of sorts, and their families intend to keep their story alive.

"To not have Tom with us is certainly difficult," Henry says. "When Tom was buried at Arlington Cemetery, it was a just a nice thought to think that they're finally reunited, and I think that Jesse would have said, 'Well done, Tom, a life well lived.' "

This segment aired on November 30, 2018.

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Alex Ashlock has been a producer for Here & Now since 2005. He started his WBUR career as senior producer of Morning Edition in 1998.

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