TALKEETNA (AP) -- Nearly half a century after he helped rescue six airmen from a deadly plane crash on a mountain ridge, Talkeetna Bush pilot Cliff Hudson got a formal ''thank you'' from the Air Force.
Hudson, 74, received the Exceptional Service Award Friday from Lt. Gen. Tom Case as more than 100 friends, neighbors and family members looked on.
The ceremony took place on the deck of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge under hazy sunshine as air taxis buzzed overhead and Mount McKinley loomed on the horizon.
''We're here today to honor you for doing something that saved our lives,'' said Rupert Pratt, 65, one of the survivors of the crash.
''He's been helping people all his life and continues to do so. Thank you, my friend, and God bless you,'' Pratt said, tears welling up in his eyes.
Hudson, a quiet, unassuming man, seemed almost embarrassed by the attention.
''We had quite an episode out there,'' he said with characteristic understatement, recalling rescue effort.
It was on Feb. 5, 1954, that a C-47 flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks broke apart in midair during a storm. Ten airmen were killed. The wreckage of the plane, with six surviving airmen, landed on Kasugi Ridge.
Though the late Bush pilot Don Sheldon was credited with rescuing the men and received a military citation, it was Hudson who was first into the air after getting word of the crash. It was Hudson who pinpointed the exact location of the wreckage and the survivors before the storm closed in.
And it was Hudson who led rescuers to the men, brought them survival gear, built a fire and spent the night with them before the weather cleared and a helicopter picked them up.
''Sheldon did fly in and pack down a runway. But Cliff was the one who went out in the bad weather and did all the preliminaries and found out where we were,'' said Edward Fox, 69, another survivor. ''Cliff never really got any recognition for what he'd done.''
No one's quite sure why Hudson's heroism went unrecognized for so long.
''Records were sketchy at best back then,'' said Tech. Sgt. Angel Newman.
There was a long, fierce rivalry between Sheldon and Hudson. In Sheldon's biography ''Wager with the Wind'' he recounts the rescue of the survivors of the C-47 crash, but makes no mention of Hudson's involvement.
Hudson wasn't the type to speak up, said his wife, Ollie. ''But he was very proud of what he did, and still is.''
Pratt and Fox were determined that Hudson should be recognized. They worked through congressional and military channels to see that it happened.
''I want to say up front that I appreciate what Don Sheldon did and I knew he went on to do great things after that. But I also want Cliff to get his due,'' Pratt said.
The citation accompanying the award says Hudson displayed ''exceptionally superior courage.''
''With complete disregard for his own well being, Mr. Hudson committed himself and his aircraft to lead the search for survivors,'' reads the citation.
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