Brown, Jesse Leroy 1926–1950
Jesse Leroy Brown 1926–1950
Jesse Leroy Brown was the first African American to complete Navy pilot training and become a Naval aviator. Doing so was one of his greatest challenges—fighting his way to such an illustrious place in the armed services at a time when the military was still segregated and most traditionalists felt that there was no place of honor in the Navy for anyone who was not a white male. Born on October 13, 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Brown grew up poor, the son of a sharecropper. He graduated second in his class from Eureka High School in 1944 where he excelled as both an athlete and a scholar.
Despite suggestions that he attend a traditionally “black” university, Brown applied for and attended Ohio State University, studying engineering from 1944 to 1947. On July 8, 1946 he enlisted in the U. S. Navy Reserves, and in 1947 he joined the Navy proper as an aviation cadet. He attended pre-flight school in Ottumwa, Iowa, and after that moved to Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida to attend flight school. In 1948 Brown became the first African American to earn his Navy wings despite what the Acepilots web site called “racist resistance to an African-American studying aeronautics and aviation.” Out of 100 candidates to enter the aviation program at Pensacola, Brown was one of only six men who completed it.
On April 15, 1949 Brown was commissioned an ensign in the United States Navy, and in October of 1950, he embarked on the USS Leyte (CV-32) to join the United Nations Force in Korea. While there, Brown was a pilot with the 32nd Fighter Squadron flying F4U-4 Corsair fighters. He rose quickly to the position of section leader. He was of great help in the Korean conflict, winning an Air Medal and a Korean Service Medal for his 20 daring air combat missions over such places as Wonsan, Songjin, Sinanju, and Chongjin where he attacked military installations and transportation routes. According to the Crosswinds web site, “Leading his section in the face of hostile anti-aircraft fire, he courageously pressed home attacks that inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and provided effective support for friendly ground troops.”
On December 4, 1950, while Brown was again attacking enemies in defense of the United States Marines near the Chosin Reservoir, his plane was hit by enemy fire and Brown was forced to land his plane in “a wheels-up landing in the best place he could find—a clearing that looked reasonably flat…. when it slammed into the ground, it bent 30 degrees at the cockpit,” according to Air & Space magazine. The Chosin Reservoir was notorious for being overrun with Chinese Communists, and all the men flying with Brown that day knew that meant he could be found by the enemy at any time. While one of the men flew to a higher altitude to radio to the ship to send a medical emergency helicopter, the other men circled around the crash site to see if there was any sign that Ensign Brown was still alive.
Captain (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Thomas J. Hudner who was flying alongside Brown at the time as his wingman, saw Brown waving from his cockpit. Because he was not extricating himself from the crash, which had begun to smoke and seemed to be in danger of going up
Born on October 13, 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; died at war in Korea on December 4, 1950; married Daisy Pearl; daughter: Pamela. Education: Attended Ohio State University, 1944-47.
Career: U.S. Navy Reserves, 1946-47; Aviator, U.S. Navy, 1947-49; Ensign and Aviator, U.S. Navy, 1949-50.
Awards: Air Medal; Korean Service Medal; Purple Heart; Distinguished Flying Cross; USS Jesse L. Brown, named for Brown, 1972; Ensign Jesse L. Brown Memorial Combined Bachelor Quarters, named for Brown, 1997; County Tax Services Building, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, named for Brown, 2000.
in flames at any minute, Hudner figured either Brown was so hurt he couldn’t move, or that he was stuck. Before he even received approval from his flight leader, Hudner crashed his plane alongside Brown’s in order to save him. He figured that the helicopter could come and pick them both up. The Navy Public Affairs Library records Hudner as having said in an interview with Jax Air News, the newspaper at the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Florida, “I knew what I had to do. I was not going to leave him down there for the Chinese. Besides, it was 30 degrees below zero on that slope, and he was a fellow aviator. My association with the Marines had rubbed off on me. They don’t leave wounded Marines behind.”
Hudner crashed a bit more violently than he had meant to but was still able to get out of his plane and run over to Brown’s plane to see what had happened. Brown was indeed stuck in the plane; the cockpit had buckled in quite a lot upon impact, and his leg was crushed and jammed between equipment and the metal hull. Hudner tried to keep Brown warm, but even by the time he reached him 30 minutes after his crash, Brown’s hands were completely frozen. Not knowing what else to do, Hudner radioed to the helicopter pilot to bring an ax to try to free Brown from the wreckage. When the helicopter pilot came, the two men tried vainly to free him, but were unable to break the metal surrounding Brown’s leg. Despite these heroic efforts to save him, Jesse Leroy Brown died that day, perishing in the wreckage of his plane. According to Discovering Multicultural America, “Brown was the first African-American naval officer to lose his life in combat.” He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional courage, airmanship, and devotion to duty.
In March 18, 1972 Brown was honored with a ship named after him, the USS Jesse L. Brown, a Knox class destroyer escort. It was the first ship named after an African American. It was built at the Avondale Shipyards in Westwego, Louisiana and was commissioned in February 1973—both Daisy Brown, Brown’s widow, and Thomas Hudner went to the commissioning ceremony. The ship was decommissioned in 1998 at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and given to the Egyptian Navy. According to the Acepilots web site, “retired Captain Thomas Hudner decried the sale and the neglect of Brown’s ship, saying, ’We need everything we can in race relations.’” This might not be the end of Brown’s name on a ship; however, for according to Jet, “The ship’s former spokesman, Lt. J.G. John Rec, said the Navy is considering naming another ship for Brown.”
In 1997 another honor was bestowed upon the ensign from Mississippi. The Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi dedicated the Ensign Jesse L. Brown Memorial Combined Bachelor Quarters to his memory. And according to Jet, in November of 2000 “a $2.6 million county tax services building was dedicated in his memory in Hattiesburg, [Mississippi].” A biography was written about him in 1998 called The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown, written by Theodore Taylor with full cooperation from Daisy Pearl Brown Thorne. It is hoped that Brown’s story will remain one of inspiration and honor for years to come.
Discovering Multicultural America, Gale Research, 1996.
Air & Space, June/July, 2000.
Jet, August 22, 1994, p. 38; November 10, 1997, p. 17; March 19, 2001.
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