Jesse Leroy Brown (1926-1950) is little known today but as a naval aviator he gained famed. As a little boy growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he wanted to become a pilot. One day Brown was watching an airplane flying above and he turned to a friend and said, “Some day I’m going to fly one of those.”
Although the Brown family was poor and suffered from the racism of a segregated society, Jesse held fast to his dream. He studied hard at the all-black Eureka High School, and Brown’s principal, recognizing that the school did not prepare students well for college, took Brown and other promising students aside to teach them more advanced subjects. Brown was also an excellent athlete, and participated in basketball and track and played halfback on Eureka’s state championship football team.
These preparations and Brown’s determination enabled him to enroll in Ohio State University in 1944. While there in 1946 he entered the Naval Reserve program, worked on his degree, and earned money by unloading boxcars for the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the conclusion of his education, Brown entered the Navy and applied for flight training.
Brown passed the rigorous physical and mental tests required of prospective aviators and was sent to flight school at Pensacola, Florida, in 1948. In so doing, Brown became the first black aviation trainee in the U.S. Navy. In the midst of this experience and in defiance of Navy regulation, Brown married his high school girlfriend, Daisy Pearl Nix, and she provided him support and encouragement. “There were times when [Jesse] would come home angry and distressed” because of racial discrimination, she said. “We decided that he would just have to stick it out.” Brown adapted to the situation and quietly worked to earn the respect of his associates. This strategy worked and on Oct. 21, 1948 he graduated from basic flight instruction and secured the right to wear the golden wings of a Naval Aviator. He also received a commission as Ensign.
After completing flight training, Brown was assigned to Quonset Point Naval Air Station, Rhode Island, but he and his family continued to suffer from some racial discrimination. The situation in his squadron, however, was somewhat better. A fellow aviator, Glenn Ferris, commented that few in Brown’s squadron cared about race. “In aviation everyone is more concerned about an individual’s flight ability than the color of his skin.”
Even if color-blindness was not total in the Navy during peacetime, when the United States entered the Korean Conflict in the summer of 1950 the reality of daily combat proved to be something of an equalizer between the races. Jesse Brown had been assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 in Jan. 1949, and when the conflict began he was sent aboard the carrier U.S.S. Leyte to the Sea of Japan. He flew his first combat mission on Oct. 13, 1950, a Friday, and flew 18 more missions through Dec. 3, 1950. By all accounts he had performed well, and was a valued member of the squadron.
Meantime, the North Koreans and Chinese began an offensive on Nov. 27, 1950 that sent allied forces reeling. The Chosin Reservoir campaign was one of the most savage of these operations, pitting about 15,000 UN troops against an estimated enemy strength of 120,000 men. Brown and three comrades were flying a close air support mission in Corsair aircraft on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1950, over the Chosin Reservoir when tragedy struck.
At an altitude of only 500 feet, Brown’s Corsair was hit and he was forced to make a crash landing behind enemy lines. On impact at the top of a snow covered peak, the aircraft fuselage split open and caught fire. The three remaining airplanes of the flight looked to see if Brown was still alive and saw him waving his arms. He was pinned in the cockpit, however, and suffering from broken bones and internal injuries.
While the flight leader called for a rescue helicopter, Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Hudner decided to make a crash landing nearby to attempt a rescue, an act of valor for which he received the Medal of Honor. Hudner successfully joined Brown on the ground and tried to free him from the aircraft. He worked for about 45 minutes to pry the partially conscious Brown from the Corsair, but was unsuccessful. Then he tried to put out the fire in the aircraft by shoveling snow into the engine compartment and cockpit.
When the rescue helicopter arrived Hudner was joined by its crew, but was still unsuccessful in rescuing the dying Brown from the aircraft. At sunset they were forced to leave the crash site without recovering Brown’s body. A week later, with Brown’s crash site still in enemy hands and no chance of recovering his body, a flight of Corsairs from the U.S.S. Leyte performed a bizarre tribute by dropping napalm on the aircraft to cremate Brown’s body.
Jesse Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart posthumously. He was the first African American Naval Aviator to die in combat. As a recognition of his service on Feb. 17, 1973, the Navy commissioned the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown, Destroyer Escort 1089.