Today we will visit with Naval Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown, Ensign Brown was the first Black American trained as a naval aviator.
The Early Life of Jesse Brown
The US military has seen many African-American war heroes of the years that have in recent times finally been appreciated by the American public at large and even been dramatized by Hollywood in movies such as Glory and the Tuskegee Airmen. However, the Korean War had its own African-American war heroes just like other American conflicts, but similar to most heroes from this war, they have been largely ignored. One of these heroes is US Navy Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown.
Brown was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1926 as the son of a poor sharecropper. His home had no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. Young Jesse Brown growing up in 1940’s Mississippi also had to deal with more then his fair share of racism. However, despite all the adversity facing Brown he was inspired at a young age to be a pilot one day. Young Jesse’s love of aviation began when he used to stare fascinated at airplanes that would fly over his head as he worked in the cotton fields.
His dream of being a pilot motivated him to do well in school and he did so well in fact that he finished second in class at Eureka High School and was accepted into Ohio State University in 1944. This was a big deal for Brown to be accepted to Ohio State because at the time most African-Americans were regulated to attending black colleges. At the time less then 1% of Ohio States student population was considered black and Jesse Brown was one of them.
Following His Dream
Brown did well in college where he studied engineering and in 1946 enlisted into the US Navy ROTC program in order to pursue his childhood ambition of being a pilot. At this time there had never been a black US Navy pilot and there were still plenty of people in the Navy interested in keeping it that way. Brown’s own ROTC instructor at Ohio State used racial slurs against him and discouraged him from trying to be a pilot.
Despite this Jesse Brown entered US Navy flight school in Pensacola, Florida. He was the only African-American in a class of 600 students. Brown worked hard at flight school and fought through adversity like he had his entire life and was rewarded by achieving his life’s ambition of being a pilot by being issued his flight wings in October 1948. He had in fact become the US Navy’s first African-American pilot. The following year he would receive naval officer’s commission as an Ensign. By this time the new Ensign Brown had married to his wife Daisy and shortly after had their first daughter Pamela. Life for Brown was good but unfortunately this isn’t where this story ends.
Air Combat in Korea
In 1950 Ensign Brown was assigned to the USS Leyte. In October 1950 the USS Leyte received orders to deploy to the Sea of Japan as part of the United Nations response to the communist North Korean attack against South Korea. Ensign Brown was assigned to the 32nd Fighter Squadron flying F4U-4 Corsairs while assigned to the USS Leyte. In the skies of North Korea, Brown went on to win air combat medals for his part in leading his aircraft section in air attacks against enemy positions in 20 air combat missions. His last mission would prove to be his most heroic of all.
In late November, 1950 the communist Chinese had launched their surprise offensive against the advancing UN troops in North Korea. US Marines and the US 7th Infantry Division in eastern North Korea had found themselves surrounded and cut off by the advancing Chinese hordes in an area known as the Chosin Reservoir. On December 4, 1950 Ensign Brown’s section was flying reconnaissance around the Chosin Reservoir area looking for any targets of opportunity to destroy. It they saw any enemy troops or equipment they would strafe them. The Marines and soldiers fighting in the Chosin Reservoir were greatly outnumbered and their air superiority was the one advantage they had against the huge Chinese force they encountered.
Corsairs from the 32nd Fighter Squadron swooped down low and fast and strafed every enemy position they could find in support of the soldiers and Marines on the ground. It was after one of these strafings that Ensign Brown called on his radio to say that he was losing oil pressure. Apparently during the strafing one of the enemy’s guns had collected a lucky hit that knocked out his airplanes oil pressure.
The Last Fight of Jesse Brown
The area around the Chosun Reservoir is highly mountainous and thus Brown was going to be in for a hard landing and the condition of his airplane was going to make it only worse. Brown crash landed on the snowy slopes of steep-mountain at about 5,300 feet in elevation. His plane broke apart on impact and the his fellow Corsair pilots initially thought he had to have died in the crash. However, that was not the case as incredibly the hatch of what was left of his plane slowly opened and Brown was waving at people the other pilots to send him help. Brown didn’t exit his airplane so this caused the other pilots to realize he must be either pinned in the wreckage or too injured to get out.
Brown’s commander Lieutenant Commander Richard Cevoli radioed in for a helicopter rescue of Brown, but in the meantime the remaining Corsair pilots had to do their best to protect Brown from the Chinese hordes that were swarming over all the hillsides in the area. The Corsairs circled Brown’s wreckage and strafed any soldiers in the area. After a half hour one of the Corsair pilots, Lieutenant Thomas Hudner decided to take matters into his own hands. Hudner became a good friends with Ensign Brown during the year they were assigned together on the USS Leyte. Hudner had been greatly impressed with Brown’s life story as well as his flying skills. Lieutenant Hudner just couldn’t let his good friend die alone on that hillside before the rescue helicopter arrived. It had been thirty minutes and the temperature outside was well below zero. Somebody had to help Brown or he would die before the rescue chopper ever arrived.
In an attempt to save his friend, Hudner without asking permission from his commander, decided to crash land his own plane onto the mountain. Hudner flew his plane into the wind in order to slow his descent as much as possible and then crashed onto the same hillside about 100 yards from Brown’s crash site. Hudner’s slower descent by flying into the wind had caused him to land his plane without it breaking fully apart like Brown’s had. This is what Lieutenant Hudner had to say years later about the decision to crash his air plane:
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.”
The Rescue Attempt
After the landing, Hudner ran over to Brown’s plane to check on his condition. He found Brown still alive but near death from the cold. His hands were completely frozen and he was shivering uncontrollably. He was also in extreme pain from the crash. His Corsair’s control panel during the wreck has buckled forward and smashed into his legs pinning him into the aircraft. Hudner gave Brown what extra clothing he could to keep warm and then proceeded to try to extract him from the plane. Hudner did everything he could to try and free Brown, but was unsuccessful. He ran back over to his plane and radioed that the rescue helicopter needs to bring an axe with them to help free Brown from the wreckage
To make matters worse smoke started coming from the wreckage which threatened to engulf into flames what was left of the plane. Lieutenant Hudner left Brown to try and put out the fire by throwing snow on it which he was only able to minimize but now stop the fire with. About an hour after the wreck the Marine rescue chopper finally arrived and they had brought an axe with them. Hudner worked with the rescue team to free Brown from the wreckage, but even with the axe they could not get Brown’s legs unpinned from the wreckage.
It was approaching sunset and the Marine rescue team informed Lieutenant Hudner that their helicopter was not equipped to fly at night and that they would have to leave now. By this time Jesse Brown was barely conscious and the last thing he told his good friend Thomas Hudner was to tell his wife Daisy that he loved her. Hudner and the rescue team flew off and when Hudner reported back to his Captain about what happened he ordered a napalm airstrike on the crash scene of the two Corsairs. A few hours later the two crashed Corsairs were burned with napalm and the frozen body of Ensign Jesse Brown the first African-American Naval pilot was incinerated with it.
Hudner after the failed rescued figured he would be reprimanded and his Naval career ended for crashing a perfectly fine Corsair aircraft in a failed attempt to save one man, a black man at that. However, Lieutenant Hudner’s command did something totally unexpected, they instead recommended him for the nation’s highest combat award, the Medal of Honor. Additionally the deceased Ensign Brown was awarded the second highest honor for combat pilots, the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Lieutenant Hudner was awarded his Medal of Honor on April 13, 1951 by President Harry Truman during a ceremony held at the White House. Among all the mostly white Americans that had congregated at the White House to award a white man the Medal of Honor was a lone young, black female, Daisy Brown. She stood next to Lieutenant Hudner as he was awarded his medal where he relayed to her the message that her husband Jesse Brown wanted him to tell her, that he loved her.
Remembering Jesse Brown
Today the story of Ensign Jesse Brown is largely forgotten like most of the heroes from America’s Forgotten War. Despite this there are a few reminders of Jesse Brown’s legacy. In 1972 the a Knox Class Naval Destroyer was named the USS Jesse L. Brown in honor of the Korean War hero. Both Daisy Brown and Thomas Hudner were on hand for the commissioning ceremony for the ship. The ship remained on active service until 1994 when the ship was decommissioned and in 1998 it was sold to the Egyptian Navy. There are plans in place by the Navy to possibly name another ship after Jesse Brown in the future, hopefully this happens.
Besides the ship, Jesse Brown has had a barracks building at a Meridian, Mississippi Naval Base named after him along with a country tax building in his hometown of Hattiesburg. Finally in 1998 a book, The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown was written with the help of Daisy Brown to further increase awareness of the short, but incredible life of Jesse Brown
Recently there was controversy at the Cannes Film Festival when Spike Lee some what accused Clint Eastwood of racism for not including any black soldiers in his two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima. I have watched both movies and never even noticed that there was no black soldiers in them, however if Spike Lee wants to increase awareness about the service of African-Americans in wartime then instead of attacking Clint Eastwood how about he make a movie based on the life of Jesse Brown? The story of Jesse Brown is one literally just waiting for a Hollywood film to be made. With all the crap war films out there like Rendition, In the Valley Elah, Stop Loss, and the rest of the anti-military films being released by Hollywood, the story of Jesse Brown is one that needs to be told and one I am willing to bet that millions of Americans would line up to see at the box office as well.
Ensign Jesse Brown was a true American success story. He overcame poverty and racial discrimination to follow his life’s dream to become a pilot. Through hard work and dedication he completed college became a Naval officer and a pilot. Not only was a pilot but he was a great one as well that excelled in combat and ended up paying the ultimate price for defending his country that had earlier treated him as a second class citizen. For his inspiring life story as well as his combat heroism during the Korean War, Ensign Jesse L. Brown is without a doubt a Hero of the Korean War.
Thanks for your attention.