John M. White

Jesse Leroy Brown

Feb 4, 2023

Naval Aviator Gold Wings with Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Air Medal, Combat Action, Korean Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, United Nations Korea Medal and Korean War Service Medal Ribbons

One of the great things about the United States, despite its difficult past, is that anyone, with determination and self-discipline, can overcome almost any obstacle. 

This was most certainly true of an exceptional African American by the name of Jesse LeRoy Brown.

On October 13, 1926, an impoverished sharecropper family brought into this world an exceptional African-American young man named Jesse LeRoy Brown.

His family knew their son needed a good education, and they were determined to help him achieve his dreams.

As it turns out, his avid interest in aviation from a young age fueled the flame of his dream to become a pilot. Not just any kind of pilot, but a Naval Aviator!

But the road to fulfilling that dream was filled with many obstacles.

High School

His parents considered the schools close to the family home to be of poor quality, so in 1939 Jesse was sent to live with his aunt so he could attend the segregated Eureka High School in Hattiesburg, MS.

Jesse had a knack for mathematics and loved playing basketball, football, and participating in track & field.

In 1944 Jesse graduated from his high school as the salutatorian and then left Mississippi to attend The Ohio State University, the same college as his childhood role model, Jesse Owens. 

His high school principal wrote to him, saying, "As the first of our graduates to enter a predominately white university, you are our hero." 

In order to pay for his college education, Brown took a number of jobs, including working as a waiter at the Holmes Club, a saloon for white US Army soldiers. He was frequently the target of racial slurs, but he kept on and earned $ 600 to pay for his college education.

Another job he held was to work from 3 pm to midnight shift loading boxcars for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

He also joined the Naval Reserve to help pay for his college education.

In other words, he was not going to quit college - period!

Despite all this, Brown was able to maintain a high GPA in college.

The Naval Aviation Program

While at Ohio State, Jesse L. Brown joined the Naval Reserve.

Jesse spotted a recruiting poster urging students to apply for a new naval aviation program.

He was immediately drawn to this opportunity and decided to apply to the program.

But, not unexpectedly, Brown was discouraged from applying and was told he would never make it into a cockpit in a Navy aircraft.

In fact, an ROTC instructor at Ohio State told Jesse, "No nigger would ever sit his ass in a Navy Cockpit." Nonetheless, Jesse was the only black American among 600 cadets to enter a navy flight school in Pensacola, FL.

Undeterred, Brown persisted until he was finally allowed to take the naval aviation qualification exams.

Those exams consisted of five hours of written exams, followed by intensive oral exams, and then a very rigorous physical exam. He passed each of them with flying colors!

Even though Brown did exceptionally well on all of the exams and was finally accepted into the program.

But Jesse told one of his friends that "I'm not sure the Navy really wants me."

Flight Training

In March of 1947, Jesse L. Brown received orders to report to the Selective Flight Training program in Glenview, Illinois.

This was followed by flight training at Naval Air Station Ottumwa and Naval Air Station Pensacola. 

The first aircraft he flew and learned in was a Stearman N2S trainer aircraft.

 Boeing Pt-17/N2S Stearman training aircraft known as the "Kaydet"

At the age of 22, on October 21, 1948, Jesse L. Brown became the first African American man to complete Navy flight training and receive his gold wings as a Naval Aviator.

Jesse L. Brown, Ensign United States Navy, in his dress uniform wearing the Gold Navy Wings

 A navy public information officer released a photograph and story the next day with the headline "First Negro Naval Aviator."

The story was also distributed by the Associated Press and Brown's photo appeared in Life magazine.

Daisy Pearl Nix Brown

Daisy was Jesse's high school sweetheart, and they continued their relationship throughout Brown's college and naval training.

While in Pensacola, FL, Brown secretly married 19-year-old Daisy Nix even though men training for aviation were strictly prohibited from marrying until the completed their training.

In 1949 Daisy and Jesse had one daughter.

Training For Carrier-Based Aircraft

Brown was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy on April 26, 1949.

Upon completing his training, Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown was assigned to Naval Air Station Quonset Point, Rhode Island, where he underwent training for carrier takeoffs and landings aboard the USS Wright.

Ensign Brown became a section leader flying Chance-Vought F4U-4 Corsair aircraft and was assigned to fighter squadron VF-32.

US Navy Chance-Cought F4U-4 Corsair carrier based fighter aircraft
US Navy Chance-Vought F4U-4 Corsair Carrier-Based Aircraft

F4U-4 Corsair Specifications

  • Pratt & Whitney R-2800, 2,650 hp engine
  • Maximum speed: 446 mph at 26,000 feet
  • Range: 1,560 miles
  • Service Ceiling: 41,500 feet
  • Length: 33 feet, 8 inches
  • Wingspan: 41 feet
  • Armament: Six .50 caliber machine guns, or Four .79 inch canons, 4,000 pounds of bombs, or eight 5-ich rockets

Landing and taking off on an aircraft carrier was very difficult in the F4U due to its high torque. Pilots had to be very careful in managing the aircraft's speed and power settings. 

In October 1950, the squadron was transferred to the USS Leyte aircraft carrier as part of Task Force 77. 

Task Force 77 was sent to Korea to assist U.N. forces.

Enter Thomas Hudner Jr.

Lt. JG Tom Hudner came from a wealthy Massachusetts family that owned a grocery store chain.

He attended a prestigious prep school, followed by the United States Naval Academy, and became a naval aviator. 

Eventually, Hudner was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32, where he met Jesse L. Brown and became Brown's wingman. 

By this time, Ensign Brown had more flying experience than Hudner and had become a section leader in the squadron.

Soon Brown and Hudner became friends and enjoyed flying together.

Although Ensign Brown had earned the respect of his fellow pilots in the squadron, Hudner helped Brown deal with the prejudice Brown experienced among other crew members.

The Chosin Reservoir

By December 4th, 1950, 8,000 badly outnumbered US Marines shivered in the sub-zero temperatures of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.

Lieutenant Commander Richard Cevoli led six aircraft off the carrier to support the U.S. Marine ground troops trapped by the Chinese.

The mission was a search-and-destroy flight, decreasing their altitude to 700 feet above the terrain to search out the Chinese troops and determine their strength.

Brown's Corsair was struck by Chinese ground fire, and he reported that he was losing oil pressure, making the aircraft increasingly difficult to control.

Trailing smoke, Brown dropped his external fuel tanks and rockets and made a crash landing in a snow-covered opening on the side of a mountain.

The aircraft was severely damaged during the landing, and Brown found himself trapped in the aircraft and unable to exit the airplane.

Brown had crashed some 15 miles behind enemy lines, and the other pilots radioed a Mayday call. They received a reply that a rescue helicopter would come as soon as possible.

Hudner, circling above Brown's aircraft, saw that Brown was alive but not exiting the aircraft. He radioed instructions to Brown to exit the burning aircraft, but Brown was unable to do so.

Despite orders to the contrary, Lt. JG Hunder crash-landed his Corsair near his friend, attempted in vain to put out the fire with snow, and attempted to extricate Brown from the aircraft.

Aerial view of Jesse L. Brown and Thomas Hudner crash sight

Brown was in pain, bleeding, and trapped in the aircraft by a damaged instrument panel.

A rescue helicopter flown by Lt. Ward lands about 30 minutes after the two crash landings. He hands Lt. JG Hudner an axe, who goes to work trying to extricate Ensign Brown from his aircraft.

Hudner was unable to get Brown out of the aircraft despite his attempts to help his friend, and Brown's condition worsened by the minute.

Brown's last known words to Hudner were to "Tell Daisy I love her."

As sunset was fast approaching Lt. Ward informed Hudner the helicopter was not equipped to fly at night and that they needed to leave before darkness set in.

Over the following days, it became apparent that there was no way to recover either Brown's body or the two downed aircraft.

The ship's captain ordered a flight of aircraft to drop napalm on the two aircraft and Jesse's body in order to prevent the Chinese from gaining access to the aircraft and Brown's body.

As the napalm blanketed the hillside, Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown and the two Corsairs vanished into history.

Gone was a hero our Nation can not afford ever to forget.

Postscript

On April 13, 1951, President Truman invited Daisy Brown and the Hudner family to the White House, where he presented Lt. JG Hudner the Medal of Honor.

Lt. JG. Thomas Hudner receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman at the White house.

Standing quietly to the side during the ceremony was Daisy Brown holding a large bouquet of roses. 

Smiling through her tears, Daisy shook hands with Tom Hudner, and he finally  delivered the message in person, "Tell Daisy I love her."

Jesse LeRoy Brown's wife, Daisy, shakes hands with Lt. JG Tom Hudner after he receives the Medal of Honor on April 13, 1951

For his actions in Korea, Ensign Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Hear,t and the Air Medal.

On February 17, 1973, the US Navy commissioned the frigate USS Jesse L. Brown, the third U.S. ship named in honor of an African American.

In 2020 the film "Devotion" was made based on the book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, published in 2015.

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!

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