STORY BY MC2 JASON PASTRICK
At the height of the Korean War, nearly 9,000 outnumbered Marines shivered in the sub-zero temperatures of North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir Dec. 4, 1950. Chilly winds combed the rough mountain terrain as eight F4U-4 Corsair fighter jets left the deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Leyte (CV 32). Though outdated, each fighter was heavily armed and piloted by a Naval aviator seeking to provide support for their brothers-in-arms on the ground below. These young men, most in their early twenties, had little in common except for their love of aviation and duty to their country. One of these pilots was Jesse Brown.
Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Oct. 13, 1926. As the son of a hard-working but poor sharecropper, Brown’s home provided few comforts. His house lacked the most basic of amenities such as electricity, running water, or an indoor toilet; life was anything but privileged. As a young boy, his days consisted of picking cotton with little reprieve from the sweltering sun.
In the 1930’s, racial prejudice stood as a wall to the dreams of young black men in a community where segregation was regularly preached and practiced. Goals and aspirations were deemed unreal or unattainable simply because of someone’s skin color. However, as history would show, Brown shone in the face of adversity and became a trailblazer throughout his entire life.
Brown’s fascination with aviation began at an early age, as he would longingly watch the skies over the cotton field where he labored tirelessly each day. As a gifted athlete and student, Brown graduated second in his high school class and was able to attend college on a work-scholarship. As a personal challenge and against advice encouraging him to attend an all-black college, Brown instead attended Ohio State University, where only 1% of the students were black.
Undaunted and steadfast toward his dream of becoming a pilot, Brown enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1946 and was appointed as a Midshipman one year later. In flight school, he was the only black applicant among 600 cadets. Racial tension was strong in America and black service members were largely unwelcomed. Despite continued prejudices and harassment from his peers, on Oct. 21, 1948, Jesse Brown received his wings and became the Navy’s first African-American pilot.
On Dec. 4, 1950, while conducting his 20th combat mission, Brown was shot down over the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. His wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner, a white man from Massachusetts, could see that Brown was still alive and crashed his own plane nearby in an effort to save him. Brown’s leg was trapped in the wreckage. Unable to get free, he slowly died of exposure in the blistering cold. Hudner sat with him until he was ordered to go. For his actions, Hudner received the Medal of Honor. Although Brown did not receive a commendation, his contributions to the segregated and desegregated U.S. Military were memorialized in several books and the frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089) was named in his honor.
As the Navy celebrates Black History Month this February, Sailors across the fleet are encouraged to learn and recognize the crucial contributions from the African-American community to Naval operations. For more information about Jesse Brown, visit the Naval History and Heritage Command at http://www.history.navy.mil.