The Story of Jesse L. Brown: The Navy’s First African American Pilot

This Korean War hero broke the color barrier, paving the way for Black aviators for years to come.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series celebrating Black History Month through aviation: Feb. 1: African American Pioneers in Flight and Space | Feb. 4: Legacy Flying Academy | Feb. 10: Why Aren’t There More Black Pilots in the Air Force? | Feb. 11: Jesse L. Brown | Feb. 15: Meet Four African Americans Making a Difference in Aviation | Feb. 18: From “Hidden Figures” to “Artemis” | Feb. 22: CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright | Feb. 25: Cal Poly Humboldt

The Korean winter of 1950 was an especially bitter one. United Nations troops, including thousands of U.S. Marines, were advancing near the Changjin Reservoir in sub-freezing temperatures.

According to their outdated Japanese maps, the troops believed themselves to be traversing through the Chosin Reservoir, hoping to advance U.N. control in the area. There were hopes of a unified, democratic Korea. That is, until China began bolstering North Korean forces.

The 30,000 troops under the command of Major General Oliver P. Smith had been suffering through the cold for days, dubbing the mission “Frozen Chosin.” Food and supplies were already running low, but Smith could not lose the gained ground behind enemy lines. On November 27, Smith and his troops were faced with the unthinkable.

The Marines and South Korean soldiers had walked right into a trap. The thousands of U.N. fighters were now at the bottom of a valley, surrounded by 120,000 Chinese troops. In the battle that ensued, Smith ordered a retreat.

“Retreat, hell. We’re not retreating. We’re just advancing in another direction,” he said.

Onboard the nearest carrier, the USS Leyte, was Fast Carrier Task Force 77 with the Navy’s first African American fighter pilot, Jesse L. Brown. He and his wingmen flew out to the Changjin Reservoir to provide close air support in order to save the surrounded U.N. troops.

On the way there, Brown gave a distress call over the radio.

“I think I may have been hit. I’ve lost my oil pressure,” he said.

Letters for Daisy

Brown dreamed of being a pilot since he was six years old. Brown’s father had taken him to an air show, where his love for flying began.

“As you say, we’ll just have to give our best, and trust in God for all others.”

Jesse L. Brown in a letter to the love of his life, Daisy

The path Brown chose had been an uncharted one. He was a boy born into a family of sharecroppers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In order to pay his way through college, Brown picked up a job at the local railroad yard from 3:30 pm to midnight every day. Before he left for Ohio State University, he met the love of his life, Daisy.

Daisy said Brown sent letters to her everyday that he was gone.

“After the prom, and we started dating, we would send each other a special delivery,” she said in an interview. “He wrote beautiful letters and he loved to write letters.”

Brown initially majored in architectural engineering at Ohio State University but came across a poster, advertising a Reserves Officer Training Corps program for pilots. At the time, no such programs existed at Black colleges, so the barrier to entry for Black Americans was steadfast.

The U.S. Navy was conducting a V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program at Ohio State, and Brown saw it as his only opportunity to fulfill his dream of flying. However, there was one obstacle to joining—the entrance exam.

Brown failed the entrance exam multiple times, but he continued to try until he passed, joining the U.S. Navy ROTC and starting his career in its aviation program.

Brown, now an Apprentice Seaman, wrote home to Daisy without interruption. He wrote about how excited he was to finally begin his life as an aviator, but was painfully aware of the lynchings of Black Americans in the south during his training.

“As you say, we’ll just have to give our best, and trust in God for all others,” he wrote.

At the time, cadets weren’t allowed to marry during their training. Brown didn’t let that stop him from marrying Daisy in secret, however. If caught, he could have been discharged from the program, ruining his chances of becoming a pilot. He did it anyway.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown — October 1948 [Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command]

History Made, Trouble Ahead

In October 1948, Brown graduated from the program to become the Navy’s first African-American pilot. His achievement gained national attention—his picture could be found in an issue of Life magazine.

From there, Brown was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the USS Leyte, which deployed in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War. His squadron flew the Vought F4U-4 Corsair, an airframe feared by enemy forces for its combative efficiency.

Brown was seen as an exceptional pilot by his instructor and became squadron leader for a strike mission over the Changjin Reservoir in North Korea. His wingman, Lieutenant Thomas Hudner Jr., had befriended Brown throughout training—despite their difference in race—and had flown nearly 20 sorties alongside him.

The pilots were flying behind enemy lines, through the extreme terrain of the North Korean mountains. Chinese troops were known to utilize coordinated ground fire to damage enemy aircraft. One of Brown’s pilots noticed a fuel leak on Brown’s airplane.

Brown made a distress call before crashing into the side of a mountain.

“This is Iroquois One-Three. I’m losing power. I have to put it down. Mayday. Mayday,” he said.

Cpt. Thomas J. Hudner — Circa 1950 [Courtesy: The United States Navy Memorial]

Loyalty of a Friend

Hudner followed Brown’s airplane as it made a crash landing behind enemy lines. He circled above the wreckage in hopes to spot Brown climbing out of the cockpit, which was now smoking. However, Hudner spotted Brown, still alive, waving from his seat.

Despite the risk of death, capture, or court-martial, Hudner made a wheels-up landing near Brown, in an attempt to save his life—severely damaging his own aircraft in the process.

The snow had slightly softened Brown’s landing, but the fuselage had buckled in towards the cockpit, trapping the fleetingly conscious pilot under the control panel. Hudner radioed for a rescue helicopter, requesting they bring an emergency ax.

Hudner fruitlessly attempted to free Brown from the wreckage. The temperature was only going to continue dropping, and Brown would not be able to survive the night. Hudner removed his scarf to wrap around Brown’s hands, and used his bare hands to shovel snow on the smoking engine, keeping the fire at bay.

Brown slipped in and out of consciousness, talking to Hudner as he attempted to free him. According to Hudner, Brown never panicked, and even comforted him while he worked.

The helicopter arrived and the pilot joined Hudner in his effort to free Brown. The two spent nearly an hour trying to free him, but to no avail. Night began to settle in and the helicopter had to leave, as it was not equipped to fly after dark. Hudner and the pilot were forced to leave Brown behind.

During one of Brown’s last moments of consciousness, he left Hudner with one last request.

“Tell Daisy how much I love her,” he said.

“I will … we’ll be back for you,” Hudner replied.

Between the freezing temperatures and his fatal wounds, Brown died before the night’s end. He was just 24 years old.

A Warrior’s End

The next day, Hudner requested to go back to the crash site to retrieve Brown’s remains, but was denied because of the present danger of Chinese forces. Instead, the squadron dropped napalm on both crashed airplanes two days later, cremating Brown’s remains and preventing the Chinese from salvaging the Corsairs. The Lord’s Prayer was recited as the load was dropped.

Brown became the first African American to fly for the Navy, and the first African American officer to die in the Korean War.

From left to right, Rear Admiral John W. Dolan Jr., Daisy Brown Thorne, Henry Z. Carter, and Cpt. Thomas J. Hudner at the christening ceremony for USS Jesse L. Brown. [Courtesy: Naval History and Heritage Command]

Although Hudner’s actions were prohibited, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by then President Harry S. Truman for his loyalty to his fellow wingman. During the ceremony, Hudner met Daisy, Brown’s wife, and the two remained close friends for decades to come.

Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, and the Air Medal for his outstanding service. In February 1973, the Navy named a Knox-class frigate after him—the USS Jesse L. Brown. It was the third ship named in honor of an African American serviceman.

The launch of the USS Jesse L. Brown on March 18, 1972. [Courtesy: Naval History and Heritage Command]

The citation for his Distinguished Flying Cross reads as follows:

“The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown, United States Navy, for heroism in aerial flight as Pilot of a fighter plane in Fighter Squadron Thirty-Two (VF-32), attached to the USS Leyte (CV-32), in hostile attacks on hostile North Korean forces. Participating in 20 strikes on enemy military installations, lines of communication, transportation facilities, and enemy troop concentrations in the face of grave hazard, at the Chosin Reservoir, Takshon, Manp Jin, Linchong, Sinuiju, Kasan, Wonsan, Chonjin, Kilchu, and Sinanju during the period 12 October to 4 December 1950. With courageous efficiency and utter disregard for his own personal safety, Ensign Brown, while in support of friendly troops in the Chosin Reservoir area, pressed home numerous attacks destroying an enemy troop concentration moving to attack our troops. So aggressive were these attacks, in the face of enemy anti-aircraft fire, that they finally resulted in the destruction of Ensign Brown’s plane by anti-aircraft fire. His gallant devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”


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