As with most children, Jesse L. Brown had a dream. His dream was to become a pilot. He had seen planes being flown out of a small airport near where he lived in rural Mississippi. Even at a young age, Jesse decided that he was not going to let anything stop him from accomplishing that goal. The story of Jesse Brown is an inspiring one because it not only tells of a dream come true, but it also is a story of passion, bravery and ultimate sacrifice.
Jesse was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1926. He was one of six children. His father was a former factory worker who became a sharecropper and his mother was a teacher. Being black in the 1930s and 1940s had its barriers, as segregation was very much a part of life in America, but that was not going to stop Jesse from achieving his dream of being a pilot.
In Theodore Taylor’s book “Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown,” Taylor describes a letter that Jesse wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. In the letter Jesse asks why black pilots were kept out of the U.S. Army Air Corps. There are several versions of the story on what the reply was, but Jesse was not going to be deterred either way.
He graduated from Eureka High School in Hattiesburg as salutatorian in 1944. Jesse was involved in basketball, football and track and field while in high school. After graduation he was encouraged to attend an all-black college, but Jesse had other ideas. He sought out a northern university that was integrated, Ohio State University. He wanted to study architectural engineering.
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Jesse worked at different jobs to save money for his classes at Ohio State. He was familiar with racism and how blacks were excluded from programs because of the color of their skin. Nothing was going to distract him, however. He bore the harshness of society to take one more step toward his goal of being a pilot.
At Ohio State his sophomore year, Jesse applied for the Navy’s V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program and got in. He was one of the few African-Americans to make it in 1947. Through every step of training and being told by those in authority that he would not make it because of his skin color, Jesse persevered. When he received his naval aviators badge the event was spotlighted across the country because he was now the first black pilot in the Navy. The color barrier had been broken.
In 1949, according to Albert E. Williams’ book “Black Warriors: Unique Units and Individuals,” Jesse Brown was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. He was given training on flying off a carrier. He eventually was assigned to the USS Leyte. Jesse was respected by his fellow ship mates and crew.
The very next year the Korean War began. Jesse’s ship was assigned off the Korean coast. According to various sources, this young pilot, age 23, flew 20 missions in North Korea.
In December 1950, Jesse and his wingman, along with four other aircraft, were assigned to the Chosin Reservoir area in northeast North Korea. The Chinese army had joined the North Korean army by this time and had trapped U. S. Marines there. Jesse Brown was covering some of the Marines when one of the other pilots noticed that Jesse’s plane was leaking fuel. Enemy ground fire had cut a fuel line in his Corsair aircraft. Shortly thereafter, Jesse crash-landed his plane on a snow-covered mountain.
Seeing that Jesse was still alive, his wingman, Lt. Tom Hudner, crash-landed his plane and ran to try to rescue him. Jesse’s legs were stuck in the plane. By then the plane was on fire. Hudner tried desperately to free Jesse, but to no avail. Hudner tried to put out the fire with the snow, but he needed more help. He radioed for a rescue helicopter. Help did come but Jesse still could not be freed and the fire could not be put out. Jesse Brown didn’t have a chance.
So there in the bitter cold of North Korea, Jesse Brown’s life ended. He was the first African-American naval officer to die in the Korean War. He was the first African-American Naval pilot. He was a kid with a dream that was fulfilled.
In 1973, a frigate was named in his honor, the USS Jesse L. Brown. Hudner, who received the Medal of Honor for risking his life to try to save Jesse, spoke at the ceremony. He said, “He died in the wreckage of his airplane with courage and unfathomable dignity. He willingly gave his life to tear down barriers to freedom of others.”
Marilyn N. Windham is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation and is a former U.S. history teacher. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org