Jesse L Brown

Jesse LeRoy Brown (1926 –1950) was a Navy officer and the first African-American aviator to complete the Navy’s basic flight training program, and the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean War.

Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to an impoverished family, Brown was interested in aircraft from an early age. A gifted athlete, despite racial segregation he graduated second in his high school class, and later, despite frequent racial abuse, he earned a degree in architectural engineering from Ohio State. He attempted several times to apply to the school’s aviation program, but was denied because of his race. Brown joined the track and field team as well as the wrestling team, but soon dropped both for financial reasons. He took a job as a janitor at a local Lazarus department store and was hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad to load boxcars from 3:30pm to midnight each day. In spite of this, he maintained top grades in his classes.

During his second year in college, Brown learned of the V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program being conducted by the U Navy to commission naval aviation pilots. In spite of resistance from recruiters, Brown passed the entrance exams. He enlisted in the Navy in 1946, and earned his pilot wings in 1948 amid a flurry of press coverage.

From the National Archives Medic has obtained the military personnel record of Jesse L. Brown:

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In January 1949 Brown was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte. By the outbreak of the Korean War, he had gained a reputation among the others in the squadron as an experienced pilot and a capable section leader.

On 4 December 1950, Brown was part of a six-aircraft flight supporting Marines ground troops trapped by Chinese forces. At 13:38 KST, Brown took off from Leyte with squadron XO Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli, Lieutenant George Hudson, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bill Koenig, Ensign Ralph E. McQueen, and Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas J. Hudner Jr., who was Brown’s wingman. Brown’s call sign was “Iroquois 13”. The flight traveled 100 miles to the Chosin Reservoir, seeking targets along the west side of the reservoir.

Although no enemy were sited, at 14:40 Koenig radioed that Brown appeared to be trailing fuel. The damage had likely come by small arms fire from Chinese infantry, who were known to hide in the snow and ambush passing aircraft by firing in unison. At least one bullet had ruptured a fuel line. Brown, losing fuel pressure and increasingly unable to control the aircraft, dropped his external fuel tanks and rockets and attempted to land the craft in a snow-covered clearing on the side of a mountain. Crashing into a bowl-shaped valleyl behind enemy lines in 15 °F weather, the aircraft broke up upon impact and Brown’s leg was pinned beneath the fuselage. Stripping off his helmet and gloves in an attempt to free himself, he waved to the pilot circling overhead, who thought he had died.

Seeing Brown alive, the pilots signaled Mayday to any heavy transport aircraft in the area while they scouted the mountain for any sign of the enemy who might threaten Brown. They received a signal that a rescue helicopter would arrive as soon as possible, but Brown’s aircraft was smoldering and a fire had started near its internal fuel tanks.

Before it became clear Brown was seriously injured, Hudner attempted in vain to rescue Brown by radioing him instructions for escaping his damaged craft. Hudner then intentionally crash-landed his own aircraft, ran to Brown’s side and attempted to wrestle him free from the wreckage. While Brown’s condition worsened by the minute, Hudner tried in vain to put out the fire using snow, and to pull Brown free. In great pain, Brown began slipping in and out of consciousness.

A rescue helicopter arrived around 15:00; its pilot, Lieutenant Charles Ward, and Hudner were unable to put out the engine fire with a fire extinguisher, and tried unsuccessfully to free Brown with an axe for 45 minutes. They even considered, at Brown’s request, amputating his leg. Brown lost consciousness soon afterward. His last known words to Hudner were, “Tell Daisy [his wife] I love her.” The helicopter, which was unable to operate in the darkness, was forced to return to base at nightfall with Hudner, leaving Brown behind. Brown is believed to have died of his injuries and exposure to the cold. No Chinese forces threatened the site, likely owing to the heavy air presence of Brown and Hudner’s unit.

Hudner begged superiors to allow him to return to the wreck to help extract Brown, but he was denied for fear the vulnerable helicopters would be shot down. To prevent the body and the aircraft from falling into Chinese or North Korean hands, the Navy bombed the aircraft with napalm two days later, with pilots reportedly reciting the Lord’s Prayer over the radio as they watched Brown’s body being consumed by the flames. The pilots observed that Brown was still stuck in the aircraft, but his clothes were gone.

The remains of both Brown and the aircraft were never recovered. Brown was the first African-American Navy officer killed in the war.

For his actions in Korea leading up to his death, Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart Medal, and the Air Medal. For the failed rescue attempt, Hudner received the Medal of Honor.

Brown’s shipmates memorialized him in a shipwide newspaper as “a Christian soldier, a gentleman, a shipmate, and friend … His courage and faith … shone like a beacon for all to see.” As word of his death spread, Brown inspired numerous other African Americans to become pilots, notably Seaman Apprentice Frank E. Petersen. Petersen would become the first African-American Marine Corps aviator and the first African-American Marine Corps general, graduating from the Naval Aviation Training Program in 1952 and retiring from the military after 38 years in 1988 with the rank of lieutenant general.

In July 2013, Hudner  and Adam Macos, author of the book Devotion, visited Pyongyang in an attempt to recover Brown’s remains from the crash site. However bad weather made travel to the site impossible. He was told by North Korean authorities to return in September when the weather would be more predictable.

Hudner died in 2017. A second attempt by Makos to locate the crash site was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. Makos hopes to continue efforts for recovering Brown’s remains by coordinating with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency through civilian contractors.


source: wikipedia

Six Decades Later, a Second Rescue Attempt— New York Times 2013

Wingman: A Korean War aviator’s final mission for a lost comrade—Stars and Stripes 2016

Thomas Hudner—New York Times Obit 2017

Return to North Korea to retrieve remains of US Navy’s first Black Aviator—Radio Free Asia

Devotion—New York Times Movie Review

Devotion—L.A. Times Book Review