Jesse LeRoy Brown is known as the first African American to complete the US Navy’s basic flight training program, doing so in late 1948.
Until the later 20th century, much of America was racially segregated, and while the US military had been officially desegregated by President Truman’s executive order in 1948, the institution still discouraged entry to African Americans.
It was during this climate of racial discrimination that Brown trained and distinguished himself as a pilot. He was killed in action during the Korean War, and for his exceptional service and resilience, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
From childhood ambitions to a trailblazing career in aviation, here is the remarkable story of Jesse LeRoy Brown.
Fascination with flying
Born on 16 October 1926 into a family of sharecroppers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Brown dreamed of being a pilot from a young age.
His father took him to an air show when he was 6, igniting his fascination with flying. As a teenager, Brown worked as a paperboy for the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American-run paper. He learned about African American pilots of the time such as Eugine Jacques Bullard, the first black American military pilot, inspiring him to reach for the same heights.
In 1937, Brown wrote to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the injustice of not allowing African American pilots into the US Army Air Corps. The White House responded to say they appreciated his view.
Brown applied this passion to his schoolwork. He excelled in maths and sport and was known for being unassuming and intelligent. Brown was advised to attend an all-black college, but wanted to follow in the footsteps of his hero, black Olympian Jesse Owens, and study at Ohio State University.
When he left Mississippi for Ohio in 1944, his high school principal wrote him a letter saying, “as the first of our graduates to enter a predominately white university, you are our hero.”
Brown continued to show promise at Ohio State, maintaining high grades while working night shifts loading boxcars for the Pennsylvania Railroad to pay for college. He tried several times to join the school’s aviation program, but was refused because he was black.
One day Brown noticed a poster recruiting students into the Naval Reserve. After making enquiries, he was told he would never make it as a Navy pilot. But Brown needed the money and would not easily miss the opportunity to one day sit in a cockpit. With persistence, he was finally allowed to take the qualification exams and made it through with flying colours.
Brown became a member of the school’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) in 1947, which at the time only had 14 black students out of 5,600. During his training aboard aircraft carriers, Brown faced overt racism from several instructors and classmates.
Nonetheless, on 21 October 1948 aged 22, he made history by becoming the first African American to complete US Navy flight training. The press quickly picked up his story, even featuring it in Life magazine.
The Korean War
Once an officer in the US Navy, Brown reported fewer incidents of discrimination as his rigorous training continued. By the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, he had earned a reputation as an experienced pilot and section leader.
Brown’s squadron joined the USS Leyte in October 1950 as part of Fast Carrier Task Force 77 on its way to support the UN’s defense of South Korea. He flew 20 missions in Korea, including attacks on troops, communication lines and military camps.
With the entry of the People’s Republic of China into the war, Brown’s squadron was dispatched to the Chosin Reservoir where Chinese and US troops were engaged in bitter fighting. On 4 December 1950, Brown was 1 of 6 aircraft on a mission to support US ground troops trapped by the Chinese. An hour into the flight, with no sign of Chinese troops, Brown’s wingman Lieutenant Thomas Hudner Jr. spotted fuel trailing from Brown’s plane.
Brown crashed into the mountainous valley, the plane splintering and pinning his leg under the debris. Stuck in a burning wreckage in below-freezing temperatures some 15 miles behind enemy lines, Brown desperately waved to the other pilots for aid.
Hudner, who had been advising Brown over the radio, intentionally crash-landed his plane to get to Brown’s side. But he could not put the fire out or pull Brown free. Even after a rescue helicopter arrived, Hudner and its pilot could not cut the wreck away. Brown was trapped.
He slipped out of consciousness before Hudner and the helicopter left. Night was approaching and fearing an attack, Hudner’s superiors would not allow him to return to retrieve Brown. Instead, Brown’s body, left inside the plane wreckage, was struck with napalm. He was the first African American US Navy officer killed in the war.
Inspiring a new generation
Ensign Jesse Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. As news of his death spread, so did his story of persistence to become a pilot while faced with systemic and overt racism, inspiring a new generation of black aviators.
In 1973, speaking at the commissioning of USS Jesse L. Brown, Hudner described his wingman’s contribution to American aviation history: “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.”