Jesse L. Brown was born in October 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. When he was six years old, his father took him to an air show, which was the impetus for his interest in becoming a pilot.
While at college, Brown learned of the Naval Aviation College Program, a flight-training initiative. A recruiter told him he would not pass the qualifying exams and even if he did, the Navy did not have African American pilots. Despite all odds, Brown passed the exams and joined the program. The Navy then offered monthly compensation that allowed Brown to quit his other jobs.
As an aviation midshipman, he attended a series of flight training courses. The last one was at flight school in Pensacola, Florida. While there, he secretly married his high school sweetheart. Marriage for men in the training program was prohibited until after graduation, and, if found out, Brown could have been discharged from the program. In October 1948, he graduated from flight school and became the first African American to earn his Navy wings.
As Brown broke the color barrier, his achievement grabbed the media’s attention and his picture was in “Life” magazine. Brown was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 and was aboard the USS Wright before his unit transferred to the USS Leyte. At the start of the Korean War in 1950, the USS Leyte was called for duty.
On Dec. 4, 1950, Brown, as squadron leader, was on a strike mission to the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. About an hour into the mission, one of the pilots saw what looked like fuel leaking from Brown’s plane, apparently hit by gunfire. According to HistoryNet.com, Brown radioed, “This is Iroquois One-Three. I’m losing power. I have to put it down. Mayday. Mayday.” Brown crash-landed on the side of a mountain. His wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner Jr., saw that Brown did not emerge from his plane. Hudner Jr. then crash-landed next to Brown’s wreckage. In doing so, he risked his own life, a court-martial and capture by the enemy. Hudner Jr. was unable to free Brown, who was injured and trapped by the crushed instrument panel. Even when help arrived, the men were unable to free him. Before he died, Brown asked Hudner Jr. to tell his wife he loved her. He was 24 years old.
Brown earned various medals and honors, including a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart and an Air Medal. In addition, the Navy commissioned a frigate in his honor, naming it USS Jesse L. Brown.
We honor his service.
Nominate a Veteran for #VeteranOfTheDay
Do you want to light up the face of a special Veteran? Have you been wondering how to tell your Veteran they are special to you? VA’s #VeteranOfTheDay social media feature is an opportunity to highlight your Veteran and his/her service.
It’s easy to nominate a Veteran. Visit our blog post about nominating to learn how to create the best submission.
Writer: Michael Veronda
Fact checker: Carl Wesseln