Jesse LeRoy Brown dreamed of becoming a pilot his entire life. As a child, he would watch planes fly overhead, and told his family that he, too, would someday fly airplanes.
Brown’s family didn’t take him too seriously at the time — but they should have. At the age of 24, Brown became the first African American naval aviator in the United States Navy.
In a new documentary film produced by the University of Central Florida and the Zora Neale Hurston Institute for Documentary Studies, Brown is honored for his groundbreaking role. The film was screened last month in Washington, D.C. at an event commemorating the anniversary of the integration of the U.S. armed forces.
Brown was born in 1926 to a family of Mississippi sharecroppers. His brother Fletcher recalled an airfield sat close to the fields his parents worked in — and Brown would frequently sneak over to watch the airplanes.
One day, the field owner’s son, a pilot in WWII, flew his plane over the fields where Brown and his family were working and dipped low to the ground. “Everybody else would be running to get under a tree or something and hide — and Jesse would be sitting there like he’s crazy, talking about how he was gonna do that someday,” Fletcher Brown said. “And everybody knew he must be crazy ... but that is what he wanted to do — was to fly an airplane.”
Brown eventually worked his way to Ohio State University, paying his way by delivering dry cleaning and unloading engine parts from boxcars. Still determined to become a pilot, Brown approached the aviation program director at Ohio State and declared his intention. But the director told him bluntly that he could only enter the program if he wanted to be a mechanic.
Soon after, Brown saw a recruitment poster for the Navy’s aviation program — and another opportunity. After meeting with an officer from the program, Brown was given the same answer as at Ohio State — he could not join, simply because he was black. But Brown responded that he just wanted to try. The officer ceded to Brown’s persistence and agreed to let him take the entrance exams.
Brown failed the test three times, but passed on his fourth try. He soon left Ohio State for Navy training. He learned quickly, and after just seven flights was soloing an aircraft.
“Jesse was a natural athlete. He was well-coordinated, he was intelligent, he was alert, he responded immediately to instructions and we both felt comfortable working together,” his first flight instructor, Roland Christensen said. “What else can I say — it was a really good relationship.” Brown then joined America’s efforts in the Korean War.
On Dec. 4, 1950, shortly after he received his commission as Ensign, Brown flew behind enemy lines over the Chosin Reservoir, and was hit by enemy fire. Brown managed to land his plane in a clear field, but the aircraft broke in half upon impact. The other American pilots flying alongside him thought he had died in the crash, but Brown waved from the cockpit to signal that he had survived.
Hoping to rescue him, his wingman, Thomas Hudner landed his plane in the clearing next to Brown’s and called a rescue helicopter. “He was the epitome of calmness,” Hudner, a Massachusetts native, said about Brown on that day.
Hudner tried to pull him out of the plane, but Brown was trapped inside and could not be moved. With the sun setting and Brown’s plane at risk of catching on fire, Hudner then made the difficult decision to leave Brown. “The only response he made was that if anything happened — if he doesn’t get out of there — to tell his wife Daisy how much he loves her,” he said.
Brown died that day, becoming the first African American naval officer to lose his life in combat. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional courage, airmanship and devotion to duty.
Years later, in a 1973 ceremony in Boston Harbor, a Knox class destroyer escort, U.S. D.E. 1089, was named the USS Jesse Brown, the first naval warship to be named after an African American war hero.
In an interview with the University of Central Florida television, Anthony Major, the film’s director, explained that Brown “just wouldn’t let anything deter him ... so it intrigued me.”
“The story needs to be told.”
“Here’s a guy ... he couldn’t ride on the front of the bus, not until 14 years later,” said Dr. Alzo Reddick, who suggested Brown’s story to Major. “But he’s up there flying a Navy plane, flying to defend the honor of the United States, sacrificing his life, and of course not enough people know about it.”
“It is a story of heroic proportions, Reddick continued. “When we talk about African American history ... we’ve got to talk about real men and women who despite obstacles demonstrated persistence, motivation, tenacity — all those things.”
The Jesse L. Brown documentary and an interview with the film’s director, Anthony Major, can be viewed online at www.ucftv.ucf.edu/shows/profiles/archive.asp.