Jesse Leroy Brown, the Navy’s first aircraft pilot, was also the first African American pilot killed in the Korean War. Born October 13, 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he was one of the five children of John Brown, a sharecropper, and schoolteacher Alice Brown. An all-around athlete, he graduated salutatorian at Hattiesburg’s racially segregated Eureka High School and was the school’s first graduate to enroll at a predominantly white college, Ohio State University, in 1944. For three years a straight-A engineering major at OSU, he supported himself at the institution by working off campus as a janitor and boxcar loader. Long dreaming of becoming an aviator, and after noticing a poster advertising the Navy’s V-5 flight training program, he signed up despite repeatedly being discouraged by a white recruiter.
After first serving as a Navy reservist, then a midshipman, and finally undergoing flight training in Illinois, Iowa, and Florida, where he repeatedly encountered the racism of his instructors and peers, Brown became one of only six trainees, out of a hundred who had started in the program, to win “Wings of Gold” on October 28, 1948. During training he secretly married his high school sweetheart, Daisy Pearl Nix, with whom he had a daughter. Now Ensign Brown, he was initially posted to the Atlantic Fleet and assigned to fighter squadron VF-32 flying off the carrier USS Wright. With the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950, Brown’s squadron was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and the aircraft carrier USS Leyte.
By this point Brown had risen to squadron section leader and participated in a number of actions supporting United Nation’s ground troops when on December 4, 1950, on a mission toward the Chosin Reservoir, Chinese anti-aircraft fire ruptured his F4U Corsair’s fuel line forcing his plane to crash land in a snowy mountain pasture. Brown’s best friend and wingman, Lt. (j.g.) Thomas L. Hudner Jr., knowing he could be court-martialed, disobeyed orders to continue the mission and instead risked his own life and crash landed his plane near Brown’s. Hudner worked furiously but in vain to free Brown who was trapped in his cockpit and died. After Hudner was evacuated by helicopter, it was believed too dangerous to retrieve Brown’s body, and because the Navy feared his Corsair would have come into possession of the enemy, a “warrior’s funeral” was ordered and the entire crash site was incinerated with napalm.
Brown, who had been lionized by the Black press since becoming a Navy pilot in 1948, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On April 13, 1951, President Harry S. Truman hosted a ceremony at the White House attended by Brown’s widow, Daisy, and the rest of his family as well as Lt. Thomas L. Hudner who recounted that the aviator’s last words were “Just tell Daisy how much I love her.” In 1973, twenty-three years after his death, the frigate USS Jesse L. Brown was christened in his honor.