Black in the Day…A Navy Hero

October 13, 1926:

On this day a history making Navy aviator and proud Mississippian was born.

Jesse Leroy Brown was the first Black man to complete Navy pilot training and become a Naval aviator. Doing so was one of his greatest challenges—fighting his way to such an illustrious place in the armed services at a time when the military was still segregated and most traditionalists felt that there was no place of honor in the Navy for anyone who was not a white male. Jesse Leroy Brown set his sights on flying when he was just a youngster working in Mississippi’s corn and cotton fields. Growing up as the son of a sharecropper, whenever he spotted an airplane overhead, young Jesse would declare that someday he was going to be a pilot.

Jesse Brown was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Oct. 13, 1926. While attending Eureka High School he made a name for himself as a runner and long jumper. He was also the top math student in his junior class. When he graduated in 1944, he chose to attend a predominantly white college rather than Hampton or Howard as his counselors had suggested. Warned of the prejudice he would encounter, Jesse explained that he wanted to study architectural engineering at Ohio State — and he didn’t plan to let any such obstacles get in his way.

Brown enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1946, becoming a midshipman. Brown earned his pilot wings on 21 October 1948 amid a flurry of press coverage; in January 1949 he was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte. At the outset of the Korean War, Leyte was ordered to the Korean Peninsula, arriving in October 1950. Brown, an ensign, flew 20 combat missions before his F4U Corsair aircraft came under fire and crashed on a remote mountaintop on 4 December 1950 while supporting ground troops at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Brown died of his wounds despite the efforts of wingman Thomas J. Hudner Jr., who intentionally crashed his own aircraft in a rescue attempt, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Brown’s successes in the segregated and desegregated U.S. military were memorialized in several books. The frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089) was named in his honor.

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