On July 26th, 1948 President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, effectively creating the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services. This order required the immediate desegregation of all United States military branches, units, and housing facilities. As ever on his rather progressive social crusade, President Truman faced intense criticism from civilian and military personnel, as well as minor resistance by high-ranking officers within the military who opposed integration. Not at all weary of these disparagers, President Truman declared “I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings, and as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight”. Air Force and Navy Secretaries W. Stuart Symington and James V. Forrestal respectively announced instep with President Truman’s order declarations for an expeditious integration process, though many commanders in the South fully ignored the edict. It was not Executive Order 9981 however that gave Jesse Brown the opportunity to become one of the first African American naval aviators, but rather it was his adoration of flying, restless perseverance, and staunch conviction.
Jesse Brown was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1926 to a penurious family of African, Chickasaw, and Choctaw descent. His father John and mother Julia had five other children, to whom they stressed the importance of education and an industrious attitude – Brown would walk the three miles to school each day alongside his siblings. Due to the financial insecurity that plagued the Brown family, they moved quite frequently to where John could find work. Knowing the hardship this placed on his family, John would often take his children on weekend expeditions; when Brown was six, his father took him to an airshow where his love of flying began. He consumed reading material on famous flyers, and was especially enamored with Black pilots like C. Alfred Anderson (aka “the Father of Black Aviation”), Eugine Jacques Bullard (one of the first black military pilots who flew for the French during World War One), and Bessie Coleman (a daring pilot of Native American and African blood, just like Brown). Armed with the successes of his heroes, Brown began to desire above all else to be a pilot one day, going so far as to write a letter to President Roosevelt in 1937 criticizing the injustice of African American pilots not being allowed to fly in defense of their nation – he received a response saying his perspective was appreciated.
Brown was an incredibly studious, precocious young man, graduating from Eureka High School as the salutatorian in 1944. He had dreamed of attending Ohio State University just as his childhood role model, Jesse Owens had done several decades earlier. His family and those close to him suggested to Brown he apply to a historically all-black university like Howard. Unwilling to give up his dream simply because it seemed hard, Brown was accepted to Ohio State University. Brown maintained a part-time job to pay for his schooling. Brown made the right decision in choosing to attend Ohio State – in his sophomore year, Brown learned of the V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program being conducted by the U.S. Navy. The program was not available at black-only universities, only at integrated ones like Ohio State, so Brown was eligible to apply. He passed the entrance exams despite minor protests and enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in July of 1946. He completed his architectural engineering degree the following year, then reported to Glenview Naval Air Station in Illinois to conduct Naval Flight Officer Training. In 1947, Brown married his high school sweetheart Daisy Nix in secret, as naval cadets were not allowed to marry until their training was complete. The pair was able to escape detection until after Brown graduated.
Following a year of intense physical, mental, and airborne training, on October 21, 1948 Brown was commissioned as a Naval Aviator. There were instances of racism directed at Brown while he was in school, but no derogatory comment thrown at him caused him to quit. Brown’s success became national news, and Associated Press author Theodore Taylor wrote that Brown had broken the “color barrier” in the Navy.
In 1950 as Cold War tensions grew ever more inflamed, Korea became a staging ground for one of many ideological battles. This small peninsular nation had been annexed by Japan in 1910 and suffered terribly under the boot of the Japanese. Now in an age of nuclear war, following the Japanese surrender in August of 1945, the Soviet Union and United States divided Korea into two separate zones of occupation as they had already done in Europe. This division rested along the 38th parallel with the northern part aligned with the Communist Soviet Union and the southern part aligned with the democratic United States. In 1948 these two zones became fully functioning independent states still associated with their respective benefactors, but no longer under their direct control. The north had fallen into the hands of totalitarian communist leader Kim Il Sung who established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea while the southern Republic of Korea was controlled by Syngman Rhee, an corrupt autocrat who stayed in power with the backing of the United States for the sole reason he was not a Communist. Neither of these leaders accepted the predetermined border along the 38th parallel, and wanted their own ideologies to force the other into nonexistence. Tensions came to a fever pitch in June of 1950 when northern forces invaded the south following several months of small skirmishes along the border. To prevent the entire Korean peninsula from becoming Communist and to avoid great embarrassment at the hands of the Soviet Union, the United Nations Security Council voted to send military forces that they may aid the Republic of Korea’s forces which, within a few weeks, had been pushed nearly out of Seoul.
Brown and the other sailors aboard the USS Leyte were convinced that they would not be sent to Korea, as they were then-moored in the Mediterranean Sea. However, the naval pilots aboard the Leyte were said to have some of the best training out of any other squadron, and thus were dispatched to Korea in August 1950. Brown flew many missions providing air cover to ground troops and conducting aerial attacks on communication lines, gatherings of troops, and northern cities. When the People’s Republic of China entered the war in October of 1950, Brown flew missions every day to prevent what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of Chinese troops from advancing further into the south. On December 4th, 1950 Brown and several other men from his unit were dispatched to the Chosin Reservoir area to destroy Chinese forces that had pinned down a platoon of Marines. Brown descended to around 700 feet to get a better look at the snowy, sloping hills of the reservoir. Soon after one of the other pilots in his squad noticed he was leaking fuel; a common tactic of the Chinese infantry was to fire in unison at passing enemy planes hoping to damage some internal function rather than bring down the plane itself. This time they succeeded, rupturing Brown’s fuel line. Too far to fly back, Brown violently crash-landed 15 miles into enemy territory, the aircraft contorting around him and pinning one of his legs. The aircraft was set ablaze in the crash – unable to move, Brown took off his helmet and gloves and waved them around to use as a beacon to the other pilots to send help, as they initially thought he was dead. Brown’s wingman, Thomas Hudner, intentionally crashed his plane nearby and ran to aid Brown, attempting to wrest the tremendous weight of the burning aircraft off of him and even tried to put the fire out with snow. A rescue helicopter had arrived, but as darkness had fallen it was rendered useless. Brown’s last words were spoken to Hudner: “Tell Daisy I love her.” The helicopter left with only Hudner aboard.
For demonstrating bravery in Korea, Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart Medal, and the Air Medal. Hudner received the Medal of Honor for his rescue attempt of Brown. Unfortunately, Brown’s remains were never recovered. Hudner, before boarding the helicopter at Chosin, promised Brown he would come back and retrieve his body believing that he could before the war was over. This never came to pass, but Hudner worked diligently to keep that promise until his dying day. Author and war historian Adam Makos had been working with Hudner to tell Brown’s story for years – Makos was able to pull some strings and the pair actually visited North Korea in 2013 to meet with officials there to get clearance to repatriate Brown’s body. The monsoon season prevented any search from being conducted at Chosin then, and the death of Hudner in 2017 followed by the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Brown’s body remains undiscovered in North Korea. Makos published in 2014 the story of Brown and Hudner, and the friendship the two shared in his novel Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice that was recently adapted into a film starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell.
The story of Ensign Jesse Brown is one of heartbreak and courage but his legacy, which will remain everlasting, is one of hope.
Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.