Editor’s note: The 2022 movie “Devotion” is in theaters now and tells the remarkable story of the friendship between the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator, Jesse Leroy Brown, and fellow pilot Thomas J. Hudner Jr. In February 2021, Bob Alvis (High Desert Hangar Stories) shared this remarkable story with our readers.
We are all aware of the struggles and triumphs of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Many hoped that after the war, their distinguished service and success would open doors of opportunity for African Americans to continue to serve as pilots in the military. But that would not be the case, as struggles to overcome racial barriers were still a challenge, especially in the civilian world where the education needed to realize those dreams of flight would still be hard to come by.
In 1946, Mississippi-born Jesse L. Brown entered the United States Navy as a midshipman. Being a fan of all things flying, the young man from an impoverished family did all he could with his limited educational opportunities. He excelled in his learning at a racially segregated high school, graduated with honors and then went on to get a degree from Ohio State University. But the Navy, at the time, was not looking for aviators of color. No matter the education and skills, that color barrier in the Navy was still a hard one to overcome.
On Oct. 21, 1948, amid a flurry of press coverage, the United States Navy took the first step toward becoming a service that would accept African Americans as pilots of Navy aircraft.
Jesse Brown would earn his wings on that date. Just three months later, he was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 and shipped off to serve aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte off the Korean Peninsula. It was now 1950 and war was raging in Korea, as the North and the South struggled to get a foothold in each other’s territory. The USS Leyte was called upon to provide air support for UN-supported troops on the ground in and around the Chosin Reservoir. Fighter Squadron 32 would be called up on Dec, 4 to fly a sweep and take out targets of opportunity along the reservoir.
Ensign Jesse L. Brown had come a long way from his first flight in a Stearman at Glenview Naval Air Station in Illinois and the struggles of being the only African American in the Naval Training program. Now, with just 20 combat missions under his belt, his struggles to find his place among the elite aviators of the United States Navy would be achieved atop a snow-covered hilltop. Sadly, that is also where his career would come to an early end.
When the squadron of Corsairs left the deck of the USS Leyte, Ensign Brown was no longer just an African American pilot — he was a well-respected part of a close-knit group of naval aviators who no longer looked at the world through the lens of skin color, but as brothers-in-arms who would have each other’s backs through thick and thin. Fellow pilot Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. would form up on the wing of Jesse’s Corsair and be his wingman for the duration of the mission. Little did Jesse and Tom realize that their fate that day would change their lives forever and a friendship would be formed that would transcend skin color and race. They would become brothers formed from tragedy.
As the six-ship Corsair flight began their low-level search and destroy runs, they were not receiving much opposition from the enemy, or so they thought. After one particular pass, Hudner noticed that Brown’s Corsair was trailing fluid and they climbed up a bit to evaluate the damage. It was determined that small arms fire had fatally wounded the Corsair, which was soon rapidly losing altitude, and that a return trip back to the ship was out of the question. Brown faced the reality that he was going to end up somewhere in enemy territory and that a crash landing was his only chance of survival.
With Hudner on his wing and the rest of the flight flying top cover, Brown picked his spot on that snow-covered hillside and set it down, only to find out that snow-covered hills do a very good job of camouflaging the obstacles that would ultimately destroy his plane. The aircraft bucked and plowed through the snow until it came to rest with Brown hopelessly trapped in his smoldering Corsair. From above, his wingman maintained radio contact and did all he could to help coach him out of his predicament, but Brown’s leg was hopelessly pinned in his plane and his struggles were fruitless. Hudner, surveying the unfolding drama, made a choice that would earn him respect from fellow aviators for the rest of his life.
Tom crash-landed his plane near his friend Jesse’s burning plane and attempted to remove him from the wreckage, while at the same time fighting the fire with snow as the only available tool to stop it from spreading. They tried and tried to pry the wreckage to free his leg that was being held in a death grip by the twisted metal. Tom, seeing that his fellow pilot and friend was beginning to slip in and out of consciousness, kept exchanging small talk and thoughts of hope to keep him from giving up. After some time had passed, a rescue helicopter arrived on the scene and more hands were brought forth to attempt the rescue. They chopped away at the aircraft with axes, as others did their best to keep the fire away. As the sun was getting low on the horizon, Jesse made the suggestion to just cut his leg off, but those gathered realized that they were not equipped or capable of doing such a thing. In a heartbreaking moment, Jesse whispered in his friend Tom’s ear, “Tell my wife, Daisy, I love her.”
Tom, thinking there would still be hope for a rescue, did his best to comfort his friend and made the hard call to return with the helicopter crew to form up another attempt for a rescue. But that was not to be. Higher-ups did not want to put another rescue effort at the mercy of enemy troops, who would now be aware of the downed aircraft and would use it as bait to pick off would-be rescuers.
Squadron 32 was now less one of their own and suffered the broken heart of the loss of a beloved fellow pilot — and not knowing his fate just made it that much more difficult to process.
The next day a flight was dispatched to fly over the crash site. Brown’s remains could still be seen in the wreckage, less his clothes. It was thought that the enemy had been at the site and were now planting a trap for would-be rescuers. The two Corsairs lay in the snow and the order was given that the wreckage should be destroyed, so as to not supply the enemy with any possible intel that could be gained from the two craft. The most difficult mission ever flown to that point by the United States Navy was launched and the wreckage was hit with napalm to destroy the two aircraft and the remains of our young hero, Jesse. It was shared that as the pilots made their run over the aircraft, they recited the Lord’s Prayer.
For their actions, Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. received the Medal of Honor and Jesse L. Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and Purple Heart for his bravery and dedication to his mission. Jesse Brown was a true pioneer and an inspiration to fellow naval aviators for generations to come and the Navy found it fitting that a U.S. warship would bear the name USS Jesse L. Brown.
As for Tom Hudner, Brown’s fellow pilot and wingman, he spent the rest of his life living in a manner that would bring respect and honor to Jesse, even going as far as to try and retrieve his remains from that North Korean hillside to no avail.
Ensign Jesse L. Brown was a special man who overcame so much, back in the days when men and women of color had to fight for the respect of those who challenged their acceptance into American society.
But something stood out in his personality that made him like a magnet to his fellow aviators, something that made progress possible in a world and in a country with so far to go when it came to race relations. As an aviator, he transcended boundaries of race and became a brother who was worthy of the titles of Hero, Aviator and Friend. To America, he became the legend that would challenge us to overcome and be our very best, while not looking at skin color but rather at the character of all people and treating them with the respect and dignity we should want for all.
Ensign Jesse L. Brown, you never came home, but in our hearts you will walk with us every day and we will never forget how you gave your very best for all of us.
Bob out …