“No honest man can question the value of the heroic service of this pioneer in the Naval Air Force. The life and work of this fine American stresses the fact that the response to the call of duty, heroism, and top performance at any level of service know no lines of race or color, creed or national origin,” said the New York Amsterdam News on December 16, 1950, lauding the life of Ensign Jesse L. Brown.
The entire life story of Jesse Brown, albeit only a short twenty-four years, is one that inspired others, and is also a story that should be touted today as a true example of courage in the face of adversity.
Jesse Brown grew up in the heart of Mississippi during the height of segregation, but he excelled in school, went on to graduate from Ohio State University, and joined the United States Navy in 1946 becoming a Naval Aviator. Being the first and only African American to serve as a fighter pilot in the Navy would have been a challenge for anyone in a service in which African Americans served mainly as mess attendants in the enlisted ranks; but Jesse was an officer, scholar, pilot and to me personally, a hero beyond just the battlefield.
From newspaper accounts of the time, it becomes clear that Jesse was respected by his fellow squadron mates as evidence by the fact that they risked their lives to save him during the Korean War. After Jesse’s plane was shot down and crashed during action in Korea, one fellow pilot intentionally crash landed his own plane to help Jesse, and a helicopter pilot risked ground fire to land close to Jesse’s wrecked plane and attempt to rescue him.
The story of Jesse L. Brown is not well-known today but, as coverage in the Amsterdam News, Detroit Free Press, Atlanta Daily World, and many others makes clear, he was a great leader who inspired others to follow him.
Too often our doom is to forget or lose sight of such leaders as Ensign Brown, but I learned about him and his courage while serving on his namesake Navy ship, the USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089).
Although the ship is no longer in the naval service, the story of Jesse Brown’s actions on that cold day, December 4, 1950, near the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War stand out and should truly inspire others.