Jesse LeRoy Brown led a life full of firsts, carving the way for African American men and women to reach new heights years after his life and heroic death. He proved that dreams can be captured, regardless of circumstances, rules, and even race.
As a young Mississippi boy, Jesse always dreamed of flying a plane. He was a smart young man, having made good grades in the segregated Eureka High School of Downtown Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He went on to study engineering at Ohio State University, as one of the first African American students accepted to the institution. Taking a chance on his dreams, Jesse applied and was accepted to the Navy Pre-Flight School in 1946.
As the most notable first of his life, Jesse earned his wings in 1948 as the first African American Naval Pilot and was assigned to serve on the aircraft carrier Leyte during fleet maneuvers in the Caribbean. He was commissioned an ensign by the Navy and joined Fighter Squadron 32 in January of 1949, which joined the Fast Carrier Task Force 77 to serve the United Nations Forces in Korea.
Overcoming obstacles and achieving success was not foreign to Jesse. Instead, he was driven by challenges and determined to make much of his life. As a pilot, Ensign Brown became a section leader who received the Air Medal for daring attacks against enemy lines of communication, transportation, facilities, military installations, and troop concentrations at Wonsan, Chonjin, Songjin, and Sinanju. While aboard the carrier USS. Leyte, Jesse flew a total of 19 combat missions. His commanding offer, Captain Thomas Sisson of Winona, Mississippi, called Brown, “one of the best pilots of the air group.” He was respected by his peers and admired by all who knew him.
Another first came during his 20th mission – Jesse’s plane was hit by enemy gunfire. While he survived the crash, Jesse was trapped in the cockpit, unable to release himself from the burning wreckage. On December 4, 1950, Jesse Brown became the first African American to lose his life in combat during the Korean War. Consequently, Jesse was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional courage, airmanship, and devotion to duty in the face of great danger.
As a testament to Jesse’s great impact on his fellow wing mates, Captain (then-Lieutenant junior grade) Thomas J. Hudner crashed his plane alongside Jesse’s in a brave effort to save his friend. Hudner received the Congressional Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism.
In citation from the Secretary of the Navy, it is stated that “by his unfaltering determination, personal valor, and gallant devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions, Ensign Brown reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.” What an honor to have at the young, yet courageous age of 24.
In a tribute to Jesse on November 22, 1993 from the Honorary Gene Taylor, former Mississippi Congressman, it is said that the story of Jesse Brown should survive forever. “In 1948 [Jesse L. Brown] accomplished a goal that had never been accomplished by an African American before him. As an aviator and as an officer, he made tremendous strides in the U.S. Armed Forces and saved innumerable lives. We must never forget his unselfish acts of courage.”
After 43 years, Michael Gregory, a Marine who was fighting around the Chosin Reservoir when Jesse offered air support, stated that “Jesse L. Brown died for us, the survivors.”
In 1973, the U.S. Navy named a ship in his honor. The USS Jesse L. Brown served for more than twenty years and was decommissioned in 1994. Today, Jesse continues to be honored for his bravery and his legacy. The USS Jesse L. Brown’s 80-pound bell was sent to the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, and placed on display in the Federal Tax Building in Downtown Hattiesburg, where it currently remains.
Hattiesburg is a special place in the life of Jesse L. Brown. As his first city, it is one filled with honor and respect for this hometown hero. Jesse’s mother, Daisy P. Thorne, and daughter, Pamela Knight, still reside in Hattiesburg. Together, they continue his legacy in the place where it all began.
Throughout the months of January and February, Jesse L. Brown will be honored through an exhibition in his honor at the African American Military History Museum in Hattiesburg. A Pilot Lights the Way exhibition will tribute Jesse L. Brown and Blacks in Aviation through a collection of art, photographs, artifacts, literature, and oral accounts.
A Pilot Lights the Way has been exhibited in several locations throughout Florida, but will be making its debut in Mississippi. Jesse’s family is looking forward to seeing the exhibit in Hattiesburg and are excited about remembering his life together in their hometown. “I will always be proud of him,” said Knight. “As his family, we are honored because of all the sacrifices and contributions he has made, and the honor that he has brought to our family. Displays like the one in Hattiesburg always give my children and me a sense of accomplishment. We continually strive to make him just as proud as he’s made us.”
The African American Military History Museum is a facility of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. It is located within the Historic USO Club at 305 E. Sixth Street in Downtown Hattiesburg. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10am-4pm, the Museum offers free admission for all guests. For more information on A Pilot Lights the Way exhibit or the African American Military History Museum, visit www.HattiesburgUSO.com or call 601.450.1942.