Blue Star Turned to Gold: The Loss of Ens. Jesse L. Brown

Today’s post was written by Nathanial Patch, Subject Matter Expert for Navy Records and Reference Archivist at the National Archives in College Park.

From Carrier to the Thick of the Fight

Corsair Airplanes Aboard the USS Leyte (CV-32) in Korean Waters (NAID 178141084)

On a cold and bleak day in December 1950 off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, the USS Leyte (CV 32) turned into the wind and prepared to launch the afternoon flight for close air support.  On deck and ready for take-off were six World War II era F4U-4 Vought Corsairs from Fighter Squadron 32 (VF 32).[1]  The Navy Blue planes with their massive Pratt & Whitney R-2800-18W radial engines roared with life, taxing into a queue and unfolding their sleek gull wings, readying for take-off.  Each plane was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns, six 5-inch High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVARs) and one Napalm bomb.[2]  Their mission was to attack the North Korean and Communist Chinese forces in order to delay their pursuit of the US Marines evacuating to Hungnam.

At 1:20 pm, the flight crew on deck signaled for the first plane to throttle up and start its way down the runway. Building up speed, the Corsair transitioned from the force of gravity to the lift aerodynamics, flying aloft when the flight deck ran out and soaring above the blue-gray ocean. As the first plane reached altitude, the other awaiting planes took off from the carrier, then grouped up before heading towards that day’s target.

The almost daily reconnaissance and close air support missions in the Chosin area were becoming routine for the US Navy and Task Force 77. VF 32 was a unique squadron because one of its section leaders was Ensign Jesse L. Brown, USNR of Hattiesburg, MS, the first African American naval aviator.

Jesse Leroy Brown, USN, Sept 1949 (NAID 74863786)

Ens. Jesse Leroy Brown – Biography

Jesse Leroy Brown was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on October 13, 1926. His mother, Julia, was a schoolteacher and his father, John, was a grocery warehouse worker, who later became a sharecropper in Lux, MS following the Great Depression. Jesse was one of six children, all of whom attended a single room schoolhouse in the deeply segregated South.  His parents taught their children that their education and adherence to hard work were the keys to escaping their impoverished situation and making changes for the future.[3]  

In among schoolwork and preparing for a prejudiced world, John Brown incidentally laid a seed of hope in his son by taking him to an air show at the age of six.[4] Jesse dreamed of flying from that point forward.  His lofty dreams of flight caused him to frequent a nearby airfield, much to the chagrin of the mechanics there, who routinely shooed him away. 

Nonetheless, Jesse embraced his parent’s wisdom and began working at an early age to prepare for his future. He started off as a paperboy delivering the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American paper. In the newspaper, he read about Black pilots and aviators, which continued to fuel his ambitions. He was an avid reader and read aviation magazines including Chicago Defender, later stating that the Chicago Defender helped influence him to become a naval aviator.[5]

While attending Eureka High School, a segregated school in Hattiesburg, Jesse was not only a good student, but also participated in basketball, football and track and field.  After graduating high school in 1944, Jesse wanted to go to college. His principal encouraged him to attend an all-black college, but Jesse instead followed in the footsteps of Jesse Owens, the African-American Olympic runner of the 1936 Olympics by attending Ohio State University.[6]

At Ohio State, Jesse majored in Architectural Engineering and joined the track and field team. He lived in a segregated part of town at a boarding house.  He later had to abandon playing sports because of financial difficulties.  He got a number of small jobs to make ends meet including loading box cars for the Pennsylvania Railroad and being a janitor at a nearby department store. He had good grades despite his workload and side jobs, but his dream to become a pilot proved difficult.[7]

During his first year at Ohio State, Jesse repeatedly applied to the school’s aviation program, but was turned down due to his ethnicity. With racism and financial problems, his dreams of flying seemed stymied. But during his second year, events took an unexpected turn for the better. He learned of the US Navy’s V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program.  His decision to attend Ohio State was fortuitous, as this naval program was only offered in 52 universities, none of which were historically black colleges and universities. He applied to the program and after passing the entrance exams and pushing past the resistance of naval recruiters, he was admitted to the program.[8]

On July 8, 1946, Jesse L. Brown enlisted in the US Navy, becoming Seaman Apprentice Brown and a member of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC). With his new Navy pay, Jesse could leave his other jobs and focus on flying and school. Jesse graduated from Ohio State in 1947 as one of 14 other African-Americans out of the more than 5,600 NROTC candidates that year.[9]

In March 1947, Jesse started flight school as the only African-American in the program. In April, he achieved the rank of midshipman, the more traditional rank for an officer in training. During training and throughout his naval career Jesse Brown often faced resentment from many corners, both for being black among the white aviators, as well as being a cadet and later an officer among the black cooks, stewards, and janitors.[10]

Midshipman Brown became Ensign Brown in April 1949 after completing basic and advanced flight training and passing carrier landing qualifications. After earning his Naval Aviator Badge, his accomplishment became widely publicized in a feature article by the Associated Press, and his photograph published in Life Magazine.  Jesse felt that he had breached the “color barrier” in naval aviation, clearing the way for other African-Americans to follow in his path.[11]

Before he was commissioned in April, Midshipman Brown was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 (VF 32) and assigned to the USS Leyte (CV 32). From this point until August 1950, the USS Leyte, VF 32, and the other squadrons performed training missions along the East Coast and in the Mediterranean. During these training missions, Ens. Brown developed the prestige of a highly capable pilot, earning the position of an effective section leader within the squadron.[12]

Ens. Brown and the rest of VF 32 had entered the Korean Theater on October 12, 1950[13] aboard the USS Leyte, one of several aircraft carriers bringing close air support to ground forces and attacking Communist strategic and logistical targets deep behind enemy lines.

The Leyte arrived after the Marine landings at Inchon and the Pusan Breakout, which routed the North Korean invaders north past the 38th Parallel.  The Leyte arrived in time for the crossing of the border into North Korea by the United Nations Forces led by General Douglas MacArthur, who were in pursuit of the North Korean forces in order to unite the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean retreat went up against and past the Yalu River that borders Manchuria, China. The war seemed to be all but won by mid-October.  The UN Forces moving into North Korea tipped the balance and threatened the People’s Republic of China. Beginning as early as October 19, 1950, elements of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), so named not to be confused with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s regular army, crossed the Yalu River to attack South Korean forces.  News of this intervention was not well received or believed by American forces until November 1, 1950 when the first of the Chinese forces engaged US Army 8th Cavalry Regiment at Unsan.[14] 

With the entrance of the Chinese volunteers, the tide of war had turned. Throughout November 1950, the US Army 8th Army’s X Corps, the 1st Marine Division, and other UN military were forced to defend themselves as they made their way to port cities and into awaiting amphibious ships to redeploy them to South Korea. The 1st Marine Division and British Marines made their way to Hungnam.  On December 1, 1950, Far East Air Forces released all tactical air support to the 1st Marine Air Wing, which also brought in the naval aviators of Task Force 77 to cover the UN Forces departure from Chosin.[15]  The US Marine Corps had perfected Close Air Support of ground troops since the First World War during the early days of Marine aviation.  The Navy also excelled at Close Air Support and utilizing squadrons of the carriers of Task Force 77, including the USS Leyte, with which they could keep the Communists busy as the Marines went to meet the ships at Hungnam.

The flight of six Corsairs who had taken off from the Leyte on that December morning reached an altitude of 5000 feet flying northwest over churning gray waters of the Sea of Japan before crossing the coastline into Korea towards their target area around the Chosin Reservoir.[16]

Around 1430 to 1500, the Corsairs of VF 32 began their mission to strike at oncoming PAV forces and the North Korean Army.[17]  They also attacked an undescribed building occupied by enemy forces with Napalm. The Chinese and North Koreans fired on the planes with their rifles and light machine guns because they did not have any specific anti-aircraft weapons.

At 1515, while searching for Marines in trouble west of the Reservoir near Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri, Ens. Brown’s plane was hit by small arms fire in the engine. A lucky shot severed the main fuel line. Another pilot in the flight, Koenig, noticed that his plane began to leak fuel.  Due to the damage, Ens. Brown lost all control of his plane, crashing over two miles northwest of the Chosin Reservoir. In the crash, Ens. Brown’s Corsair broke into two at the cockpit.  The wings crumbled and buckled under the strain of the crash, and the nose and engine section caught on fire.  Because the plane broke at the cockpit section, Ens. Brown’s right leg was pinned, and he was unable to escape the plane.[18]

From Wreck to Grave

Not long after Ens. Brown’s plane crashed, it was apparent to the other pilots that he was not able to evacuate and that he might have been badly injured. The flight leader called for assistance from a Marine rescue facility in Hagaru-ri, while the other planes circled to stand watch over their fallen friend.[19] 

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground was steadily worsening, as the fire of Ens. Brown’s plane continued to burn and Ens. Brown himself remained in the plane. LTJG Thomas Hudner, Ens. Brown’s wingman landed his plane with the wheels up near the crash site.  Hudner exited his plane and rushed to Ens. Brown to try to assist him.  He found that the fire was not as intense as it appeared, although it proved to be difficult to put out with a fire extinguisher. After the extinguisher failed to work, he piled snow onto the fire, which was successful in extinguishing the flames.[20]

Eventually, the rescue helicopter arrived, and Hudner and LT Charles Ware[21] attempted to pull Ens. Brown from his plane. Time was now against them as the Sun began to sink behind the mountains and into the East China Sea. In spite of their efforts and their desire to free Ens. Brown, who was now going in and out of consciousness, they were unable to free him from the plane.  With night fast approaching and the enemy encroaching on their position, LT Ware was forced to pull Hudner away from the wreck and his wingman. The two officers boarded the HO3S helicopter and returned to the Leyte.[22]

Based on the circumstances of the crash and attempted rescue, officials concluded that Ens. Jesse L. Brown likely died from his wounds from the crash, exposure to the elements of a Korean winter, or both. Thomas Hudner wanted to go back to the crash site and recover his wingman’s body. He argued with senior officers of the Leyte and the Carrier Air Group, but because of the decaying situation around the Chosin Reservoir and the enemy’s tightening grip on the area, his requests were denied. 

To prevent Ens. Brown’s remains, his aircraft, and Hudner’s aircraft from falling into enemy hands, on December 7, a flight from VF 32 conducted a Napalm run on the site.  As the site of the crash was being burned, the Last Rites were said to commit the remains of Ens. Brown to the next life.[23]

Searching the Records

The National Archives in College Park has a few relevant series in which these events are documented.  The two most important series are in Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations in War Diaries, 1946-1953 (National Archives Identifier 23857291) with the December 1950 War Diary of the USS Leyte (CV 32).

RG 38 War Diaries entry for December 4, 1950

RG 38 Air Attack and Ship Action Reports, 1950-1953 (National Archives Identifier 4487047) and the aircraft action reports of USS Leyte for December 1950, which includes VF 32 description of the loss of Ens. Brown on December 4, 1950.

Surprisingly, there was not a whole lot of information in the deck log of the USS Leyte regarding the loss of Ens. Brown, other than the weather conditions in the columnar page, when the flight took off, and when the surviving planes returned.

Both Ens. Brown and his wingman earned decorations for their actions during the Korean War and this action. Their citations for awards can be found in Record Group 428: Records of the Department of the Navy in Awards Citation Files, 1941-1970 (National Archives Identifier 599836).

RG 428 Award Citation for Ens. Jesse L. Brown

For additional research into the loss of Ens. Jesse L. Brown and to dig deeper into the US Navy’s participation in the Korean War, there are several series in Record Group 313: Records of the Naval Operating Forces that relate to the period and this conflict.  The series in RG 313 are first divided into naval “flag” commands. For this topic, there are series for Commander, Naval Forces, Far East and Commander, 7th Fleet. 

Aftermath and Legacy

For their actions, Ens. Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for fighting the North Korean aggressors from October to December 1950, and LTJG Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for putting his life in danger to assist a fellow officer incapacitated from injuries sustained from the crash of his plane.[24]

Though this story may seem like a brief incident among the broader context of the Korean War, it stands out due to Ens. Brown’s historical achievement as the first African-American naval aviator, who’s white wingman put himself in harm’s way to save the life of his colleague despite his ethnicity.  Ens. Brown helped pave the way for wider integration of the U.S. Navy by prevailing through its systemic racism, ultimately furthering the fight for greater civil rights for those eager to serve. Because of Hudner’s “exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion” that  “enhance(d) the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service,” naval aviation was, at least for a moment, colorblind.

In honor of Ens. Jesse L. Brown, a newly completed Knox-class Frigate was christened the USS Jesse L. Brown (DE/FF 1089) and placed into commission on February 17, 1973.[25]

In 2015, Adam Makos published Devotion: an epic story of heroism, friendship and sacrifice, which is provides a a broader and deeper background to this event. In 2022, Makos’ book was developed into a major motion picture by Black Label Media entitled Devotion, featuring actor Jonathan Majors as Ens. Jesse L. Brown and actor Glen Powell portraying LTJG Thomas Hudner.

In Ens. Brown’s hometown of Hattiesburg, MS on December 3, 2022, Ens. Brown’s family and the cast and crew of Devotion met at the African-American Military History Museum for a special presentation. After the presentation, the hosts and the attendants went to a special showing of Devotion at the Saenger Theater.

Secondary Sources:

Cagle, Malcom W. and Frank A. Manson. The Sea War in Korea. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press,1957

MacGregor, Morris J. Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-65. Washington DC: Center of Military History, 2001

Makos, Adam. Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice. New York: Ballantine Books, 2015

Marolda, Edward J. The U. S. Navy in the Korean War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007

Simmons, Edwin H. Frozen Chosin: U. S. Marines at The Changjin Reservoir. Quantico: US Marine History and Museum Division, 2002.

Taylor, Theodore. The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown. New York: Avon Books, 1998

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS) USS Jesse L. Brown (FF 1089) Naval History and Heritage Command.

[1] December 4, 1950 Deck Log of USS Leyte (CV 32); December 1950 Deck Log of USS Leyte (CV 32); US Navy Deck Logs, 1941-50; Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group 24; National Archives in College Park.

[2] December 4, 1950 Aircraft Action Report (ACA) for Fighter Squadron 32 (VF 32) from the USS Leyte (CV 32); USS Leyte December 1950; Air Attack and Ship Action Reports, 1950 – 1953; Records of the Chief of Naval Operations, Record Group 38; National Archives in College Park. (VF 32 Action Reports)

[3] Theodore Taylor, The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown (New York: Avon Books, 1998), 26-27

[4] Taylor, 25

[5] Taylor, 30-31

[6] Adam Makos, Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015), 36

[7] Taylor, 13

[8] Morris J. MacGregor, Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-65 (Washington DC: Center of Military History, 2001), 246-247.

[9] Taylor, 13-22

[10] Taylor, 77

[11] Taylor, 176-177

[12] Taylor, 182-188

[13] October 1950 War Diary, USS Leyte (CV 32); 12 Sep. 1950-31 Jan. 1951 War Diaries, USS Leyte (CV 32); Post-1946 War Diaries; Records of the Chief of Naval Operations, Record Group 38; National Archives in College Park (War Diaries)

[14] Edwin H. Simmons, Frozen Chosin: U. S. Marines at The Changjin Reservoir (Quantico: US Marine History and Museum Division, 2002), 6-8.

[15] Simmons, 74.

[16] VF 32Action Report

[17] VF 32 Action Report

[18] VF 32 Action Report

[19] Marolda, page 240

[20] VF 32 Action Report/War Diary

[21] Cagle, Malcom W. and Frank A. Manson, The Sea War in Korea, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD 1957, p. 177; In The U. S. Navy in the Korean War edited by Edward J. Marolda on pages 241-242, the pilot is listed as 1st LT Charlie Ward, USMC

[22] VF 32 Action Report/War Diary

[23] Makos, 360-363

[24] Citation for Ens. Jesse L. Brown’s Distinguished Flying Cross and LT(JG) Thomas J. Hudner’s Congressional Medal of Honor; Board of Decorations and Medals Alphabetical Awards Citation Files, 1920-1970; Records of the Department of the Navy (post-1947), Record Group 428; National Archives in College Park

[25] USS Jesse L. Brown (DE/FF 1089); Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships; Naval History and Heritage Command–brown–de-1089-.html viewed on December 2022.

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