Ensign Jesse L. Brown​: first African American naval aviator and hero

Lauren Warner
January 30, 2019 - 1:35 pm

Courtesy of U.S. Navy

On a snowy December 4th, 1950, during the bloodiest part of the Korean War, Ensign Jesse Brown - the first black naval combat aviator - took off on a air support mission alongside his wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner Jr., and four other pilots.  Their mission: to provide cover for 8,000 Marines and soldiers who were outnumbered by 100,000 Chinese soldiers near the Chosin Reservoir.  Just one hour into their flight, the other pilots noticed Brown's plane was trailing fuel.  He'd been hit by small ground fire.

Brown knew what he had to do. Dropping his external fuel tanks and rockets, he attempted to land in a snowy clearing on a mountainside, just north of Pyongyang.  The plane crashed into the frigid valley and broke apart on impact.  Brown - alive but badly injured - was trapped in the fuselage.

Lt. Hudner, Brown's wingman, radioed instructions to his friend on how to get out of the plane.  When that didn't work, Hudner crash-landed his own plane in the two feet of snow near Brown in an attempt to save him.  A fire broke out, and Hudner fought it using snow. He couldn't extract Brown from the crash; his leg was mangled, caught in the fuselage, and Brown was losing consciousness. And they were still behind enemy lines.

Brown died in the crash, the first African American naval aviator, the first to fly in combat, and the first to die in the Korean War.

His legacy lived on. 

Courtesy of National Archives

The remains of the plane and Ensign Brown himself have never been recovered. Nearly 63 years after the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Hudner, 88, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his heroic attempt to rescue his team mate, visited  North Korea hoping to recover his friend’s remains.  Hudner left empty-handed. Hudner passed away at the age of 93 in 2017.

Born the son of Mississippi sharecroppers, Jesse LeRoy Brown followed in the footsteps of his hero, Olympic Gold Medalist Jessie Owens, and attended Ohio State University (OSU) after graduating in the top of his class. With hopes of joining OSU's aviation program, Brown was denied entrance to the program multiple times because of his race, but that didn't stop him. Instead, through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) program, he decided to join the Navy, even though a recruiter told him that the Navy had no black pilots and no plans to accept any. 

Brown continued to fight racial barriers when he passed the Navy entrance exams, and entered the Naval Reserve during his sophomore year of college. Brown earned his commission into the United States Navy, one of fourteen African Americans out of the 5,600 total number who completed the program. In 1948, Brown earned his Navy flight wings, graduating as the only African-American in a class of 600 aspiring pilots. 

Courtesy of U.S. Navy

Brown was the first African-American to be trained as a naval aviator, and then the first African-American naval aviator to see combat. During the Korean War, Brown's squadron was assigned to the USS Leyte in support of U.N. forces. Brown and his squadron were assigned to protect Marines on the ground in North Korea. 

It was during Brown's 20th mission that he was shot down.

Brown, pictured with his crew on board USS Leyte
Courtesy of U.S. Navy


Ensign Jesse L. Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart for his Korean War combat service.

USS Jesse L. Brown (DE-1089), a Knox-class frigate of the United States Navy, was named in honor of Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown on February 17, 1973. 


Want to get more connected to the great stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.