The first African American aviator with the U.S. Navy is forever commemorated at the Honolulu Memorial
Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown was born in Hattiesburg, Miss., into a sharecropper family. He was a student athlete who excelled at math and had dreamed of being a pilot. Brown joined the Navy Reserve to help pay for college. On Oct. 21 1948, Brown became the first African American Naval aviator.
Brown flew a Vought F4U-4 Corsair and was assigned to fighter squadron VF-32 aboard USS Wright (CVL-49). His squadron transferred to USS Leyte (CV-32) in Oct. 1950, as part of Fast Carrier Task Force 77 on its way to Korea to assist U.N. forces.
Per the Naval History and Heritage Command: On Dec. 4, 1950, he was a section leader of a flight supporting the withdrawal of the Marines near the Chosin Reservoir. Brown announced over the radio, “I think I may have been hit. I’ve lost my oil pressure.” He crash-landed his Corsair on the side of a mountain in the snow.
Circling over the crash site in his own Corsair, squadron commander Lt. j.g. Thomas J. Hudner Jr. realized something was wrong when Brown didn’t emerge from the cockpit of the wrecked aircraft. Hudner crash-landed next to Brown’s wrecked Corsair, risking court-martial, capture by the Chinese, and his own life by ignoring his commanding officer’s directive.
Hudner found Brown in pain, bleeding, and trapped in his aircraft by a damaged instrument panel, with no way to rescue him. A Sikorsky helicopter piloted by Marine Lt. Charlie Ward arrived in response to Hudner's distress call, but there was nothing that could be done to extricate Brown from the Corsair. Brown asked Hudner to tell his wife, Daisy, how much he loved her before he died in his cockpit. As daylight was rising, Hudner and Ward were forced to leave Brown's body behind.
For his leadership and valor, Ensign Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, the Combat Action Ribbon, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
While his remains were not recovered , his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial along with 8,209 other missing in action from the Korean War.