Editor’s Note: The remarkable friendship between Jesse Leroy Brown, the Navy’s first black aviator, and fellow pilot Thomas J. Hudner Jr. is the basis for the new movie “Devotion,” in theaters now. This story first published in 2016 and contains language that may be offensive to some readers.
Jesse Leroy Brown was hurtling over the North Korean countryside in his Corsair fighter 17 miles behind enemy lines when he discovered that he was in trouble.
“Jesse, something’s wrong,” one of the men in his squadron radioed him. “You’re bleeding fuel.”
It was the beginning of the Korean War, but Brown was already battle-tested. For years, his own people had tried to destroy him. Now he was in another conflict, part of a six-man squadron dispatched to defend a U.S. Marine division encircled by 100,000 Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines appeared so doomed that newspapers back home dubbed them the “Lost Legion.”
Brown had been flying low over a remote hillside looking for targets when ground fire ruptured his fuel line. He scanned the icy slopes for a place to crash land because he was too low to bail out.
“Losing power,” Brown calmly radioed to his squadron. “My engine is seizing up.”
He spotted a small mountain clearing and took his plane in. The impact of the landing raised a cloud of snow and crumpled his Corsair. He tried to climb out of the cockpit but he was pinned inside – and flames were starting to rise from the fuselage. The sun was setting, and swarms of Chinese troops were likely headed his way. That’s when his wingman, Lt. Tom Hudner, who watched the scene unfold from above, decided to do something risky: He was going to crash land into the same mountain clearing to rescue Brown.
“I’m going in,” he said over the radio as his plane dived toward Brown’s smoking Corsair.
Forgotten war, forgotten man
What would happen over the next 45 minutes would turn Brown and Hudner into unconventional heroes – honored as much for what they did off the battlefield as on it. One would win the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, the other the Distinguished Flying Cross. A Navy ship would be christened in honor of one man, a statue erected in honor of the other. Two American presidents – Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan – would publicly praise both.
Brown’s name eventually faded from history, a forgotten man from a forgotten war. But he was more than a pilot, he was a racial pioneer: the U.S. Navy’s first African-American pilot. Brown went from steering a mule in a cotton field to steering seven-ton fighter planes onto aircraft carriers. And while many know of the Tuskegee Airmen, who broke the color barrier among Army aviators in World War II, few know of Brown, who broke the same barrier in the Navy – alone.
That could be changing, though. A book entitled “Devotion” examines the unlikely relationship between Brown and Hudner, one the product of an affluent New England family, the other the son in a family of sharecroppers who lived in a shack with no electricity or central heating. The book’s author, Adam Makos, says Brown and Hudner were able to forge a friendship across racial lines in an America that was even more divided by race than today.
“They were men ahead of their time,” Makos says. “If they could do it in their time, why can’t we do it in 2016?”
Brown’s story, though, goes deeper than racial inspiration. It’s also about the importance of being able to see yourself in someone who doesn’t look like you. Two of Brown’s biggest allies were white men who had little or no exposure to black people. One was willing to crash-land onto a mountain for him, another defended him on a different proving ground.
What was it about Brown that inspired such loyalty?
The boy wonder in Mississippi
Brown stands on a Tennessee hillside on a radiant winter day a year before his deployment to North Korea. He’s wearing aviator shades, and his wiry, 5-foot-10, 150-pound frame is tightly wrapped by a brown leather jacket. With his square jaw, neat faded Afro and brooding gaze, he looks like a vintage Ebony magazine model.
That image of Brown comes from the camera of his wife, Daisy. She took it just months after their daughter, Pamela, was born, and the determined look in Brown’s face gives a clue as to what made him special.
Brown grew up in a state where a black man could get killed if he looked at a white person the wrong way. Mississippi had a reputation as the most violently racist state in the South during segregation. But the Brown who stares out from photos taken of him during that era invariably looks resolute.
He had reason to – he was a childhood prodigy. Even before he flew, Brown was rising above his circumstances. By the time he was in high school, he spoke fluent French, was such a brilliant student that he discovered a mistake in a math textbook, and had such a gifted mind that he designed an irrigation pump for an engineering company.
He was also a prankster, as well as a dancer who specialized in the jitterbug and the slow-drag. He loved to write playful and sometimes poetic letters to his friends and family, often signing off with the expression, “Your Ace Coon Buddy, Jesse Leroy Brown.”
Most whites, though, didn’t see a prodigy. They saw a “boy” – or used other names they reserved for black people, says his youngest brother, Fletcher Brown. It was a way of destroying black people’s self-belief and erasing their humanity.
“Your name was ‘Sunshine,’ ‘Stovetop,’ ‘Nigger’ – they didn’t call him by his name,” his brother says.
Sometimes they did worse. Once a group of white police officers savagely beat Brown in downtown Hattiesburg, saying he was trying to be “one of them smart niggers” when they heard he was attending a white college, Fletcher Brown says.
Another brother, Lura Brown, says that when some professors at a nearby university heard of Jesse’s intellect, they summoned him to their college to take photos of his skull.
When the study was concluded, the professors told Brown that due to the shape of his skull, he was supposed to be a moron.
“He didn’t worry too much about what they said,” Lura Brown says. “It’s like water off a duck’s back.”
Jesse Brown thought he was supposed to be something else: a pilot. He was 6 when his father took him to an air show. He was enthralled by wing-walkers and stunt fliers. He started sneaking off to a nearby dirt airstrip to watch planes take off. And when he was a teenager, he wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked why there weren’t any black men flying in the military. He got a form letter back from Roosevelt six weeks later assuring him that would change one day.
Brown decided that change would begin with him. Family members say he got his confidence from his mother, Julia, a former schoolteacher who relentlessly drove him as a student and wouldn’t allow him to call their family poor. By the time he was a teenager, when he would hear a small plane circling above the fields where he was picking cotton, he would announce, “I’m going to fly one of those one day.” His friends would laugh and shake their heads.
Then one day Brown got his chance. He was encouraged to attend a historically black college but told his high school counselor that a white college would be more challenging. He wanted to attend Ohio State University – the college of his childhood hero, Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens. Using money he saved from work and funds people raised, Brown enrolled at Ohio State.
It had virtually no black students at the time, but the university did have a U.S. Navy program designed to recruit college students to become pilots. Brown heard about it and decided to take the entrance exam. Despite instructors who warned him the Navy would never accept a black pilot, he passed the program and headed to naval flight officer training in Glenview, Illinois.
At Glenview, he would meet an unlikely ally.
‘I ain’t got nobody’
His name was Roland Christensen, but everyone called him Chris. He was of Danish descent and had a kind, open face. He was a flight instructor at Glenview Naval Air Station in 1947, and he held the careers of many would-be Navy pilots in his hands. An average of 10 pilots per day washed out of Glenview.
On March 17, 1947, Christensen and other flight instructors had gathered on the upper level of a hangar to begin another day of weeding out would-be pilots. The nervous trainees were milling about below, checking the flight boards to see which instructor they would be assigned to. He glanced below and noticed a slim black man standing alone, looking anxious and bewildered in a sea of white faces.
Christensen’s first meeting with Brown is recorded in “The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown,” a 1998 book written by Theodore Taylor.
“I’d like to teach the Negro fella if it’s alright with you,” Christensen said to his flight commander.
The commander responded with a sarcastic chuckle. No one wanted anything to do with Brown, he told him.
Christensen approached Brown with an outstretched hand.
“You’ll be flying with me today,” Christensen said. Brown snapped to attention with a hearty, “Yessir.”
In the days ahead, Christensen calmed Brown’s anxiety by building a personal rapport with him. Christensen had grown up on a farm in Nebraska and talked with Brown about farming. He kept teaching Brown even though fellow flight instructors ostracized him and teased him about “flying with an oil slick.” At a time when the military was still officially segregated, Christensen openly befriended Brown.
Brown was so grateful to Christensen that he would write letters to him in the years that followed, letters that Christensen would keep in a cedar chest in his home for over 60 years.
Christensen’s decision to stand up for Brown was a mystery to many. He didn’t seem to have much in common with Brown. Christensen didn’t even know any black people growing up in Nebraska. But something happened to Christensen in his childhood that made him empathize with his student.
When he was a kid, Christensen’s family lost their farm during the Great Depression and had to move into the city. He never forgot how alone and isolated he felt as a poor kid with cardboard soles in his shoes trying to fit in with the fancy big-city kids.
He saw himself in Brown.
“When I saw Jesse he looked a little bewildered, a little lost,” Christensen said years later. “I had that feeling when I moved into town myself. I thought he needed a friend, someone who could bring him through this thing.”
He saw something else in Brown, too – he had heart.
Christensen’s daughter, Nancy King, remembers her father’s fondness for Brown.
“He said that kid wanted it – he wanted it so badly, to get his wings and fly,” King says.
Other flight instructors saw Brown as an intruder. One whispered to him, “Nigger go home,” as they passed in a hallway. Another warned him that “a nigger will never sit his ass in a Navy plane.” Others rode him mercilessly when they took to the sky, calling him a “dumb nigger” if he made the smallest mistake.
The flight instructors could get away with it because racial discrimination was still official policy in the U.S. armed forces. It was still a year before President Harry Truman would issue an executive order desegregating the military.
Brown wasn’t even accepted by other blacks at Glenview – the cooks. They resented his ambition, glaring at him and serving him half portions in the cafeteria.
Brown wrote home to Daisy, saying he felt like an “earthbound crow.”
“Even the mouths of the brother food handlers dropped when I showed up,” he wrote.
On the surface, Brown was stoic. But there were times the pressure got to him.
One Saturday morning, on a visit home, he grabbed his younger brother Lura, who was a teenager at the time. “C’mon boy,” he said as they walked to the side of a barn away from others.
He then started to cry.
“I ain’t got nobody I can laugh with and talk with,” he told his little brother.
“You can’t quit,” Lura told him.
Christensen gave him the same message. When Brown was getting treated roughly by other flight instructors, Christensen would tell him, “Ride with it, Jesse.”
Brown eventually found one other person at Glenview who could relate to him. It was another black man, Albert Troy Demps.
Demps was his steward, the man who cleaned officers’ rooms and shined their shoes. All the stewards were black in those days.
When Demps first went to shine Brown’s shoes, Brown stopped him:
“Don’t,” he said. “I shine my own shoes.”
When they were around other officers, all of whom were white, Brown and Demps addressed each other by their titles. But alone after hours, the two men would huddle to talk and would call each other by their names.
Now 90, Demps still remembers the conversations. Brown told him that if the human race was going to survive, people had to stop seeing each other as separate races. God didn’t see race, he told Demps, so why should people?
“Demps,” he’d say, “when people realize that we’re created as one human race, then we’ll be better off as a people.”
Brown stuck it out. He eventually completed naval flight officer training at Glenview, and in 1948 he became the first African-American to be awarded the golden wings of a Naval Aviator Badge. His accomplishment attracted some attention. After he was assigned to the USS Leyte, Life magazine asked the Navy to take pictures of its first black pilot for a story the publication was planning. When war broke out two years later, the Leyte would be deployed to Korea with Brown’s squadron on board.
Demps still remembers what Brown once told him while they were talking alone one night at Glenview.
“If I become a pilot, every black man can become anything he wants to be in the Navy.
“I’m the beginning of things to come.”
On a Korean hillside
After Brown crash-landed his Corsair in the North Korean mountain clearing, his wingman radioed that he was going in. Hudner’s plane slammed into the snowy hillside and screeched to a halt, 100 yards away from Brown. Hudner bolted from his cockpit and ran toward Brown, slipping and sliding in the snow as he went.
When he got to the plane, he hopped onto the wing and saw Brown inside. He was conscious, but his legs were trapped under the twisted fuselage and smoke was rising.
“Tom, I’m pinned,” Brown said. Brown’s helmet was gone, and he had taken off his gloves in the subzero temperatures in an attempt to free himself. Hudner placed his scarf around Brown’s hands, pulled out a wool cap and slipped it over Brown’s head.
Hudner was more than Brown’s comrade, he was his friend. Hudner was a member of a prosperous Massachusetts family. His father owned a grocery store chain, and Hudner had attended the prestigious prep school Phillips Academy Andover. He had admired Brown’s professionalism, his sense of humor and the way he’d stood up to racial abuse at Glenview. To Hudner, Brown was like family.
“I had no qualms about becoming friends with a man of a different color,” Hudner says today. “From an early age, my father had taught me: ‘A man will reveal his character through his actions, not his skin color.’”
Hudner ran back to his plane and radioed for a rescue helicopter, telling the pilot to bring an ax. When the helicopter came, Hudner and the rescue pilot tried to free Brown from the wreckage for 45 minutes, but the ax couldn’t make a dent.
During the entire time, Brown never complained or cried out in pain. As the light faded, Hudner kept trying to free his friend while their squadron circled above, looking out for enemy troops.
Brown’s ability to silently take the pain astounded Hudner.
“He’s got all the heart in the world,” Hudner yelled into his radio to their friends circling above.
But that heart was fading, and so was the day. Brown was now slipping in and out of consciousness. Hudner heard Brown weakly call out:
“Just tell Daisy how much I love her.”
Brown’s head then slumped against his chest. His breathing grew shallow.
The horizon was getting darker. The helicopter pilot beckoned to Hudner. He said they had to go, that he didn’t have instruments for night flying.
Hudner didn’t want to leave Brown behind. He looked at the helicopter pilot, then back at Brown. Brown didn’t appear to be breathing anymore.
“Decide quickly,” the helicopter pilot said. “But remember, you stay here, you freeze to death.”
Hudner ran to the helicopter. As they flew back to the USS Leyte, he was in despair.
“If it wasn’t Jesse down there, I don’t know if I’d have taken the chance I did,” he says today. “If it had been me down there on the ground, Jesse would have done the same thing.”
A new group of wingmen
News of Brown’s death spread quickly through the Leyte. Hudner could have been court-martialed for deliberately crash-landing next to Brown. Instead the commander of the Leyte nominated him for a Medal of Honor. Hudner and his shipmates took up a collection for Jesse’s daughter, then almost 2, raising today’s equivalent of $24,000 for her college fund. The ship’s black crew members, who Brown used to wave to when he landed, openly wept.
One member of his squadron went to Brown’s bunk to sort his belongings for a shipment back home. He gathered a photo of Daisy and their daughter, Pamela; a dog-eared Bible; “My Own Story” by Jackie Robinson; and “Five Great Dialogues” by Plato.
A bugler on the Leyte played taps and Marines fired rifle volleys over the ship’s stern in honor of their comrade. Brown was 24 when he died.
That could have been the ending of the story, but it was a new beginning.
President Truman invited Hudner and Brown’s widow to the White House the next spring to personally award Hudner his Medal of Honor. The friendship between Hudner and Brown was a validation of Truman’s controversial decision to desegregate the nation’s armed forces two years earlier.
Newsreel footage of the ceremony shows the first meeting between Hudner and Daisy. He looks nervous and conflicted as a beaming Truman drapes the medal around his neck. Daisy stands next to him shyly smiling as she holds flowers. When she looks at Hunder, her face lights up with warmth and gratitude.
Hudner would return that gratitude. His hometown would throw him a hero’s parade and present him with a check that would be the equivalent of $9,000 today. He promptly signed it over to Daisy for her own college education. He heard Brown say he wanted his wife to go to college because he never wanted her to end up working in some white person’s kitchen.
As the years followed, Brown would draw a second set of wingmen – and women. They kept his memory alive by naming streets and buildings and erecting statues in his honor. In 1973, the Navy christened a frigate the USS Jesse L. Brown. Valada Parker Flewellyn, a poet and storyteller, organized a museum exhibit entitled, “A Pilot Lights the Way,” and Anthony B. Major, a filmmaker, produced a documentary that included an extensive interview with Daisy.
And in 1987, Ronald Reagan became the second U.S. president to publicly honor Brown. At a ceremony at the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, he said:
“Jesse didn’t consider the race of those he sought to protect. And when his fellow pilots saw him in danger, they did not think of the color of his skin. They only knew that Americans were in trouble.”
Others, though, see Brown as a hero precisely because of his skin color. They say he should be added to the canon of African-American racial pioneers such as Owens, the Olympic sprinter, and Robinson, the baseball star.
Alzo Reddick, who once taught a college course on African-American history, says Brown died for a country that didn’t recognize his humanity.
“He was a stranger in the land of his own birth,” says Reddick, who helped produce the documentary on Brown.
“When he was born in Hattiesburg [Mississippi], he was treated as if he might have been from Mars.”
More than a pioneer
He was a stranger to his own daughter as well.
Pamela Brown Knight has no memory of her dad. She was almost 2 when she lost her father. In the weeks after his death, she would run to a window whenever she’d hear an airplane, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!” She used the money raised by the Leyte crew to earn a master’s degree in social science. Her mother, Daisy, also fulfilled Brown’s wish to graduate from college, becoming an educator. She died in 2014.
Knight says she tried to talk about her father with Hudner and her uncles. But the memories seemed too painful for them, so she stopped asking questions. She found some answers for her pain, though, when she started reading the long, poetic love letters her father mailed to her mother.
“The biggest thing that I learned is the depth of the love my father had for my mother,” she says. “That was awe inspiring.”
Many of Brown’s squadron mates are still alive. Some are pushing 90, but their memories are sharp, their attention to detail telling, their language concise. They’re still aviators. They talk about what Brown could have been had he survived. The Navy’s first black admiral? An architect? A commercial airline pilot living the good life? Or maybe a politician? He died just as life was opening up for blacks in America.
Brown’s death, though, hits hardest for his brothers. Their mother died of a stroke just a month after hearing her son was killed in action. Fletcher Brown, now 84, lives in Los Angeles. Listen to his chuckle and slow Mississippi drawl and it’s easy to imagine that’s how Brown might have sounded.
“I loved all of my brothers, but he was my favorite. I wanted to do everything Jesse did,” Brown says. “I have not gotten over it yet and I don’t know if I ever will.”
The two men who risked so much to help Brown never got over his death either.
Hudner, now 91 and a retired captain, returned to North Korea in 2013 to try to find and retrieve the wreckage and remains of his wing mate. His efforts were unsuccessful, but he keeps honoring Brown in other ways. When the Navy recently informed him it wanted to name a ship after him, he wrote back requesting that they name it after Brown, since the ship originally named for him had been decommissioned.
Every time he drapes the Medal of Honor around his neck for a public event, Hudner thinks of his wing mate.
“I wear it for him,” he says. “If Jesse had survived, I think we would have been friends for the rest of our lives.”
Christensen, the flight instructor who took Brown under his wing, was so torn up when he heard how Brown died that he decided to become a helicopter rescue pilot. He saved the lives of six pilots during the Korean War, but his daughter said he kept thinking of the one he couldn’t save:
“He told me that there wasn’t a single week that had gone by since 1950 that he didn’t think about Jesse Brown. He said, “I dream about it.’ ”
At one extraordinary gathering a year before his death in 2014, Christensen met Hudner. They were in Washington for a panel discussion on Brown’s legacy and sat next to one another on stage.
Christensen told the audience that he had been on that snowy hillside with Brown “100 times” over the years trying to figure out what he could have done.
He then turned to Hudner, who was leaning forward listening intently, the sky-blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor draped around his neck.
“I appreciate all you did Tom,” he said. “I know you did your best.”
Then he turned to the audience, which included Brown’s family, and said he was proud to know Brown as a friend.
“A man’s greatness is not measured by the years he’s had here but the way he lived his life,” Christensen said. “Jesse did a lot.”
When Brown was a kid predicting he would fly planes, people laughed. But he was right. And when he said, “I’m the beginning of things to come,” he was right again. The U.S. military is arguably the most integrated institution in America.
But Brown was wrong in one small way. He may have been the beginning of something, but he was also the last – because no one who followed Jesse Leroy Brown had to travel the distance he did to fly.
He was more than a racial pioneer. He was a man – not a boy – who had all the heart in the world.