Jesse LeRoy Brown became the first black person to be trained by the Navy as an aviator. After attending pre-flight school and flight training, he was designated a Naval Aviator in October 1948. He was then assigned to Fighter Squadron 32. He received his commission in April 1949.
Brown was born on October 13, 1926, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He was one of six children born to Julia Lindsey Brown, a schoolteacher, and John Brown, a grocery warehouse worker.
As a young boy, his father took him to an air show. Brown gained an intense interest in flying from this experience. He dreamed of someday flying an aircraft. He even went as far as writing a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, to ask why there were no black pilots in the military. To Brown’s surprised he received a letter back stating that someday that policy would change.
Because of the poor quality of schools where his family lived, in 1939 Brown moved to stay with his aunt where he attended the segregated Eureka High School in Hattiesburg. He participated in sports and was a member of the basketball, football, and track and field teams. He was also a high achiever in academics, graduating as the salutatorian in 1944.
Years later, in 1948, Brown became the first black pilot in the U.S. Navy. Brown knew what it was like to live under Jim Crow laws and to be taunted by racism, but when the military beginning to accept blacks he was hopeful.
Unfortunately, Brown’s dreams and career would be short-lived. In December 1950, he was flying his 20th mission of the Korean War when his plane was shot down. The plane crashed on a snowy mountaintop. Although Brown survived the crash he was badly injured and pinned in the plane which was burning.
Brown’s wingman landed nearby him in a tree and quickly began working to free Brown but Brown’s condition worsened and he died. With darkness nearing, Brown’s wingman didn’t want to leave him. But the helicopter pilot warned, that if he stayed he would freeze and die. The following day, officers decided that recovery the body of Brown would be too risky. They bombed the area to keep the aircraft and Brown’s body from falling into the hands of the enemy. A Navy ship was later named in his honor, the USS Jesse L. Brown.