EXIT 351A I-95S To I-10w and Highway 17w, in Jacksonville FL
Upcoming is an EXIT to Interstate 10 which if you drove 365 miles you would come to The Pensacola Navy Base. You can bet a lot of young people from all different backgrounds exit here, drive the 6 hours to the aviator school and become different people. In many ways they become one. By that, I mean their shared experience in the Navy Flight School makes them one person. And you can bet on one other thing too. They wish they were not driving to Pensacola. They wish they were flying... already.
Back in the last years of World War Two, a couple of guys drove to Pensacola hoping to be fighter pilots in that war. But they were late so by the time they graduated, the Big Show was over. One was an upwardly mobile middle class Irish guy from near Boston. His parents wanted the best for him, so they had sent him to Phillips Academy Andover, an elite Prep School that had graduated the likes of both President Bushes, and many titans of industry and politics.
The other was the first African American graduate of Navy Flight training school. His parents were penniless Mississippi sharecroppers. They too wanted the best for their brilliant son.
Despite being raised in a cabin with no plumbing or electricity, he had graduated as salutatorian of his segregated Hattiesburg high school, where he met his future wife, Daisy Pearl Nix.
After, he got his degree from Ohio State University, he signed up for Reserve Officer Training and joined the Navy. Both Ohio State and The Navy were largely segregated at the time. That meant Jesse LeRoy Brown was only one of 2 African Americans enlisted in ROTC and only one of seven blacks to graduate that year from Ohio State. It was 1946.
After Ohio, Jesse continued flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station. The only African American in the program, Jesse anticipated antagonism. But he was pleasantly surprised. White cadets were welcoming. Ironically, he found it was the black janitors and mess hall staff who were hostile to him.
Because naval cadets were not allowed to marry, Jesse Brown and Daisy Nix married in secret. If caught it would mean immediate dismissal. But Daisy moved discreetly to Pensacola and lived off-base with Jesse rushing to her on his free weekends.
In October 1948, Jessie became the first Black to graduate from Navy Flight School which means he became the first African American to earn the Navy’s coveted Wings Of Gold.
Fast Forward to a freezing December day in 1950 over snowbound Korea. Approximately 100,000 Chinese troops had surrounded 15,000 U.S. Marines beside the Chosin Reservoir.
Jessie Brown was now wingman to the Andover grad whose name was Tommy Hudner. The two pilots flew dozens of close support missions. They rolled in and strafed the Red Army to prevent them from overrunning the vastly outnumbered Americans.
At some point, Tommy Hudner noticed that Jesse Brown’s plane was trailing fuel.
He had been hit. Jesse was going down.
Jessie survived the crash. Still to Tommy’s perspective, Jesse was in deep trouble. Jesse’s aircraft started to burn and Tommy could see that Jesse was trapped in the cockpit. Worse, the Chinese Troops were rushing through the woods. So what does Tommy do? He radios for helicopter help and then crash-lands his own plane. Desperately he tries to extract Jesse from the cockpit before the fire can consume them both. But it is too late. Jesse cannot extract Jessie and Jesse is losing consciousness. The Helicopter lands and before Jesse dies he says one thing: “Tell Daisy I love her.”
Lieutenant Tom Hudner got out that day and Jesse became the first Naval Officer to die in the Korean War.
As for Tommy Hudner, he won the Medal Of Honor for his bravery. However, it was thereafter prohibited to crash your own aircraft in an attempt to save your comrade. Turns out Tommy did not need to do that again. He lived long enough to speak at the commissioning of the first Navy Ship named for an African American Sailor. It was a frigate named for his wingman, The Jesse L. Brown.
With no doubt South Koreans as well as African Americans in mind, said Tom Hudner of his friend, “Jessie willingly gave his life to tear down barriers to freedom of others.”
To this day, Jesse LeRoy Brown’s remains have never been recovered from the North Koreans.
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