Editor’s Note: Thomas J. Hudner Jr., a former Navy pilot who won the Medal of Honor for attempting to rescue a fellow pilot during the Korean War, died Monday. He was 93. Hudner talked with CNN last year about his remarkable friendship with the pilot, Jesse Leroy Brown, who was the Navy’s first black aviator. This story 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 recently published 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.