B. 10-13-26, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Attended public schools in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Ohio State University college of Engineering. Enlisted in USNR 7-8-46 and on 3-15-47 reported for active duty. Appointed Midshipman, USN, 4-15-47, Commissioned Ensign, USN, 3-17-49, and transferred from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Naval Reserve, 6-17-50. Died in combat, 12-4-50.
“He had training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, until 6-48, then further training with Fighter Advanced Training Unit 2, NAS Jacksonville, Florida. Designated Naval Aviator, 10-21-48, the U.S. Navy's first Black aviator. He was next attached to Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. He joined Fighter Squadron 32, 1-49, and as a Pilot of that squadron, operating from the USS Leyte, he flew twenty missions in the combat area off the northeast coast of Korea, from October to December 1950.”
“On Dec. 4, 1950, while flying close support for Marines fighting near the Chosin Reservoir with another officer, LTjg Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., USN, Ensign Brown’s plane was hit by enemy gunfire and crashed. LT Hudner crash-landed his plane to assist the injured flier, who was trapped alive in the burning wreckage. With his bare hands, despite the continuing danger from enemy action, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep flames away from Ensign Brown, and attempted to free him. Unsuccessful in his attempts, Ensign Brown's death came shortly thereafter. Ensign Brown was the first Black American Naval aviator to lose his life in combat. He was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross and cited in part as follows:
Air Medal: "For meritorious achievement … in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea from October 12 to November 7, 1950 ... Leading his section in the face of hostile antiaircraft fire, he vigorously pressed home his attacks, thereby contributing materially to the success of his division in inflicting serious losses upon the enemy and in providing effective support for friendly ground forces ...”
Distinguished Flying Cross: “For heroism and extraordinary achievement in action ... From October 12 to December 4, 1950 ... His exceptional courage, airmanship and devotion to duty in the face of great danger reflect the highest credit upon Ensign Brown and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
“He was also posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal for wounds received in enemy action.”
“The first ship of the U.S. Navy in honor of a Black Naval officer was named in honor of Ensign Brown. The USS Jesse L. Brown (DE-1089), a Knox-Class ocean escort ship, was launched on March 18, 1972. His widow served as sponsor and his daughter as Matron of Honor. The principal address was given by Captain Thomas L. Hudner, USN.”
From Navy records courtesy of Mr. Bernard F. Cavalcante, 2-4-91
THE FLIGHT OF JESSE LEROY BROWN
By Theodore Taylor
Somong-ni, North Korea
December 4, 1950
On this particular Monday the weather off the northeast coast of Korea remained very much like that encountered in the North Atlantic during deepest winter: gales and intermittent snow. The afternoon sky was dark gray and the sea was gray, furrowed with curling white wave-tops. Stiff breezes crossing the deck hit faces like an icy towel.
Task Force 77, the carriers Leyte and Philippine Sea, the great battleship Missouri and the sixteen other vessels of the Seventh Fleet were relentlessly plunging along into the wind, guiding on the cruiser Juneau. Only in the very worst weather were the aircraft grounded.
For three desperate days now, priority orders had been to provide increased maximum air support day and night to the 15,000 encircled Marines fighting their way along the bloody body-strewn 15-foot-wide ice-encrusted mud road to Hungnam, the captured North Korean port. Evacuation awaited.
Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown had flown the day before in one of the Leyte's sixty-nine sorties. In addition to bombs, rockets, and machine gunfire, thirty-six napalm pods had been dropped on two parallel ridges a mile long, flying Chinese communist troops who had recently entered the war against South Korea. More than 100,000 CCP troops surrounded the Marines.
Brown's best friend on the Leyte, LTJG Lee Nelson, had flown earlier that morning across the frozen Chosin Reservoir, located not far below the Manchu-rian border, making attack runs against the troops that were feeding into the pincer movements along the northwest shore. He'd skimmed the windblown ice, and after his debriefing, had talked about it with Jesse at early lunch.
"It's ugly out there, " Nelson said, meaning the weather.
"Any ack-ack [anti aircraft fire]?"
"The usual around Chosin. Small arms.
Courtesy Theodore Taylor, Avon Books, 1998, pp. 1-7, 273-281, 284, 290
"You get any?"
"I don't think so." Nelson's plane hadn't been inspected as yet for bullet holes.
Doug Neill, Squadron 32’s skipper, had been giving his pilots hell for going in too low. He didn't need shootdowns or maintenance problems.
Jesse said, "Man, am I sleepy. I was up late writing to Daisy and Pam."
Nelson laughed. "You'll wake up once you get on deck. It's cold, Jesse. Same as yesterday." The pilots wore longies, coveralls, maybe a sweater, rubber anti-exposure suits, and fleece-lined boots and gloves.
Jesse finished his coffee and said, "Gotta go. " He seemed tense.
Jesse started up the island structure ladder for the afternoon launch and midway met Dick McKenzie, who'd just returned from a Chosin strike in his Panther jet and was on his way to the ready room for debriefing. They'd known each other since Pre-Flight training in Iowa. McKenzie said, "Every man a tiger, Jess." The response was a terse "Okay, Mac." Every man a tiger? The attitude when taking off was understandably different than when returning safely.
In rapid succession, Executive Officer Dick Cevoli, flight leader for the Armed Reconnaissance mission; Lieutenant George Hudson, the Air Group Landing Signal Officer, Jesse and LTJG Tom Hudner took off in their Corsair fighter aircraft into the grimness over the Sea of Japan, followed by LTJG Bill Koenig and Ensign Ralph McQueen, a newcomer to Squadron 32. Jesse roomed with Koenig.
Hudson had said to Lieutenant Commander Doug Neill the day before, "Hey, I've been on the platform long enough. It's my turn to fly." Directing aircraft aboard, he was missing all the action.
square-jawed "Paddles, " a very experience pilot, took Koenig's usual place as Jesse's wingman. McQueen was flying on Koenig's wing.
Jesse had never said very much in the ready room pre-flight briefings, seldom asked questions, though he listened intently, but this day he'd seemed unusually quiet and contemplative, Koenig thought. Something was bothering him.
On flight deck of aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32), Ensign Jesse Brown and fellow pilots head for their plane to take off on an air strike against Chinese Communists in Korea. First Negro naval aviator to see service lost life when enemy ack-ack fire tore through his F4U Corsair and he was downed in Communist territory.
The six Corsairs of Iroquois Flight climbed out and headed for the vicinity of the Chosin, a hundred miles away, 35 to 40 minutes, and the road where weather conditions were even worse than those around the task force. An overcast lapped at the snow-capped mountains and the cold was well below zero around the villages of Hagaru-ri and Yudam-ni, hateful places in Marine history, and at another hamlet, Somong-ni, all places of death and destruction.
The Corsair, once known as a “widow-maker” was legendary, a hero of World War II, conqueror of the Japanese Zero in the Battle of Guadalcanal, later ranging the whole Pacific, its six .50 caliber machine guns able to fire 150 rounds in two seconds.
Nicknamed the "U-bird," and the "hog" because of its long snout, the Corsair's engine had eighteen cylinders and could develop 2,000 horsepower on takeoff. It had a level-flight speed of more than 400 mph, sometimes more than 500 diving. As a proven gun platform, no fighter pilot could ask for more at the time. The U-bird was a mean flying machine.
The planes dropped to about 500 feet to search for targets after they'd crossed the desolate coastline well north of Hungnam, the port of salvation for all the Americans grinding south through the communist escape route gauntlet. They were flying along the west side of the Chosin.
Jesse had first seen the great reservoir two months earlier, in October, with the sun shining down on its blue waters. Thick pine forests covered the shores in places. He'd written his wife Daisy in Mississippi, about how beautiful and tranquil it was, like no other lake he'd ever seen. The season had changed, the shimmering blue waters and the thick green pines now hidden by white blankets. Sunlight had turned to murk and fog.
Taken to kangaroo court by joshing shipmates because he got a wave-off (coming in too low for a landing on carrier), Brown enjoys fun as fellow pilots carry him in. Losing his case, Brown paid fine which is used to buy coffee for squadron coffee mess. Brown flew on strafing and bombing missions as well as combat patrols. (unidentified), Jesse Brown (center), and Bill Koenig (right)
In a snowswept valley near Somong-ni, a cluster of farmer's mud huts, Koenig, astern of the lead planes noticed a stream of vapor coming from Jesse's plane though he hadn't seen enemy small-arms fire so far. But they were formation flying low and slow, comparatively easy targets, now 500 to 700 feet above the terrain.
Lacking heavy antiaircraft guns, the Chinese infantrymen had their own technique of trying to deal with low-flying enemy aircraft. They'd lie in the snow in their white uniforms and point their rifles straight up, then fire simultaneously. There might be two or three hundred firing a barrage, hoping for a lucky hit.
Carrier pilots of the task force would sometimes land with holes in the fuselage, unaware that they'd ever been fired upon. Obviously, the bullets hadn't reached any vital parts, a gas or oil line.
Earlier in the day, a Marine Corsair was hit by ground fire in the vicinity and the pilot had to crash land. The aircraft exploded on impact and the pilot was killed instantly. There was a long black scar in the alabaster surface to mark the graves of both plane and pilot.
At approximately 2:40 PM, Koenig called to Jesse, "You're dumping fuel!"
In the Corsair, when transferring gas from an external tank, the automatic cutoff valve sometimes would not close, resulting in fuel loss. It occurred to Koenig that the valve was Jesse's problem.
But as all aircraft pulled up to go over a ridge, Jesse replied calmly, "This is Iroquois 1-3, I'm losing fuel pressure. I have to put it down." This was not a valve problem. One of those unlucky rifle bullets had hit a gas or oil line. He was ten to fifteen miles behind enemy lines.
Koenig, astern of Jesse, called into his mike, "Mayday, Mayday …"
By this time, Jesse had dropped his flaps, his belly tank and rockets, and prepared, as best he could, for the wheels-up crash. The Corsairs, with that long nose, had a reputation of breaking up on rough landings. The cockpit, with its center panel and console, all sorts of mechanical snares, could become a deadly metal octopus in a few blinks of an eye.
Tom Hudner, flying on Jesse's wing, said, "Okay, Jesse, I'll walk you through your check-off list." Rather than him trying to concentrate while facing the crash-landing, Hudner told him, "Lock your harness, open your canopy and lock it," and other procedures that were taught to both of them as long ago as Pensacola. The harness was especially important so Jesse wouldn't bash his face into the gunsight when he hit, the open Plexiglas bubble canopy would allow him precious seconds to get out in case of fire.
Hudner didn't take much time to look around for a clear spot because the mountainous territory they were flying over was mostly wooded but it was apparent Jesse spotted a snowy clearing about a quarter mile in diameter almost on the side of the mountain, in an upgrade of about 20 degrees.
Jesse was too busy to reply but Hudner saw him slide the canopy back. He hoped that Jesse had locked it. There was a crank to open it or close it, and a small latch at the rear to lock it. It was always supposed to be locked open for carrier landings or any sudden deceleration.
For the first time, Jesse had to contend with a skin of white that had no human aspect. There was no ideal spot on which to put the plane down. Foot deep snow covered the hillsides and partially hid rocks. There wasn't time to find a flat place. Training took over as he tried to glide downward at 100 knots.
He was now riding a six-ton aircraft into a bowl-like stretch. The altitude up there was at least 5,500 feet above sea level. Trees were along the ridge lines and some were down in the bowl. His position was approximately lat. 40° 36' N; long. 127° 06' E.
The plane slammed in uphill, out of control, skidding and carving a track on the snow and frozen ground; only the harness keeping Jesse's body from becoming a punching bag; that long engine and that huge four-blade propeller breaking off and careening away; the nose twisting to the right at a 35-degree angle, leaving a tangle of cables and wires and broken structural steel ahead of the cockpit. Up there was a gas tank with over 200 gallons in it.
It took a few minutes for the shock of the crash landing, the fright, the slamming physical and mental punishment, the screech of metal shearing, to wear off. Severe pain had come stabbing up from his right knee. He tried to move his legs but realized the knee was jammed by the buckled fuselage against the control panel, straddled by his feet. He was trapped, deep in enemy territory.
He tried to move the steel, almost blacking out from the pain. He realized that he could not get out of the wreckage without help. And help was not on the ground. It was overhead. Normal procedure would be to wait until the pilot cleared the cockpit, then Koenig and McQueen would bomb the wreckage.
Jesse became aware that acrid light smoke was drifting back over the cockpit from the empty engine mounting. So something was on fire up there forward of the gas tank.
Koenig saw it, too, and immediately got on the guard channel to call, "Any heavy transport in the area, come in! Come in!" A big fire extinguisher was needed. It could be dropped.
Every pilot, sooner or later, has to think about instant death but the unthinkable is death by fire. Was his lifelong love of aircraft and flying to end here, in a ball of fire, on this rock-strewn mountain slope near miserable Somong-ni?
Despite the pain, and each tiny move hurt, Jesse cranked the canopy open – it had closed from impact – and saw, more clearly, his fellow pilots circling above. He waved, as the smoke wreathed his face. I'm alive! I'm alive!
Cevoli, Hudson, Hudner, Koenig, and McQueen were sweeping around above, looking for any enemy activity on the ridge. The trees were thick up there in half a dozen spots, affording hiding places for the ChiComs. Other aircraft in the vicinity had been called in to assist in coverage.
The full destructive power – rockets, machine guns, napalm – of each plane would be expended to buy time for a Marine rescue helicopter to arrive. Down there was a Leyte shipmate and friend. He also happened to be the Navy's first black aviator.
Most fighter pilots talk a lot about planes and flying, using their hands as wings, seldom talking about themselves. Jesse was of that breed and no one on the carrier, including Lee Nelson, who was now asleep, knew much about him.
The altitude likely kept whatever was smoking up there ahead from bursting into flame as he waited for help.
Tom Hudner came around again, a 360-degree turn, low and slow, risking ground fire if enemy guns were nearby, and saw that Jesse had pulled the canopy back and was waving, but it appeared he'd made no attempt to get out despite that smoldering fire. Pinned in there some way, Hudner thought.
Hudner called Cevoli to report what he saw. It was easily apparent to Tom that any quick help would have to come from someone orbiting the wreckage. Put the fire out, extricate Jesse; wait for the chopper.Jesse Brown’s Last Letter to his Wife – written Aboard USS Leyte
Hudner called Cevoli to report what he saw. It was easily apparent to Tom that any quick help would have to come from someone orbiting the wreckage. Put the fire out, extricate Jesse; wait for the chopper.
In the five cockpits above there was a throat-grabbing, gut-wrenching fear of the Corsair blowing up before their eyes, Jesse still in it. With a stab of bad luck any of them could be down where he was.
There was radio cross talk.
"Jesus, why doesn't he get out of there?" someone said.
Someone else said, "That plane's gonna blow up before the chopper gets here."
Jesse began waving again.
Without hesitation, at 2:45 Pm, Hudner made the decision to crash-land beside Jesse. No permission was sought from Dick Cevoli. He doubted that Cevoli would give it. No consideration of the fact that he would destroy a costly naval aircraft. No consideration of the fact that he might be taken prisoner of the ChiComs. All of that could be sorted out later. A fellow pilot was down and might burn to death, which was unthinkable.
Hudner informed Cevoli, "I'm going down …”
Cevoli rogered the transmission without comment, though he'd heard Doug Neill say, "If a plane goes down, that's one down. We don't need Hollywood stuff …"
Hudner felt he was indestructible and with the Corsair and its big engine and nose up there acting as plow, he could put it down and walk away to save Jesse's life. He also knew it was possible that he could end up trapped in his own cockpit or be killed outright. Crash landings were not predictable.
Those aboard the Leyte, more than 100 miles away, had no idea what was happening on the mountain slope at Somong-ni. They were out of radio range. Even if they had known, there was nothing at all they could do to help him.
Hudner went around again, another 360-degree turn firing his rockets and ammunition into the mountainside to lighten the plane. There was still no sign of enemy activity, though there were footprints in the new snow. He reduced power and lowered his flaps to slow down to about 85 knots, descending to within a few feet of the ground, intending then to add power and fly up parallel to the slope, settling gradually into the snow, wheels up. His watch showed 2:50 PM.
The earth underneath the snow, at 20 degrees below zero, was like solid concrete, and he hit the ground hard, the foot-deep snow doing nothing to lessen the impact. The windscreen, brittle from the cold, shattered. The plane stopped about a hundred yards away from Jesse. But Hudner was alive, thank God, and could now try to pull Jesse out.
Hudner believed that without power to control his aircraft, Jesse had smashed down with the force of a flying bulldozer, the landing ripping the engine off and twisting the fuselage at cockpit point.
Turning off all switches, he clambered out, slip-sliding in the snow.
Jesse, bareheaded, was sitting in the cockpit, obviously in great pain, but spoke clearly and calmly. "I'm pinned in here, Tom!" He was about six feet off the ground; so Hudner tried to climb up on the wing to see exactly what might be done.
Because the soles of his boots were packed with snow, getting a footing, especially on the sloping gull wing, was almost impossible. But grabbing handholds and the canopy track, he managed to pull himself up and look inside the trap. Hudner saw the bent fuselage had jammed Jesse's right knee against the control panel, straddled by his feet, so he couldn't move. Again, calmly, Jesse said, "We've got to do something to get out of here …”
"Don't worry, Jesse. We're getting a chopper in.”
Jesse had taken off his helmet, a modified Plastic football helmet with holes cut out for headphones, and his gloves. Apparently, he'd tried to get out of his parachute which had three buckles, two in the groin area on each leg and one across his chest. Likely, he'd dropped his gloves in trying and already his hands were probably frozen. Anything dropped in a Corsair cockpit went under the seat and down into the floor. The only way to retrieve it in flight was to invert the airplane, and have it fall back. Even on the ground, retrieval was difficult.
Hudner took off his scarf and wrapped it around Jesse's hands, then got his wool watch cap out of his flight jacket pocket and pulled it down over Jesse's head, who had yet to complain about his situation, though he didn't appear to be in shock. Hudner had never seen anyone as totally imperturbable.
Then he reached in and attempted to pull Jesse's leg loose, knowing the pain had to be excruciating. Yet there was not a single outcry.
He slid to earth again and yelled up, "Back in a minute …”
Returning to his aircraft, he got on the radio and briefly explained the problems to Cevoli, requesting the chopper pilot to bring an axe and a fire extinguisher.
"He's got all the heart in the world," he told Cevoli and the other banking pilots. Hudner found himself drawing on that courage and returned to Jesse's side, tossing snow on the stubborn magnesium blaze. Had the altitude been lower, the tank would have already blown. The snow did little good.
All the while, he was trying desperately to think of a way to extricate Jesse. Single-fighter cockpits are seldom easy to deal with. You sat almost on the deck in the Corsair, feet out in front. There was no way for him to squeeze down in front of Jesse and pry or lift the rudder pedals away. Though Tom was strong, he knew he could not get enough leverage to do that, even if he could slip partially into the opening. There was no way to straddle the cockpit and attempt to jerk him out.
Not once did he think of the possibility of enemy troops closing in. He was confident that the aircraft above would drive them off.
Ward quickly had his crew chief check the machine for a mountain rescue, then went to operations for the coordinates.
He wasn't airborne five minutes when Cevoli called to say another aircraft (Hudner) had crash-landed. So now, his passenger load would be two people and he hoped they weren't big ones. The Sikorsky might not be able to lift even one passenger at the 5,500-foot height, plus himself and his crew chief. He returned to base and off-loaded his crew chief. He even off-loaded the tool box, rifle and ammunition. Figuring he could carry a payload of 300 pounds if he burned some fuel off, he was soon back on his way to the Somong-ni area.
Jesse had now been on the ground about thirty minutes.
Jesse was quiet, his eyes closed and Hudner believed he was going in and out of consciousness.
Another ten aircraft had joined the original five sweeping over the downed planes, but there was still no sign of enemy activity on the ridges. The problem was now daylight. With sunset less than an hour away, the dimness, combined with the overcast, raised the possibility of collision, fifteen aircraft now orbiting.
Hudner talked to Jess while they awaited the chopper. Again, no sign or word of pain. No Hollywood stuff. There wasn’t much to say. Just a few words to let him know his fellow pilot was still there, still hoping, still praying. Could he hear the planes above? Hudner thought Jesse knew everything possible was being done. The Navy, Marines and Air Force did not easily give up their aviators. But Hudner's mind was racing: What else can I possibly do? Actually, the chopper was the only hope. If it didn’t come, they were both doomed from the cold. He'd seen a farmhouse not far away, but probable capture wasn't very inviting.
In roughly ten or twelve minutes, Hudner heard the Sikorsky coming up the slope. It circled for a few minutes, Ward being careful of the landing spot. Part of Hudner's survival equipment was a red smoke flare. He ignited it, so the pilot could see the wind direction.
Ward had other problems. The chopper he was flying had no brakes and he was deathly afraid that while he was trying to help the downed pilots his machine would start rolling down the hill. Also, the one he was flying had a cantankerous engine. If it quit, he probably couldn't get it started again at this altitude. So, putting it down at 3:30 Pm, he decided to let the rotors slowly pat the icy air, hoping the machine would stay put.
As soon as he stepped down, there was mutual recognition between Hudner and Ward. They'd talked several times on the way out aboard the Leyte. Hudner thought Ward was the most welcome human being he'd ever seen. Carrying the axe and fire extinguisher, they went up the slope, Hudner saying he didn't think there was any way to get Jesse out of there if the axe didn't work.
They both had hunting knives strapped at the hip, but for the moment the idea of cutting his leg off wasn't even an option.
Hudner shouted up, "The chopper is here!" Yet he knew it might not lift three bodies at this altitude, another dilemma.
Jesse replied weakly, "I heard it." Then he repeated, "We have to get out of here …"
Hudner had a back pain from his landing and could only guess that Jesse had serious internal injuries, perhaps vertebrae crushed from his much harder slam to earth. Time was now a factor in several ways. Whatever his physical condition was, there was little they could do except extract him. Jesse had to be ha frozen by now. His exposure suit was developed for water. More than an hour had passed since he went down.
The fire extinguisher lessened the smoke for a moment, but the metal embers remained alive, slowly eating toward the tank. The axe was useless. It would bounce off the blue riveted aluminum skin, barely making a dent.
"You have any tools of any kind in the chopper?" Hudner asked Ward.
“No, I took them out to save weight.”
Though they teamed up, there was just no way to remove Jesse from the Corsair. They couldn't get firm footing to grasp him and heave up. There was nothing in either aircraft, no crowbar or jack handle type piece of steel to use. They had to stand there, helpless, discouraged, desperate.
Although there were probably cutting torches at Hagaru-ri, fifteen miles away, there was not enough daylight left to return and bring one in. Jesse had the bad luck of getting hit at the exact time of the year's earliest sunsets. The other chopper at Hagaru-ri wouldn't start. Mechanics had been working on it all day, another terrible dealing of bad luck. Had Jesse crashed on the morning launch, there would have been a chance to recover him.
Hudner and Ward conferred for a few minutes, well away from Jesse. Due to the height of the fuselage above the ground there was still no way that they could physically reach down and jerk him out. They had nothing to stand on. Even if they could find a way to pull him out, Hudner didn't think he could handle the pain.
At one point, Ward said shaking his head, "We can stay with him another twenty minutes. Then we have to go. I can't fly that thing at night. "Hudner knew about the lack of night instrumentation and the resultant risks in that mountain-top terrain.
Meanwhile, fuel was running low on some of the circling planes and there was the problem of not being able to make it back to the Leyte before dark. Koenig and McQueen departed the scene to head for Yon-Po, the captured field five miles southwest at Hungnam, to refuel and overnight.
Dick Cevoli and George Hudson headed back for the carrier. Both were qualified for night landings and could sit down on the blacked-out Leyte with a measure of confidence, there to tell the sad story of Somong-ni.
Hudner went back to Jesse who seemed to be fading rapidly but he did open his eyes to say, "Cut my leg off, Tom.”
"I can't do that, Jesse. I don't have a knife that will do it.”
Even so, without footing neither Hudner nor Ward could have reached in to perform the operation, cut the bone, stop the bleeding.
Accepting that decision stoically, Jesse nodded and closed his eyes again. Whiteness had set in around his lips and under his eyes.
Hudner stayed up on the steps, heartsick, determined to remain there until Jesse died. To have him die alone up here on this treacherous frozen ground, in this miserable Communist nation, was something that Hudner could not abide.
Another few minutes passed and Jesse opened his eyes again to say, "Tell Daisy how much I love her …”
Soon he took a shallow breath and then his head slumped down on his chest. Battle-hardened Tom Hudner and Charlie Ward wept.
Only faint light remained when Ward ran the Sikorsky down the hill and lifted off for the ride back to Hagaru-ri, soon to be overrun by the ChiComs.
To risk a morning chopper run back to Jesse's side, to risk Ward's life or another helo pilot just to rescue the body with a cutting torch would be something that Jesse would not want, Hudner truly believed. By then, the crashed aircraft would have attracted enemy attention. If he could speak, Jesse would have told them not to go back. Air cover would have to return, risking ground fire.
On the short flight he thought about the gallantry and guts of Charlie Ward, who had experienced the loss of squadron mates while they were trying to save pilots such as himself. They were heroic, selfless men.
He thought about Jesse Brown, who had made his dream come true, who had won his fight, gained his wings, flew off carriers, defying those who attempted to keep a black man out of cockpits. He was gone now and certainly in heaven, a kinder place in which jesse truly believed and had said so. His country and his Navy could be grateful tonight; so proud tonight.
Aboard the Leyte there was shock, disbelief and sorrow. The early inform-ation was mixed: Jesse had been rescued, Jesse was dead. Then the latter was confirmed. The Negro stewards wept openly and Lee Nelson put on his parka to go to the "front porch” and stand above the bow, letting the wind slash at him, cursing the war, cursing the ChiComs.
Lee had great admiration for what Tom Hudner had done, but like most of the other pilots questioned himself as to whether or not he would have had the guts to crash out there in enemy territory. As the hours passed, they wondered whether or not Hudner would get a medal or a court-martial for demolishing an aircraft, endangering a combat operation.
A bugler played taps and Marines fired volleys over the stern in tribute to their shipmate.
On December 7 in the Sea of Japan, after the two-day halt for bad weather, the aircraft were again furiously attacking the Chinese as the weary column of Marine infantrymen plodded on the MSR toward Hungnam, closer every hour to safety.
It had taken Tom Hudner two days to return to the Leyte due to the bad weather. He'd spent the first night with Marines in an icy tent, shivering, unable to sleep, thinking about what had happened, about Jesse. The second night was spent at Yon-po, the captured airfield outside Hungnam. He'd talked to Bill Koenig, expressing his disappointment and sorrow at not being able to save Jesse. with the weather clearing, Koenig and McQueen flew their planes back to the carrier.
A Skyraider from the Leyte went to Yon-po to pick up Hudner and soon Tom was reporting to Captain Sisson, relating exactly what had happened in the mountain bowl near Somong-ni and his reasons for the crash landing.
The distraught skipper listened, thought a moment, then said, "I'm ready to take this ship as close to shore as possible, put up eight aircraft for cover, launch a chopper with a flight surgeon, and recover Jesse's body."
Hudner replied, "I wouldn't do that, sir. Jesse's dead and i don't think he would want you to do that. it would be a symbolic act that would risk the life of the surgeon and the helo pilot. The danger far outweighs the chances of success … “
sisson stared out to sea for a long time, sighed, and finally said sadly, "I agree, Hudner. We'll send out two divisions and give Jesse a warrior's funeral."
within an hour, seven aircraft from Squadron 32, all piloted by Jesse's friends, took off for Somong-ni, six carrying full loads of napalm. The sun was out, the sky was blue.
Reaching the site of the downed aircraft, making several low passes, the pilots saw that Jesse was still sitting in his plane the way Tom and Charlie Ward had left him. Snow covered his hair. Farmers or enemy soldiers had stripped his upper body of clothing, even Hudner's watch cap. The setting was now entirely peaceful, new whiteness glittering around the hulks.
While the six napalm-loaded Corsairs and Skyraiders climbed up almost a mile to begin their dives, the lone seventh continued on high above them, reaching toward heaven in the traditional tribute to their beloved now missing shipmate.
A radio voice began repeating, "Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name …"
The napalm pods tumbled away and both aircraft and Jesse Leroy Brown vanished in sheets of fiery undulating red.
Almost half a century later, the rust-encrusted hulks of the Corsairs flown by Brown and Hudner can be seen near the village of Somong-ni by the U.S.A. spy satellite that regularly passes over North Korea, reminders of a fierce war that has never officially ended.
Namesake of first black Navy aviator is decommissioned
Black Wings Of Gold
By John E. Weems
The USS Leyte (CV-32) plowed through cold black waters of the Sea of Japan on the night of 3 December 1950. In the dis-tance, a number of silhou-ettes moved in company with the Leyte. They were the other ships of Task Force 77, all steaming in a formation designated 4-R.1
On quiet, blacked-out bridges, officers of the deck were maintaining guide on a light cruiser, the USS Manchester (CL-83). Some of the other vessels present included the USS Missouri (BB-63), with the commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Arthur D. Struble, on board, and the USS Philippine Sea (CV-47), flagship of Rear Admiral R. C. Ewen, commander of Task Force 77. But on the Leyte bridge, only the guide ship was of any importance for the moment.
Formation speed was 15 knots. The course varied. Neither speed nor course really mattered, though, because Task Force 77 was merely waiting out another night in a strike area off the northeastern coast of the Korean Peninsula. With daylight, a new work day would begin for everyone, particularly for the aviators in the carriers.
Most of those officers were sleeping, exhausted by the heavy demands made of them recently. In the Leyte, four aviators were scheduled to make an armed reconnaissance flight the next afternoon. They were Lieutenant Commander Richard L. Cevoli, Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., Lieutenant (junior grade) William H. Koenig. and Ensign Jesse L. Brown.
At this time of year off the North Korean coast, calm, cloudless dawns were becoming rare, and warm ones had vanished entirely.
from “Proceedings,” July 1983, pp 35-39.
Ashore, the weather could be brutal. Temperatures ranged far below zero. Even at sea, where water eliminated some of the bitter cold, thermometers often stayed below freezing, and weather sometimes demanded human labor to clear carrier decks of new snow before flight operations could begin.
The thoughts of the senior commanding officers focused on activity ashore. Forty miles or so inland, near the frozen Chosin Reservoir high in the mountains, thousands of United Nations troops, mostly Americans, were held in the combined grips of Korean winter and a large communist force that had encircled them. The besieged troops struggled to maintain a guard while getting some badly needed sleep. All endured temperatures of ten to 20º below zero; a careless man could lose part or all of his body to freezing. The aircraft of Task Force 77 was working in close support of these troops during their fighting retreat down the mountains.
On the eve of the scheduled reconnaissance flight, Jesse Brown was awake and writing a letter. Brown, a member of Fighter Squadron 32 (VF-32), was not the best pilot in the Leyte, but he was "damned good." in the words of a squadron mate.2
In another respect, Brown was singular indeed. He was the first black man to be designated an aviator in the U. S. Navy. (The Army Air Force had had black pilots in World War II) Having thus become the Jackie Robinson of naval aviation and of the carrier Leyte, Brown was a hero to the steward's mates, then all black, and to the few black seamen who had only recently been integrated, as the result of an order by President Harry Truman.
But Brown also had made many white friends on board ship. He maintained a tactful reticence, which was diluted with a sense of humor. He refrained from pressing himself on others. If any friendships were to be formed, Brown told relatives on one occasion, the responsibility for their instigation would fall on white shipmates. They would have to come to him.3 His squadron operations officer remarked of Brown's successful integration in the Leyte, "[Jesse] had no problem of any kind … He handled the situation with remarkable ease and good humor.4
Brown's wife, Daisy, and baby daughter, Pamela, lived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Brown had been born on 13 October 1926 into typical poverty. His family and friends remembered that, as a boy, he had always been fascinated by the sight of machines flying through the air.
Whenever an airplane flew over Hattiesburg, he would stop what he was doing and gaze up at it. On one summer day, he was picking cotton when a plane overhead caught his attention. "Someday I'm going to fly one of those," he had declared. 5
Brown's interest in flying never waned. Classmates remembered that he frequently expressed determination to become an aviator after graduation from all-black Eureka High School, where he displayed not only scholastic achievement as class salutatorian, but also athletic ability as a member of the basketball and track tennis and as a halfback on the black state championship football team. 6
His high school principal, N. R. Burger, had taught him math and other subjects after school, eventually enabling him to enroll in Ohio State University to study architecture. There, Brown worked at nights, loading boxcars for the Pennsylvania Railroad, to pay for tuition, room, and board. Burger's scholastic help also enabled Brown to complete work in flight training after enlistment in the U. S. Naval Reserve.
Brown's self-discipline and determination had been fully tested when, as the first and only black aviation trainee in the U. S. Navy, he was severely taunted in Pensacola, Florida. Possibly, the tense atmosphere in which Brown often found himself as a result of discrimination was one reason he risked wings, commission, and future naval career to secretly marry, while he was still in flight training, his high school sweetheart, Daisy Pearl Nix. Daisy gave him support and encouragement during the occasional hours he could get away to their one-room home. There, Brown often vented his frustrations. His bride helped him pass over the unpleasantness as smoothly as possible. "There were times when [Jesse] would come home angry and distressed. We decided that he would just have to stick it out."
Brown apparently revealed nothing of these racial slurs publicly. For example, he kept silent even when, one night while he and Daisy were walking home from a movie, two shore patrolmen fell in behind them and began muttering about "niggers," throwing in some nasty sexual innuendoes here and there.
Until Jesse came along, if you were a pilot in the U. S. Navy, you were white, as was Jesse's friend, Lee Nelson. If you were black, you were probably a steward's mate, and to those on the Leyte, Jesse quickly became a hero.Determination and refusal to give in to frequent racial pressures, however, earned him the distinction of becoming the first black naval aviator on 21 October 1948 – eight days after his 22nd birthday. His commission as ensign followed seven months later.
Fighter Squadron 32: 1st Row: H. N. Key, Jr., T. J. Hudner, W. G. Ferris, F. J. Cronin, R. Cevoli, D. T. Neill, R. E. Fowler, R. H. Jester, W. F. Whalen, Jr., W. H. Koenig, C. M. Lane. 2nd Row: J. L. Brown, H. A. Sargent, E. W. Byron, J. R. Stevens, J. J. Cotchen, C. R. Mohring, M. Goode, F. H. Sheffield, L. E. Nelson, A. A. Miller, W. A. Gelonek.
Receipt of wings and naval commission did not eliminate the difficulties of being a black in what had been an all-white profession, but it brought some relief. As one Leyte pilot, Lieutenant (junior grade) Glenn Ferris, remarked, "In aviation everyone is more concerned about an individual's flight ability than the color of his skin."' In addition, Brown's increased pay helped ease family financial worries. But when he sought an apartment for himself and Daisy and Pamela, born 23 December 1948, near the squadron's home base, Quonset Point Naval Air Station, Rhode Island, he experienced more frustration. After telephoning landlords with advertised rooms for rent and identifying himself as Ensign Jesse Brown, he would be invited to look at the quarters. When Brown appeared, however, the landlords "had just rented their places."
Brown could have signed up for on-base housing, of course, but that would have meant a long delay. Finally, he found a three-room hut in a shabby section of Apponaug, more than five miles from the base.
Brown's color was, as mentioned, a matter of much less concern to his fellow pilots. Lieutenant Hudner first met Brown in early December 1949 in a Quonset Point locker room while they were both preparing for a flight. Brown's appearance did not surprise Hudner, who had already heard of the first black naval aviator:
“… I knew who he was. Jesse [proved to be] a very pleasant, soft-spoken, modest fellow who had a hell of a sense of humor. When we new aviators joined the squadron Jesse had been aboard for about a year and had one Mediterranean cruise under his belt, and with an experience like that he was recognized by those who knew him as being one of the squadron's more experienced pilots."8
Still, Brown had made some notable flying mistakes, as has almost any aviator who has used the confined deck of an aircraft carrier for a runway. His squadron mate and friend, then-Ensign Lee Nelson, remembered the following instance in practice: The operations officer of the Leyte, Commander Barton E. Day, said of Brown:
“… [He] was a man and sold himself as a man. One doesn't see this often enough. He never pushed himself on anyone … I first noticed him in the wardroom. He sat quietly at his meal, then went alone into the reading room. I noticed that [in time] others began following him [to strike up conversations].” 9
“ … [Jesse] was high and slow at the 'cut' and dropped in hard on the landing, and bounced high-ten or twelve feet. The hook did not catch a wire, and we expected him to fall out of the sky for another hard landing and probably crash into the barrier. Then we heard an unexpected – and forbidden – sound: the full-throttle roar of his engine.
Once the landing-signal officer signaled a 'cut,' the rule-book told the pilot that he must cut his engine and land the airplane, to avoid a disaster.
"No disaster happened. [Jesse] cleared the barrier without hitting it or hooking it, but did come down hard again on a clear area of the deck forward of the barrier, bounced back into the air, veered to the right, just missing the front end of the island structure, … and disappeared over the starboard side of the ship …”
"We held our breaths waiting for a splash that never came. Instead, his blue Corsair soon came into sight again, slowly climbing for altitude ahead of the ship, then turned left … and made a routine carrier landing. I remember someone saying, if he'd done anything right, he'd be dead.” 10
The invasion of South Korea had brought an end to those practice landings. Ensign Brown and the other officers and crewmen had said goodbye to their families; the Leyte had sailed for Asian waters and now the aviators waited for another day of war to dawn.
Brown already had been introduced to combat. He had flown his first mission 13 October 1950 – a Friday. Since then, he had flown 19 more missions and had been awarded the Air Medal for his close air support flights and his leadership in bombing and strafing attacks on the enemy. His citation read:
"Leading his section in the face of hostile anti-aircraft fire, he vigorously pressed home his attacks, thereby contributing materially to the success of his division in inflicting serious losses upon the enemy and providing effective support for friendly ground forces. His courage, skilled airmanship and unswerving devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
The division leader of the four-plane flight was Dick Cevoli, with whom Brown enjoyed playing acey-deucy. Brown was designated section leader. Wingmen for those two aviators were Bill Koenig and Tom Hudner, respectively. The Leyte log carried this matter-of-fact entry: “1338 Resumed flight operations, first aircraft launched.”
Thirty years later, Hudner provided a description of the events of that afternoon. After reaching the coast, the four pilots flew 500 feet above ground level, at about 150 knots, looking for targets of opportunity. An hour after launch, they had seen nothing of significance, but some unobserved enemy soldiers had fired on Jesse. "He called out that he had been hit, that he was losing oil pressure, and that he could not maintain altitude," Hudner recalled. At that altitude, Jesse would go down quickly – and behind enemy lines. "We tried to help him by reminding him what to do prior to a crash landing like this …”
Hudner watched as Jesse's plane struck the earth in a clear but mountainous and snow-covered area surrounded by forest. The fuselage split in half. The engine tore loose, hurtled through the subfreezing air, and came to a halt 100 yards away. It seemed impossible for Jesse to have survived, but soon the pilots circling overhead saw that he had slid back his canopy and was waving to let them know he was alive.
Another sight deeply troubled Hudner and the other pilots. Smoke rose from the forward section of Jesse's wrecked plane. Cevoli climbed to an altitude sufficient to radio for a rescue helicopter. Hudner watched Jesse continue to wave, while more smoke appeared. He wondered why Jesse did not scramble out of the cockpit. Jesse was indeed down behind enemy lines; soldiers' footprints littered the snow. But, for some reason, no one had yet fired a shot.
After musing a few moments longer, Hudner made a momentous decision. Three decades later, he recalled the events in a quiet manner:
“I felt that with relatively little danger to myself I could go into the field where [Jesse] landed and make a wheels-up landing, and I felt it was necessary to do so because … the fire might spread to endanger Jesse's life. I circled the area at low altitude to assure myself there would be no obstructions … and dropped all of my drop tanks and napalm and fired all of my rockets in a clear area.”
Hudner made a carrier-type approach to the spot where he had decided to land. He flew over once, then circled around, and, with flaps down to cut his speed to about 70 knots, landed hard on an icy, 25' upgrade about 100 yards from Jesse. The force of the landing bruised him and broke part of his windscreen. He radioed the pilots flying overhead to stand by while he looked into Jesse's situation. He hurried over to the downed plane.
Hudner saw that Jesse's legs had been pinned by the broken fuselage. He gave some words of encouragement to Jesse and tried to extricate him, but nothing worked.
Jesse had taken off his helmet and his gloves in the attempt to free himself, and by this time, his hands were virtually frozen. No doubt, he also had suffered serious internal injuries.
On 13 April 1951, President Harry Truman awarded Lieutenant (jg)Thomas Hudner the Medal of Honor for "… conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Smoke still swirled from Jesse's plane, and communist soldiers surely lurked nearby, but Hudner kept trying to free Jesse. Finally, he temporarily gave that up and threw handfuls of snow at the source of the smoke under the cowling. His fire fighting "didn't do anything whatsoever." He clambered up on the plane and straddled the canopy, trying to move Jesse. Nothing helped. Still, Jesse refrained from voicing despair.
Hudner hurried back to his own plane and radioed the other pilots, asking the estimated arrival time of a rescue helicopter. He asked, too, that the rescue pilot be in-formed to bring a fire extinguisher and an ax.
Some 45 minutes after Hudner's own landing, the helicopter arrived. But still Jesse's rescue seemed impossible. First Lieutenant Charles Ward, a Marine, had been forced to fly a helicopter with defective brakes and with only a small extinguisher that quickly fizzled out. The ax proved useless. In addition, while helping Hudner, Ward had to also keep an eye on his aircraft to be sure it stayed put.
U.S. Navy (R. G. Weeks)
U.S. Navy (T. Lewison)
Captain Hudner Mrs. Gilbert Thorne, the former Daisy Brown, and Rear Admiral Samuel Gravely,Jr., the Navy’s first black admiral, witness the commissioning of the escort ship USS Jesse L. Brown (DE-1089) in February 1973.
Meanwhile, Jesse was alternating between consciousness and unconsciousness. Hudner recalls:
“ … My recollection is that Charlie and I spent about 45 minutes doing what we could do. … [Jesse] was very calm. He was [when conscious] pleading with us to help him, of course, but it was he who gave both Charlie and me strength to continue working to help him. He did not panic, and he was not demanding, and seemed to be concerned more with what this would do to his wife and young daughter. … At some time during that period … we felt that [Jesse] had probably died …”
Dusk was approaching. Ward's helicopter was not equipped for night or bad weather flying. They would have to return to base, at Yonpo, on the coast. "We both made the decision," Hudner said," … to get out … and see if there was any possibility of more help from base camp, although we both felt … it was futile."
Jesse Brown, a professional, would have understood, assuming he was still holding on to any breath of life. Every pilot was needed to assist "those poor guys on the ground." Jesse himself had been writing about only the night before. (A week later, after the final group of U. S. survivors had reached the coast for evacuation, Marine Sergeant Frank Reynolds remarked, "We'd still be up there fighting … if it hadn't been for the planes.) 12
Hudner and Ward flew to Yonpo. Weather closed in, halting further air operations for a time. Not until 7 December did a plane fly from the Leyte to pick up Hudner.
The commanding officer of the Leyte, Captain T. U. Sisson, asked Hudner about the possibility of sending in a flight surgeon to recover Jesse's body. Hudner explained that the crash site now lay deep within enemy territory. Successful retrieval of the body seemed impossible.
An alternate plan developed, one of equal humanity under the circumstances. Several pilots flew to the crash site, found the plane, and saw Jesse's body still in the cockpit, but now stripped of clothing. In a Valkyrian tribute to their fallen friend, they flew over him and dropped napalm, cremating the Navy's first black aviator in the airplane no one could now deny him.
1Mr. Weems, a free-lance writer, earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas and a master's degree in library science from Florida State University. He has a total of 25 years service in the naval reserves.
This and subsequent references to the ship's steaming from the log of the Leyte, 15 November - December 1950. Provided by Anna C. Urband, Media Services Branch, Office of Information. Navy Department.
2Capt. Thomas J. Hudner, USN (Ret.). Taped reminiscences given the author 19 March 1980.
3Mrs. Gilbert W. Thorne (former Mrs. Jesse Brown Taped reminiscences, 2 April 1980. She also provided the personal details regarding Jesse Brown.
4RADM R. E. Fowler. USN (Ret.). Taped reminiscences, 18 July 1980.
6Thorne, reminiscences. The Washington Post, 19 February 1973.
7CDR W. G. Ferris, USN (Ret.). Taped reminiscences. 10 July 1980.
9Capt. B. E. Day, USN (Ret.). Taped reminiscences, 26 April 1980.
10LCDR L. E. Nelson, USN (Ret.). Taped reminiscences, 27 May 1980.
11Jack Burby. United Press dispatch. 10 December 1950.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Jesse Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart posthumously. On 17 February 1973, the USS Jesse L. Brown (DE-1089 [now, FF]), was commissioned. Jesse's widow, Daisy, sponsored the ship, and his daughter, Pamela, was matron of honor. The Jesse L. Brown was the first U. S. Navy ship named in honor of a black naval officer.
from Ship’s Log
U.S.S. LEYTE (CV-32)
FLEET POST OFFICE
CONFIDENTIAL SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.
4 DECEMBER 1950
Steaming in Company with TF77, formation 4-R, MANCHESTER guide. 02401 USS BERRY (DDE-858), USS McCAFFERTY (DE-860), and USS KEPPLER (DDE-765), left formation. 0605I MISSCURI guide. 0714I commenced flight operations with a CAP over TF77. During the day various ASPs and CAPs were flown over the force. Close support missions covered the Chosin Reservoir. A transport flight was sent to Kimpo and Yonpo. Action is recorded in Air Combat reports dated 4 December 1950. 0800 position lat. 38 degrees 49.5' N long. 128 degrees 58' E. 8261 JUNEAU guide. 1200I position lat. 38 degrees 41.5' N, long. 129 degrees 11.5' E. 15371 USS MOORE (DD-747) and USS MADDOX (DD-731) left formation. 1.515I an F4U4 BUNO. 97231 crash landed in Korea behind enemy lines at lat. 40 degrees 36'N, long. 127 degrees 06'E. Cause: Enemy anti-aircraft hits. Pilot ENS J. L. Brown, 504477, U.S. Navy, sustained severe injuries and was unable to extricate himself. LTJG T. J. Hudner, Jr., 485270, U.S. Navy, landed his F4U4 (BuNo. 82050), wheels up nearby and endeav-ored to remove Brown who was pinned in the wreckage. 16001 rescue helicopter arrived .Hudner and Helicopter Pilot were unable to remove Brown. Ensign Brown died of injuries,, his body was not recovered. LT Hudner was returned to friendly lines. 1803I last plane landed, 2000I position lat. 38 degrees 16' N, long. 129 degrees 23' E.
William H. Koenig, CDR (Ret)
(recorded November 17, 1996)
Personal history of Bill Koenig and narrative about Jesse Brown; their relationship and Jesse’s last flight
Narrative of a transcription previously given to John [Ed] Weems. It follows the topical outline of the handwritten pages [earlier given to Pat Francis].
William H. Koenig. Born Des Moines, Iowa, May 24, 1926. Attended public schools through high school in that city. High school sports were swimming and tennis, but the consuming interest was aviation. During high school senior year, enlisted as a naval aviation cadet in the V-5 program. Chose Naval aviation because of its fine reputation, and the desire to fly Corsairs from a carrier. Began active duty March 1944. A surplus of Naval aviation cadets at that time caused all incoming V-5ers to be transferred to the V-12 college program; subsequently chose the V-12 ROTC program because it offered the best preparation for a regular commission. Was commissioned from the University of Oklahoma in May 1946.
May 1946 to May 1947 sailed in USS Rogers (DDR-876). April 1947 was awarded commission in regular United States Navy. May 1947 to May 1948, sailed in PCE-884, a weather patrol ship operating in the Pacific and based in Guam. Applied for flight training and was accepted, reporting to Pensacola, July,1948. Enjoyed all aspects of flight school. Met Tom Hudner, again, while at Whiting Field, where we were both going through A/B flight stages. In the spring 1949, sat for the professional examination to determine promotion to Lieutenant, JG. Our year group was the first to do so. The exams had been discontinued during World War II. For advanced training, requested the fighter syllabus, and was selected. Began flying the F4U Corsair in September 1949 at Cabaniss Field, Texas – it was a dream come true. Promoted to LTjg in November 1949 and at that time also completed advanced training. Designated a Naval Aviator in January 1950 and reported to VF-32 at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, in 1950. At my welcoming interview with the Squadron Commanding Officer, he showed a bit of poorly concealed disappointment. Many LTjg aviators would have had 1000 hours of flight time and possibly World War II combat. I was fresh caught with 300 hours in the blue. Tom Hudner had recently been assigned to VF-32, and he also fell into the same category.
I met Jesse Brown in the course of checking into the squadron. I was not surprised when we met, because I had seen a picture of Jesse in late 1949 edition of the “Naval Aviation News.”
In physical appearance, Jesse was lean and athletic in build. He was quiet, a bit on the serious side, easy to talk with, and pleasant to be in company with. His performance in the air and on the ground was that of a competent aviator and officer. The fact that he had become the first Black Naval aviator was almost overshadowed by the seeming ease with which he took his place in the squadron.
This underwhelming [issue], to me, characterized the relationship between Jesse and his squadron mates.
About his being very religious – he often attended church and I would say that his daily life reflected the confidence of his belief.
May to December, 1950.
VF-32, as part of Carrier Air Group 3, embarked in Leyte CV-32. Departed Quonset Point, Rhode Island, May 2, 1950 for a Mediterranean deployment as part of the 6th Fleet. In the squadron organization, Jess, Tom, and I flew with the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander R. L. Cevoli. Tom was Dick Cevoli’s wingman, Jess was the section leader, and I was Jess’s wingman. We kept this tactical organization for the Mediterranean deployment and during the Korean operation.
While in the Med., I did not share any shore leave with Jess. He spent his time with his contemporaries, all of whom lived in “Boy’s Town,” that is the Junior Officer’s bunk room. Tom and I occasionally went ashore together, but there was nothing spectacular to recall.
During the summer of 1950, Jess and his year group were screened for permanent USN status. Not one of the year group in our air group was selected for permanent status. Collectively, we were shocked, particularly with respect to Jesse not making the selection. You will recall that this was a most austere time.
In August 1950, Leyte was detached from the 6th Fleet and made a hurry-up trip to Norfolk, Virginia, to prepare for duty with the Pacific Fleet.
We received five new pilots in the squadron, and this brought about new room assignments aboard ship. Jesse moved out of the bunkroom and joined LTjg Bob Schabacker (VA-35) and me in a stateroom. It was a compatible group and we enjoyed each other’s company.
En route to Japan, we spent much time picking the brains of those who had experienced Word War II combat. Tom, Jess, and I frequently talked about what we thought we would encounter. At one combat briefing, I remember that the squadron CO, D. T. Neill, strongly emphasized that if one of us was shot down, the others were to provide cover as best possible, but there was to be no Hollywood-type rescue attempt that might well result in an additional loss.
Leyte joined the 7th Fleet October 9, 1950 and launched combat strikes on the 10th to support the UN ground forces moving into Wonsan. At this point, UN forces were beginning to steamroller north, having crossed the 38th parallel, the only slowdown being the amphibious landing at Wonsan which ran afoul of a heavily mined harbor.
Our missions more frequently became armed reconnaissance instead of close air support. We were now operating deep into North Korean territory. And I suppose it’s possible that some flights may have come close to crossing the Manchurian border. Apparently, for this reason, we received a directive to cut off the area on our charts to the north of a line that was south of the Manchurian border. As the offensive moved to the Yalu River, we had to tape the top part of the charts together again. The deeper we operated into North Korea, the more intense the ground fire became. On one flight, as the strike group broke out under the overcast, we immediately came under intense fire. One shell burst very close behind us and that was the first time that Jesse or I had heard the noise of an exploding AA round meant for us. He immediately detached our section, we dove for the deck, and went on our assigned reconnaissance route. In November, the air group made a number of coordinated strikes with the Air Force against the Yalu River bridges. The Chinese troops had come into the war, and everything soon would be turned around.
By the first of December, we were flying close air support for the Marines who were fighting their way south from the Chosin Reservoir. For the flight on December 4th, I did not fly my usual position. George Hudson, our LSO, was flying Jesse’s wing in my place. And I was leading another section with Ralph McQueen as my wingman. The flight launched early afternoon, and we were working in the Chosin area. I was following astern of the Exec’s division and as we flew up a valley, I noticed a stream of vapor coming from Jesse’s plane. By way of explanation, in the Corsair, when transferring fuel from an external tank, the automatic shut-off valve sometime would not close, and fuel would be dumped overboard. I called Jess and told him that he was dumping fuel. As we pulled up to clear a ridge, he transmitted that he was losing power and going to have to put down. I didn’t see him make the landing. The terrain was far from level, and we were flying at a very low air speed; so he didn’t have much time to set up for ground contact, but he made the best of a lousy set of conditions. We then set up a defensive orbit over the crash site. The flight leader, Dick Cevoli, called for a rescue helicopter. At this latitude and in the month of December, darkness comes early. We could see signs of fire in the nose of Jesse’s airplane. In the Corsair, the 230 gallon fuel tank is located just forward of the cockpit. It was painfully obvious that any successful rescue attempt would have to start now. I felt, as I’m sure others did, that the only immediate help for Jesse would have to come from one of us, and one man made the decision. Tom Hudner transmitted that he was landing. He did a good a good job of putting his Corsair down. We watched him go to Jesse’s plane and then go to his plane and radioed to us that Jesse was pinned in the cockpit, that he was alive, and “had all the faith in the world and that’s what counts.” As we orbited, watching for enemy troops and watching Tom’s efforts to fight an incipient fire with snow, I recall my feeling that it would be like Tom to go down and help. Marine Lieutenant Charlie Ward from VMO-6, brought his helo down fairly close to the crash site, and he, with Tom, worked in a futile attempt to free Jesse. For us, fuel was becoming a consideration and as daylight ended we left the site. My wingman, Ralph McQueen, and I landed at the Marine base at Yon Po where we spent the night as guests of Marine Aviation. The next day, the Marines flew Tom to Yon Po and the two of us had a chance to talk briefly. In his usual quiet way, Tom expressed sadness and disappointment at the outcome, and was a bit apprehensive as to how his decision to crash land would be received by his superiors.
Jesse’s last flight
note from Lou Ives
Jesse’s last flight was a pick-up (Cevoli, Hudner, Brown, and Hudson, with a trailing section Koenig and McQueen), not the normal division (Cevoli, Hudner, Brown, and Koenig).
article in “MILITARY HISTORY” June 1995
Thomas J. Hudner
Interview by Al Hemingway
AIRMAN DOWN IN KOREAN HILLS
When a squadron mate went down in Korea, LTjg Thomas Hudner, Jr., crash landed behind enemy lines to rescue him.
On November 27, 1950, the brutally cold Korean night was shattered by the sharp blare of trumpets, heralding the entry of thousands of Chinese troops into the war against South Korean and United Nations forces. The Chinese planned to snare the U.S. forces in the Chosin Reservoir area and annihilate them. Over the next 10 days or so, U.S. Marines somehow managed to fight their way to Hungnam on the coast and escape the Communist trap. American air power gave a vital assist to the beleaguered Marines at "Frozen Chosin."
Before the Battle of Chosin Reservoir was over, a total of 232 bombing runs were flown: 136 by the 1st Marine Air Wing; 80 sorties from U.S. Navy carriers off the coast, and another 37 by U.S. Air Force fighters and bombers.
Lieutenant junior grade Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr., was a Navy Corsair pilot with Fighter Squadron 32, station-ed aboard the aircraft carrier Leyte. On December 4, 1950, the Massachusetts native performed a "wheels up" landing in frozen mountainous terrain in an attempt to save fellow pilot Jesse Brown, the first black commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. For his unselfish act, Lieutenant Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor.
The carrier Leyte in Sasebo harbor, Japan, in November 1950. Leyte had two squadrons of Corsairs, one of Grumman F9F-2B Panthers and one of Douglas AD-3 Skyraiders.
We recently had the chance to talk with now Captain Thomas Hudner, U.S. Navy (ret.), who is currently commissioner of veterans services for the state of Massachusetts and active in the Chosin Few Association.
Military History: How did you decide on the naval service?
Hudner: Although my dad was a Navy ensign in World War I, I had no close member of my family who had been a career officer. It was just something I had always wanted to do.
When World War II broke out, everybody wanted to get into one of the services. For me, it was the Navy. I wanted to be prepared as best as I could and was lucky enough to receive an appointment to the Naval Academy. I entered in the summer of 1943 with the class of 1947. However, due to the war, the classes were accelerated, so I graduated in 1946. After the war, with some exceptions, most naval aviation was composed of reserve officers, but I had no interest in the aviation field at first. I was aboard ship most of the first year after graduation from the Naval Academy, on a cruiser stationed in China. I got orders to Hawaii when I was due to rotate back, and while I was there, the Bureau of Naval Personnel solicited requests from junior officers for flight training. So I submitted my request. They really needed pilots at that time, and I soon received orders to attend flight school.
MH: Where was flight training?
Hudner: Pensacola, Florida, for about two-thirds of the training. We finished our operational training at Corpus Christi, Texas. Then we returned to Pensacola to qualify for carrier landings.
MH: Did you and your colleagues participate in any night carrier landings in Korea?
Hudner: No. We practiced night landings for several days at Barber's Point in Hawaii on our way to Korea, but except for the night flying squadrons, we did no night carrier landings. Some years later, if you didn't qualify for night flying, you couldn't remain in the carrier aviation field. The carriers used in the Korean War were the Essex-class carriers of World War II vintage. They displaced about 35,000 to 40,000 tons, compared to today's carriers, which displace about 85,000 to 90,000 tons. The heavier weight makes a considerable difference in stability in rough seas.
MH: What carrier were you on?
Hudner: I was on USS Leyte. It was an Essex-class carrier. They were the big carriers of their day. They carried about 85 to 90 aircraft, depending upon the mix we had: attack, fighter, and so on. The Essex-class carriers, incidentally, were still being used during the Vietnam conflict.
MH: How many squadrons were aboard Leyte?
Hudner: We had four squadrons, and detachments from five other squadrons for specialized missions. We had three fighter squadrons; one was a squadron of Grumman F9F-2B Panther jets, and two were of Corsairs. The fourth squadron was comprised of Douglas AD-3 Skyraiders. The specialized detachments were night attack, night fighters, photo planes, early warning, and electronic intercept planes. These were Corsairs and Skyraiders equipped with special radar, elec-tronics and cameras.
MH: What squadron were you in?
Hudner: I was in VF-32. I flew the Vought F4U-4B Corsair. It was an excellent plane.
MH: You wanted to fly that one?
Hudner: While in Pensacola, I really didn't have much appreciation of the various aircraft. We were flying an old Navy training plane. One day while I was on a training flight, a formation of Corsairs went by. I thought my instructor in the back seat of the trainer was going to jump out, he got so excited. He raved about what a beautiful airplane it was, with the inverted gull wing. When it came time to be assigned to our advanced training squadrons, we drew straws, and I was assigned to a Corsair squadron.
MH: You literally drew straws?
Hudner: Yes, but I don't think that's the way it's done today. Today carrier pilots are carefully chosen based on their performance during their training. However, during those days, it was the luck of the draw. I went through advanced flight training in the Corsair. After six carrier landings, I qualified for my wings and went to a squadron that was still flying the Bearcat, the Grumman F8E It was a World War II plane designed to counter the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Unfortunately, it was treacherous on the carrier deck because it would often bounce over the wires that the tailhook grabbed on landing. The jet age was coming, so the Navy felt that the Corsair was a good transitional plane to jet flying because of its supercharged engine, which gave it good performance at high altitudes where the jets are flown. Shortly after my arrival, we went from the Bearcat to the Corsair.
MH: How did the Corsair fly?
Hudner: It was comfortable. However, it had a couple of vicious characteristics when it first came out. It was dangerous aboard ship.
MH: Why dangerous?
Hudner: It had a tendency to stall during the landing approach. At times, the left wing would stall out ahead of the right wing, causing the aircraft to roll violently to its left, and that can be very disconcerting when you're approaching the ship for a landing. So, they put a little spoiler, as it was called, on the leading edge of the starboard wing. The airflow would be disrupted enough so that both wings would stall at about the same time, which could give the pilot enough time to correct a dangerous situation. It made the difference.
MH: Your carrier group arrived early in Korea.
Hudner: We deployed from Quonset Point, Rhode Island, on May 1, 1950, for a Mediterranean cruise. We were in the "Med" on June 25 when the war broke out. We weren't even sure where Korea was. We didn't think we would go to Korea because the Pacific Fleet had its carrier complement already stationed there. However, when we were anchored off Beirut, Lebanon, on August 8, we got the word to go to the Pacific. Our first strikes were flown on October 8, just three weeks after the Inchon landing. The ground forces were really moving north. We supported all troops but concentrated mainly on close air support for the Marines. We had three different kinds of missions. One was preassigned targets. They could be industrial plants and other targets of strategic interest. The second type was armed reconnaissance, where we would fly along prescribed routes just looking for targets of opportunity. The last was close air support, where I personally think we were the most helpful.
MH: The Corsair was particularly suited for that.
Hudner: Very much so.
MH: Did you encounter any enemy aircraft?
Hudner: A few MiGs made some halfhearted passes at us during the mission, but that was all. It was mostly harassment. They knew that either the F9F-2 Panthers or the McDonnell F2H Banshees were flying CAPs (combat air patrols) above us.
MH: You arrived just in time for the brutally cold Korean winter and the Chosin Reservoir campaign.
Hudner: Cold is right! It would get down to 30 degrees below zero, plus the wind chill factor. It was so cold one day that the Marines canceled flying because the wind was 68 knots. That is roughly 75 miles per hour. So, if the temperature is 30 degrees below zero, and the wind speed is 75 miles per hour, the wind chill drops off the chart and the chart goes to 100 degrees below zero. That gives you an idea of what the soldiers and Marines on the ground suffered during that battle.
MH: When the Chinese came across the border and trapped the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir, were you trying to create an avenue for the Marines and keep the enemy at bay while they made their way to the coast?
Hudner: In response to their specific needs, we flew close air support for them. People on the ground would control us: a guy in a jeep, or a forward air controller in a small Cessna-type aircraft. We would get on the same frequency as the controller and get identified. Then the flight leader would waggle his wings to confirm the flight. The controller would then give us a mission. For example, we might be assigned a target at 3 o'clock about two miles away. There would be a small rise with 50 or 60 enemy troops behind it. We would proceed to the target area, confirm it, and strafe, or whatever, to eliminate the threat. Coming down over that very narrow road, with Yudam-ni on one side of the reservoir, where most of the Marines were, could be difficult. We would strike at troops we knew were enemy. However, too often we had troops in such close proximity to each other that we had to be told who were the friendlies and who was the enemy. We tried to locate the enemy and hit at anything we saw.
MH: What happened on December 4,1950?
Hudner: Well, prior to that, we had a number of planes return with holes in the bottom of the fuselage and the wings. The pilots didn't even know that they had been shot at. The Chinese were dressed in white, and one of their tactics was to lie still in the snow, which made it very difficult to see them, and then fire up at us as we passed overhead.
There could be several thousand troops shooting at us with small-arms fire. On this particular day I was in a flight of four aircraft. Our squadron executive officer was the flight leader. In that flight was the U.S. Navy's first black commissioned officer, Jesse Brown, who was the section leader. I was flying on Jesse Brown's wing. All of a sudden he called on the radio and said: "I'm losing power! I can't stay airborne! I have to go down!" I can't remember the exact altitude we were at, but it was approximately 1,000 feet. It was in the mountains, and the ground was covered with trees. This was not good, because if you hit a 12-inch-diameter tree it could be like driving into a wall. Jesse saw an open area and maneuvered his plane so he could land there. Meanwhile, I was calling him on the radio, going over the pre-landing checklist for a crash landing, making sure his switches were off, his shoulder harness was tight, and so on. I was calling these items off to him as he was attempting to land. He had his canopy open so he could make a quick egress from the plane after he landed.
MH: How did he land?
Hudner: I didn't actually see his plane touch the ground. He did land on the side of a hill with about a 15-degree upgrade. The plane was bent at the cockpit, with the fuselage in a 45-degree angle. Also, the engine had come off. When we saw the extent of the damage, we were convinced that he had perished. The canopy, which he had opened, was now closed. However, after a minute or two he opened his canopy and was waving at us. He was alive – but obviously couldn't get out of the plane. As soon as Jesse crashed, our flight leader climbed to attitude so he could get good radio reception at increased range and so he could report that one of our aircraft was down. We were about five to 10 miles from the reservoir. He called for a rescue helicopter.
MH: Choppers were relatively new at that time.
Hudner: That's correct. They were a godsend. We started to worry, however, because Jesse's plane was smoking. Fortunately, there wasn't much wind. They radioed back, saying a helicopter was on the way, but it would be a minimum of 20 minutes before it would arrive. Helicopters flew at about 60 knots in those days. Because of the smoke, we thought the plane would burst into flames with Jesse trapped inside. We had to get him out of there. I made a decision to crash-land my plane as close as possible to his aircraft, and pull him from the cockpit. I figured when the helicopter got there, it could carry us both out.
MH: This was solely your decision, correct?
A Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopter brings a wounded Marine into Hagaru-ri on December 2, 1950. Helicopters proved invaluable in the mountainous terrain of northern Korea.
A Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopter brings a wounded Marine into Hagaru-ri on December 2, 1950. Helicopters proved invaluable in the mountainous terrain of northern Korea.
Hudner: Well, you don't call for permission to crash-land an airplane! I dropped all my ordnance to become as light as I could. Then, with my wheels up and flaps down, I made a simulated carrier approach. I felt comfortable doing it that way; went as slow as I could while still maintaining control of the airplane. I made one pass. On the second attempt, I landed about I00 yards from his plane. The ground was rock hard. The force of the landing shattered my windscreen, which was probably brittle from the freezing cold. Other than that, the aircraft was intact. The snow was about 9 or 10 inches deep.
MH: Did you have trouble getting out of the cockpit?
Hudner: No, but because of the weather conditions, the snow on the bottom of my boots was packed and was like ice. There was no way I could get any traction.
MH: But you got to his plane.
Hudner: The reason Jesse couldn't get out was a hydraulic control panel that had become jammed between his legs at about calf height. When the Corsair bent upon landing, it trapped his right leg between the side of the fuselage and that control panel. He just couldn't extract himself.
MH: You mentioned smoke earlier – did the plane ignite?
Hudner: No, fortunately. I never did figure out what the cause of the smoke was. I scooped up some snow and threw it under the cowling to at least diminish the flow of smoke. It didn't do any good. I got back to my plane and radioed in to report to our flight leader. I asked that the helicopter bring along an ax and a fire extinguisher. There wasn't too much I could do.
MH: What condition was Brown in?
Hudner: He was semiconscious. He had taken his gloves off to unbuckle his chute, and he dropped his gloves. Because of the restriction in the cockpit, it was impossible to retrieve them. Because he had taken his gloves off, his fingers were frozen solid. I tried to wrap my scarf around his hands and took a Navy wool cap I carried in the pocket of my flight suit and put it on his head. It didn't do much good. We talked awhile. He maintained an unbelievable serenity. He was so calm. I told him to hang on because a helicopter was on the way. Finally, the helicopter did come, but it took awhile for it to land. I took the flare we carried on our life jackets for signaling to direct him in. One end of the flare produced smoke. I popped the smoke end so the pilot would know the wind direction. It was a Marine helicopter from VMO-6 (Marine Observation Squadron) that had been aboard Leyte with us. I recognized the pilot, Charley Ward, a gravel-voiced man. We worked on trying to get Jesse out for about 20 minutes. We couldn't get any traction at all. The fire extinguisher he had brought was one of those small ones. About three squirts from that and it was empty. Charley pulled me aside and said that he had to get out of there. His helicopter wasn't equipped to fly at night, and dusk was approaching. The tops of some of the mountains around the Chosin Reservoir were as high as 6,000 feet. He said there was nothing more we could do and suggested I return with him.
During their righting retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Marines watch as Corsair zooms up through the smoke from the napalm it has just dropped on a concentration of pursuing Chinese infantry on December 6, 1950. The Chinese fought back with thousands of small arms.
MH: Was Brown dead?
Hudner: We don't know exactly when Jesse died. As hard as he hit the ground, it was miraculous that he survived at all. There was no visible sign of blood, but his injuries were probably internal. He might have even broken his back upon impact. I hurt my back when I landed, which didn't bother me until later, when it stiffened up on me. I couldn't fly for a month, and years later I still get painful episodes. By this time, Jesse was not speaking. We figured he had died. We left him there. We flew to Hagaru-ri. Charley went into the operations tent, but there was nothing they could do, so from there we flew to Koto-ri.
Hudner: Looking back on it, I was in a state of semi-shock. I wasn't dressed for warmth. However, I don't recall being very cold. I was wearing what they called an exposure suit. You climbed into this thing like Doctor Denton's pajamas. It covered your feet, and you strapped your wrists and pulled this string around your neck to tighten it up, so that if you fell in the water it took you 4 minutes to die rather than 2 minutes. I couldn't sleep all night. My hands were so cold, I kept kneading them. I thought if I lost circulation I wouldn't have the use of my hands. I was fortunate; I didn't get frostbite. Charley Ward was my escort, my guide, and my mommy, if you will.
MH: Did they go after Brown's body the following morning?
Hudner: The weather was too bad on the 5th and 6th. There was no flying on those days. On December 7, they sent a Skyraider in from the ship to pick me up. When I returned to the ship, they had the ship's helicopter ready to go to the crash site with the flight surgeon aboard. They were going to land and cut Jesse's body out of the cockpit. I dissuaded them from doing this because it was too dangerous and Jesse was dead. The alternate plan was to have four Corsairs drop napalm on the aircraft. The Corsairs flew over the crash site, where everything was the same with the exception of footprints all over the place. All the clothing had been stripped from Jesse's body.
MH: By the enemy?
Hudner: More likely the Korean peasants. That was the coldest winter they had had in 100 years. The Corsairs destroyed the two airplanes and cremated Jesse's body with napalm.
MH: When did you first learn that you were recommended for the Medal of Honor?
Hudner: From my squadron commander. I thought I was going to get court-martialed for crash-landing my plane and destroying government property. There is a fine line between being a goat and being a hero. I wish we could have saved Jesse.
Marines inspect an HO3S-5 of helicopter squadron VMO-6 that crashed in Korea. VMO-6 pilot Charles Ward rescued Hudner after both tried to save Brown.
Cover – A Vought F4U-4B Corsair of CV-21 “Fighting Rebels” from the carrier Boxer looses the last of its underwing rockets at an enemy position in the hills of Korea in Time to Head Home, by William S. Philips (Courtesy of The Greenwich Workshop, Inc, © 1989, Trumbull, Conn.)
Naval Historical Foundation Service
Al Hemingway is the author of the 1994 book Our War Was Different: Marine Combined Actions Platoons in Vietnam. Related reading: USN/USMC Over Korea, by Thomas E. Doll.
Feelings of sorrow and joy
DAISY THORNE of Hattiesburg, Miss., widow of husband Ensign Jesse L. Brown, waits somberly Wednesday in Pensacola as the Navy ship named for her husband is decommissioned.
USS Leyte (CV-32) Cruise Book (Korean Cruise)
September 1950 – February 1951
conversation about Jesse Brown
(recorded Thursday, October 31,1996)
(William H. “Bill” Koenig,USN, CDR (Ret), Lou Ives, Dottie Koenig, Pat Francis)
references to "Tom" – Tom Hudner
BILL: In the Cruise Book in 1950, for the Med cruise, the order in which the squadrons are presented in the Cruise Book goes in agreement with the Commanding Officer's seniority. Skipper of VF-31 was senior, Spin Epps was Skipper of -33, he was next senior, so VF-33 was next in the Cruise Book. Doug Neill was our Skipper was third senior, and on that way, rather than follow the organizational sequence.
The person who I know, who I'm referring to, flew rescue helicopters in Korea. And, as a matter of fact, during the early period and later on, flew from these fantastic aircraft platforms called landing ship tanks [LSTs], and that was quite a change in itself to operate an HL3-S off of an LST. Guy's name is Gene Bergsma, and Gene will know about it, if anybody else does. He's quite knowledgeable about that.
I looked through this – this is Mr. Weems' information; I'm sure you're acquainted with his book. I mean not his book, his article – "Black Wings of Gold."
Why don't you take – here is the proposed non-fiction book by Jack, John Weems. He sent each of us who responded – he sent us his draft copy. I think that may be even a little more inclusive than the ...
Bobby Schabacker, Attack Squadron 35, was my roommate on the Leyte on the Cruise in '50. When we got to Korea there was a reshuffling, and some junior guys came in so Jesse was one of the Senior Ensigns; so that bumped him out of ... are you familiar with the term "Boy's Town?"
BILL: O.K. that's the J. 0. [junior officer’s] bunkroom.
The more senior people like Lieutenant (junior grade) got a room with just three people in it; so Jesse came and John, Bobby, and I – we were – the three of us were roommates together. Bobby Schabacker could probably give you his name. As a matter of fact, he has just written for the Leyte Association.
[Pat] We got a listing, the address of the Leyte Association from Bob Brennan. As a matter of fact, the first photo is this book is of Bob Brennan. Does he look at all familiar?
BILL: No. [Looking through Bob Brennan's USS Leyte Cruise Book] Cabot. We all look the same on that picture. I made my first carrier landing on the Cabot in an SNJ and made my last F4U landing on the Cabot above Labrador in 19 … some years later. Jim Morin was a flag officer, correct? His wife died some years ago. Jim was the Air Wing [?] Commander on the last cruise on the Independence.
[Reviewing the article written by LTCol Donald K. Tooker, USMC (Ret.), ["The Jesse Brown Story"]. Pat, I think the best I can do; rather than repudiate here, I will tape this or I will edit it so you can read it, because this describes it, and I would rather describe it as I believe my indelible memory serves me to do, than to take someone else's writing and cut them apart. Because this describes it and I still have ... I haven't embellished it too much. This describes where I was flying, I noticed a stream of vapor, and right after that.
There are, and I won't cut anything out, I won't attempt to, and I won't add anything ... one of the interesting things is that, of course, we had just, and this is in my notes, before our first strike flight, before our first flight; for most of us, that was our first time of ... although we'd been in the Navy since '43 and '44, not many of us had been shot at. There's a briefing in the squad room, and the Commanding Officer, either in response to a question or in looking forward, he said, "if a plane goes down, that's one down. We won't lose two planes and two pilots. This is war. I mean, there had been a dramatic sequence, and I guess it was based on a real situation – the movie “Fighter Squadron,” about F47 Thunderbolts. Robert Stack landed and picked up his CO – we won't do any of that. If we lose one – that's one; we can't lose two." That was on everybody's mind, even before, and I'm sure it was on Tom's mind.
[Pat] But now, according to this story, Tom went down and stayed with him and tried to rescue him …
BILL: The realization was that he's in the cockpit, Jess, he is moving, it's cold. Late in the afternoon, too; it's getting colder. Elevation may be 5000 feet.
[Pat] And it's wintertime.
BILL: It is December, right. If he's going to get any help, it has to be from us. I thought about it. I didn't do it. Tom went down, went over, tried to get him out, came back, turned on the radio of his airplane, said, "He's alive, he's pinned," and as he described it, "... has all the heart in the world. And that's what counts."
[Dot After all these years, it still brings tears to your eyes.
BILL: He did not, now I can't remember ... he didn't, ah ... he and I did ... however, there was not much previous communication about that. We were trying to get a rescue helicopter there. At this time there was ... this being a great problem to us, immediately, because of a friend, the enormous effort that was being taken to get wounded, supplies in, haul people back – we were just a microcosm. So how Charlie, how we ever got a helicopter, I don't know.
We called a couple of times. I know I got a guard channel and called, "any heavy transport in the area, come in." I got a fire extinguisher fly over here and drop it ... but anyway ... Tom was packing snow against the engine section ... it was apparently a slow fuel leak; it was not a life threatening fire if you want to use that term.
[Dot] What actually happened to the plane?
BILL: When it landed? He was hit probably by small arms fire – cut a fuel line. Two days later, it snowed the next day and so we couldn't get up. Two days later they [?] Division, they napalmed the plane. But he was stripped, they had taken the machine guns out of the wings ...
[Dot] Did he die from the cold?
BILL: He froze to death. He froze to death. The F4U – airplanes break up in different ways when they hit the ground. But the F4U – the way the structure was arranged – it buckled near the cockpit, which is not unusual. But as you look at the cockpit, instrument panel, the console, there is a center console, a center panel that goes down like that which had hydraulic dials and the hydraulic charging handles for the machine guns. What would happen when it bent like this, one leg or the other might get caught under there, and that's what happened. It would take the equivalent of what we have now in crash rescue is a Hirsch [?] tool – Jesse asked Tom to cut off his leg. Tom said, "I couldn't do it."
[Looking through Leyte Cruise Book] Who is this? [Looking at his own photograph] This is earlier, 1949. There was no question about the strength of his religious convictions.
[Pat] What we're going to have here is a real sense of who this man was ... more than this kind of reporting that is lacking in accuracy ... How long did you stay in the Navy?
BILL: I retired in '69. 26 years. Again I believe that my impressions – how I would describe Jesse ... Weems – he writes it from a – he was a Surface Officer during World War II. And he writes it from the standpoint of – he tells what the [?] were doing, what the ship's doing, the launch – almost like a log record.
Lee Nelson. What I'm surfing on is there are those little things, like one of them I know of is when Jesse bounced over the barrier on a carrier landing. Do you have that information?
BILL: People who have done that, not very many ever survived it and someplace in my notes is one of the responses that you may get from Lee Nelson. On the old straight decks there are nine wires [?] guaranteed to stop anything – if you get into the wire you, can clear the wire – you're not supposed to do that. I was below deck. I had been finishing my qualifications – this was on – before back when the Leyte was on the right – they converted a cruiser aircraft carrier like CVL. The essence of it is Jesse touched down and he bounced. Must have had a pretty good ricochet and power and to do it that slow in a Hog, with that big engine, usually goes [gesture]. He controlled it, he went over the barrier, like that [?] that went off, used his 60 feet and went around again. Good airman-ship, lousy pass, but good recovery.
Incidentally, in F4Us, on a light carrier, two years later, VF-32, while we were detached from the air group, which was back in the Med., we were detached to get our new jets, which we never got. So we'd pick up all these neat little cruises. Bud [Preen?] did the same thing. Bud was an ex-Turkey pilot from World War II days. He bounced over the barrier, added power, didn't flip, didn't cream himself, or land in the island.
I look at VC-35, the Night Attack Group; I have another name – he is a retired Midshipman. On the Leyte he was the Night Attack Group. Bill Sallada and I saw him and we got together through the Chosin Reservoir Association. He decided that he had – this young man had conflicting demands on what he was going to do with his life. He wanted to be an aviator, flew, flew off the ship at night – that's when that wasn't too much of a common thing for most of us. And he also had a strong calling to his Baptist faith to be a minister. So he, after the Korean tour, he went back, became a minister, joined the Navy, and became a Chaplain. I spent a lot of time with him – he's a magnificent guy. He was a Flying Midshipman.
[Pat] Did you know Herb Sargent?
BILL: I'm a dear friend of Herb Sargent's. We have breakfast every few mornings. He and Marty Goode ...
[Looking through Leyte Cruise Book – laughing] I'm looking at this UBAG. When you're an instructor or when you're a student, too, but that was the mandatory split on distribution on grades – an evaluation after a flight – UNSAT, average, bad, and good. UBAG, and of course, you were naturally to evaluate each student as they performed. However just to make sure that you didn't get overly generous, or too critical, periodically – monthly you would evaluate as to, on all your grading, how many UNSATS, how many goods, how many averages you gave on a – [reading] "unsafe for solo" UNSAT [reading].
After, as soon as we were detached when we came back, when we moved ... when we came back from Korea, back to Quonset Point, then the Air Group was moved to Sanford, Florida, which was then a World War II base – it was activated, and then the Air Group re-embarked, they took VF-34 who'd been left behind for the Korean Cruise, and – God, those kids look young!
[Pat] How did we all get to be so doddery, right?
BILL: We're not doddery, at all – this is the problem of survival – one of the things that came out recently on the Chosin Reservoir – that little group, was that a guy says, "Thank God wrinkles don't hurt."
[Still looking through Leyte Cruise Book] FENTON WICKER IS THE CHAPLAIN! I shall send you his address. Did you want to borrow this ["Ebony" magazine, April 1951 issue]?
[Pat] Yes, there are many pictures in there we don't have.
BILL: As I was telling Dot, Barbara Brown, interestingly enough, was a classmate of mine in Des Moines, in junior high school, and she sent this ["Ebony" magazine] to mother and dad. She also happened to be black skinned, but that's marx nix, one of the more brave girls in our class. Let me check just one more item here that may help. I'm sure that this is not just strictly confidential, but O.K., this is 19 March ‘60, Tom [Hudner] sent this to me which is his description of the event. Even at that time, things were beginning to get a little – when you tell the same story, it gets better quality or worse ... At the time the [Weems] article was published, there was a Miss Urban, Navy Department, Assistant, magazines, books, media services ... and this would be in connection with the article it was submitted as unpublished ... did not proceed with the book for reasons I don't quite understand.
[taping continues with Bill and Lou]
BILL: ... check in with the controller and he says, "No targets." And he says "so go up [?] and I don't know what's ... sometimes, when things are tough and you're flying close to the ground, everything seems to be going uphill, the ground seems to be coming up ...
[Lou] Around there it did ...
BILL: But we were - I normally flew Jess's wing, but that day the CAG LSO said, "Hey, I've been on the platform long enough. It's my turn to fly." And so Hudson, George Hudson, said to the Skipper, "It's my turn to fly. "Do I get to fly?" "Yeah, O.K.
"0. K., Bill, you take – you and Ralph McQueen take a section behind the Exec. And, you know the Hog – where you put fuel transfer on automatic in the belly tank ...
[Lou] I wasn't ...
BILL: You flew F4Us?
[Lou] But that was not with belly tanks, just training [?]
BILL: You put autotransfer and fuel, main fuel cell rundown [?]. Well sometimes the fuel valve would stick and you'd dump fuel, and we were just coming up from ... the ridge was up here and the [?] was down here [?] was over there – it was cold, no activity, no targets ... I looked over and I said, "Jess, you're dropping fuel." Seemed like almost immediately, he said, "I'm losing fuel pressure."
I said, "Mayday, and over the ridge, we went over the ridge, and fortunately there was a lower spot down there, but then that was all, it was over the ridge and dropped it in. He dropped his flaps; I think he dropped his belly tank and plowed into the center. Fortunately it was relatively …, angle of attack, angle of rise pretty much came out even, and broke at – I forgot which side – but you know the Hog, it would break on rough land-ings like that, center panel, console, [?] chargers and all that stuff down there; so – you get your foot caught in there ...
[Lou] There's only a couple of places you can put your feet ...
BILL: ... and so when the fuselage bent, it pinned him in there. So where it happened, I don't know, maybe it was ...
[Lou] I've been thinking about that. The Marines were still up there.
BILL: Oh yes, this was early December.
[Lou] So it couldn't have been too close to Chosin ...
BILL: They were still ... it was ...
[Lou] ... close meaning ten miles.
BILL: They were ... I've got something from 1960 here, that Tom sent. Then it was sort of confidential, but this to me and you – it's a letter to Mr. Sufrin – [unidentified individual] he talks about this saying, "There was a recon-naissance in the vicinity of Chang Jin. He says he landed in the spot which Tom estimates to be about ten to fifteen miles behind the lines, which meant that we ahead of the Marines.
[Lou] We had just started to come down – out of there at about that time.
BILL: And had to go through it because they were pretty well enveloped along ... all I know is that if you got to about 8000 feet and headed south you got to Hung Nam.
[Lou] You're liable to hit something, too ...
BILL: No, I always kept in mind about that. The question as to what the closest line was – a resource – just need to check – Chosin Reservoir, are you a member of The Chosin Few?
[Lou] No, I missed it by a couple of months. I think you have to be in December – I think that's the cutoff ...
BILL: Yes, it was November and December of '50. When it comes to an availability of accurate information, and ground information, I'm sure that you can get that – I think Bob [Sullivan?] is one of the local ... anyway, The Chosin Few should be able to confirm or narrow down ground information. They put their feet all over the damn place; so they would be able to tell, and some – one of their members from New York – this came about – we went down for the commissioning of a new cruiser called the Chosin. This fellow commented that ... I've forgotten how it came out, about Jesse Brown, but in one of the newsletters he said, "I ... [it came out in connection with one of the – a question about prejudice]. And he said, "I didn't have anything to do with black people. I grew up in New York such and such and I wasn't particularly friendly with any of them and he said his letter came out in the Leyte newsletter, "My astonishment when someone told me that there was a black aviator flying air support in a Corsair to help them out [?]. He said, "I changed a lot of ideas. That's one of those nice conversions – but The Chosin Few should be an excellent source of information, because no one knows better than they and, of course, if it encompasses both primarily Marine – I've forgotten which Corps – Royal Marine Commandos and so this is – there is ... the Hog encounter – son of a bitch – there's a hole in my window, not a big hole, but it was a hole – I could see it and if it was, somebody was shooting at me.
The other time was we had a fearless leader who – I would say he got lost; but sometimes we came out of different places. We came down right on top I imagine ... we had air control wide, heavy, and awful AA-5. We started at 18,000, we let down, broke out at probably – oh – 3 or 4,000 feet above the ground – guess where – right where [?] ... and the first time I ever heard anything like a cannon fire there was this distinct KAHOOMP and looked down and there was this little things – little holes in Jesse's tail and we were flying very close together and I thought "Hmm, we'd better separate." And Jesse said, "Calm down." You know, we used to have those four digit numbers, instead of side number – instead of two zero three ... this is two zero five ... we had to go – well anyway, Jess said, "This is two zero three taking departure for the recco route." So we were getting out of there.
[Lou] So you must have been a little over the west end of things about that time.
BILL: Yeah, we were pretty close to the Yalu.
[Pat] What are those, Lou?
[Lou] They're the charts, at least we used to use on our reccos. I guess these guys did too. The biggest accomplishment was to be able to fold the map so that when you got in the aircraft and you unfolded the map, it didn't all come out – like this – and you were blind and you couldn't find what number was going. Were you there in 1950 – when we had the cut, when we cut the maps off?
[Lou] No, I got there in May of '51.
BILL: O.K. When the push was going north, after the delayed invasion that never happened at Wonsan, the directive came out, because there had been some of these terrible transgressions like we went across into Manchuria and I think something shot up a couple of camels, a walled city, and a few – let's call it collateral damage –
[Lou] To me it's always called "missed the son of a bitch."
BILL: ... cut the maps off above a certain parallel so if you were shot down that we did not ... I’ve got …
[Lou] I believe it - it's called "politically correct maps."
BILL: That's correct, and I remember that and I'll check with Marty (Goode]. By the time we went up to the Yalu, and everything turned to worms, then they realized it was going to be a for real and a longer war – not everybody home by Thanksgiving ... Hagaru-Ri – Koto-Ri, it has to be in that area, but I couldn't figure it out ...
[Lou] That's pretty rugged area. We were up there may times and of course it was all – nobody there, then. So a couple of F4Us [?] Koto-Ri airstrip, I think an R4D was there ...
BILL: Now those were guys who did some real flying. Those guys going in and out of the [?] flight – I can't believe that ...
[Lou] Thirty three thousand feet or something – forty thousand feet ...
BILL: That night, we, uh ... Ralph McQueen and I opted not to go back to the ship – the ship was 100 miles out. I had never made a night carrier landing and the water temperature was 39 degrees.
And I said to Mac, "I intend to stay with the Marines tonight." He said, "Yes, Sir!" We stayed and we were sort of stuck over in the comer and this place was like Grand Central Station. R-5 [?], you know, it was just tremendous – tremendous – bringing people in – wounded. This Marine Captain walked over, and he said, "You [?] setters (?] are the most rocked [?] in, sad looking guys," and I said, Wow, how the hell can you look handsome when you've been in your rubber suit since morning and your hair's all mussed up from the helmets?" And he said, "You have a place to sleep?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, you have a place over here. I'll take care of you." And he did. Guy's name is Bemault [?]. He was a recalled reservist from St. Louis. After 15th of August [?] – get out of your wet suit the other thing, be careful when you go out to the john – get out of your rubber suit first, because if we're going to get friendly visitors at night, they usually shoot at the latrine first. The guy later got killed. He went through all of this shooting back by strangers he ran into – you remember the balloons that used to be rife around the airport? The airfields in Japan? He ran his AD4 into a balloon and crashed. Died.
Tom came back that night from the Charlie Ward [?] down and we all met in a huddle there, talked for a few minutes.
end of transcript
F4U-4 (BuNo 81607) showing engine, accessory, and fuel tank sections forward of the cockpit
Markings indicate this F4U-4 is attached to the Naval Air Reserve at NAS Oakland, California.
The main spar (a continuous -Beam from wing-tip to wing-tip) is at the aft end of the accessory section.
Note the trailing edge of the wing is adjacent to the cockpit section. The structure of the aircraft is very thin at that point – only a ¼" thick aluminum skin attached to aluminum string-ons.
Also note the flaps are about 20° down. Jesse’s would have been a full 45° down.
Any rearward bending of the main spar -Beam would have forced the trailing edge of the wing into the cockpit, crushing the outer console controls into the center console starter and generator switches; trapping the pilot’s leg and foot in the process.
This bending of the main spar would also rip the accessory section and engine from the fuselage fuel tank, leaving the fuel tank intact.
letter to Lou Ives from Theodore Taylor, author
The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown
Jan. 24, 1997
Thanks so much for lending the Regress [“The Daily Progress”] version of the “LA Times” story.
The book is midway finished, I believe, and I have high hopes for it due to the tremendous cooperation I've been getting from you and others.
Two of Jesse’s former roommates at Pensacola have popped out of the blue. So that article has been a God-send.
All the best,
I wish to extend my deep gratitude to the following for their many contributions toward the writing of this book:
Mrs. Daisy Pearl Brown Thorne; Mrs. Pamela Brown Knight; William, Lura, and Fletcher Brown; Issac "Ike" Heard; Dr. Martin Luther Beard; Vincent "Vic" Breddell; … LT Lou Ives, USN (Ret.), Naval historian; … Patricia Francis, Naval historian …