Well, here is one, and I would be willing to venture that less than one American in over ten thousand has ever heard of it. The story involves Mississippi and Massachusetts.
So … how can Hattiesburg, Mississippi involve Fall River, Massachusetts?
October 13,1924 was the birth date of Jesse L. Brown in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It would prove to be a banner day, but no one at the time knew it. Jesse’s Dad was literally a dirt-poor sharecropper and his home had nothing modern: no electricity, no water, only an outdoor privy and an open fireplace. Jesse was one of six kids and his upbringing was typical of the time and place until … one day when Jesse’s Dad took him to a small field, which served as a local landing spot for the very occasional airplane. Jesse was hooked but good and from that moment on, his conversation was full of questions about airplanes and flying.
And oh how Jesse wanted to fly.
Now I ask you, can you imagine the derision with which Jesse’s dreams were met?
What would you care to wager that some people just ignored his foolishness while others thought he must be “touched”. Little black kids anywhere, but especially in the South, had less than no chance of affording flying lessons, let alone be even considered for flying lessons. But then another unlikely dream began to grow: it was 1936 and another (older) black kid in a far off country became an Olympic Champion. His name was also Jesse … Jesse Owens.
Our Jesse became so excited and encouraged by that event that he tried to study everything he could about how Owens had done it. Once again, reality rained all over Jesse’s parade as he learned that Jesse Owens had attended Ohio State University but that the minority presence at OSU was at best maybe one percent. But Jesse Brown hung in there and even moved to a neighborhood that had a slightly better school system. About that time, Jesse learned that: 1. He should go to a “black” school, 2. He had no chance of getting admitted to OSU. It was now 1937 and young Jesse was so incensed that he wrote a letter to the President of the United States. President Roosevelt’s office sent him a reply … that only acknowledged the receipt of his letter.
Years passed in which Jesse excelled at many sports, but WWII came along and messed things up for almost everyone.
Jesse L. Brown was actually admitted to OSU! It had to have been more than difficult for him, but Jesse saw it through. Later, even though WWII had ended, Jesse wanted to fly, so having learned that even among military aviators, the Naval Aviator’s program was considered the toughest there was … Jesse Brown wanted it. Even more unlikely was the fact that the elite of the elite were the U.S. Navy Aviators who were aircraft carrier qualified and that was what Jesse set as his goal. But first, Jesse would have to get accepted into the naval officer cadet program, and at that time there were very few black cadets accepted.
Jesse was accepted! He was one of 100 in his class.
Six cadets passed … and the black kid from Hattiesburg, Mississippi was a Commissioned officer in the United States Navy. Naturally, Jesse was not done, for he was then accepted into the Navy’s pilot training program. I do not think we can even imagine how hard it was for him but … Jesse Brown became the first black naval aviator in the history of the United States Navy. Aircraft Carrier Qualified.
Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown, complete with those gold wings over his heart. Of course, there were those who did not like it, but the there were also many more who were obviously so proud of him that he was pointed to with obvious pride.
So where does Massachusetts figure in this?
August 31, 1924 was the birthday of Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. in Fall River, Massachusetts. On the surface there could not have been a greater difference between Hudner and Brown.
Hudner came from a moderately wealthy family and his father was a successful businessman. Both Tom and Jesse excelled at sports, but Tom’s family could afford the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Tom then subsequently enrolled in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland and graduated as an Ensign. Spending about a year or so on active duty, Tom felt the pull of aviation calling and volunteered for flight school. Tom soon earned his gold Naval wings and was also promoted to LTJG..After additional advanced flying training, in due course he was ordered to report to VF-32 in Quonset Point, Rhode Island and it was there that he met Ensign Jesse Brown. Hudner was still a bachelor but Jesse was married to a girl named Daisy, and they had a little girl. Brown lived in town with his wife and child but Hudner lived on station at the BOQ/VOQ (bachelor’s officer’s quarters), so consequently they did not mix much but had to at least have known each other. Jesse and Tom were qualified pilots in F4U-4 WWII era naval piston-engine fighters but even though Tom outranked Jesse, it was Tom who flew on Jesse’s wing because of the simple and logical reason that Jesse had more flying experience. Tom was heard to remark that he thought highly of Jesse as a leader and pilot.
Then came Korea … and everything changed.
VF-32 was ordered to the aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32) that was on its way from a cruise in the “Med” and then to Korean waters for combat operations against the North Koreans and the Chinese. At that time, the Navy was just beginning to convert to jet aircraft operations, so all we really had in any numbers was the slightly updated but also outdated WWII fighter, the F4U-4 “Corsair”. It would have to do.
And among the pilots of VF-32 were two guys named Hudner and Brown.
I suspect that it was there on board the Leyte (probably over sessions at the coffee shop and officers mess) that Ens. Brown and LTJG Hudner formed a firm bond on the lengthy passage to Korean waters … a bond between equals.
It must have been there that Jesse realized that Hudner genuinely respected what Jesse had accomplished and that Hudner was much more than some spoiled rich white guy. VF-32 was ordered to perform interdiction missions against the North Koreans and Chinese in the Chosin area. The missions involved shooting up supply columns. Usually, Jesse and Tom were part of a four or eight plane attack. It was during that period that Jesse was awarded the Air Medal for operations.
And then came December 4, 1950.
Jesse and Tom were in their F4U-4 Corsairs as part of an attack force of eight planes. During the attack, Jesse’s plane was hit by ground fire and he suddenly radioed that his engine had lost oil pressure and that he was going to be forced to make a crash landing … right there and right then. It was not friendly terrain in that the Chinese troops were all too close and they were in a mountainous area. Even worse, there was snow on the rugged mountainsides and the surface temperature was about -15 degrees F, and expected to get much colder. When Jesse crashed, the flight orbited over him for his temporary protection. The flight could see that his Corsair looked quite damaged but Jesse could be seen moving. We do not know exactly what Tom’s reaction was, but it is obvious that he made an instant decision because Jesse needed help.
Tom then did something that awed the other pilots. He decided that he had to crash land his own Corsair as near to Jesse’s as he could. Consequently, Tom fired off his weapons, dumped as much fuel as he dared, lowered his flaps and tail hook, and lined up on Jesse’s plane … and crash landed as close as he could. Tom climbed out of his Corsair and found the snow deeper than he had expected. Seeing that he was about 100 yards from Jesse, Tom plowed through the snow and saw that the Corsair looked worse than he had thought. To make matters even more serious, Jesse’s plane had begun to smoke, and Tom knew that it was only a question of time before the flames would spread because Jesse had not had time to dump his fuel.
Reaching Jesse, Tom had to have been shocked to see that Jesse’s Corsair had folded at the cockpit and that Jesse was more than pinned in, the side of the cockpit apparently crushed him in. Tom then tried to scoop snow up around the engine, cowling in an attempt to discourage any fire, but could see that Jesse was in a bad way. Wading through the snow back to his own plane, Tom called the flight leader on the radio and asked for an immediate helicopter rescue, and to make certain that the chopper had an axe and a fire extinguisher.
To its credit, the Navy had a chopper there in about a half hour with the axe and extinguisher. Tom and the chopper pilot beat on Jesse’s cockpit with the axe, but discovered that the damage was so bad that the axe made no real difference. By that time it was even more obvious that Jesse was losing a lot of blood, but there was no way to stem the artery wound. They did their best to try to keep Jesse warm, but it was clear that Jesse was very close to gone. Tom and the chopper pilot even discussed using their knives to amputate Jesse’s leg to lift him out of the cockpit, but they both realized that the leg was so badly crushed that they could not even reach it. At that point, they had to realize that there was no way that Jesse could survive the amputation even if they had any chance to get the leg off. Thus there was nothing more that they could do but just stand there and try to comfort the unconscious Jesse as he slipped away.
As soon as it became obvious that Jesse was gone, the chopper pilot reminded Tom that it was not only getting dark but it was becoming even colder and that if they did not get out of there right then, they would not get out at all.
We can only imagine Tom’s feelings, as he had no choice but to leave his friend’s body. When asked later why he had done such a nearly suicidal thing, Tom remarked that he had had some association with the U.S. Marines and that he had been deeply impressed by their custom: “No Marine left behind”.
The Navy posthumously awarded Jesse the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.
No one ever knew what Tom wrote to Daisy Brown, Jesse’s widow, but not too long after that, Tom received orders to report to the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, for the presentation by the President of the Medal of Honor to LTJG Thomas J. Hudner.
Best of all, Daisy Brown was there as an honored guest, and the official citation is available online. There is also a filmed interview with Tom Hudner on YouTube.
Tom went on to an illustrious career in the Navy and retired with the rank of Captain in 1973. But Tom Hudner was not done with Jesse’s memory. He kept up his efforts toward Jesse’s memory with the result that also in 1973, the United States Navy honored Jesse by naming a ship after him; a new Frigate, (FFT-1089), The USS Jesse L. Brown.
And there, at the launching, Tom Hudner was at Daisy Brown’s side.
But by no means was Jesse ever out of Tom’s mind and spirit because in the natural course of things, years later, FFT-1089 was declared surplus by the Navy and sold to the Egyptian Navy in 1994. Hudner was livid, and among other pointed comments was his statement, “We need everything we can in race relations.”
Captain Hudner was right. He had wanted the USS Jesse L. Brown to be retained as a memorial to Jesse, possibly even placed in Mississippi.
So tell me again, why it is that so very few people have ever heard of this story?
Would it not be a fitting memorial to launch another USS Jesse L. Brown?
Here’s to you Jesse and Tom, and may your friendship be a beacon for all of us.