There is every indication that the film “Devotion” will do for Jesse LeRoy Brown what “Red Tails” did to bring wider recognition to the Tuskegee Airmen in 2012. Reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly strong since it arrived in theaters in November, and the positive response shows no sign of lessening.
If all of this is new to you, the film is based on a true story about Brown, the first Black American to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program and later, due to his heroics in the air, earn a Distinguished Flying Cross. Rather than review the film, which I haven’t seen yet, let’s recount how Brown’s legacy began on Oct. 13, 1926, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Brown was born in poverty. When he was 6 years old, his father, John Brown, took him to an airshow and thus began his deep interest in planes and flying. His education on planes and flight continued when he read stories about such famous Black pilots as Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman, mainly from the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper he delivered. In 1937, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in which he complained about Blacks being unable to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, and the White House thanked him for his concern about the issue.
As a high school student, Brown excelled in the classroom, graduating as the salutatorian of his class; he was also a member of the basketball, football and track teams. When he expressed a desire to attend Ohio State University, following in the footsteps of his idol Jesse Owens, he was discouraged, but he pursued his dream and overcame the obstacles. To earn money to pay his tuition, he worked at a saloon that served white soldiers. Despite their insults and abuse, he persevered and saved the money he needed to leave Mississippi and enroll at Ohio State University.
He majored in architectural engineering and, on several occasions, attempted to enter the school’s aviation program. His race restricted him from the program, but not from the track and wrestling teams. Eventually, he had to drop these pursuits for financial reasons. But there was still an opportunity to join the Aviation Cadet Training Program conducted by the U.S. Navy, and Brown was successful in passing the entry exam. In 1946, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, becoming a seaman apprentice and a member of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.
A year later, Brown completed the engineering program and reported to Glenview Naval Air Station in Illinois to begin training as a naval flight officer, one of a few Blacks to gain this distinction. It wasn’t long before he achieved the rank of midshipman—the only African American in the program. There was no abatement of the racial slights and even some hostility from Black workers at the facility who were apparently jealous of his successes. He got his first flight aboard a trainer aircraft.
After being transferred to Pensacola Naval Air Station, Brown secretly married Daisy Pearl Nix, since cadets were not allowed to marry until their training was complete. They managed to see each other on weekends by living in separate quarters. He finished his training in 1948 and received his Naval Aviator Badge. This moment was captured in several publications, including Life magazine. He was often deemed the “Jackie Robinson of Naval Flyers.”
After the birth of his daughter, Pamela, Brown was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the USS Leyte.
In 1950, the Leyte was ordered to the Korean Peninsula as the Korean War heated up. Ensign Brown was among the VF-32 crew who flew 20 support missions for U.N. forces. At this time, the war was not going well for the South Korean forces, and the advancing North Korean army was only miles from Seoul, the South Korean capital. To impede this advance, the U.N. stepped into the fray and the U.S. dispatched its Seventh Fleet. When this measure proved less than successful, President Truman ordered ground troops to supplement the air support. The Leyte was placed on alert.
Brown was part of a six-aircraft flight in support of U.S. Marine Corps ground troops trapped by Chinese forces. They flew 100 miles to the Chosin Reservoir through harsh wintery conditions and began searching for targets. It was partly reconnaissance and partly a search-and-destroy mission. He was flying low when his plane was hit by a barrage of bullets from the Chinese, who often hid in the snow. His plane was seriously damaged, and Brown attempted to land it on a snow-covered side of the mountain. The crash practically demolished the plane and left Brown trapped. He tried to free himself from the plane as it was engulfed in smoke and flames.
His wingman, Thomas Hudner, deliberately crashed his own plane and rushed to free Brown, using handfuls of snow to drench the flames. To free him, Hudner used an ax and thought about amputating Brown’s trapped leg, but soon realized that the cause was hopeless. Brown gradually lost consciousness and uttered his last words to Hudner: “Tell Daisy I love her.”
Later, when Hudner requested to retrieve Brown’s remains from the wreckage, he was denied. The entire scene was destroyed to keep Brown’s body and the aircraft from being possessed by the enemy.
Brown is considered as the first African American U.S. Navy officer killed in the war, although there is some dispute of this fact. (While Brown is often cited as the first African American naval aviator, historian Robert J. Schneller has maintained that Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Oscar W. Holmes preceded him, earning the designation of naval aviator in 1943 with an exemption from the Navy’s basic aviation training program due to his prior civilian piloting experience.)
Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart Medal and the Air Medal. Hudner received the Medal of Honor for valor—the highest award presented by the U.S. military. In 1973, the Navy commissioned the Knox-class frigate the USS Jesse L. Brown, only the third U.S. ship named in honor of an African American.
In 2013, Hudner visited Pyongyang in an attempt to recover Brown’s remains, but was told to return when the weather was better. Perhaps some of these unfinished issues will be explained in the film, where Jonathan Majors portrays Brown