The incredible true story of Jesse L. Brown, the first African-American aviator to complete the US Navy’s basic flight training program, and the camaraderie between him and fellow naval pilot, Thomas Hudner, was told in the 2022 film, Devotion. The release was praised for its ability to honor the pair’s actions in Korea and friendship, while also bringing adequate drama.
Jesse L. Brown and an act of heroism
Devotion follows the true story of African-American naval pilot Jesse L. Brown during the Korean War. Brown struggled to navigate the challenges of being a Black man in a segregated military, but ultimately became an inspiration to other African-American servicemen and aviators.
After flying over 20 successful combat missions, Brown crashed his Vought F4U Corsair on a mountaintop during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. In an effort to save his friend and fellow pilot, wingman Thomas J. Hudner Jr. intentionally crashed his own aircraft.
Brown became trapped in the wreck of his aircraft, and despite Hudner’s attempts to wrestle him free from the wreckage, Brown succumbed to his injuries. He was just 24 years old.
An African-American aviation pioneer
Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. One of five siblings, Brown and his family lived in a small house without indoor plumbing or heating. When he was six years old, his father took him to an airshow. Brown became infatuated with the idea of flying, a life-long dream that eventually became a reality.
Brown was intensely aware of the racist structures of segregation that limited him from pursuing his dream. In 1937, he wrote a letter to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt questioning the injustice of African-American pilots being kept out of the US Army Air Corps.
While attending a segregated high school, Brown became a popular student. He was very talented in both academics and athletics, and while there fell in love with his future wife, Daisy. He wanted to pursue a college degree outside of the American South, in a non-segregated school, so he enrolled in Ohio State University – just like his role model (and namesake), Jesse Owens.
Challenging segregation in the US Navy
Even though he majored in architectural engineering, Jesse L. Brown longed to join Ohio State’s aviation program. However, each application was denied because of his race. The following year, he discovered the US Navy had created the V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program for colleges to train and recruit future pilots.
Of the 52 colleges that offered the program, none were historically made up of a Black student population – alienating African-American students. Regardless of the racial barriers that stood in his way, Brown passed his entrance exams and enrolled in the program.
In July 1946, Brown enlisted in the US Naval Reserve and became a member of the Officer Training Corps, specializing in aviation. At the time, he was one of 14 Black students enlisted in the program, which was comprised of over 5,000 students.
Jesse L. Brown’s fatal crash in Korea
Jesse L. Brown completed his military training and enlisted in the US Navy in 1949. Not long after, the North Korean People’s Army began its invasion of South Korea, prompting the United States to come to latter’s aid.
In October 1950, Brown was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea that was called to Korea. He and other pilots were tasked with providing air support while American troops fended off soldiers surrounding the Chosin Reservoir.
On December 4, 1950, a bullet ruptured the fuel line in Brown’s aircraft. He tried to make an emergency landing on the snowy side of a mountain, but crashed into a nearby valley. His leg became pinned underneath the fuselage, blocking any chance of escape from the fiery wreck.
His wingman, Lt. Junior Grade Thomas J. Hudner Jr. was circling overhead when he saw Brown wave his hands from his crashed F4U. Any attempt at saving the fellow aviator came with great risk – the mountains surrounding the area were 15 miles behind Chinese enemy lines.
Radio operators said a rescue helicopter was on its way, but time was already running short. The fire from the crash was growing closer and closer to the aircraft’s fuel tank, which could explode at any moment. Hudner could see the imminent risk to Brown’s life and landed his own aircraft nearby.
Thomas Hudner’s sacrificed his safety for Jesse L. Brown
Thomas Hudner ran to Jesse L. Brown’s side and tried to free him from the wreckage, but the former’s injuries were quickly overtaking him. Soon after the rescue helicopter arrived, Hudner and the crew extinguished the fire and spent the next 45 minutes trying to free Brown with an axe.
It was clear that freeing Brown wouldn’t be easy. As the minutes went by, his condition worsened, and soon the helicopter was forced to leave Brown alone, so it could return to base before nightfall. The aviator died that night, likely due to the extreme cold and the injuries he sustained in the crash.
Hudner remembered Brown’s last words, “Tell Daisy I love her.” Hudner pleaded with officials to allow him to return to the site and rescue his comrade’s body, to give him a proper burial, but his request was denied due to a heavy Chinese presence in the area.
To prevent the Chinese from seizing Brown’s body, the Navy bombed the site with napalm while reciting the Lord’s Prayer over their radios. Brown’s body was never recovered. He was the first African-American to die in the Korean War.
Jesse Brown’s legacy
Jesse L. Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, the Purple Heart and an Air Medal. For his selfless attempt to save his fellow serviceman, Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor.
In 1973, the Navy commissioned the USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089). Hudner spoke at the vessel’s dedication, which was also attended by Brown’s family and his wife. In 2013, Hudner asked North Korean officials if he could return to the crash site to attempt to recover his friend’s body once more, but was told to return at a later date.
Thomas J. Hudner Jr. died on November 13, 2017. His biography, Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice later inspired the 2022 film, Devotion.
Devotion brings Jesse L. Brown’s story to the big screen
Devotion hit theaters on October 28, 2022. The film stars Glen Powell, who’s claimed his place among military movie stars for his role in Top Gun: Maverick (2022), as Tom Hudner. Jonathan Majors, known for Da 5 Bloods (2020) and The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), as Jesse Brown.
Devotion follows the friendship between Brown and Hudner as they advance through flight school and are deployed to fight in the Korean War, all while navigating their different experiences with racial segregation.