Editor’s note: Pete Mecca is away this week taking care of his responsibilities as commander of the Atlanta World War II Round Table. This feature originally appeared in the Citizen in 2018.
Jesse L. Brown was born into poverty. His father worked odd jobs and his mother taught school, but times were tough for his affectionate parents and five siblings in Hattiesburg, Miss., during the Great Depression. Born on Oct. 13, 1926, his ancestry was a mixture of African-American, Native American Chickasaw and Choctaw. At 6 years of age, Brown’s father took him to an airshow. Brown fell in love with aviation. He sneaked into the airfield many times just to watch the aviators and planes until chased away by the local mechanics.
Brown read everything he could get his hands on about aviation and had a deep desire to fly Navy aircraft. A brilliant student, Brown graduated high school as the salutatorian in 1944. Urged to attend a black college, Brown chose Ohio State instead, alma mater to his favored role model, African-American Olympic Gold Medalist Jesse Owens. A hard worker, Brown took several jobs to earn money for college. After earning a degree in architectural engineering in 1947, he joined the Navy’s V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program and enlisted in the NROTC (Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps) at which time was offered at 52 colleges. Of the more than 5,600 students enrolled in the program in 1947, only 14 were black.
March 15, 1947: Brown reports to Glenview Naval Air Station in Glenview, Ill., for flight training. Although he braced himself for racial antagonism, he found the other aviation cadets friendly and hospitable. His next port-of-call was Ottumwa Naval Air Station then on to Pensacola, Fla. In Pensacola, Brown did face blatant racism from one instructor and a few classmates, but his accomplishments gained Brown national recognition. He was featured in Life Magazine and The Associated Press reported his achievements.
Earning his wings, Brown was assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 aboard the carrier USS Leyte. He always dreamed of flying an F4U Corsair or F6F Hellcat; he got his wish, Brown held the stick on an F4U Corsair. He had married his high school sweetheart, Daisy Pearl Nix, during training at Pensacola, a big no-no for a cadet in training and a cause for immediate dismissal. However, after gaining his commission Brown was able to disclose their marriage without repercussions.
June 25, 1950: Ten divisions of North Korean soldiers launch a full-scale attack into South Korea. The United Nations Security Council votes to oppose the aggression and American military forces are dispatched to fight the highly political war. The USS Leyte with the Navy’s first African-American pilot, Jesse Brown, arrives “on station” around Oct. 8. Brown is going to war. As UN forces reach the Yalu River bordering Communist China, the Chinese leadership sends approximately 100,000 of its soldiers into the fray against 15,000 U.S. troops in late November, 1950. By that time Brown had flown 20 combat missions.
On Dec. 4, 1950, he and five other Corsairs launch from the Leyte to strafe and bomb enemy targets near the epic UN retreat and struggle near the Chosin Reservoir at altitudes as low as 700 feet. One of the Corsair pilots spotted fuel leaking from Brown’s aircraft. Ground fire had most likely hit his plane and ruptured a fuel line. Losing fuel and unable to control his Corsair, Brown jettisoned his external fuel tanks and rockets to attempt an emergency landing in a snow-covered clearing on the side of a mountain. Upon a violent impact, Browns Corsair broke up, pinning his leg beneath the fuselage. It was around 14:45 hours.
Down 15 miles behind enemy lines, as soon as the other pilots realized Brown had survived the crash landing, emergency calls went out for a rescue attempt. A chopper was dispatched, but Brown’s Corsair was smoking and a fire ignited near the internal fuel tanks. Brown’s wingman, Lt. Junior Grade Thomas J. Hudner, realizing his buddy was seriously injured and in serious trouble, crash-landed his own aircraft nearby and rushed to aid Brown. Hudner tried unsuccessfully to douse the fire with snow and could not free Brown’s leg from the wreckage.
The chopper arrived at 1500 hours. Hudner and the chopper pilot could not extinguish the flames with a fire extinguisher and had no luck using an axe to free Brown’s leg. The attempt continued for 45 minutes. Brown was in critical condition, he floated in and out of consciousness, even asking Hudner and the chopper pilot to amputate his leg, then permanently lost consciousness. His last words to Hudner: “Tell Daisy I love her.”
Unable to operate the chopper in darkness, as the sun set both Hudner and the chopper pilot had no other choice: they had to abandon Brown, who was already deceased. Both men wept.
Back aboard ship, Hudner begged his superiors for permission to return to the wreckage to extract Brown, but permission was denied. For good reason: enemy troops most likely surrounded the aircraft to set up an ambush for any rescue attempt which would only generate more U.S. casualties. Not wanting Brown or his aircraft to fall into enemy hands, it was decided to give Brown a “warrior’s funeral” the next day.
Seven aircraft flew over the crash site the next day. One plane accelerated straight up as if climbing for heaven as the others dove and released napalm on the crash site. The voice of one pilot could be heard over the radio reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Brown was posthumously awarded an Air Medal, a Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. On April 13, 1951, President Harry Truman awarded the Medal of Honor to Brown’s wingman, Thomas Hudner, for his courageous attempt to save his friend, and America’s first black Navy pilot.
The Destroyer Escort, USS Jesse L. Brown, was christened by the Navy on March 18, 1972. It was the first Navy ship to be named after an African-American.
Even in death, Jesse L. Brown would continue to serve his country as a role model for future generations.
Topeka, Kan., March 2, 1932: A boy child is born to a former sugar-cane plantation worker from St. Croix, the Virgin Islands. The Petersen couple named their young boy Frank Emmanuel. Petersen, too, would attend segregated schools, smart, physically and mentally tough, all attributes that would serve him well as he matured into a recruit for the United States Navy in 1950.
Petersen did so well on the entrance exam a recruiter assumed he had cheated on the test. Petersen was made to take the entrance exam a second time. He aced the test, after which the recruiter informed Petersen, “You’ll make a great mess steward.” Not to be held back, Petersen served as an electronics technician. However, the recent combat death of the Navy’s first black pilot, Jesse L. Brown, motivated Petersen to apply for training as a combat pilot.
By then a U.S. Marine, Petersen entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1951 and earned his commission and wings as a second lieutenant in October, 1952. Although the first black to become a U.S. Marine fighter pilot, he still endured racial slurs and indignities, and even had to stomach being arrested at an officer’s club on suspicion of impersonating an officer. He was thrown off a public bus in Florida for refusing to sit at the back of the bus with the other black passengers. When stationed in Hawaii, a landlord refused to rent a house to Petersen and his wife simply because they were black. In an ironic twist of fate, Petersen discovered while in flight training he suffered from acrophobia, the fear of heights. He persevered.
In 1953, Petersen flew 64 combat missions in the Korean War as a pilot assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 212 (VMF-212, the Devilcats) and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and six air medals. His airplane: the Chance Vaught F4U Corsair, the same type of aircraft flown by his role model, Jesse L. Brown.
A confident pilot and ambitious Marine, in 1968 Petersen became the first African-American in the U.S. Marines or the U.S. Navy to command a tactical air squadron when he took over the Black Knights of Fighter Attack Squadron 314 (VMFA-314) in Vietnam. From May of 1968 and February of 1969, he flew 290 missions. Among many combat decorations, he was awarded the Purple Heart after his F-4 Phantom was shot down over North Vietnam and he was forced to bail out. He was rescued.
In 1969, Petersen served as a tactical air planner/programmer in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation and in 1971 took an assignment as special advisor to the commandant of the Marine Corps in charge of recruitment for African-American officers. By 1975, Petersen wore the insignia of a full bird colonel. In February of 1979, Petersen pinned on his first star as a brigadier general, the first African-American in the U.S. Marine Corps to do so. In May of 1983, Petersen pinned on the second star of a major general and the third star of a lieutenant general on June 12, 1968. Commenting on the awesome responsibilities of general rank, Petersen stated, “Whereas you thought you could perform before, now you must perform.”
When the Japanese attacked our anchorage at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Petersen was 9 years old. Although unsure about what war really was, he understood that the Japanese had done a bad thing to America. He said of the time, “I was scared, but happy that it hadn’t been black folks who’d done it.”
Frank Emmanuel Petersen retired after 38 years of service to his country in 1988 as a three-star lieutenant general. He said of the changes and progress on racial relations in the military, “Obviously there has been progress and the military has been a model for integration. The signs of it are subtle. As you go off base, look around. If you see a white kid and a black kid going off together to drink a beer, you know that you’ve achieved a degree of success.”
During his career, Lieutenant General Petersen flew over 350 combat missions and logged more than 4,000 hours in a variety of military aircraft. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1967, his master’s degree in 1973, and an honorary doctor of law degree from Virginia Union University in 1987. He died on Aug. 25, 2015 at his home in Stevensville, Md., near Annapolis, of lung cancer. He was 83.
A good role model produces another good and possibly better role model no matter what race, creed or color. In last week’s article I touched on just a few of the brave women who served as spies during WWII. This week’s article is about change, the change one black pilot brought about for another black pilot, and the beat goes on. Or does it? I’ll preach until I’m on the other side of the grass that these exceptional human beings should be discussed and recognized in our school systems. They are not. Bringing down any category of discrimination no matter where found or practiced will forever bring about excellence of those oppressed, not street violence. Tangible change takes men and women of determination, resolution and character, not flimsy cardboard signs.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration visit his website at veteransarticle.com and click on “contact us.”