In the photograph Brown stands with fellow graduates of the pilot-training program in Pensacola, Florida, and his face radiates happiness and the optimism of youth. His view of the future was as foggy as anyone's, yet he sensed that it glowed. Not only had he, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, broken a significant color barrier, but he and his wife of one year, Daisy, had a newborn daughter.
Two years later, Brown flew his first combat mission over Korea. In the next two months he completed twenty successful missions and earned the Korean Service Medal and the Air Medal. His Air Medal citation reads, "Leading his section in the face of hostile antiaircraft fire, he vigorously pressed home his attacks, thereby materially contributing to the success of his division in inflicting serious losses upon the enemy and providing effective support for friendly ground forces." Protecting the foot soldiers mattered much to Jesse Brown. "Knowing that he's helping those poor guys on the ground, I think every pilot here would fly until he dropped in his tracks," he wrote to Daisy on the night of December 3, 1950.
The next day, Brown crashed. He was hit by enemy gunfire while assisting a marine division that was surrounded by communist forces in mountainous terrain near the Chosin Reservoir, in the northeast section of the Korean Peninsula. He radioed his fellow pilots before crash-landing his F4U Corsair in a snowy clearing. With a marine rescue helicopter on the way, Lieutenant Thomas Hudner crash-landed his own plane and tried in the bitter cold to free his buddy from his mangled, smoking craft. Hudner did his best, but Brown was gravely injured and died before help could arrive. On that winter day, Jesse L. Brown achieved another first, becoming the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean conflict. He was awarded posthumously the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
A life lost in service to one's country represents the silencing of dreams, a child left to grow up without her father, May mornings that dawn as fresh as this one but whose quiet joy is never to be felt. Today we pause to remember.