Editor: This story is reprinted from Feb. 18, 2011, to honor Ensign Jesse Brown, the first black aviator for the Navy, during African-American History Month. The story is available at www.Navy.mil
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (NNS) — Hundreds of Sailors and civilians gathered at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville Officers' Club Feb. 16  to learn about the life of the Navy's first black aviator, Ensign Jesse Brown, from his grandson, Jamal Knight, during the annual African-American History Month observance at the installation.
During his opening remarks, NAS Jacksonville Commanding Officer Capt. Jeffrey Maclay said, "Today and throughout our Navy's history, African-Americans have seized opportunities to serve. They have led and excelled in challenging assignments, and their contributions have shaped our legacy. Since the Revolutionary War, African-Americans have participated in every war fought by and within the United States."
Maclay also praised the heroic actions of Brown who was killed during the Korean War. "On Dec. 4, 1950, Brown's aircraft was hit while making a strafing run against the enemy. With tremendous skill, he managed to crash land on a rough, boulder-strewn slope. He survived the crash, waving to his friends overhead. They knew he was in trouble when he remained in the cockpit as smoke began to billow from the wreckage," said Maclay.
"As others attacked and held off enemy troops, Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner landed nearby and struggled desperately to get Brown out. I would like to tell you they both made it and over the years have become the best of friends, but that was not to be. Brown died on that slope in Korea," Maclay continued. "When Brown risked his life to help a Marine regiment that day, he didn't consider their race. And when his fellow pilots saw him in danger, they did not think about the color of their skin. They only knew he was an American in trouble."
"Today, we are honored to host his grandson, Mr. Knight, and learn more about this heroic man's life," said Maclay.
As Knight took the podium, he stood next to a portrait of his grandfather, then a young, 24-year-old in his Navy dress white uniform who earned his wings of gold at NAS Jacksonville in 1948.
"The impact of naval aviation and the Navy aviator can be viewed in all of its glory throughout history. We are here to celebrate 100 years of innovation, courage and devotion. My grandfather Jesse Leroy Brown's desire was not only to fly, but to fly and be of service to mankind. He wanted to be a Navy pilot," said Knight, a senior piping engineer in Houston, Texas.
"Growing up in Southern Mississippi, set the stage for the adventures that would lead to my grandfather's path to naval aviation. In an unjust south, he was often told about everything that he couldn't do or become," Knight continued. "The word 'can't' became the catalyst for my grandfather to navigate uncharted territory to set his own path. He would become a Navy pilot, the first African-American pilot in Navy aviation history."
Knight went on to say, "My grandfather was the son of sharecroppers and had five siblings. It became apparent early on that he was smart. He skipped two grades and graduated from high school early. He soon left Mississippi for Ohio State with $980 in his pocket to pay his expenses. There he spent the next three years getting a degree in architectural engineering and working full time for the Pennsylvania Railroad."
"My grandfather soon realized he could not continue at this pace, so he tried to join the Navy ROTC. After taking the test several times, he was eventually allowed to join. In March 1947, he reported to Navy Air Training Command in Glenview, Ill. and was finally sworn in as an aviation midshipman," said Knight.
"He then reported to NAS Pensacola for flight training where he was berated and discriminated against daily.
Knight continued, talking about his grandfather's proposal of marriage to his grandmother prior to their arrival at NAS Jacksonville in June 1948, where he'd eventually receive his gold wings four months later.
"His next assignment was at NAS Quonset Point, R.I. where racism still impacted his life as many were dismayed to see a black man with aviator wings. He then reported to Fighter Squadron 32 on board USS Leyte during the Korean War," stated Knight.
"On Dec. 4, 1950, my grandfather's flight took off towards the Chosin Reservoir where he crashed and was pinned in the aircraft. As his squadron mate Tom Hudner rushed to him, my grandfather asked him to cut his leg off but he didn't have a knife. My grandfather died on that ridge. To this day, the plane wreckage can still be seen from satellites," said Knight. "Although he faced immeasurable odds, his courage and devotion would not let him fail. My grandfather was 24-years-old when he was killed in action protecting Marine troops. I never knew my grandfather, but I carry his story with me of perseverance, endurance and a deep belief that with God's help and guidance, I can accomplish anything."
Following his speech, Knight was presented a special plaque from Maclay in appreciation for him attending the event.
Knight was also given a base tour where he was thrilled to stop at places where his grandfather might have visited during his time here. He also had the opportunity to "fly" in the MH-60R simulator using the same runway his grandfather flew on.
"He looked at the sky and said, 'one day I'll fly a plane.' He fulfilled his dream. I'm very mindful of what he accomplished and some of the things he went through. He was a strong, strong man. I'm proud to carry on the legacy of Jesse Leroy Brown and to tell his story."