The First Black in the Navy’s Clear Blue YonderFebruary 4, 1999 |
The First Black in the Navy’s Clear Blue Yonder
Reviewed by LTC. willie l. Hensley (retired)
At least once a year, particularly during Black History Month, Americans pause to recognize African Americans and their contribution to our nation. This pause is important, especially since many of the achievements of Blacks and other people of color are missing from classroom history books.
Theodore Taylor’s biography, The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown, is a brilliant account of the courageous acts and deeds of America’s first Black Navy aviator. Taylor strikes a delicate balance between recounting Brown’s achievements and evoking anger, rage, and pride as he traces a life that leads from poverty in Palmer’s Crossing, Miss., to his “wings of gold” as a Navy aviator.
Brown’s journey, in many ways, reminded me of the old Negro spiritual by F.C. Barnes, “Coming Up the Rough Side of the Mountain.” Jesse Leroy Brown knew this mountain. He also knew that the nation was watching and that his achievements would open the doors for hundreds of African Americans. Taylor’s vivid description of Brown’s encounters help the reader feel the stresses, the pressures, and the joys as his life moved from the back seat of buses to the cockpit of Navy aircraft during the Korean War.
Brown’s fascination with airplanes, we learn, started at a very early age — probably before his dream of flying would be shattered by the racial barriers of his time. He was in high school at about the same time Blacks were being trained as army pilots at Tuskegee Institute. But Brown wanted something different. He wanted to be a Navy aviator, landing and taking off on aircraft carriers at sea.
Taylor captures your full attention by starting the story with Brown’s plane crash landing after being hit by enemy fire. After this brief and tense introduction, the story of Brown’s life begins to unfold.
The details of his life in Mississippi paralleled the lives of many Black youth of the time. The story could have been about anyone, until the element of Brown’s impossible dream is added. It is at this point that it becomes the unique story of Jesse Leroy Brown, a human story not of whirling propellers, but of the life of a sharecropper’s son who worked hard for a place in history.
The author, through extensive research, reviews of personal letters, and help from those who knew Brown, provides a magisterial work that chronicles — with great detail — the inner feelings, emotions, and thoughts of the aviator. Taylor writes the story with a deep admiration for Brown — an admiration that is truly captivating.
After graduating from an all-Black high school, Brown decided to attend traditionally White Ohio State University. While there, he decided to apply for the Navy’s pre-flight training program. The Navy’s officers at OSU discouraged him from applying — his questions about getting into the program always met with explanations about why he wouldn’t qualify.
But Brown’s persistence is ultimately a lesson in turning challenges into opportunities. Despite numerous challenges, he never turned away from his dream and eventually convinced a Navy instructor to let him take the written pre-flight exam. Although the instructor thought the test would be another way to deny him admittance, Brown saw it as an opportunity for himself and others. He knew that when he passed the test and got his wings, he would be opening the door for other young African Americans.
It is clear, however, that passing the pre-flight test didn’t mean that Brown had cleared all the hurdles. He still had to overcome challenges from White instructors who didn’t want their elite club contaminated. He ran into Black Navy stewards who felt that he was out of line with his insistence on getting his wings. And, there was his own nescience about flying with which he had to deal.
Being guided through Brown’s triumphs is satisfying in many ways. Seeing portions of your own life through the words of Taylor and the experiences of Jesse Leroy Brown is fascinating. Yet, Taylor ensures that Brown’s remarkable and unique feat sets him apart from the rest of us.
The story ends right where it started, with America’s first Black Navy aviator pinned down in his aircraft while White members of his squadron circle overhead trying to keep the enemy away from him. Seemingly, the individuality and racial disparities that had permeated the story earlier were now less apparent as Taylor focuses on the importance of camaraderie and teamwork. In a most mesmerizing way, Taylor shows how aviators worked feverishly to save Brown — “one of their own” — before his plane could burst into flames. Lt. Junior Grade Thomas Hudner, a White Navy aviator, crashed his plane on a frozen mountain in an attempt to save Brown.
Nevertheless, America’s first Black Navy aviator died on Dec. 4, 1950, on the rough side of a mountain in Somong-ni, North Korea.
— LTC. Willie L.Hensley
Center For Minority Veterans
Department of Veterans Affairs
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