Two Naval History Anniversaries

This week we are highlighting two important, recent anniversaries in Naval History: first, the birthday of Jesse L. Brown, a pioneering and remarkable Naval Aviator, and second, the first commissioning of a group of women into the Active Duty, regular Navy.

Editor’s Note: Thursday Tidings and the NHF leadership team appreciates the feedback received about Korean War hero Jesse L. Brown.

We were advised and confirmed that Ensign Oscar W. Holmes, USNR, is credited with being the first African American Naval Pilot, as he entered the Navy after becoming a qualified pilot in civilian life.  He was designated as the Navy’s first black naval aviator on 30 June 1943 after completing flight instructor training.  He was not required to attend the basic pilot training course as ENS Brown was required to do, making Brown the first African American pilot who attended and graduated from Naval Flight training. For more information, see Robert J. Schneller’s article on Holmes in the January-February 1998 issue of Naval Aviation magazine, HERE

Ensign Jesse L. Brown – A Pioneering African American Naval Aviator

By NHF Intern Tim Davidson

Born 93 years ago last Sunday (October 13th), Ensign Jesse L. Brown was an extraordinary Naval pioneer. Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Brown overcame enormous obstacles to become the first African American Naval aviator qualified through the Navy’s aviation training program, from oppressive Jim Crow laws to the ongoing economic woes of the Great Depression in the rural South.

The son of a sharecropper, Brown grew up in numerous small towns in southern Mississippi, including Palmers Crossing and Lux. Brown graduated from Eureka High School in Hattiesburg in 1944 as his class salutatorian, and then followed in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Olympian Jesse Owens, by attending The Ohio State University.

The website above is the homepage for a project working to develop Jesse Brown’s former High School into a Civil Rights museum.

Despite Brown’s academic success in the school’s architectural engineering program, the aviation program repeatedly denied him entry because of his race. Brown then heard about the U.S. Navy’s V-5 Aviation Cadet Training Program. After numerous applications, Brown was finally accepted into the program and joined the Navy Reserves on July 8, 1946. Through the program, he became a Seaman Apprentice in the Navy via NROTC, and was one of only 14 black students in the entire program of 5,600. In 1947 he became the first African-American accepted into Navy flight school, and in 1948 he completed aviation training, becoming the first African-American naval aviator trained by the Navy at the age of 22.

Serving aboard the USS Leyte, Brown earned a reputation as an experienced pilot and capable leader, completing numerous training exercises. While deployed to the Mediterranean, the Leyte was ordered to the ongoing conflict in Korea, much to the surprise of Brown and the rest of the crew. While deployed to Korea, Brown flew 20 combat missions, attacking various North Korean outposts and defenses. Upon the entrance of the People’s Volunteer Army in the conflict, Brown’s squadron was ordered to perform close air support for the vastly outnumbered and completely surrounded American ground forces at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

On December 4th, 1950, Brown flew a search-and-destroy sortie in support of U.S Marine Corps infantry forces. During the mission, which was undertaken in freezing winter conditions, Brown was hit by small-arms fire. He attempted to land on a clearing on the side of a mountain, but was force to crash-land in a nearby valley instead. Although he initially survived the crash, his fellow pilots were unable to retrieve him from the downed aircraft. Ensign Brown died shortly after the failed rescue, and his fellow wingmen were forced to abandon both he and his plane.
Ensign Jesse Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart Medal, the Air Medal, and numerous other awards of recognition for his tremendous bravery as a Naval Aviator. In 1973, the Navy commissioned the Knox-class frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089) in his honor.

Brown inspired many with his determination and bravery. As just one example, Frank Petersen (pictured above) was an electronics technician in the Navy at the time of Brown’s death. He was inspired by Brown’s life of perseverance to pursue aviation himself, and in October of 1952, Petersen became the first African American Marine Aviator. He retired in 1988 at the rank of Lieutenant General after completing a total of 38 years of service.

Brown continues to inspire and awe to this day, and we are proud to remember his life of service and commitment.

New York Times (2013) report on efforts to retrieve Ensign Brown’s remains from North Korea: “Six Decades Later, a Second Rescue Attempt”

Below is a link to a CNN reflection from 2017 on Ensign Brown and his legacy:

Women in the Navy

On October 15th, 1948, the first group of female officers were were commissioned in the Regular Navy under the Womens Armed Services Integration Act of June 1948 by Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan. The women were Capt. Joy B. Hancock, Lt. Cmdr. Winifred R. Quick, Lt. Cmdr. Anne King, Lt. Cmdr. Frances L. Willoughby, Lt. Ellen Ford, Lt. Doris Cranmore, Lt. j.g. Doris A. Defenderfer, and Lt. j.g. Betty Rae Tennant.

Prior to the enactment of this legislation, women had only been permitted to serve in auxiliary components of the military, or as nurses or other non-permanent positions. At its peak, the Navy’s Reserve force for women (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES) consisted of nearly 90,000 members – however, the commissions for its female officers were only valid for the duration of the war and an additional six month period. It was not until October 15th that the above women were finally allowed to commission into permanent positions in the Active Duty Navy, forever reshaping and benefiting the United States Sea Services.

The full text of the 1948 landmark legislation, provided by the library of congress:

Click the link below to learn more about the long legacy of women in the Navy:

Next week on Thursday Tidings, we will be remembering the 75th Anniversary Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Naval Historical Foundation will also be hosting a symposium on the Leyte Gulf on October 25 at the historic Decatur House in Washington, D.C. Learn more and register for this free event on our website:

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