The New Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi opened this past weekend. This occasion offers us an opportunity to reflect on just how far we have come with respect to race relations as well as how long ago we started.
Before Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it unlawful for State governments to discriminate, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the branches of the American military with an executive order in 1948. This action was met with the predictable cries that unit cohesion would suffer if white soldiers were made to serve with black soldiers. As if on cue, the invasion of South Korea in late June 1950 provided a laboratory to test this theory.
The first three months of the war consisted of the South Korean Army and the few American units in the area being driven south to the port city of Pusan where they managed to establish a perimeter. A rout was avoided as US forces withdrew orderly to slow the advance of the North Koreans.
On August 6, 1950, such a withdrawal was underway when a North Korean attack isolated PFC William Thompson’s platoon. PFC Thompson, an African American soldier, was wounded while manning his automatic weapon. When ordered to withdraw with his unit he refused, citing his serious wounds and the need for covering fire to protect the rest of the platoon. The next morning he was discovered at his gun amidst numerous enemy dead testifying to his heroic last stand. His next of kin were presented the Medal of Honor posthumously.
By June of 1951, United Nations forces had been on the offensive against Chinese and North Korean forces for several months. On June 2 units of the 24th Infantry Regiment assaulted positions at Chipo-ri held by the Chinese Army. A platoon led by Sgt Cornelius Charlton made several assaults on a key defensive position on a hill. Each attempt was led by Sgt Charlton and each time he was wounded. The hill was taken at great loss of life including that of Sgt Charlton. The Medal of Honor was presented to his family posthumously for his indomitable courage and his superb leadership.
These two instances certainly show that black soldiers were capable of conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty even at the risk of their own life. But aspersions were still cast on the ability of African Americans to learn and handle complex duties in combat and to bond with and earn the loyalty and respect of white soldiers in their unit. Enter Jesse L Brown.
Jesse L. Brown was a 1947 graduate of Ohio State University having received a degree in architectural engineering. He secured an appointment to flight school through a Naval ROTC class and in April 1949 he was commissioned an Ensign in the US Navy. He became the first African- American pilot in the US Navy. He was assigned to and trained with a squadron of F4U fighter bombers aboard an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan. He was paired with Lt jg Thomas J Hudner who had graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1946.
On December 4, 1950 Ensign Brown and Lt Hudner were part of a six aircraft formation providing close air support for Marines at the Chosin Reservoir when ground fire punctured the fuselage of Brown’s aircraft. Losing fuel quickly he found a clearing and made a wheels up landing. Ensign Brown found himself trapped in the wreckage.
Lt. Hudner as well as other aircraft circled Ensign Brown until they were low on fuel. Lt Hudner despite being ordered to leave the area, crash- landed his own aircraft nearby in an attempt to rescue his shipmate. Hudner worked for forty-five minutes to free Brown but could not. When a rescue helicopter landed the pilot of the small helicopter and Lt Hudner continued their efforts to free Ens. Brown. They even considered, with Brown’s consent, amputating his leg. When darkness began to fall they were forced to leave Ensign Brown unconscious but alive. Lt Hudner’s last words to Brown were “we have to go but I’ll be back”.
After returning to the carrier, Hudner begged his superiors to allow him to return with the rescuers. He was not permitted and was threatened with court martial for crashing his own aircraft against orders. Efforts to recover Ensign Brown were unsuccessful and his remains were never recovered. Instead of a court martial Lt. Hudner received the Medal of Honor on April 13, 1951 from President Truman. For the rest of his life he tried to honor his promise. In July 2013 he traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea and sought permission to visit the site of the crash to search for any remains. That government was less than co-operative. He returned home and planned to return. On November 13, 2017 Thomas Hudner died at age 93. He had spent sixty- seven years honoring the memory of his friend Jesse Brown.
Clearly there was a bond of respect and loyalty between these two men. For every self- appointed “leader” who tries to speak for an entire group about the merits or faults of another group there are hundreds of individuals who form their own conclusions about members of that group after one on one interaction. Every individual has merit and some fault. It can only be determined by interacting, in good faith, with one person at a time.
Lawrence A Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a military historian.