Sept. 18 | Day 12: The original plan was to leave New Orleans, ride to Natchez, Miss., and pick up the Natchez Trace northeast to Tennessee. We’d scheduled a full-day layover at Starbase Nashville to check the bikes and take it easy.
But we were only 111 miles from Hattiesburg, Miss., home of the African American Military History Museum. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since learning of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black carrier pilot.
We change plans and head for Hattiesburg, crossing Lake Pontchartrain on I-10.
A short — 39 seconds long — 360-degree video of the lake crossing. You can play the video and use your cursor to spin the image around and view it from different angles. It’s best with the sound off. (Trust me.) Go ahead, try it! You won’t break anything.
Brown, who broke the color barrier to Navy flight decks, is one of the most overlooked men in U.S. military history.
He grew up a sharecropper’s son in Hattiesburg and fell in love with flying while watching planes take off and land at a nearby airfield. He entered the Navy through the college V5 program while studying architecture at Ohio State University.
He persevered in flight training, endured some racist instructors, and earned his pilot’s wings.
He was flying a Corsair F4U-4 providing close-air support for Marines in the freezing Chosin Reservoir in North Korea when he was shot down by groundfire and crash-landed on Dec. 4, 1950.
His plane started smoking and threatened to catch fire. Brown was pinned inside.
Brown’s wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner, ditched his own Corsair to try and save him. But Hudner and a Marine rescue helicopter pilot could not extract Brown, who froze to death in his own plane.
Hudner received a Medal of Honor for his attempted rescue. The Navy named a destroyer after him in 2017; I went to Bath, Maine, in April to cover the christening ceremony for the Navy Times. I was fortunate enough to meet Hudner there.
Brown has always fascinated me for his courage, for the way he refused to give up his dream of flying, even in the face of intense opposition. He didn’t just become a pilot, he became a Navy carrier pilot – the best of the best.
I’m not sure why that is. Most Americans are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, the ground-breaking African-American pilots who flew combat missions in World War II. But Jesse Brown is virtually unknown1.
The Hattiesburg museum helps remedy that with a detailed exhibit on Brown. That’s what I want to see.
Back on the bikes, we find the museum with little trouble. They’re usually closed on Mondays, but I’ve emailed them and Latoya Norman, the manager, kindly invites us to visit anyway. She unlocks the door and we leave our riding jackets and helmets by the front desk.
The museum is a handsomely refurbished USO club that opened in 1942 for African American soldiers at Camp Shelby, an Army training site for armored vehicles north of Hattiesburg. Once inside, I marvel at the painstaking care with which the building has been restored. A common room, used for informal gathering, is warm and inviting. I can see myself playing chess by the stone fireplace.
Ms. Norman tells us to take our time and withdraws to her office to work. We find ourselves in a first-class museum.
“Look at all this,” I say to Linda.
The exhibits, covering service from the Revolutionary War to today, are well designed. Paintings and murals are exquisite and the lettered presentations have a Smithsonian quality. Someone put in a lot of love and effort here.
I’m fascinated by all of it, especially the Jesse Brown exhibit, which has an imaginative presentation of him on the deck of the USS Leyte. I’m gratified to see Brown, an ensign, listed as flight leader, with Hudner, a lieutenant, as his wingman.
So many other references get it backwards. Hudner outranked Brown, but Brown had more flying experience, which qualified him as flight leader.
We soon thank Ms. Norman and take our leave, but Brown stays with me as we ride away.
I wonder about the ifs of that day in 1950 — if it had not been so cold, if the flight squadron had drawn a mission earlier in the day, if the Corsair had not been vulnerable to rifle fire from the ground, if the helicopter had carried a cutting torch, if a second rescue helicopter had been available … perhaps Brown might have survived.
But what would he have come home to find? Mississippi and America were still mired in the Jim Crow era of unyielding racial segregation. Brown, like other African Americans, risked his life in service of his country; his life would’ve still been at risk from southern whites after he returned.
The civil rights movement wouldn’t really begin until four years after Brown’s death. I’ve wondered what he would have done, and I asked members of Brown’s family that question the day I met them in Maine.
“Oh, yes, I think he would have been part of it,” said Lura Brown, Jesse’s younger brother. “If not for himself, then certainly for his family. He would have gotten involved.”
I ponder that as we ride north that afternoon, through Jesse Brown’s lost Mississippi. We’ll be in Greenwood tonight. Emmett Till waits for us tomorrow.