JESSE BROWN STORY ‘DEVOTION’ COMES TO HATTIESBURG FOR PRIVATE SCREENING
By Haskel Burns
The Korean War may sometimes be known as “The Forgotten War,” but with the recent release of the movie “Devotion,” – based on the life and career of Jesse LeRoy Brown, the Hattieburg native who was the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program – Brown’s legacy will never be forgotten.
Members of Brown’s family, along with the cast and crew of “Devotion,” were on hand December 3 for a private reception at the African-American Military History Museum in Hattiesburg, followed by a screening of the film at the Saenger Theater. During the reception, Mayor Toby Barker presented the guests with the keys to the city.
“Each generation bears the weight, and carries the responsibility of telling … stories to the next generation,” Barker said during the presentation. “They do this, yes, so that history isn’t forgotten, but also it’s vital that each rising generation find its place within that story, so it can be lived out again and again.
“Stories are preserved, told, protected, and lived out through museums such as (the African-American Military History Museum), through schools teaching community history, the names of buildings, murals, books, markers, movies – and in the case of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, all of the above. To our visitors – cast, crew, producers, director and particularly the families – thanks doesn’t do it justice. It’s overwhelming to express gratitude for the significant act of telling one of our stories of our most beloved and native son to the next generation, and to the world.”
“Devotion” picks up shortly before Brown boards the aircraft carrier USS Leyte Gulf, where he is assigned to pilot a Vought F4U Corsair as part of Fighter Squadron 32. While there, he meets wingman Thomas J. Hudner Jr., who would become a steadfast friend of Brown’s throughout the war.
Brown was born in Hattiesburg before graduating as salutatorian of his high school amongst racial segregation; he later earned a degree from Ohio State University. He enlisted in the Navy in 1946 as a midshipman and earned his pilot wings in October 1948.
On December 4, 1950, Brown was part of a six-aircraft flight that was supporting U.S. Marine ground troops trapped by Chinese forces during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. After Brown’s plane was seemingly shot by a ground-based Chinese soldier – which resulted in a ruptured fuel line – the plane began losing fuel pressure.
Unable to control the plane, Brown crash-landed in a remote clearing on the side of a mountain, where his legs became pinned in the wreckage. Hudner intentionally crash-landed his own plane near Brown’s in an attempt to rescue the ensign, but was unable to free him from the wreckage.
Brown died from his injuries shortly afterwards.
Hudner requested to return to the site to extract Brown’s body, but was denied that effort by his superiors. A couple days later, the Navy napalmed the site of the wreckage to ensure that neither Brown’s body nor the aircraft would fall into enemy hands.
Despite Hudner’s attempts to return to the site over the years, Brown’s remains were never recovered. Hudner died in 2017.
For his efforts, Brown was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Hudner was later awarded with the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman.
“I would say that this is an event that I would definitely not miss,” said Thomas Hudner III, the son of Thomas J. Hudner Jr. “For me, personally, it was just really important for me to be here, and I’m very grateful to the Brown family, so I certainly wanted to be here to support them and to support the community.
“It always meant so much to my father to be able to visit Hattiesburg and to spend time with the Brown family, so it would have taken a lot to keep me away. I think (my dad and Brown’s relationship) exemplified honor, selfless service, selfless sacrifice, looking out for the other person before yourself. I think those are themes that can resonate for anyone, regardless of age or race or background or vocation.”
“Devotion” is directed by J.D. Dillard and stars Jonathan Majors as Brown and Glen Powell – who also starred in “Top Gun: Maverick” – as Hudner Jr.
“Hattiesburg is the perfect place to end this entire (media) tour, this victory lap of getting the story told,” Powell said. “Hattiesburg is where it all started, where … a little boy who started in the mud grew up to own the skies.
“It’s just a beautiful story, and Hattiesburg is a huge part of it, a huge part of who Jesse Brown was, a huge part of the celebration and getting his name out there.”