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Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice: The Navy’s "Jackie Robinson" (Told by His Granddaughter)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 20, 2024 3:01 am

Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice: The Navy’s "Jackie Robinson" (Told by His Granddaughter)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 20, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, this is the story of America's first Black Naval Aviator, Jesse Leroy Brown. There's a movie dedicated to him called "Devotion," based on the book of the same name by our regular contributor, Adam Makos. The story is also about Thomas Hudner, who received the Medal of Honor for trying to save Jesse's life. Here to tell the story is Jesse's granddaughter, Jessica Leroyce Knight Henry.

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Welcome to 500 Greatest Songs, a podcast based on Rolling Stone's hugely popular, influential, and sometimes controversial list. I'm Brittany Spanos.

And I'm Rob Sheffield. We're here to shed light on the greatest songs ever made and discover what makes them so great. From classics like Fleetwood Mac's Dreams to the Ronettes' Be My Baby, and modern day classics like The Killer's Mr. Brightside.

Listen to Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Ready to celebrate International Women's Day? M&Ms and iHeart present Women Take the Mic, sharing empowering stories of women supporting and celebrating each other. And of course, there is a smooth and creamy companion for your listening pleasure, peanut butter M&Ms. Because they're just another way to help treat yourself in situations where you deserve a little added delight, like listening to your favorite podcast. So savor the deliciousness of peanut butter M&Ms and spread some positivity.

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Investment products are not insured. Non-obligations of Navy Federal and may lose value. And we continue with our American stories. Up next, the story of America's first black naval aviator. There's been a movie dedicated to him called Devotion based on the book of the same name by Adam Makos, who's a regular contributor to this show. The story is about Jesse Leroy Brown, but it's also about Thomas Hudner who won a medal of honor trying to save Jesse's life in combat. Here to tell this story is the granddaughter of Jesse Leroy Brown. I'm Jessica Knight-Henry, the granddaughter of Jesse Leroy Brown, the first black naval aviator.

My grandfather was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is also where I grew up. I grew up and, you know, his story means so much to our family, but is also a really important piece of American history. And so we've been so grateful with the success of the film Devotion to just bring Jesse's story to a much wider audience. Spoiler alert, Jesse's plane was shot down and he was killed in action December 3rd, 1950.

And my mom was just shy of being two years old. And so we didn't grow up with my grandfather, just stories from my grandmother, his brothers, and those who served with him about his legacy and exactly what he meant to them, but what that historic sacrifice meant to so many others, particularly the American military. But the interesting thing about the movie is that we meet Jesse when he's already a pilot. And so if there was anything that I would share with folks would be more insight into just exactly what he overcame to get him to that place. So Jesse grew up in a shotgun, one bedroom home in South Mississippi, no indoor plumbing, you know, no electricity. They would often read the Bible and scripture by candlelight. And I mean, modest is probably a very generous word for what they experienced, but it was a home nonetheless. And it was, you know, what they built and what they were proud of. And sharecropping at the time was just the level of hard work and the boys were in the fields. They had an opportunity to get an education because the family placed a huge importance on that, but they were also out there working right along with their fathers. But they were also out there working right along with their father.

He was in school, he would read the dictionary backwards and forwards and all of these stories that I heard growing up about just how important it was to be successful because they saw that as a ticket out of the abject poverty that they faced in South Mississippi. A lot of the farms that they would be working were by airfields. And so Jesse often saw these planes, whether crop dusters or other aircraft, and always knew that he wanted to fly. And so there are countless stories of him being a little boy.

And, you know, as they're literally picking cotton and seeing a plane overhead would say, I'm going to fly one of those someday. And I like to think of the snickers or the looks that he would get from folks. One of my favorite stories that I heard about my grandfather was a black night watchman at one of the hangers who allowed him and his brothers to come in and literally touch a plane, get inside of a plane, and how that one little moment and act of kindness was important to him because of this love of flying. And so you think about him being in high school. He was just gifted, which is incredibly daunting, I think, being the granddaughter of someone who was amazing. He was an incredible athlete. He ran track. He was valedictorian at his high school.

And so having all of these achievements, but still being just so bound by your circumstances at a time like that, growing up in, you know, 1930s Mississippi, what that must have meant. My uncle Junior, Jesse's brother, would talk about how he was approached to participate in this local competition to design a part for a water pump. And this white company owner had been to various other colleges and also high schools, but looking to individuals that had some engineering prowess and only came to Eureka High School when he was unable to find someone to create this part. And Jesse was so excited, one, to be able to have this opportunity, but to really have the machinations in his brain work and to be challenged in this way. And so he was able to successfully build this part to help this water pump. And it was something that, one, grown men with jobs should have been able to do. And he did it. The guy said, thank you. And that was sort of the end of it. And I remember my uncle Junior, who I mentioned the brothers would always be emotional when they would think about what Jesse endured.

Jesse told him that the owner said to him, if you weren't a ****, figuring out how to fix that machine would have paid for your college. And so the idea of him getting the courage to want to even dream about something beyond that, but then going off and doing that. And obviously he had the motivation from his parents and his family. But I think a lot of what we hear, particularly around the courtship that he shared with my grandmother, was just how powerful of a force that was as well. And, you know, him meeting her and them being, you know, in high school together, but him walking upwards of five, 10 miles just to make sure he was there, to walk her to and from classes, and understanding that she was the eldest of a really, really large family and what that looked like to come and say, like, hey, this is someone that I want to date and how that must have been pretty daunting.

But, you know, at the same time, having to recognize a lot of the responsibilities that she had with helping to rear her own siblings as well. And so this powerful love story that they shared that really, you know, came together over wanting and daring to achieve something greater than what they were born into. And so I think when the opportunity for my grandfather to move to Ohio to matriculate for college, him having the opportunity to join the architectural program at Ohio State University and then subsequently join the Navy ROTC program and begin a flight training school, there were stories of him working in boxcars and experiencing some level of homelessness and whatever he had to do to sacrifice, to achieve those dreams and also to make money and send it back home.

So he was going to always go against the current, despite it being more difficult and unchartered. Jesse always wanted to be the best and that meant like competing with the best. And you've been listening to Jessica Knight Henry tell the story of her granddaddy, Jesse Leroy Brown. And he grew up in a sharecropping home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

And by the way, we broadcast about three and a half hours north of Hattiesburg in Oxford, Mississippi, a beautiful small college town about an hour south of Memphis. He grew up near airfields too, working in the cotton fields. He'd see planes flying overhead flying overhead. And he would tell anybody he could, I'm going to fly those one day.

And indeed, he did. When we come back, more of the life story of Jesse Leroy Brown here on Our American Stories. Welcome to 500 Greatest Songs, a podcast based on Rolling Stone's hugely popular, influential and sometimes controversial list.

I'm Brittany Spanos and I'm Rob Sheffield. We're here to shed light on the greatest songs ever made and discover what makes them so great. From classics like Fleetwood Mac's Dreams to the Ronettes Be My Baby and modern day classics like The Killer's Mr. Brightside.

Listen to Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Are you ready to share some joy and celebrate International Women's Day? M&M's has partnered with iHeart for Women Take the Mic, treating you to the most uplifting and empowering stories of women supporting and celebrating each other. And of course, there is a smooth and creamy companion for your listening pleasure, Peanut Butter M&M's, because they're just another way to help treat yourself in situations where you deserve a little added delight, like listening to your favorite podcast.

So grab a handful of that creamy deliciousness, kick back and spread some positivity into the world. From smashing glass ceilings to breaking records in sports, on stages and at the box office, women are crushing it in every way imaginable. And with Peanut Butter M&M's by your side, relax and keep listening to Women Take the Mic podcasts as you dance your way through inspiring stories, share laughs and savor the deliciousness of Peanut Butter M&M's and the unstoppable force of women.

Happy International Women's Day. Hey, I'm here to tell you about Upfaith & Family, the leading streaming service for uplifting entertainment. This season, enjoy soul-stirring movies like Southern Gospel, an uplifting series like The Chosen and Jesus Calling. If you're in the mood for something lighter, there are feel-good movies like Heart of a Champion and Country Hearts or catch up on the beloved series Heartland. There's a curated collection that's perfect for the whole family. It's commercial free, stream anywhere. Get a free trial today.

Go to upfaithandfamily.com for your free trial. And we continue with our American stories and the story of Jesse Leroy Brown, here to pick up where she last left off, talking about her granddad, Jessica Knight Henry. Jesse always wanted to be the best, and that meant like competing with the best. And even considering like the Naval Academy at that time was not a place where he would have had that opportunity. So going and finding a program where he knew that there was a path to get him in the military in a plane was something that he looked into to make sure that he could afford himself that opportunity. And this is before he even enters the flight training program. And I think once he is accepted into that program, it's certainly a historical first, but now you have the ire of individuals who don't want to see a Black man be successful in this space and experiencing that. You know, there are stories of him and the swim test, and it's alluded to in the film. And I think to think about the many, many times that they made him take that test and adding weights to his backpack and for him to achieve that, but then to make it even that much more difficult. Or his LO not wanting to pin his wings once he actually did achieve this. You know, a lot of the stories that we hear are just, you know, how he was this sort of quiet kind of giant.

Like he processed that and didn't have a ton of outlet. There are stories that he shared with his brothers and they would always just be so emotional about how revered he was. They understood a lot of what he kept to himself in an effort to protect them as well, and for them to, you know, still have the space to also dream and want to achieve something, even though he knew that many people would like to see him fail. And so the importance of having my grandmother in that space, it was amazing hearing Christina Jackson, who plays my grandmother, and Jonathan Majors talk about sanctuary and what that meant for Jesse and Daisy and how that was a word that they came back to often when they were on set, trying to portray that. And it was such a beautiful thought for me to think about them being that sanctuary because their faith certainly grounded them in, you know, everything that they did growing up in the Black church and understanding that and really seeing like how much of a foundational pillar it was and to think about a higher calling in terms of faith, but also to be driven by something that's calling you to be more than what your circumstances allow. And so having that was what contributed to a lot of the fire in the belly that Jesse and my grandmother Daisy had.

Pearl Harbor is important in the historical context of why the U.S. military needed to push forward with sort of desegregating the military. We get a lot of comparisons when folks who are not familiar with my grandfather's story of, oh, Tuskegee Airmen, and it's, you know, one making the differential between the fact that they were army pilots, but this was also a unit that had multiple individuals, whereas Jesse had to go it alone. And so I think that understanding the Navy and carrier landing and what that meant as being an extreme elite pilot, to be able to land planes on the shortened runway and how dangerous it was and that he was elite at this thing. Jesse and Tom both had gone on to achieve being Navy pilots. And when Jesse gets the opportunity to meet Tom, not only are they equals, but Jesse outranks him. And so I hear all of these stories and from other guys in the squadron that it wasn't this immediate deep connection that they had to work at it. You know, there's a certain intimacy that you experience when you're flying with someone and being someone's wingman in a way is this true partnership. And so we would hear stories of Tom talk about Jesse and despite folks meaning well, he just wanted to be treated as an equal and not receiving a handout or looked down upon or that you were some pity hire.

Like he achieved that in some ways with more to overcome than others did because his path was much more arduous. And so having gotten to know Tom Hudner throughout my childhood was just the, not only the love that was there, but that deep seated respect that he and others had for Jesse within the squadron. So they are experiencing a flight mission, which felt mostly routine for what they had experienced. And as Jesse and Tom, after providing support on the ground for the Marines, his plane is hit by enemy fire and they noticed that it has affected the engine. And so it becomes apparent that he's going to have to crash land his plane. And so the guys are there with him and flying support and he crashes his plane and isn't able to get himself out. We find out that he is pinned into the fuselage of the plane. And it's amazing to think what must have gone through Tom's mind at the time, but it's one of those things that he could have been court-martialed for. Like it was not this heroic thing at the time.

He was intentionally destroying a US Navy plane after another plane had already gone down. In an attempt to save Jesse and crash land his plane, gets out, does what he can to try to free him and is unsuccessful in that he's not able to get him out. But I think for the family, we've always found so much solace and have been extremely grateful that Tom was with my grandfather during those final moments. And that's where we know that his last words were, tell Daisy I love her. And I get emotional because there's so much that we lost when we lost Jesse and to be able to have had an opportunity to say thank you directly to Tom over many occasions, but just recognizing the sacrifice that he made. We are so grateful and are so proud that he rightfully received the Medal of Honor for that heroic attempt. But I would say the one thing is that getting to meet other members from the squadron, Bill Koenig, Marty Goode, I got a chance to connect with them. When I was in my early 20s, I had moved to Virginia Beach and to hear both of them say that any of them would have done the same for him is just such a testament to who Jesse was, but what that brotherhood really meant.

And I think Tom has also said that if it weren't him, that it would have been someone else that was willing to make that sacrifice as well. This has been an incredible journey for our family. One, just getting to share Jesse with the world. It was certainly a place where I felt the most anxiety, I think, coming in and knowing that he would become a household name. And I think that's always been a dream of ours, but at the same time, protecting the family legacy and keeping that so close. So here's Jesse Leeward-Brown.

I'm Jessica LaRoyce, now Knight-Henry. But yeah, I mean, I guess they always had a plan. It took me a minute to, I guess, sort of step into it. But yeah, it's just amazing. And I have a six-year-old and her name is, she's named after my grandmother. So we are very locked and loaded with the Jesse and Daisy legacy in my household. And a terrific job on the production and editing by Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Jessica Knight-Henry, Jesse Leeward-Brown's granddaughter. And we learned from her that the family's faith grounded him and, by the way, gave him that sense of the divine, of the higher purpose and a higher calling for his life and his talents. And he wanted the best of the best of the toughest of the toughest, which meant, of course, being a naval aviator because you had to land that plane, well, on that aircraft carrier, that tiny landing strip that's moving and bouncing around. And so he goes to Ohio State because there's a pathway to become the first black naval aviator. And he did it alone.

He did it alone in that way. He's the Jackie Robinson of naval aviation. And then there's Thomas Hudner, who's white. And a fascinating part of this story is that love, that bond, that this white man who grew up so differently than Jesse.

The story of Jesse Leeward-Brown is told by his granddaughter here on Our American Stories. Welcome to 500 Greatest Songs, a podcast based on Rolling Stone's hugely popular, influential and sometimes controversial list. I'm Brittany Spanos.

And I'm Rob Sheffield. We're here to shed light on the greatest songs ever made and discover what makes them so great. From classics like Fleetwood Mac's Dreams to The Ronettes Be My Baby and modern day classics like The Killer's Mr. Brightside.

Listen to Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Hey, I'm here to tell you about Upfaith and Family, the leading streaming service for uplifting entertainment. This season, enjoy soul-stirring movies like Southern Gospel and uplifting series like The Chosen and Jesus Calling.

If you're in the mood for something lighter, there are feel-good movies like Heart of a Champion and Country Hearts or catch up on the beloved series Heartland. There's a curated collection that's perfect for the whole family. It's commercial free. Stream anywhere. Get a free trial today.

Go to Upfaithandfamily.com for your free trial. Ready to unlock a world of entertainment? Phillips Roku TV has America's favorite TV streaming platform built in so you can watch live TV, catch every game, discover must see shows and hit movies and get all the best streaming apps in one place. Like iHeart for all your favorite music, radio, and podcasts. Watch what you want, when you want. Immerse yourself in entertainment with premium 4k picture and sound for every budget with sizes for every room. Find your perfect Phillips Roku TV today online or at your local Walmart and Sam's Club.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-03-20 04:19:41 / 2024-03-20 04:28:21 / 9

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