Jonathan Majors as ENS Jesse L. Brown, groundbreaking U.S. Naval Aviator
From Quonset Point, Rhode Island to the Korean coast, Spring to Fall 1950
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Director: J.D. Dillard
Costume Designer: Deirdra Elizabeth Govan
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
February is Black History Month, a fitting occasion to highlight the life and career of trailblazers like Jesse Brown, the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy flight training program.
Jesse LeRoy Brown was born on October 13, 1926, perhaps coincidentally sharing a “birthday” with the U.S. Navy itself as this was exactly 151 years to the day after the Continental Navy was founded in 1775. Two years after he enlisted in the Navy, Brown received his pilot wings in October 1948 and was commissioned as an ensign (OF-1) six months later. Ensigns Brown stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte when it was ordered to Korea at the start of the war in the summer of 1950, ultimately flying 20 combat missions in an F4U-4 Corsair, a propeller-driven fighter whose fatalist nicknames of the “Ensign Eliminator” and “Widowmaker” never deterred the courageous aviator.
On December 4, 1950, ENS Brown took off from the Leyte with a six-aircraft group tasked with supporting USMC ground forces fighting the Chinese during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Damaged by enemy ground fire, Brown’s Corsair began trailing fuel until it crashed into a valley along the borders of the Chagang and South Hamgyong provinces in North Korea. When Brown’s wingman, Lieutenant Junior Grade Tom Hudner, noted that Brown was unable to escape his downed aircraft, Hudner intentionally crash-landed his own Corsair and attempted to free his friend and fellow flier from the wreck. His leg pinned into the wreckage and increasingly losing consciousness, 24-year-old Brown was unable to be extracted from the plane and died in the wreckage after giving Hudner a message for his wife: “Tell Daisy I love her.”
Jesse L. Brown was posthumously awarded the Air Medal, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Flying Cross, becoming the first African-American to receive the latter distinction, and Hudner received a Medal of Honor for his valiant attempt to save Brown.
Jesse Brown’s naval career and his friendship with Tom Hudner were recently depicted in the 2022 film Devotion, directed by J.D. Dillard who has explained his connection to the material as he was a self-described “Navy brat” whose father was a Navy flight officer and the second African-American chosen to fly with the elite Blue Angels.
To the best of my knowledge (and what I learned from the website History vs. Hollywood), Devotion presents a generally accurate depiction of the final year in Brown’s life, beginning in March 1950 at the Quonset Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, where LTJG Hudner (Glen Powell) first meets ENS Brown (Jonathan Majors) upon being newly stationed to the VF-32 squadron, led by LCDR Dick Cevoli (Thomas Sadoski), who amps the fliers up by concluding a briefing with:
There is not a pilot on this planet who can wipe the ass of a United States Naval Aviator, and I truly believe that.
Though Brown recalls the racism he had faced during his training, his fellow aviators treat him with the respect he deserves, particularly Hudner, assigned as his wingman. The squadron is placed on high alert after a downed Navy plane in the Baltic suggests that the Cold War is heating up, though the group still gets in some shore time in Cannes where Brown surprises his fellow aviators by befriending no less than Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan), and, yes… this really happened!
“The Reds are about to strike, we’re partyin’ in France,” observes an amused Hudner, though the following morning’s report of North Korea crossing the 38th Parallel and invading Seoul prompts the “Fighting Thirty-Two” to set sail for Korea.
What’d He Wear?
Devotion rotates ENS Brown through U.S. Navy uniforms like dress whites, service khakis, and aviation greens, though he and the rest of the Fighting Thirty-Two spend most of the film’s run-time dressed in their flight suits, often layered under fur-collared leather flight jackets.
G-1 Flight Jacket
The aviators wears the iconic fur-collared, zip-up leather flight jackets that had first entered U.S. Navy service in the late 1930s as the M-422 and which underwent several rounds of wartime modifications until the 55-J-14 specifications was standardized as the G-1 in 1947, the year before Jesse Brown received his pilot’s wings.
Leather had been the favored fabric for flight jackets since the early days of aviation, though advances in garment-making by mid-century resulted in the integration of nylon into new jackets like the B-10, B-15, and MA-1 for a fabric that may have been lighter and more weather-resistant but arguably lacked the dashing romance of their leather forebears. Luckily, even three quarters of a century after its introduction, the G-1 remains in service among authorized fliers in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, its popularity and status solidified after Tom Cruise wore a much-patched G-1 in Top Gun.
Made from durable leathers like goatskin that has been tanned to a dark brown shade, the original G-1 jacket is characterized by a real mouton fur collar, shoulder straps (epaulets), patch-style pockets with single-button flaps, and dark ribbed-knit wool cuffs and waist hem. The bi-swing back allows for a greater range of arm movement, while the half-belted back pulls in the waist to prevent excess fabric that would be discomfortable while crammed in the cockpit of a Corsair.
“I gave him his bomber jacket after we aged it, dyed it, and distressed it,” costume designer Deirdra Elizabeth Govan told USA Today about her process working with Jonathan Majors. “For a period of time, he was just wearing it to grasp and embody the character.”
In Devotion, ENS Brown’s G-1 has a slightly lighter mouton fur collar than his fellow fliers. Each man wears the large round dark-blue VF-32 insignia patch over their right breast, comprised of a pale-blue shield with a yellow bar crossing diagonally from right-down-to-left, overlaid with a yellow, sword-wielding lion facing the left atop a smaller dark blue shield with a yellow fouled anchor embroidered inside it. Pale-blue scrolls flank the shield, with the top scroll embroidered with the motto “Deus et patria” (“God and country”) and the bottom scroll embroidered “Fighting 32” for obvious reasons. On the opposing left breast, each aviator wears the standard brown leather patch with their stamped gold rings, name and rank; on Brown’s jacket, this reads “J.L. BROWN” on the top row and “ENS USN” on the bottom.
- Buzz Rickson's Type G-1 Spec 55J-14 A.Pritzker Brown (Clutch Cafe, $2,100)
- Cockpit USA Avenger G-1 Bomber Jacket Z21P007 (Cockpit USA, $640)
- Cockpit USA U.S. Navy Lambskin G-1 Flight Jacket Z201035M (Cockpit USA, $800)
While stationed at Quonset, Brown matches his fellow aviators in their khaki cotton flight suits, designated “Suit, Flying, Summer” to MIL-S-5390B specifications. These one-piece coveralls have a long zipper that runs up from crotch to collar, and adjustable three-button tabs on each side of the waistband cinch the fit as needed. Each side of the chest has a mitred-corner patch pocket with a rectangular button-down flap, and similar pockets are positioned on the front of each calf just above the plain-hemmed bottoms. The set-in sleeves have a single-button closure, and the left sleeve has a vertical zip-entry utility pocket over the bicep with four inset pen-pocket slots.
A brown leather utility clip is sewn onto each left thigh, and the back echoes the G-1 flight jacket with bi-swing pleats behind each shoulder.
After VF-32 is deployed to the Mediterranean in May 1950 aboard USS Leyte, Brown switches out of the khaki into an olive-green nylon flight suit that he would wear through the rest of the movie, including during aerial combat in Korea.
Designated “Suits, Flying, Nylon, Lightweight”, these green nylon flight suits are styled similarly to the khaki cotton ones with the crotch-to-collar zipper, three-button adjuster tabs on the waist, and pairs of pockets over the chest and calves, though the green flight suit lacks the thigh-positioned utility clip and the sleeve pocket is a simpler design consisting of only a trio of pen slots.
I haven’t been able to find as much other information about these green nylon coveralls, aside from their use by USN and USMC aviators during the 1950s and that they were made under contract by companies like Alda Mills (contract no. A(S)3867) and Willis & Geiger (contract no. A(S)3926), as evident by the historical examples of this flight suit you can find at Bells Aviation, eBay, and WorthPoint. By the time of the Vietnam War, these coveralls would evolve into the currently authorized CWU-27/P flight suit made from flame-resistant Nomex.
Under his flight suits, Brown wears a plain white cotton crew-neck T-shirt as an undershirt.
Footwear and Headgear
Brown regularly wears “boondockers”, the tan roughout leather ankle boots adopted by the Navy in 1943, inspired by the field shoes introduced by the Marine Corps two years earlier. Officially designated the N-1 deck shoes (specification 72-S-2), these were generally prescribed for utility wear overseas, regardless of climate. (You can read more about these boots at USWW2Uniforms.com.)
Boondocker uppers are chrome-tanned cowhide, and the soles are a cording-infused reclaimed rubber. The derby-style lacing ranges between seven and nine sets of eyelets—Brown’s boondockers have seven lace eyelets.
Brown wears a khaki cotton twill utility cap evolved from the WWII-era N-3, with a plain, six-paneled soft crown devoid of pleats, grommets, or any other adornment, unlike the contemporary MIL-C-3000B.
When trying to free Brown from the wreckage of his downed Corsair, Hudner keeps him warm by giving him the navy ribbed-knit wool watch cap that they had previously joked about.
While in flight, Brown wears a white fiberglass Type H-1 flying helmet, which became the Navy’s first issued hard helmet when it was standardized in 1948. Edged in black rubber, these round helmets were designed to accommodate the issued Polaroid B-8 flying goggles, which consisted of a one-piece polarized plastic lens and were the first to use rubber frames instead of metal. Earphones were built into the helmet’s styrofoam rubber lining, which was padded in chamois leather for the aviator’s comfort, and an M-6A/UR microphone was mounted for use under 10,000 feet. Five snaps on each side of the front opening allowed for the attachment of an A-13A or A-14 oxygen mask as well as a white cloth chin strap. You can read more about early Navy flying helmets at Andrea Salimbeti’s blog U.S. Military Aviation.
Brown also wears the standard summer-weight brown leather B-3A flying gloves with extended semi-gauntlets designed to cover the wrists, originally adopted by the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943 and designated “MIL-C-9087A”. The gloves were unlined and made from soft leather like capeskin and deerskin that allowed aviators full dexterity while at the controls, but these offered only limited protection and would be replaced in 1967 by sturdier gloves made from flame-resistant Nomex.
The aviators’ dashing white silk scarves were introduced to avoid chafing against their neck, with white specifically chosen to quickly show where oil had been wiped off the plane, according to Jalyn Eaton at Linea Germania.
Brown and his fellow aviators wear the orange Mk 2 life preservers nicknamed the “Mae West” in reference to its ability to transform a wearer into resembling the famously voluptuous entertainer. In use from World War II through the Vietnam War, these vests were made from a bright-colored rubberized nylon that could be easily spotted in emergency situations.
The design evolved over the course of the 20th century, with Brown’s Korean War pattern vest characterized by a reinforced blackened steel double-snap closure over the chest, flanked on each side by a narrow equipment pocket and a lower CO2 canister slot on each side below it. Other attachments include a strobe light strapped to the upper right chest, a black packet that could release a shark chaser (an ultimately ineffective blend copper acetate and nigrosine dye intended to repel sharks), and an orange packet containing a dye marker (which could be released to brightly color the sea around a downed pilot.) A black rubber tube on the left side of the chest could be used to manually inflate the vest to its full buoyancy.
Brown cycles through two watches over the course of Devotion, beginning with a mil-spec pilot’s watch on a steel bracelet. With its 38mm steel case and matte steel dial with luminous radium Arabic numeral hour indices, Brown’s timepiece echoes contemporary G.I.-issue watches made by Bulova, Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham, specifically the Type A-11 developed during the 1940s. (The details pre-date 1950s military watches like the A-17 pilot’s watch and “general use” MIL-W-3818A that would each incorporate an inner 24-hour track not yet present on the A-11.)
After Brown’s unsanctioned heroism gets him a slap on the wrist from the Navy, the frustrated flier is approached topside on the Leyte by seaman Archie Fambrough (Akil Jackson) who—on behalf of the carrier’s Black sailors—gifts him a beautiful Rolex Oysterdate Precision, which they had collectively purchased for him nearly six months earlier in Cannes and engraved “Above All Others” on the case-back.
Anchored to a black leather strap, the Rolex has a 34mm stainless steel case and a simple white dial detailed with non-numeric hour markers and flat acrylic crystal, save for the white cyclops date window at the 3 o’clock position. Danny Milton of Hodinkee suggested a ref. 6694, which would be anachronistic by more than a decade as this didn’t enter production until the 1960s, though it does have an elegant period look.
Brown’s personal jewelry consists of a wide plain silver bangle bracelet on his right wrist and his gold wedding ring on his left hand.
During his combat missions, ENS Brown arms himself with a Smith & Wesson Model M&P revolver, carried in a russet-brown leather shoulder holster similar to the M3 holsters issued to U.S. Army tanker crews. The holster has cartridge loops for the revolver’s .38 Special ammunition across the chest and a long retention strap secured behind the revolver’s hammer that snaps in place.
“A leather hip holster was also made for these revolvers, but the shoulder holster was generally preferred by pilots due to space constraints in the cramped cockpits,” wrote Bruce N. Canfield in an American Rifleman article that comprehensively chronicles the U.S. Navy’s wartime usage of Smith & Wesson revolvers.
The Navy contracted Smith & Wesson revolvers for its servicemen early during World War II, seeking secondary handguns to supplement its then-standard M1911A1 that would soon be in much demand from ground forces like the Army and Marine Corps. The result was a substantial order of 4″-barreled Smith & Wesson Model M&P revolvers chambered in .38 Special, a predominant law enforcement sidearm through much of the 20th century that had earned a reputation for reliability.
Though Smith & Wesson marketed all of the .38-caliber revolvers it produced during World War II as the “Victory Model”, that nomenclature now specifically refers to those produced for the Navy under the oversight of the U.S. Ordnance Department, characterized by four-inch barrels, parkerized frames, lanyard rings attached to the butt, and a “V” (for Victory!) prefix before the serial number.
The one-handed operation required to fire a loaded revolver made these more practical for aviators, who would have little need to use a sidearm unless grounded, in which case they may have sustained wounds that would make it more difficult to use their second hand to perform the additional step of racking the slide of a single-action semi-automatic pistol like the M1911A1 if a round was not already chambered. Brown never actually removes his revolver from its holster, though LT Hudner draws his when approaching Brown’s downed plane after crashing his own.
Shortly after the Korean War ended, Smith & Wesson renamed all of its models to be designated by a specific number so the K-framed .38 Special service revolver became the Smith & Wesson Model 10.
ENS Brown’s Flight Uniform
- Dark brown goatskin leather G-1 flight jacket with tan mouton fur collar, zip-up front, patch-style hip pockets with single-button flaps, bi-swing back with semi-belted waist, dark brown ribbed-knit wool cuffs and waist hem
- Olive-green lightweight nylon flight suit coveralls with rounded collar, front zipper, two chest pockets (with button-down flaps), lower-leg pockets (with button-down flaps), and left-sleeve triple-slot pockets
- White cotton short-sleeved undershirt
- Tan roughout leather plain-toe derby-laced N-1 ankle boots (“boondockers”)
- Khaki cotton twill utility cap
- White silk flying scarf
- Brown leather B-3A unlined semi-gauntlet flying gloves
- Silver bangle bracelet
- Gold wedding ring
- Stainless steel mil-spec A-11 service watch with black matte dial and luminous hour indices on steel bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, currently streaming on Paramount Plus.
In addition to Brown’s stirring story, the heart of Devotion are the excellent performances and chemistry between Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell, the latter of whom had scored yet another Naval Aviation-themed hit last year in Top Gun: Maverick. Though there are certainly some shades of Top Gun in Devotion, the setting and intimacy of the story also recall The Bridges of Toko-Ri, another high-flying chronicle of “The Forgotten War”.
You just ruined a perfectly good Corsair, Lieutenant. I think that’s going in the mission report.