Petersen, Frank E. 1932–
Frank E. Petersen 1932–
Despite enduring racism in the Marines, Frank E. Petersen, Jr. became the first black aviator in the United States Marine Corps, and the first African American to reach the level of general in the Marines. He rose through the ranks, finally becoming a lieutenant general, the first African American Marine to become a three-star ranked general. He proved that one man could make a difference.
Frank E. Petersen, Jr., was born in Topeka, Kansas on March 2, 1932. He was born to Edythe Southard and Frank Petersen, Sr., and was the second of four children. He was an active, intelligent child who played football in middle school and graduated from Topeka High School in 1949. When he went to sign up for the Navy—something he was very excited to do—he did so well on the exam, according to Into the Tiger’s Jaw: America’s First Black Marine Aviator, that the recruiter made him take the test again. This would be just the first incident of racism that Petersen would have to undergo in the Navy.
The military had been desegregated by this point, but racism was rampant, and it would be something that Petersen would have to fight again and again during his entire military career. Blacks in the military in the middle of the twentieth century faced the same biases that females did at the end of it. It wasn’t until the Korean War, in fact, that African Americans served in all the different operations of the military and were involved in all major military actions. “[Petersen] spent most of his time, it seems, fighting genteel and not-so-genteel opposition from whites who, in words like those we hear now about women in the military, claimed that the armed forces were being sacrificed for the sake of the ’social experiment’ of fully incorporating someone besides white males,” said Booklist. After a few insulting suggestions that he would make a fantastic “steward” in the Navy—something that almost stopped him from joining up—Petersen’s father had a small talk with the recruiting officer. After a short wait, Petersen was admitted into the Navy on June 6, 1950 with the promise that he would be sent to the El Toro electronics technician school after boot camp.
Just two short years later, on October 22,1952, Petersen was commissioned as a Marine aviation officer—the first African American to become a Marine aviator. Petersen
At a Glance…
Born on March 2, 1932 in Topeka, KS; parents: Frank Petersen, Sr., and Edythe Southard Petersen; married: Eleanor, 1955-1973; Alicia Joyce Downes, 1975-; children: Frank Emmanuel Petersen III, Gayle Marie Petersen, Dana Charlette Petersen, Lindsey Monique Downes Petersen (adopted).
Career: U. S. Marine Corps officer. U.S. Marine Corps, 1950-88; U.S. Marine Aviator, 1952-72; U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General, 1972-85; U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General, 1986-88.
Awards: Distinguished Flying Cross; the Meritorious Service Medal; the Purple Heart; Robert M. Hanson award for the Most Outstanding Fighter Squadron while assigned in Vietnam, 1968; Man of the Year, NAACP, 1979; Honorary doctorate, Virginia Union University, 1987; Gray Eagle Trophy, August 21, 1987-June 15, 1988.
Addresses: Home—Minneapolis, Minnesota. Publisher — c/o Presidio Press, 505-B San Marin Drive, Suite 160, Novato, CA, 94945-1340.
joined the conflict in Korea in 1953, and from the beginning he showed himself to be a fine officer and a great aviator. According to the African Americans in the Korean War web site, Petersen flew 64 combat missions during the Korean War and was even awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and six other air medals before the Korean War finally came to an end. Flying missions bent on protecting the U.S. troops from the Chinese communists, he was indispensable to the Marines on the ground.
Petersen also fought in the Vietnam War. There he commanded a squadron of attack fighters. For this role, he was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Meritorious Service Medal. During his stint in Vietnam he was also awarded the Purple Heart because he was wounded in action. In 1968 he won the Robert M. Hanson award for the Most Outstanding Fighter Squadron of 1968 while assigned in Vietnam. And on February 23,1979 Frank E. Petersen, Jr., finally saw the culmination of his hard work when he was named brigadier general by President Jimmy Carter, making him the first African-American general in United States Marine Corps history. The same year saw him named NAACP Man of the Year. In 1986, Petersen became the Marine Corps’s first African-American three-star general, with a rank of lieutenant general.
From August 21, 1987 to June 15, 1988 Petersen was awarded the Gray Eagle Trophy. The Gray Eagle Trophy was first seen at a celebration for the 50th Anniversary of Naval Aviation. The trophy itself, according to the Navy Military History website, is “a silver eagle landing into the arresting gear of the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, Langley. The inscription reads: ‘The Venerable Order of the Gray Eagle. The Most Ancient Naval Aviator on Active Duty. In recognition of a clear eye, a stout heart, a steady hand, and a daring defiance of gravity and the law of averages’.” The award is given to the most senior aviator in point of service in flying and is passed down through the years. Receiving this award was the perfect ending to a strong and honorable military career.
Petersen retired in 1988, as a three-star lieutenant general. After his retirement from the Marine Corps, Petersen went on into civilian life with the same fervor he had shown in his military career. He became a vice president of the Du Pont Company and was a guest speaker during his reign at several prestigious institutions, including the University of Delaware’s conference on “Partnership Opportunities for Success: Across Races, Generations, and Organizations” in 1992. In 1998, Petersen also tried his hand at writing. With help from biographer J. Alfred Phelps, Petersen published his own autobiography. The book discusses the hardships he faced, not only because of war, but because of the racism of his fellow soldiers. It is an intimate look at what kind of perseverance and dedication it takes to make large changes in the world— for Petersen certainly helped to do just that. Into the Tiger’s Jaw: America’s First Black Marine Aviator is said by the Powells.com web site to offer “valuable insight into the evolution of both the military and the society at large through the experience of one man and his family.” J. Alfred Phelps, who worked with Petersen on the book, noted on the Amazon.com web site, “Working with Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, USMC (Retired), was an uplifting experience…. [T]his is the story of a true American patriot…. This is a gentleman who helped the United States Marine Corps to stand up and be counted in the arenas of race relations and social conscience in America.” Frank E. Petersen, Jr., is one of those rare men who fight for what they want, what they believe in, and manage not only to succeed beyond all expectations but also to help others along the way. Those who have interacted with him will not soon forget him, and his influence and change will be felt in the military for a very long time.
Petersen, Jr., Lt. Gen. Frank E. with J. Alfred Phelps. Into the Tiger’s Jaw: America’s First Black Marine Aviator, Presidio Press, 1998.
Booklist, October 15, 1998, p. 377.
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