Lieutenant General Frank E. Petersen: the first black airman and general in the Marine Corps

By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
[email protected]

The United States Navy recently ordered an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer in honor of the late Frank E. Petersen, who was the first black man to become a general and an aviator in the United States Marine Corps.

When he retired from the Marines in 1988 after 38 years of service, Petersen was a three-star lieutenant general and held the titles of “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle”, honors awarded to Navy airmen who hold the date oldest designation and have retained their designation for the longest period.

Petersen’s legacy is one of excellence, according to his daughter, Dana P. Moore, and despite his pioneering triumphs, he remained humble throughout his life.

He didn’t need people to recognize him as a “first”, he just wanted to be judged on his record.

Although President Harry Truman had already ordered the integration of the United States Armed Forces when Petersen enlisted, the executive order could not prevent rampant racism within the troops, which Petersen endured first hand.

“The Marine Corps was the last [branch] to separate, so by being the first and coming into a system that was really resistant to integration, he really bought into a really tough system with a lot of false barriers,” said Moore, the city’s chief equity officer. of Baltimore and Director of the Office of Equity and Civil Rights. “He was tough and he was ready to take that on.”

Born in Topeka, Kan. in 1932, Petersen was one of four children. At that time, the city was very segregated and his parents had to be strict with him and his siblings to protect them from harm.

From an early age, Petersen was fascinated by flight. He even considered him his first love, according to Moore.

Lying in his crib, he could listen to the engines of planes flying over his house and determine what type of plane it was.

He decided that his passion for flying would be put to better use in the military and joined the navy. Petersen passed the entrance exam, but the proctor refused to believe that a black man could pass the test so well without cheating.

In a ceremony on May 14, the United States Navy honored Frank E. Petersen by naming a warship in his honor.

So he took the test again and passed again. It wouldn’t be his only encounter with racial discrimination.

While in service, Petersen was falsely arrested for impersonating a lieutenant when he attempted to enter an officers’ club early in his career, and later told he would not would never become a general because a white officer didn’t like him.

According to Moore, “he would often say, ‘In life there are many challenges, and you just have to hope that there is at least one person in the room who will do the right thing.’

Petersen was eventually given the choice of joining the Navy or Marine Corps aviation program.

He chose to opt for the Marine Corps because Jesse Brown had already become the first African-American airman to complete the Navy’s basic flight training program.

Petersen then flew 350 combat missions during two tours of Korea and Vietnam, according to the National Air and Space Museum. He was also the first African-American in the Marine Corps to command a fighter squadron, air group, and major base.

“He always said, ‘yes, I was the first this and the first that – but that doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t a second and a third and a fourth,'” Moore said.

To this day, Moore receives messages on social media from people expressing how much his father impacted them and their career in the armed forces.

Petersen was more than a Marine, however.

He was a father, husband and grandfather. According to Moore, he made all of his children feel like the favorite because of his encouragement, guidance and commitment to being involved in their lives.

She remembers her love for cooking – chili being her favorite dish – and her great sense of humor.

He never felt resentment towards America or the Marines because of his arduous journey.

The 4th of July was even his favorite holiday, and his family and friends traveled from all over the country to attend his annual party at his house on the east coast of the Chesapeake Bay.

If there’s one piece of advice Moore will never forget from his father, it’s this: “First you have to understand what the war is about, and then you can start fighting.”

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