Frank E. Petersen has shown Black excellence by being the first Black aviator and general in the Marine Corps

By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

The U.S. Navy recently commissioned 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 given to Marine aviators who hold the earliest designation date and have held their designation for the longest period of time. 

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

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

Although President Harry Truman had already ordered the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces when Petersen enlisted, the decree could not prevent the rampant racism within the troops, which Petersen endured firsthand. 

“The Marine Corps was the last [branch] to segregate, so by being the first and by going into a system that was really resistant to integration, he really was buying into a really tough system with a lot of false barriers,” said Moore, chief equity officer for the City of Baltimore and director of the Office of Equity and Civil Rights. “He was tough and he was willing to take this on.” 

Born in Topeka, Kan. in 1932, Petersen was one of four children. At this time, the city was highly-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 it his first love, according to Moore. 

Laying in his childhood bed, he could listen to the engines of the planes that flew over his home and determine which type of aircraft it was.

He decided his passion for flight would be best put to use in the military and enlisted in the Navy. Petersen aced the entrance exam, but the proctor refused to believe a Black man could do so well on the test without cheating. 

In a May 14 ceremony the U.S. Navy honored Frank E. Petersen by naming a warship in his honor.

So, he retook the test and passed again. This would not be his only encounter with racism discrimination. 

During his service, Petersen was falsely arrested for impersonating a lieutenant when he tried to enter an officers’ club early in his career, and later, he was told he would never become a general because a White officer disliked him. 

According to Moore, “he often said, ‘in life there are lots of challenges, and you just have to hope that there’s at least one person in the room that will do the right thing.” 

Petersen was eventually given the choice to join 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 aviator to complete the Navy’s basic flight training program. 

Petersen went on to fly 350 combat missions during two tours in 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, an air group and a major base. 

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

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

Petersen was more than a marine though.  

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 his love for cooking—chili being his favorite dish to make— and his great sense of humor.  

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

The Fourth of July was even his favorite holiday, and his family and friends would travel from all over the country to attend his annual party at his Eastern Shore house on the Chesapeake Bay. 

If there’s one piece of advice that Moore will never forget from her father it’s this: “First, you have to figure out what the war is about, and then you can begin to do battle.”

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