It was tough enlisting in the military in the 1950s. Frank E. Petersen Jr. had to overcome racial discrimination to rise. At some point, he was even arrested at an officers’ club after being accused of impersonating a lieutenant. But these couldn’t stop him from becoming the first Black aviator and the first Black general in the Marine Corps. And despite being a senior ranking officer, people wouldn’t salute him because he was Black. Today, the U.S. Navy has named a new guided-missile destroyer for him, seven years after his death at age 83.
Born in Topeka, Kan., on March 2, 1932, Petersen’s father, who was born in the American Virgin Islands, was a radio repairman and a General Electric salesman. His mother was a teacher. Growing up in Topeka, schools were segregated. Petersen graduated from Topeka High School in 1949 and then went to Washburn University for some time before enlisting in the navy in 1950 at the age of 18 even though his mother was against him joining the military.
“The navy had already had a black pilot, the marine corps had not so he chose the Marine Corps,” Dana Moore, Petersen’s Jr. daughter, told WIBW News.
Two years later, Petersen became a pilot, making him the first African-American Marine Corps Aviator. He would later become the first African-American promoted to the rank of general in the marines. Being the first African-American to command a fighter squadron, a fighter air group, an air wing, and a major base, Peterson flew more than 350 combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars between 1953 and 1968, according to a report by WIBW News.
While Petersen was on one combat mission in Vietnam in 1968, his plane was shot down, but he safely bailed out. He graduated in 1967 from George Washington University and later received his master’s degree, both while in the Marines. As previously mentioned, being Marine’s first Black aviator came with daily troubles. Petersen had to retake his Navy entrance exam after a recruiter suspected he had cheated the first time. He entered naval training as a mess steward thanks to his race. While training in Florida, he was removed from a public bus for refusing to sit with the other Black passengers in the back, according to The New York Times.
An instructor even told him he would never fly, and in Hawaii, a landlord refused to rent a house to him and his wife because they were Black.
“I remember he would tell the story of how he was of course the senior ranking officer and people wouldn’t salute him and there was a man that wouldn’t salute him, and rather than get into a firefight about it, he just say can you at least salute the uniform, you may not want to salute me as a black man but at least salute the uniform,” Petersen’s son Frank E. Petersen III told WIBW News. He said what kept his father going was that he “understood how to win the war and not try to win battles.”
After 38 years, Petersen retired from the corps in 1988 as a three-star lieutenant general. Two years prior to that, he was inducted into the Topeka High School historical society’s hall of fame. Leaving the corps, he became a vice president for corporate aviation at Dupont de Nemours. Petersen, who wrote a book about his career titled “Into The Tiger’s Jaw”, was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
“Just to be able to say you kicked down another door was such a great satisfaction,” he said of his position as the first Black Marine Corps general. It was however a challenge. “Whereas you thought you could perform before, now you must perform,” he said in the interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.
The destroyer named in his honor will be commissioned in Charleston, South Carolina in spring. The USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. DDG 121 will then sail to Hawaii where it will be based.