It took years for the nation to recognize the heroic achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, and it’s taken even longer to know of the breakthrough made by Frank E. Petersen Jr. With Petersen joining the ancestors Aug. 25, 2015 at age 83, there were a number of obituaries in the mainstream press.
Don’t feel that you are alone in discovering that Petersen was the first Black Marine Corps pilot and general officer. This is not one of your household facts, and it took several skills on Petersen’s account to make it a reality. From the first time he took the Navy’s entrance exam in 1950, he was presented with obstacles.
“Would you mind retaking the examination?” a proctor overseeing the test asked Petersen after he aced it. The presumption being that for a Black man to score so high, he must have cheated. But the only option for the examiners after Petersen again topped the test was to commend him. “My God, man, what a great steward you’d make!”
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If Petersen’s memoir is available, it is certainly the first and most reliable about his event-filled life and legacy. It is unfortunate that two highly recommended books on Blacks in the military have no mention of Petersen, and when they do, his name is spelled incorrectly.
Petersen’s accomplishments cannot be mentioned without discussing Jesse Brown, as we do above, or Chappie James, another decorated pilot.
PLACE IN CONTEXT
Two wars figure prominently in Petersen’s life—the conflicts in Korean and Vietnam—and he participated in both. Born in Topeka and living until the 21st century provided him with a panoramic perspective on civil rights.
Even for a Black man who maxed the test, there remained the inevitable hurdle of racism that relegated him to the Navy’s galley. Petersen realized that the military was no refuge from the country’s pervasive discrimination.
Born Frank Emmanuel Petersen Jr. March 2, 1932, in Topeka, Kan., the focus of Brown v. the Board of Education, he traced his ancestry, through his father, to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He grew up watching his father repair radios and dreamt about flying the B-29 bombers that took off at a nearby airbase during World War II.
After successfully passing the Navy’s exam with flying colors, he was made a seaman apprentice. A year later, he enrolled in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He was partly motivated to enter the academy when he learned that Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first Black aviator, had been shot down during the Korean War. (Brown was 24 when his plane was shot down while providing air cover for ground troops on Dec. 4, 1950.)
Petersen was not only inspired by Brown’s heroism, he was surprised to learn that African-Americans were even allowed in the Navy and Marine Corps, although it was widely reported that President Harry Truman had ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. During the completion of his training at a base in Pensacola, Fla., he was introduced to Jim Crow and Southern inhospitality—something he experienced each time he ventured away from the base and even sometimes on the base.
Like many Black Americans, Petersen, though in uniform, either obeyed the limitations imposed by the laws of segregation—riding on the back of the bus, drinking from racially marked water fountains, not being allowed even to sit with your fellow white cadets in movie theaters—or face the consequences when they were challenged. Looming before him was the choice of fighting the restrictions and jeopardizing his ambitions in the military or going along to get along, which became the path of least resistance.
“I knew that I couldn’t win if I were to tackle [the unjust laws] as opposed to getting my wings,” he told a reporter.
There was also the racism within the service to endure. He was often the victim of unfair grading policies that minimized his flying performances, but he succeeded anyway, thanks in part to the other white candidates who vouched for him.
He was commissioned a second lieutenant upon completion of flight training and later flew 64 combat missions in Korea in 1953, earning a number of decorations, none more prestigious than the Distinguished Flying Cross.
During a tour of duty in Vietnam, Petersen commanded a tactical air squadron and participated in more than 250 missions. On one of those missions, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he was forced to eject. He received a Purple Heart for the wounds incurred from the landing. Overall, he accumulated more than 5,000 hours in fighter and attack planes.
In 1967, while in the Marines, Petersen received a bachelor’s degree. In 1973, he obtained a master’s degree in international affairs, both degrees coming from George Washington University. He graduated from the National War College in 1973.
The diplomas and certificates were important when he sought administrative jobs within the military ranks. Recruiting other Blacks into the Marines was among his first posts; he was also an aggressive advocate for the promotion of more Black officers. Highlighting his ascent was the appointment to a command post at Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. In 1979, he was promoted to brigadier general and was named “Man of the Year” by the NAACP.
Another promotion in 1986 pushed him up a notch to lieutenant general. The next two years were eventful, as he became a commanding general of the Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va. From this esteemed position, he oversaw more than 7,000 military personnel and nearly 6,000 civilians. His appointment was the source of numerous media reports as well as for his role as convening authority during two highly publicized trials. In one trial, in 1987, Sgt. Clayton Lonetree was convicted of passing secrets to Soviet agents.
“In the second matter,” the Washington Post reported, “Gen. Petersen cited new, exculpatory evidence in his decision to convene a second court-martial of Lindsey Scott, a Black Marine corporal who had been convicted by a military court in 1983 of having raped and attempting to murder a white woman. The highest military court overturned the initial decision, citing an inadequate defense, and Scott was acquitted in 1988.”
The emotional stress from the trials was very difficult, Petersen told the Post, and he later retired from active duty, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal for his exceptional military career. Petersen spent many years in charge of corporate aviation for DuPont, no longer having to wear a uniform that he hoped would shield him from racial slights and indignities, which it didn’t.
Petersen was married three times—Eleanor Burton, Alicia Downes and Jonnie Robinson. In 2014, he remarried Downes.
A plethora of obituaries have renewed interest in Petersen’s remarkable life, something he had done most authoritatively in his memoir, “Into the Tiger’s Jaw,” with J. Alfred Phelps.