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Wed, 03.02.1932

Frank Petersen, Marine Corps pioneer

Frank E. Petersen Jr.

*Frank E. Petersen, Jr. was born on this date in 1932. He was a Black Marine Corps pilot and officer, a lecturer and administrator

He was born in Topeka, Kansas, the son of 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, 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. Despite enduring racism in the Marines, Frank E. Petersen, Jr., became the first Black aviator in the United States Marine Corps.

By this point desegregation had hit the military, but racism was rampant. 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. On October 22, 1952, Petersen was commissioned as a Marine aviation officer. Petersen joined the conflict in Korea in 1953. He flew 64 combat missions during the Korean War and was 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.

He married his first wife Eleanor in 1955. They have three children: Frank Emmanuel Petersen III, Gayle Marie Petersen, and Dana Charlette Petersen. 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. He married Alicia Joyce Downes in 1975; are parents to Lindsey Monique Downes Petersen. On February 23, 1979 President Jimmy Carter, made him the first African American general in United States Marine Corps history. The same year he was named NAACP Man of the Year. In 1986, Petersen became the Marine Corps’ first African American three-star general. Petersen retired in 1988, as a three-star lieutenant general. He became a vice president of the Du Pont Company and was a guest speaker 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 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. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. has received many Awards, including: 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. Most recently, Gen. Petersen served as vice president, Corporate Aviation for DuPont DeNemours, Inc., where he was responsible for pilot training and leadership of DuPont's Corporate Flight programs worldwide.

He was also appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Education to serve as a Board member of the Educational Credit Management Corporation.  Frank Petersen died at his home in Stevensville, Maryland, on August 25, 2015, from lung cancer.   He left behind his wife Alicia Petersen and children Gayle, Frank, Dana Moore, Lyndsay Pulliam and Monique.

Into the Tiger's Jaw: America's First Black Marine Aviator,
The Autobiography of Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen
by Jennifer M Price, Dec. 1998, Sea Power.

2011 Kansas Historical Society
6425 SW 6th Avenue
Topeka, KS 66615-1099 ·


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