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Frank E. Petersen

Frank E. Petersen, Jr.First African American Marine Corps Aviator, first African American Marine Corps general.
Born: Topeka, Kansas, March 2, 1932
Married: Alicia Joyce Downes, Arlington, Virginia, August 18, 1975
Died: Stevensville, Maryland, August 25, 2015

Frank Emmanuel Petersen, Jr., was born in Topeka, Kansas, March 2, 1932, to Frank E. Petersen, Sr., and Edythe Southard Peterson. His parents met at the University of Kansas. His father worked as a radio repairman. Frank attended Monroe Elementary School, the gifted program at Boswell Junior High School, and Topeka High School, graduating in 1949, briefly attending Washburn University. Petersen earned two degrees at George Washington University, a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and a master’s degree in international affairs in 1973. He graduated from the National War College in 1973.

Petersen joined the U.S. Navy as a seaman apprentice in June 1950, and electronics technician in 1951. He was accepted into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1951. He completed flight training in October 1952, the first African American aviator in the Marines, and was commissioned second lieutenant.

He was assigned to Korea in 1953. There as part of the Marine Fighter Squadron 212, Petersen flew 64 missions in a Chance Vaught F4U Corsair. A decade later he flew jet fighters—Lockheed TV-2 Seastar, later Lockheed T-33B Shooting Star, Grumman F9F Cougar, and Douglas F3D Skyknight. He was the first African American to command a squadron, receiving the Hanson Award in 1968 for best Marine squadron. Petersen was shot down and rescued. He commanded a Marine Aircraft Group and a Marine Aircraft Wing. He completed more than 350 combat missions and more than 4,000 hours flying attack aircraft.

Petersen was the Marine’s first African American general, promoted to brigadier in 1979 and major general in 1983. His appointment to lieutenant general in 1986 came with an assignment as commanding general of the USMC Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia. His decorations include: the Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit with Combat "V", Distinguished Flying Cross; Purple Heart; Meritorious Service Medal; Air Medal; Navy Commendation Medal with Combat "V" and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

He retired from the Marines in 1988, the first African American three-star general, and was presented with the Distinguished Service Medal for exceptional meritorious service. After retirement served as vice president of corporate aviation for DuPont DeNemours, Inc., as manager of the corporate fleet. He retired from that position in 1997. Petersen’s autobiography, Into the Tiger's Jaw: America's First Black Marine Aviator, was published in 1998. He died in Maryland on August 25, 2015, and is buried at Arlington Cemetery, Virginia.

Entry: Petersen, Frank E.

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: May 2009

Date Modified: May 2023

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