Frank E. Petersen Jr., was the first Black Marine Corps pilot and general officer.
Born in racially segregated Topeka, Kansas, Petersen decided to join the Navy at age 18 after hearing about the Korean War combat death of Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black pilot.
Peterson took the Navy’s entrance exam in 1950, two years after President Harry Truman had ordered the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces. He aced his aptitude examination twice—first under normal circumstances and a second time under the close scrutiny of an examiner who suspected he had cheated.
In 1952 Petersen, then a Marine, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and became the Marines’ first black aviator. He went on to fly 350 combat missions during two tours in Korea and Vietnam, and became the first African American in the Corps to command a fighter squadron, an air group, and a major base.
Yet even while becoming one of the nation’s most prestigious military pilots, he continued to endure racial discrimination in the civilian world. He learned when to hold his tongue and when to strike back.
Peterson was promoted to brigadier general in 1979. The NAACP named him its “man of the year” for becoming the first Black general in the military service that was the last and most resistant to integration.
He earned the rank of lieutenant general in 1986 and spent the next two years as commanding general of the Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va.
Petersen retired from the Marine Corps in 1988 after 38 years of service. At that time, he held the titles of “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle.” After leaving the military, Petersen became a vice president for corporate aviation at Dupont de Nemours. He retired in 1997.
Petersen died Aug. 25, 2015, at the age of 83.
Editor’s note: To learn more, visit https://airandspace.si.edu/highlighted-topics/african-american-pioneers-aviation-and-space