Retired Gen. Frank E. Petersen, B.A. ’67, M.A. ’73 who made history as the first black Marine aviator and general, died in his home last Tuesday. He was 83. His family said he died of complications from lung cancer.
Gen. Petersen led an extraordinary military career that spanned 38 years. He enlisted in the Navy in 1950. Two years earlier, President Harry S. Truman had desegregated the armed forces. He overcame racial injustices to become a Marine by 1952 and the Marines’ first black aviator. It was a career in which he flew 350 combat missions in Korean and Vietnam and became the first black person to command a fighter squadron.
"General Frank Petersen was a friend, an American hero and a role model to a generation of military officers who endeavored to follow in his trailblazing past,” said Vice Admiral (retired) Mel Williams Jr., associate provost for military and veterans affairs at GW.
Gen. Frank E. Petersen receiving his rank stars from his wife, making him the first black general in the Marine Corps. Official Marine Corps photo by Cpl. R. J. Wetherington.
Gen. Petersen’s journey was filled with challenges. One of his instructors failed him out of aviator training and told him he would never fly. He was arrested after a captain at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif., claimed he was posing as a lieutenant. Later in his life, he and his wife were denied a house rental because of their skin color.
However, Gen. Petersen persevered. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1979, making history as the first black general in the Marine Corps. He already had two stars and won a third in 1986.
He attended the George Washington University while in the Marines and graduated in 1967. Later, he received a master’s degree from the university.
Gen. Petersen detailed his journey in his 1998 autobiography, “Into the Tiger’s Jaw,” written with J. Alfred Phelps.
Frank E. Petersen in 1968. Photo by Sgt. Cothran. Defense Department photo (Marine Corps).
He was honored for opening doors for other black members of the armed services. One of his colleagues, retired Lt. Gen. Ronald Coleman said in an interview with the Marine Corps Times that the impact Mr. Petersen had on the Marine Corps was “more than can be put into words.”
“What he’s done for the Corps, for the nation, for not only black America but white America, is something for the ages, and I don’t think we could ever pay him enough for what he’s done,” he said.