Lt. General Frank Petersen: A Black Life That Mattered

Last month we lost Lt. General Frank Petersen Jr, whose military career was one of the greatest stories of perseverance in our nation’s history. Lt. Gen. Petersen died on August 25th at the age of 83.

Lt. Gen. Petersen made history when he became the first African-American Marine Corps general officer and Marine Corps general. He retired in 1988 as the commanding general at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia.

None of his achievements came easy. His journey was fraught with hardships from the start. Two years after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, Petersen enlisted in the Navy to escape the harsh racism and discrimination in his native Kansas. He took the Navy entrance exam in 1950. He aced the test, but the Navy made him retake it because they felt he cheated. He aced it again the second time and the petty officer administering the test told him “Petersen, my boy, the Navy has opportunities for guys like you. . . . My, God, man, what a great steward you’d make!”

One year later he entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. His inspiration was Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black aviator, who died while serving in the Korean War. While a cadet at flight training school in Pensacola, Florida, bus drivers forced him to sit in the back. He was not allowed to sit with white cadets in public places. He would later recall he wanted to fight back against this treatment, but felt the best to get back was to get his wings and become a pilot. He earned the respect of his white peers and when an instructor tried to unfairly discourage him with poor ratings, they came to his defense.

Petersen flew a total of 314 combat missions in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He was awarded a Purple Heart in the Vietnam War when his plane was shot down and he was injured. In an interview with The Washington Post in 1990, Petersen was asked about the progress of race relation:

“He recalled the years after his return from Korea, when he continued to face vicious discrimination. He said he wore his uniform everywhere, figuring that if anyone attacked him, it would be a federal offense. 

Tensions exploded during the Vietnam War, when strife over perceived racism in assignments, military justice and promotion at times seemed to threaten the military’s ability to carry out its missions. 

‘Platoons that were 80 percent minority were being led by lieutenants from Yale who had never dealt with ghetto blacks,’ he told The Post in 1990. ‘Soldiers were angry. Martin Luther King was killed. It all came together. It was a mess.’ 

He said he once encountered a cadre of eight black dissidents who felt so mistreated — and their chance of being killed in Vietnam so high — that they threatened to assassinate a white military official. 

Gen. Petersen said he defused the situation by asking who among the eight would volunteer to pull the trigger; no one raised a hand. He reported the plot and was named a special assistant on race relations to the Marine Corps commandant.”

Peterson was promoted to brigadier general in 1979 and was named the NAACP’s Man of the Year. He received many medals and citations over his 38 year career, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with Valor Device, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Meritorious Service Medal. In 2010, President Obama appointed Petersen to the Board of Visitors to the United States Naval Academy.

There are countless stories of our military men and women overcoming adversity that never get told. We have to honor their lives and commitments to this country. Lt. General Petersen served as an inspiration to all African Americans in the military following its desegregation. He paved the way for all of them who would follow and achieve their dreams. He lived a life that mattered. His story needs to be told of what can be accomplished when one feels the odds are stacked against you.


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