When Frank E. Petersen, Jr. retired from the Marine Corps in 1988, he was not only the highest-ranking aviator in the Marines and Navy, he had been flying longer than anyone in any what branch of service. This is not Lieutenant-General Petersen’s only claim to fame.
Petersen was also the first Black Marine Corps airman and the first person of color to achieve the rank of general in the United States Marine Corps.
He first enlisted in the US Navy in 1950 as an electronics technician apprentice, just two years after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the entire armed forces. During his first year of service, however, the Navy’s first black airman, Jesse L. Brown, died while fighting in Korea.
From that moment, Frank E. Petersen decided to become a combat pilot. The following year, he entered the naval aviation cadet program. While in flight training, he was deliberately pushed away by an instructor in an act of overt racism. The instructor told him he would never be allowed to fly in the United States Marine Corps.
Petersen not only proved this instructor wrong, he became one of the Corps’ most legendary fighter pilots and leaders. He completed his flight training in 1952, enough time to see combat behind the stick over Korea himself. In 1968, he was sent to carry out combat missions in Vietnam.
During an air combat mission over Vietnam in 1968, Petersen’s F-4 Phantom II fighter suffered so much damage from enemy fire that it was forced to eject. He was successfully recovered, avoiding a stay in the infamous Hanoi Hilton that had happened to so many other downed plane pilots.
He had more than 4,000 flight hours in attack and fighter aircraft and flew more than 350 combat missions over Korea and Vietnam. His combat duties earned him the Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit with Combat “V”, Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.
As an officer, his leadership was exactly the kind the Marine Corps expected of its Marine leaders. Petersen was promoted to command a fighter squadron, a Marine Aircraft Group, a Marine Aircraft Wing, and a major Marine Corps installation. He was the first Black Marine to command them all at all levels.
In 1979, Petersen was promoted to brigadier general, marking another milestone, as he became the first black general officer in the Marine Corps. When he retired in 1988, the Marine Corps and Naval Aviation community referred to him much differently than when he joined the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1951.
After 38 years of service, he was known as “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle”, a testament to his years of wisdom and leadership, as well as a nod to his ability behind the handle of a fighter jet.
Petersen died at his home in Maryland in 2015, but his legacy doesn’t end with his death. The following year, the Navy laid the keel of an Arliegh-Burke-class guided-missile destroyer that would be named after the late aviation pioneer. The ship was first launched in 2018 and is expected to be completed within the next few years.
A missile destroyer named in his honor is a fitting Navy tribute to an enlisted sailor who endured years of racism, overcoming it all to be one of the best in the Marine Corps.