Frank Emmanuel Petersen Jr. was born in Topeka Kansas on March 2, 1932. He became the first African American Marine Corps aviator and the first African American Marine Corps general.
After graduating from Topeka High School in 1949, Peterson attended Washburn University for a year and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, as a seaman apprentice and served as an electronics technician. When he aced the Navy’s entrance exam, he was called to retake the exam for suspicion of cheating. the recruiter told him he would make a “great steward.” The remark was particularly painful for Petersen, who said he had turned to the military because he hoped it would an escape from pervasive racial prejudice in his native Kansas. Peterson was motivated by the recent Korean War combat death of the Navy’s first black aviator Jesse L. Brown, and Petersen vowed to become a combat pilot.
In October 1952, Peterson completed flight training and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He flew Chance Vaught F4U Corsairs on 64 combat missions with Marine Fighter Squadron 212 (VMF-212), Devilcats, out of the K-6 Airfield in Pyong-Taek to the Yalu River. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and six air medals before the Korean War ended.
In 1968, Petersen became the first African American in the Marines or the Navy to command a tactical air squadron when he took over Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 (VMFA-314), the Black Knights, in Vietnam. VFMA-314 received the 1968 Hanson Award for best squadron in the Marine Corps. He flew 290 combat missions during the Vietnam War between May 1968 and February 1969. In 1968, Peterson earned the Purple Heart for his actions while flying a mission in North Vietnam when he was shot down, and rescued. He has over 4,000 hours in various fighter/attack aircraft.
In July 1969, Petersen became a tactical air planner/programmer in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation. In 1971, he became special advisor to the Commandant of the Marine Corps in charge of African-American officer recruitment. In July 1975, Petersen was promoted to Colonel and took command of Marine Aircraft Group 32 at Cherry Point, North Carolina later that year. In February 1979 he was selected for promotion to brigadier general, in May 1983 he was advanced to the rank of major general. General Petersen was promoted to lieutenant general on June 12, 1986 and was appointed Commanding General of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia. When he retired in 1988, Petersen was the first black three star general in the Marine Corps and the “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle” senior and ranking aviator in both the Marines and the Navy. He was awarded another Distinguished Service Medal for his command services at Quantico.
Petersen received his B.A. degree in 1967 and his M.A. degree in international affairs in 1973, both at George Washington University. He also graduated from the National War College in 1973. In 1987 he was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Law degree granted by Virginia Union University. In addition he also attended: the Amphibious Warfare School, Quantico, Va.; and the Aviation Safety Officers Course at the University of Southern California.
Petersen spent his civilian years as vice president of corporate aviation for DuPont DeNemours, Inc. Managing their corporate fleet, he traveled the globe, retiring in 1997.
Petersen, had five children, lived on the Chesapeake Bay. He died at his home in Stevensville, on Maryland’s Kent Island, of complications from lung cancer on August 25, 2015. He was 83.
On February 23, 1979, he was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first African-American general in the Marine Corps. In May 1983, he advanced to the rank of major general and on June 12, 1986, he was promoted to lieutenant general. Petersen relinquished duties as the Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, Virginia on July 8, 1988. He served as the Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff from July 8–31 and retired from the Marine Corps on August 1, 1988. Upon his retirement, he was presented the Distinguished Service Medal for exceptionally meritorious service as the Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, Virginia, from June 1986 to July 1988.
His numerous decorations include: the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Meritorious Service Medal; the Purple Heart; the Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit with Combat “V”; Air Medal; Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V”; and the Air Force Commendation Medal; the Robert M. Hanson award for the Most Outstanding Fighter Squadron while assigned in Vietnam, 1968; Man of the Year, NAACP, 1979; Gray Eagle Trophy, August 21, 1987-June 15, 1988.