Frank E. Petersen, Jr., made history in the United States Marines, initially when he became the first black pilot and later as the first black general in the Corps. Petersen was born in 1932 in Topeka, Kansas, and grew up just 10 miles from an army airfield used for World War II bombers. Although aircraft fascinated him, his mother, a graduate of the University of Kansas, pushed him and his siblings toward more intellectual paths. Petersen was identified as a gifted student in junior high and went to a special school for talented white and black students.
After high school, he wanted to join the military, but his parents encouraged him to attend Washburn University. After a year, in June 1950, he enlisted in the Navy as a seaman apprentice and later served as an electronics technician. Petersen got a chance to enter the Naval Aviation Cadet Program and, in October 1952, he completed flight training and accepted a commission in the Marine Corps. In choosing a career in aviation, Petersen was particularly inspired by the example of Ensign Jessie L. Brown, the first black aviator in the Navy. Brown had died in the snows of North Korea, after crash landing during a close air support mission.
Petersen’s first tactical assignment was with Marine Fighter Squadron, VMA-212, in Korea. He flew Chance Vought F4U Corsairs from K-6, an airfield at Pyong-Taek, 30 miles south of Seoul. He completed 64 combat missions, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and six Air Medals before the armistice. Returning home in June 1964, he had a variety of assignments, including duty as an instrument instructor pilot at MCAS El Toro, California, where he flew the Lockheed TV-2 (later T-33B) Seastar, the Grumman F9F Cougar, and the Douglas F3D Skynight. Petersen flew the Vought F-8 Crusader from MCAS Kaneohe, Hawaii, and he later became the first black officer to command a tactical squadron in either the Navy or the Marines.
After an assignment to NAS Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, he went to Chu Lai AB, Vietnam, where he commanded VMFA-314, a fighter attack squadron equipped with the McDonnell F4B Phantom II. On 10 September 1968, while flying his 75th mission, Petersen was shot down, but quickly rescued. Under his command, VMFA-314 received the 1968 Hanson Award as the best squadron in the Marine Corps. In Vietnam, he added 280 combat missions to those from Korea. The senior black officer in the USMC, he served as the senior advisor on minority affairs to the Commandant. Petersen managed to continue his education, receiving both a bachelors and a masters degree from George Washington University. He attended numerous professional schools, including the National War College.
In 1975, he took command of Marine Air Group 32 and flew the McDonnell Douglas AV8B Harrier out of MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. He was promoted to flag rank in 1979, to major general in 1983, and finally to lieutenant general in 1986. Petersen later served as Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, Virginia. He served as Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff, until his retirement in 1988. At that time, with over 4000 flying hours, he was the senior ranking aviator in both the Navy and the Marines, with the respective titles “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle.”