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Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr.

Marine Corps Lieutenant General Frank Emmanuel Petersen, Jr. was born on March 2, 1932 in Topeka, Kansas. His spelling of Petersen is popular amongst his paternal relatives in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. A maternal ancestor, Archie McKinney served in the 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. His parents, Frank E. Petersen, Sr., a radio repairman, and Edythe Southard Petersen, met at the University of Kansas. Petersen grew up in South Topeka and attended Monroe Elementary School, the gifted program of Boswell Junior High School, where his classmate was the former University of North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith. He graduated from Topeka High School in 1949. Briefly attending Washburn College, Petersen joined the United States Navy in 1950. He entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1951 and in 1952 after finishing flight training as the first black Marine aviator, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps (USMC). Petersen later 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.

Assigned briefly to El Toro, California, Petersen was assigned to Korea in 1953. There, he flew Chance Vaught F4U Corsairs on 64 combat missions with Marine Fighter Squadron 212 out of the K-6 Airfield in Pyong-Taek to the Yalu River. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and six air medals. In the 1960s, Petersen experienced the transition from propeller driven fighters to jets like the Lockheed T-33B Seastar, the Gruman F9F Cougar and the Douglas F3D Skynight. In 1968, Petersen became the first African American to command a 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 USMC. Shot down but rescued in the DMZ, Petersen added 250 combat missions to his Korean total. He eventually commanded a Marine Aircraft Group and a Marine Aircraft Wing. In 1975, Petersen took command of Marine Air Corps 32 at Cherry Point, North Carolina and in 1979 became the first African American General in USMC history. Petersen was made Lieutenant General in 1986 and was appointed Commanding General of the USMC Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia. When he retired in 1988, Petersen was the first black three star general in the USMC and the “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle” senior and ranking aviator in both the USMC and the Navy. He was awarded still another Distinguished Service Medal for his command services at Quantico.

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 was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on February 7, 2007.

Petersen passed away on August 25, 2015. He is survived by five children.

Accession Number

A2007.052

Sex

Male

Interview Date

2/7/2007

Last Name

Petersen

Maker Category
Middle Name

E.

Schools

Topeka High School

Monroe Elementary School

Boswell Junior High School

Washburn University

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Frank

Birth City, State, Country

Topeka

HM ID

PET07

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Kansas

Favorite Vacation Destination

U.S. Virgin Islands

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date

3/2/1932

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

USA

Death Date

8/25/2015

Short Description

Lieutenant general (retired) Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. (1932 - 2015 ) was the first African American general in the history of the United States Marine Corps.

Employment

U.S. Marine Corps

U.S. Navy

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482487">Tape: 1 Slating of Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr.'s interview</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482488">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. lists his favorites</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482489">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his mother's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482490">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his mother's upbringing in Kansas</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482491">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his father's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482492">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his parents' personalities</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482493">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his earliest childhood memory</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482494">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482495">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his childhood in Topeka, Kansas</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482496">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his early entertainment</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482497">Tape: 1 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. remembers Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482498">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. remembers Boswell Junior High School in Topeka, Kansas</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482499">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls enlisting in the U.S. Navy</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482500">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. remembers the death of Jesse L. Brown</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482501">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. talks about his childhood wish to leave Kansas</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482502">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his experiences at Topeka High School</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482503">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his flight training in the U.S. Marine Corps</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482504">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his commission as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482505">Tape: 2 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his service in the Korean War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482506">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his flight missions in the Korean War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482507">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his recognition as a black pilot</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482508">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls learning to fly jet airplanes</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482509">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls the Brown v. Board of Education decision</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482510">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his involvement in the First Indochina War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482511">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. remembers forming contrails with planes</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482512">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his marriage</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482513">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls petitioning to command a fighter squadron</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482514">Tape: 3 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. remembers the Vietnam War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482515">Tape: 4 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes race relations among soldiers in the Vietnam War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482516">Tape: 4 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. reflects upon the legacy of the Vietnam War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482517">Tape: 4 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. reflects upon his combat experiences in the Vietnam War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482518">Tape: 4 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls investigating racial conflict in the U.S. military</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482519">Tape: 4 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes the perspectives of black soldiers in the Vietnam War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482520">Tape: 4 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his promotion to general in the U.S. Marine Corps</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482521">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his vice presidency of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482522">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his duties at E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482523">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. remembers writing his autobiography</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482524">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. talks about his organizational activities</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482525">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. reflects upon the Iraq War</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482526">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482527">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. reflects upon his life and legacy</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482528">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. talks about prominent black military leaders</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482529">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes his family</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/482530">Tape: 5 Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes how he would like to be remembered</a>

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DATitle
Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls his flight training in the U.S. Marine Corps
Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. recalls investigating racial conflict in the U.S. military
Transcript
All right, back to the [U.S.] Marine Corps now. So you discovered that you could be a pilot, and?$$Yeah, I discovered with Jesse Brown's [Jesse L. Brown] death that blacks could in fact go to the [U.S.] Navy flight school. Once I arrived at the Navy flight school, which was relatively easy for me, I discovered there had never been a black pilot in the [U.S.] Marine Corps. And I found that out by the other black cadet, who was about a year ahead of me. And I say the other because we were entering as blacks maybe about one every eight months. His name was Dave Campbell, Dave was a former Marine. And Dave was determined to try the Marine Corps. When I entered, Dave took me under his wing, and he indicated that if he didn't make it then I should try for it. At the time, there had been three blacks to graduate from flight school--a guy named Jesse Brown, a gentleman by the name of Earl Carter, and a gentleman by the name of Floyd [Albert Floyd]. I can't remember Floyd's full name. There were only three who had managed to make it through the syllabus.$$Okay.$$And Dave (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) And Jesse Brown was the first one?$$Jesse Brown was the first one. And he of course had been killed in combat in Korea.$$Okay, so let me get--so this is the naval flight school, but the Marine pilots and the Navy pilots are in the same school?$$That is correct.$$All right. But when you come out, you--$$A lot of people don't realize--$$Okay.$$--but all Marine Corps and Navy pilots go through the same training at the same schools. Dave Campbell didn't make it. I did make it, applying for the Marine Corps, and I was the fourth black to have completed flight school, and the first to have been accepted into the Marine Corps.$$Okay. Now, let me go back to Dave Campbell. Now, what happened to him? You know, he, I know you mentioned him in other interviews (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Yeah.$$--as being a real inspiration to you--$$Dave was an inspiration--$$--and somebody that changed your life.$$He was older than I, of course. And you have to realize when I received my wings and my commission, I was only twenty years old. Dave was around twenty-five, and he had gone--well, you had your basic training and then you had your advanced training. And in the advanced training, you were required to have six carrier landings in the more advanced kind of airplane. Dave didn't make it through that, and I was heartbroken, because I felt that Dave was much smarter and much more capable than I, and if Dave didn't make it, I didn't think I had chance in hell of making it.$$Now, was a story behind why Dave didn't make it?$$Dave would never discuss it with me. But he received a down check during those final phases of flight training, and I always suspected that Dave was singled out and they got him. I had a similar incident when I was going through my initial basic training. I received a down check by my instructor, and the other instructors got together and assigned me a new instructor. I had one flight with the new guy, and on my second flight with the new guy we were landed in a grass field. He climbed out of the backseat and hit me on the shoulder and said, "Go fly, and then come back here and land." And that's when I soloed. So, there was an effort to clean things up in the system. But here again, you know, blacks were going through the course, 1-Zs/2-Zs, and again, only three blacks that were going through the syllabus by the time I went through.$Back in the United States in '68 [1968], you got involved in race relations.$$Race relations with the [U.S.] Marine Corps. The Marine Corps and the [U.S.] Army were having one hell of a time. Traveled all over the world on fact-finding missions in terms of--I'll never forget in Heidelberg, Germany under the [U.S.] Department of Defense team to take a look. And the Army kids were having it pretty tough. It was a lack of manpower. And what was happening is the kids would go to Vietnam for a combat tour, come back stateside or to Germany for about a year or so, and then they'd be going back into Vietnam. And with the racial issues that were taking place, there was a great deal of friction. Even here at stateside they had riots, race riots, at many of the major bases. Even in the Marine Corps, there were two. There was a riot at Camp Pendleton [Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, San Diego County, California] and there was a riot at Camp Lejeune [Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, North Carolina]. The Army had the same problems. On this fact-finding tour in Germany, I would talk to the kids. And one of these groups wanted to meet with me off-base to discuss issues. And what they wanted to do was discuss what would be the biggest signal to give to the Army to show their displeasure. And what they were concentrating on was killing the Army, the U.S. Army Europe commander, General Polk [James H. Polk], P-O-L-K. And they were serious, they were very serious. They didn't carry out their plan, and when I reported it, it got a lot of attention. It got a lot of attention, because these kids were serious. They were trained to kill; they knew they were going to die, or had the high probability of dying, and they said, "Hey, we'll take somebody out with us."$$Now, this is serious. Now, I've read that there were conflicts, you know, some bloody conflicts during the Korean War down on the ground, too. But this is really a plot to actually blow up the commander of the--$$Uh-huh.$$--U.S. forces in Germany. That's--$$Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, one of my good friends was a guy named Curtis Smothers [Curtis R. Smothers], who was an attorney with the JAG Corps, the Judge Advocate General [Judge Advocate General's Corps]. And Curt was black and had come from the inner city, and was just as smart as he could be. And Curt would tell a funny story about some of these court martials. He would be sitting there with a white attorney, and this young kid, black kid, would come in and they would begin to talk. And this black kid said, "Where's the motherfucker been messing with me? I ain't going to take no more of that shit." And the white attorney would say, "I'm sorry, I don't understand you." And Curt would say, "I understand him, let him go." (Laughter) "Let him keep talking." So, these kinds of things. Another incident was when I was the squadron commander in Vietnam, this is in '68 [1968]. Big commotion in my hooch, in my office, and I looked up and a sergeant major was telling this kid, "You can't go in there." And this kid was black, he was a ground troop. And I looked out at the officer and I said, "That's okay, sergeant major, let him in." And this kid walked into my office and he said, "Okay, you the one. I heard there was one of you over here." You got to realize I was a lieutenant colonel, and I was about the only one in the Marine Corps. I said, "Sit down, son." I said, "Well, what's your problem?" He said, "Well, sir, they're fucking with me." And I said, "Well, tell me your problem." He said, "Well, sir, I guess it all happened when I shot the lieutenant." (Laughter) I said, "Whoa." So these kinds of things were going on, these kinds of things. So very, very severe problems in the [U.S.] military. And they really didn't--I say they, the problems, didn't really resolve themselves until the late '70s [1970s] when everybody finally got their act together, and a lot of this stuff was knocked off. A lot of the bad guys were kicked out of the services. And if you look at the services today, it's the ultimate, I think, in terms of working together, equality, and so forth. It's the place to be, it's the place to be.$$Yeah, we often hear there's a lot more equality in the service (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Absolutely.$$--than in regular life sometimes.$$Absolutely.$$A lot of people say that.$$And you can see it as you go aboard the bases nowadays. When I was coming along, if you saw a mixed couple you would stare. Nowadays, if you don't see a mixed couple, you stare. (Laughter) So it's totally different, totally different.