LTG Frank Petersen (USMC Retired): Visionary, Leader, Pioneer

by MAJ Timothy G. Russell, U.S. Army

MAJ Russell is an Armor Officer in the United States Army with multiple combat tours to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently a student at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and following graduation, he will attend the AY22 School of Advanced Warfighting. His previous assignments include service in both Mechanized and Stryker Brigade Combat Team formations in addition to an assignment to the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, CA. 

Throughout American history, stories of heroism, bravery and courage are documented and passed down from generation to generation to preserve the legacy of those who laid the foundation of excellence before them. Heroic actions of those who stood bravely to push the British from levying taxes on the Colonies to celebrated treasonous Confederate officers who sought to continue the systematic oppression of slavery in the southern states, the United States military has institutionalized professional military education programs to focus on the actions of white flag officers. These stories remain a part of the fabric of American history, but the deliberate exclusion of the efforts of African American military leaders who risked and those who gave their lives in every single military conflict since the inception of this Nation must be recorded and introduced into the military education programs across all levels and branches of Service. The Marine Corps retained a legacy of exclusion about the service of African Americans within their ranks for nearly 144 years from 1798 to 1942. This deliberate and public condemnation of the service of minorities in this branch did not suddenly change naturally or without significant push back from senior leaders and was only accomplished through the use of executive action from the President of the United States. The initial black Marines who enlisted and were trained in the Marine Corps are commonly known as the Montford Point Marines who not only risked their lives during American conflicts in Korea and Vietnam but also risked their lives domestically daily under the strict thumb of Jim Crow laws and American segregation. Placing the love of country above all else and motivated by a sense of service, these men laid the foundation for future black Marines to follow and provided their successors with the tools to break glass ceilings once thought to be impenetrable. One notable figure, LTG Frank Petersen stood vicariously upon the shoulders of these great leaders to create a path for future generations of black officers to follow while serving in the Marine Corps.

            Born into a family of four in the segregated city of Topeka, KS, on March 2, 1932, LTG Petersen was raised by working-class parents who praised education and hard work as a means to overcome the systematic inequalities that black Americans faced during the 1930s and 1940s. His father, a radio repairman, and his mother, an educator, always pushed their children to ensure that they could meet the challenges of the American way of life by studying hard and excelling in everything that you do as a means to compete within the intensely divided American society. As a result, LTG Petersen would be recognized by selection to gifted education programs in middle school and achieving above-average grades throughout his high school years. He and his family had become accustomed to the daily inequalities of segregated America, sitting in the back of public transportation and eating in separate facilities from whites.

            One significant day in history would change the culture of Topeka, KS, and shape the focus of American society in what seemed to be a swift moment in time. In 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and, for what seemed like the blink of an eye, adjusted the mindset of all Americans, black or white, from coast to coast. The sense of American patriotism and American resolve flowed through the veins of white Americans and a sense of duty and service was instilled in many black Americans during this time. In a unique and unexplainable way, black Americans felt an obligation to serve in a war against an enemy who sought to cause harm to the country that for many years subjected them to racism, bigotry, and unprovoked violence. Topeka turned into a logistics and air support hub for units and equipment headed to participate in the war effort against Japan. Observing the rush of bombers and other aerial assets in the area, LTG Petersen became fascinated with the concept of flying and the complexity of the inner workings of military aircraft. He studied how they worked, how they were built, and found pleasure in building model planes for fun. His love of planes and fighter jets bled into a newfound desire to explore electronics and naturally became an understudy of his father who taught him the basics of electronics with the goal of his son one day making a living following his footsteps. LTG Petersen watched as his father continued to progress in his field, garnering recognition from Army leaders for his skill and knowledge of electronics, providing him with a position training military members about the radio in the Signal Corps who were headed to support the war effort. Feeling a sense of pride and admiration for the accomplishments of his father, young LTG Petersen was not naive to the treatment his father received being a black man in America. Racist whites who hired him and with whom he worked looked at him differently compared to other blacks in society but understood that outside of his contributions he would still be treated the same. This revelation turned into motivation for the young LTG Petersen as he knew he would have to work harder than his peers to gain their acceptance and hopefully prove his worth to be treated equally regardless of his ethnicity. His parents focused their parenting efforts on professional appearance, manners, and grammatically correct speech. The idea was that if they raised respectful, intelligent, and professional-looking children, they could one day assimilate into white society with reduced friction.

            As he grew into his formative years, LTG Petersen admired pioneer sports figures such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. These groundbreaking symbols of black excellence motivated LTG Petersen to dream of a day when the issue of race would not be the primary focus for opportunities in America and that public acts of racism and discrimination would become illegal and change the minds of white American attitudes toward blacks. After graduating from high school, LTG Petersen sought to escape his hometown and enlist in the Navy. Because of age restrictions, he required support and signature authority from his parents to legally sign his enlistment contract. Initially, his decision to forego his college education for service in the Navy was supported by his father, his mother on the other hand was in direct opposition. She witnessed the massive war efforts that had occurred and were ongoing and could not stand the thought of her son risking his life on foreign land. As a result, LTG Petersen decided against enlisting into the Navy and enrolled into Washburn University, remaining at home with his parents. He attended school with other notable black students who would contribute to breaking systematic barriers in American society, but after his freshman year, he had a very short and minimally worded conversation with his father. In essence, his father granted him the approval and familial support to proceed with his enlistment into the Navy. Acknowledging that restricting his son to remaining in Topeka was causing harm emotionally and spiritually, LTG Petersen’s father knew he needed to allow him to grow his wings and follow his dreams and aspirations.

            So, in 1950, LTG Petersen rushed to the recruitment office to enlist into the Navy. Upon the completion of his entrance examination, the officials there requested that he retake the examination to verify his tremendously high scores. Reluctantly, LTG Petersen abided by the request and submitted to take the examination a second time, with the proctor in the room watching his every move. To the surprise of the recruitment official, LTG Petersen had obtained the highest scores ever recorded out of the Topeka recruiting station, and on his second attempt, he surpassed his initial examination results. During this time in American history, blacks were not viewed as being capable of serving in skilled or technical fields. Even with his high scores, the recruitment official offered LTG Petersen a job as a steward in the Navy. Offended and feeling insulted, LTG Petersen rushed out of the office and contemplated establishing his adult life in Topeka after all. He informed his father of the events and his interaction with the Navy recruiting official. A little time later, LTG Petersen was invited back to the recruitment office and was offered a position as a high-level electronics technician. Somehow, the recruiter was able to identify and find a position more suitable for the talents of the extremely talented and intelligent young LTG Petersen.

            He entered Navy training for electronics technician in June of 1950 with high hopes of not only serving his country but contributing to the slow-growing change in American society. While in training, he heard about a Navy pilot by the name of Jesse Brown. Jesse Brown was killed in the war in Korea in December of 1950 when his plane was shot down by the enemy fire. Although this was an extremely unfortunate and tragic event, his death motivated LTG Petersen and continued to drive his resolve to work hard and follow his dreams, and most notably Jesse Brown was black. This was significant because black service members were not afforded opportunities to serve in positions such as pilots and other traditional combat roles. Using this motivation as fuel, LTG Petersen applied and was accepted into the highly competitive Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1951.

            Although a member of the armed services, LTG Petersen could not escape the racial injustices of life outside of military installations in America, and especially in Florida where he would receive his initial flight training. Upon his arrival at Pensacola Naval Air Station Basic Training Command, he learned that only three other black cadets had completed the course. One of those three being Jesse Brown whose untimely death had motivated him to apply for the course. Throughout his time in Pensacola, he knew that he represented something more than just himself and that although becoming a pilot was a personal goal, his successful completion would serve as a catalyst for future black pilots across the armed forces. LTG Petersen completed flight training and accepted a commission into the Marine Corps in 1952. His commission would become one of many firsts for the junior officer, he would forever be recognized as the first black aviator in Marine Corps history.

            Following his training, LTG Petersen would be deployed to support the war effort in Korea as an F4U pilot. He is recorded to have flown 64 combat missions out of the K-6 airfield. Because of high casualties along the Korean peninsula, many of his peers were pilots who were recalled by the military out of civilian life to fly combat missions in support of the war effort. LTG Petersen learned a great deal from these experienced pilots, many of them having the previous service in World War II who provided him with advice on how to face the complexities of flying in a war zone. During his service in Korea, LTG Petersen was recognized for his superior flying ability and his role in the war by earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and an additional six air medals. After returning home from his deployment to the Korean peninsula, LTG Petersen would serve in a variety of assignments in California and other schools to expand his knowledge base and keep him competitive amongst his peers in the aviation field.

            In 1968 LTG Petersen would assume command of a tactical air squadron, becoming the first black officer to accomplish this once unobtainable position. He deployed his unit to Vietnam later that year and flew over 290 combat missions against an extremely formidable enemy. During operations there his would log over 4,000 flight hours and also received a purple heart after being shot down by enemy fire over Vietnam. His squadron would earn recognition as the most outstanding fighter squadron for their overall actions during the war in Vietnam.

            Recognizing that flying was his true passion but maintaining a burning desire to continue to blaze a trail for others to follow, LTG Petersen knew he needed to take an assignment that would set him on a trajectory to be promoted into the general officer ranks. After facing this realization, LTG Petersen took an assignment as a Special Assistant to the Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps. In this capacity, he would be directly involved in the development of actions to break down systematic barriers limiting the advancement of African American in the Marine Corps. This position provided him an opportunity to serve alongside the decision-makers within the Marine Corps and provide his testimony as a precedent to the potential that black Marines have not only in the Marine Corps but the armed forces as a whole.

            LTG Petersen would then move on to serve as the Marine Corps’ first black officer to serve as the commander of Marine Air Group 32 in Cherry Point, NC, and another command of a Marine Amphibious Brigade. He followed this assignment as once again, the first black officer to serve as the commander of a major Marine Corps base, Marine Corps Base Quantico. He would retire as the highest-ranking black officer in Marine Corps history in 1988.

            The story of LTG Petersen is not only a story of firsts for black officers in the United States armed forces, yet it is a historical depiction of what can be earned through hard work and determination. Growing up in an environment being treated as less than human and being viewed by society as inferior did not prohibit the aspirations of this motivating leader. Through the racial discrimination he faced, and the unequal treatment by forces within the military and outside of uniform, LTG Petersen always knew that fighting for what is right and representing himself with prestige and professionalism would one day pay off. The lessons taught to him by his parents growing up in Topeka, KS, provided the foundation for the life lessons that he took forward with him throughout his career in the Marine Corps. His legacy will undoubtedly live on in not only Marine Corps history but serves as a model of what is possible by all those who serve and all those who seek to eradicate systematic barriers for advancement in career fields that once restricted blacks from having an opportunity to prove their abilities.