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Meet Frank E. Petersen Jr., The First Black Marine Corps General

Meet Frank E. Petersen Jr., The First Black Marine Corps General

He made history 44 years ago today!

Frank E. Petersen Jr. was born on March 2, 1932 in Topeka, Kansas, the U.S. Marine Corpsreports. According to, he first joined the U.S. Navy in 1952, working as an electronics technician. Petersen later applied for the Naval Aviation Cadet Corps, completing his training and becoming a second lieutenant, making history as the first Black pilot in the Marine Corps. Petersen served in the Korean War in 1953 and the Vietnam war in 1968, earning six air medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross and flying more than 350 combat missions and more than 4,000 hours, earning the Purple Heart in 1968. 

On February 23, 1967, Petersen made history as the first African-American to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general, serving 38 total years in the Navy and 36 as a Marine before his retirement on August 1, 1988. During that time, he also received his bachelor’s degree then a master’s in International Affairs in 1973, both from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. 



Over the course of his career, he served as Special Assistant to the chief of Staff, as a member of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 212, as part of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314, and as the commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. He also earned a Meritorious Service Medal for his work, garnering more than twenty medals for bravery in combat and serving as a senior ranking Marine Corps and Navy pilot from 1985 to 1988. 

Petersen was a true pioneer and inspired a legion of other Black Marines after him, including Lt. Gen. Michael Langley, who recently became the first Black four-star general in the United States Marine Corps’ 240+ year history. After retirement, he continued his work with educational and research organizations like the Tuskegee Airmen, the national Aviation Research and Education Foundation, and Dupont Aviation, where he served as vice president. He passed away on August 25, 2015 at the age of 83. Last year, the Navy commissioned a new guided-missile destroyer named in Petersen’s honor

“The ship’s motto, ‘Into the Tiger’s Jaw,’ is a phrase used by Petersen many times throughout his life to convey unbridled spirit in confronting and overcoming social injustice and prejudice as well as bravery in combat and courage in the broad sense,” explained the Petersen Commissioning Committee via statement.  


As of July 2014, Petersen’s contributions to the Marine Corps are preserved in the House of Representatives Congressional Records archives. We remember his life and his work and we salute General Petersen. Because of him, we can!

Meet Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first Black Marine Corps General/Photo Courtesy of Frank Johnston/The Washington Post