Frank Petersen Jr.: ‘quiet giant’ repeatedly shattered military color barriers

28 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Frank Petersen Jr.: ‘quiet giant’ repeatedly shattered military color barriers.

The US Marine Corps’ first African-American aviator, who broke multiple color barriers on his way to becoming the military branch’s first African-American general, died on Tuesday. It wasn’t hard for the future three-star general to decode the reason for the request: His score was high, and the implication was that he had cheated.

My, God, man, what a great steward you’d make!’’ The remark was particularly painful for General Petersen, who said he had turned to the military because he hoped to escape pervasive racial prejudice in his native Kansas. Petersen, who flew more than 350 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam, died Tuesday at his home in Stevensville, Maryland, of complications from lung cancer. When he retired as a lieutenant general in 1988, Petersen was the senior ranking aviator in both the Marines and the Navy — with which he served before joining the Marine Corps — and held the honorary titles of Silver Hawk and Grey Eagle.

Truman had ordered the armed forces to desegregate in 1948, but General Petersen later wrote that the Navy and Marine Corps were ‘‘the last to even entertain the idea of integrating their forces.’’ And whenever he left the flight training base in Pensacola, Fla., he was subjected to the indignities of the Jim Crow South. He largely swallowed the treatment, he later told The Washington Post, because he could not fight two battles at once. ‘‘I knew that I couldn’t win if I were to tackle that, as opposed to getting my wings,’’ he said. As tough as his father had to be as a marine, his son said: “He was as peaceful and gentle as you could ask a dad to be and was always there for us.” He received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with valor device, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Meritorious Service Medal. He finally felt “I was a winner” upon his promotion to brigadier general, “even though “not everybody in the Corps was overjoyed at my selection,” he wrote. “The aide presented my brigadier’s flag with its one glaring star to the commandant, who immediately handed it to me.

I kissed my wife, left the flag with her, then seemingly floated to the lectern to give the crowd my good wishes and thanks,” Petersen wrote. “ ‘He took that flag,’ Alicia [Petersen’s wife] likes to remember, ‘and he wrapped it around himself and he sat upon his chair like he was on a throne,’” Petersen wrote. John Paxton, the Marine Corps’ 33rd assistant commandant, said in a statement that Petersen was “a pioneer and role model in many ways, a stellar leader, Marine officer and aviator.” Petersen wrote an autobiography entitled “Into the Tiger’s Jaw: America’s First Black Marine Aviator.” Published in 1998, the book chronicled the opposition and racism he faced as he climbed the Marine ranks, including how he received hate mail from starred Marine officers. In the early 1970s, he took administrative jobs and began his ascent through the ranks, working to recruit more black officers and holding a command post at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. In a review of the book, the site Publishers Weekly wrote: “It’s hard not to wince when Petersen describes being stopped for impersonating a military officer at a time when blacks in the service were presumed to be enlisted men. Allegations of racism within an Alaska-based Army unit earlier this year drew attention to the fact that, while America as a country is becoming more diverse, its military is doing the opposite.

At Quantico, he oversaw 7,010 military personnel and 5,930 civilians, but he drew wider media attention as the convening authority for two highly publicized trials. In the second matter, General Petersen cited new, exculpatory evidence in his decision to convene a second court-martial of Lindsey Scott, a black Marine corporal convicted by a military court in 1983 of having raped and attempted to murder a white woman. While in the Marines, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and a master’s degree in international affairs in 1973, both from George Washington University. Besides his wife, of Stevensville, Md., and Washington, he leaves four children from his first marriage, Dana Moore of Baltimore, Lindsay Pulliam of Alexandria, Va., and Gayle Petersen and Frank Petersen III, both of Washington; a stepdaughter he adopted, Monique Petersen of Washington; a brother; a sister; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Tensions exploded during the Vietnam War, when strife over perceived racism in assignments, military justice, and promotion seemed to threaten the military’s ability to carry out its missions. ‘‘Platoons that were 80 percent minority were being led by lieutenants from Yale who had never dealt with ghetto blacks,’’ he told The Post in 1990. ‘‘Soldiers were angry.’’ Citing Marine figures, The Post reported in 1988 there were 195,719 Marines, 36,882 of whom were black.

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