A huge honor for a local man: The first African-American Marine pilot and the first general officer, Lt. General Frank E. Petersen, now has a ship bearing his name. He broke barriers his entire life and even after death, his legacy lives on. I got to sit down with his family at their northwest Washington, to learn more about the General.
In 1950, just two years after President Truman desegregated the military, Frank E. Petersen enlisted.
“I don’t think anyone really chose dad, I think dad chose the Marine Corps,” says Frank E. Petersen III, his son.
Lt General Petersen chose to be one of the few, one of the proud. But the challenges he would face wouldn’t just be on the battlefield. As the first African-American Marine pilot, Petersen saw resistance from the beginning of his career.
“I remember once a man refused to salute dad,” says Petersen III. “Dad said ‘listen, if you don’t want to salute me, that’s fine. But if I take off this uniform would you at least salute the uniform?'”
Lt General Petersen chose how to deal with those challenges. He would overcome them, by completing 350 combat tours, 38 years of service, and being named the first African-American general officer. “The barriers that dad faced, he always said, ‘son, no matter how difficult the challenge, there’s always somebody out there that’s going to do the right thing,” says Petersen III.
Petersen’s leadership extended to his home life as well, as a husband and a father of 5. “Here’s the thing about General Petersen, he was a humble giant of a man,” says Alicia Petersen, his widow. “When you talk about leaders, he was truly a leader who led by example.”
But to his 5 children, he was just dad. “He didn’t ask us to do anything that he wouldn’t do, he lead from the front,” says Petersen III. “He was a great Marine but also a great dad.”
He was also a grandfather and great-grandfather. His grandson, Frank E. Petersen IIII: “He just always inspired me to do more and be more and to rise above.”
The mark of a true leader: Never behind you, never in front of you, always beside you. So when Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus contacted the Petersen family about placing the name Frank E. Petersen Junior on the side of a ship, it just made sense. “If they wanted to name a ship after someone, they picked a good person,” says Gayle Petersen, his daughter. “Because I bet you that ship is going to be awesome because that ship is going to have the spirit of a person that is the epitome and embodiment of fighting.”
In the end, Lt General Frank E. Petersen was chosen, by the Navy to bear a great honor. “His excellence was undeniable and when you’re in the business of protecting this great country and you’re putting men’s lives at stake, the artificial barriers you put up are meaningless,” says Petersen III. “You need the best and the brightest and dad was that. So that had little choice. He was the man.”
“I think this particular honor would have meant so much to him because he would see it as a symbol for other young men who came after him to have something concrete they can see and look at and say, wow, General Petersen, he really did it for all of us, says Alicia.
The ship-naming ceremony was held last week in Cherry Point, NC. A fitting place, as it was the location General Petersen took over as his very first command.
Construction began on the future USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. in April 27 and is expected to enter the Navy fleet in 2020.