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First African-American Marine Corps aviator changed history

By Lance Cpl. Samantha K Torres | Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort | February 4, 2016

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  Lieutenant Gen. Frank E. Petersen passed away on August 25, 2015, and is known for his ‘selfless acts and lifetime of dedication to the Marine Corps and his country’, according to a letter from the Hon. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia, house of representatives. 

  “In August of last year, we lost a great American hero,” said Col. Robert D. Cooper, the commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 31. 

  Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen set many milestones during his Marine Corps Career.  Before 1950, the United States Military was segregated, until President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. The following year a young man named Frank E. Petersen entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1951, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1952.

  Petersen served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, flying over 350 combat missions. While serving in Vietnam, he became the first African-American in the Marines or Navy to take command of a tactical air squadron. While serving in Vietnam, he earned a Purple Heart medal.

  He held command positions at all levels of Marine Corps Aviation including Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314, a Marine Aircraft Group, and a Marine Aircraft Wing.  He was also the first African-American to command a fighter squadron, a fighter air group, air wing, and a major Marine Corps base. 

  “As a pilot and leader of Marines, I am equally impressed with Lt. Gen. Petersen as a Marine officer and aviator,” said Cooper. “That is his legacy to equality.”

  In 1979 he became the first African-American general in the Marine Corps when he was promoted to Brigadier General, and in 1986 was appointed the first African-American commander of Marine Base Quantico in Virginia. 

  “Of course he’s ground breaking as the first African-American Marine Corps aviator and general officer, and I’m in awe that the same individual reached both of those milestones,” said Cooper. 

  In 1979, Petersen was named man of the year by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his major accomplishments made throughout his military career.

  “I wish I could have just 30 minutes alone for mentorship with Lt. Gen. Petersen, or  invite him to the O’Club for Friday PME with all the MAG-31 officers,” said Cooper. “We would all be better leaders for it.”

  “Mr. Speaker, today I ask my colleagues to join me, the United States Marine Corps, and all Americans, in extending our sincerest appreciation to Lieutenant General Frank E. Petersen Jr., a pioneering leader who, in addition to achieving the distinction of a number of “firsts” for African-Americans, has the respect, admiration, and affection of his fellow Marines and leaves behind and outstanding legacy of service and leadership in the Marine Corps of the United States of America.‘ said Hon. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia, House of Representatives.
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