Lieutenant General Frank Petersen: Decorated aviator who overcame racial prejudice to become the US Marines' first black pilot and general

He received the Purple Heart and in retirement was often asked about progress on race relations

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Frank Petersen, the first black US Marine Corps pilot and general officer, took the Navy's entrance exam in 1950. The petty officer third class overseeing the test called him a few days later, asking, "Would you mind retaking the examination?"

It was not hard for the future three-star general to decode the reason for the request: his score was high, so he must have cheated. Again, he passed, and the petty officer exclaimed: "Petersen, my boy, the Navy has opportunities for guys like you... My, God, man, what a great steward you'd make!"

The remark was particularly painful for Petersen, who had turned to the military because he hoped it would provide an escape from racial prejudice in his native Kansas. He joined the US Navy as a seaman apprentice and entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program, motivated by the recent Korean War death of Jesse Brown, the Navy's first black aviator.

President Truman had ordered the armed forces to desegregate in 1948, but 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 Florida, bus drivers ordered him to the back of the coach and he was barred from sitting with white cadets in restaurants and cinemas.

He largely swallowed the treatment, he said, "I knew that I couldn't win if I were to tackle that, as opposed to getting my wings." One instructor tried to minimise his performance in the air, giving him poor ratings, but he said white peers came to his defence. He went on to fly 64 combat missions in Korea in 1953 and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other decorations. In 1968, he did a tour of duty in Vietnam, commanding a squadron and serving in more than 250 missions. He received the Purple Heart for wounds suffered when he ejected after his plane was hit over the demilitarised zone.

In the early 1970s he took administrative jobs and began his rapid ascent through the ranks, working to recruit more black officers. In 1979, he was promoted to brigadier general and named Man of the Year by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He became a lieutenant general in 1986.

In retirement he was often asked about progress on race relations. He recalled the years after his return from Korea, when he continued to face vicious discrimination. He said he wore his uniform everywhere, figuring that if anyone attacked him, it would be a federal offence.

Tensions exploded during the Vietnam War: he once encountered eight black soldiers who felt so mistreated that they threatened to assassinate a white military official. Petersen defused the situation by asking who among the eight would volunteer to pull the trigger; no one raised a hand.

Frank Emmanuel Petersen, US Marine: born Topeka, Kansas 2 March 1932; twice married (five children); died Stevensville, Maryland 25 August 2015.

© The Washington Post

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