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

Frank E. Petersen Jr. didn't see himself as a trailblazer, but he is remembered as a pioneer, a role model, and a 'stellar leader.'

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    Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first black aviator and brigadier general in Marine Corps, undated. Frank E. Petersen III said his father died Tuesday, at his home in Stevensville, on Maryland's Kent Island.
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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.

Retired Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen Jr., from Topeka, Kan., served two years in the US Navy before being commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1952 as a second lieutenant, making him the first African-American aviator in the Marines. In 1979 he was promoted to brigadier general, once again becoming the first African-American to serve the Marines in such a capacity. He eventually retired in 1988 as the commanding general of the Combat Development Command of the Marines, located in Quantico, Va., the senior ranking aviator for both the Marines and the Navy.

A father of four, he died in his home from complications relating to illness.

Despite his career breaking color barriers, his wife, Alicia, said that he didn’t see himself as a trailblazer. Speaking to the Topeka Capital Journal from their Maryland home on Wednesday, she described her husband as a “quiet giant” and an approachable source of mentorship who during his career helped craft policies to promote equality within the Marine Corps.

“He was a man who had a very strong character, strong goals and a lot of determination to achieve what he wanted to do,” she said. “And very early on he decided that he wanted to be a pilot.”

A veteran of the Korea and Vietnam wars, Mr. Petersen flew over 350 combat missions and more than 4,000 military aircraft hours. He commanded a fighter squadron, an aircraft group, an amphibious brigade, and an aircraft wing during his career. He received repeated recognition for his service. 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 also held the honorary titles of the Silver Hawk and the Grey Eagle.

Gen. 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 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. Other anecdotes are more benign, such as the time a puzzled young Korean woman tried to wipe the color from his face.”

Petersen’s death comes at a time when all branches of the US military are struggling to build diversity in their ranks, particularly in leadership positions.

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.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Anna Mulrine reported in March that minority participation in the armed services is on the decline.

In the Army, about 1 in 5 soldiers are African-American, compared with nearly 27 percent in 1995. In the Marines, the proportion of African-American enlisted troops dropped from 20 percent in 1985 to 11 percent this year, and of 81 general officers in the Marines five are black.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, created by Congress to look into the issue, said in its final report in 2011 that despite “undeniable successes ... the Armed Forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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