A destroyer named for the Marine Corps’ first Black aviator is commissioned, and almost 2000 people came to watch

A Navy warship was commissioned carrying the name Frank E. Petersen Jr., the Marine Corps’ first Black aviator.

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The legacy of a trailblazing Black military aviator was immortalized on Saturday as a Navy warship bearing his name was commissioned into the fleet before an audience of nearly 2,000 people at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina.

The 510-foot-long vessel honors the late Frank E. Petersen Jr., the Marine Corps’ first Black aviator and officer to reach the rank of brigadier general, according to the Marine Corps

The guided-missile destroyer, captained by Commander Daniel A. Hancock, will be stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, The Post and Courier reported. It will carry 32 officers and 297 enlisted personnel, according to the U.S. Navy Office of Information. 

“This American man-of-war, which my team and I labored to life, represents the cutting edge of U.S. Naval combat power,” Hancock said at the commissioning ceremony, per the outlet. “And, as of today, she’s America’s newest and most advanced guided-missile destroyer ever designed.”

Born in Topeka, Kansas on March 2, 1932, Petersen spent two years in the Navy before entering the Marine Corps in 1952. Serving in the Korean War in 1953 and Vietnam War in 1968, he flew more than 4,000 hours across 350 combat missions, the Marine Corps noted on its website.

Carlos Campbell, a retired military aviator and longtime friend of the late Petersen, who died in 2015 of lung cancer at age 83, said during the ceremony that racial barriers were constantly faced and overcome by Black servicemen enlisted at the time.

Peterson was told he was best-suited for the low-ranking “mess steward” position early in his Marine Corps tenure. Later, when he was a high-ranking brigadier general, he was arrested by another officer who accused him of impersonating an officer, per the Post and Courier.

“I don’t view my accomplishments as anything that was so much out of the ordinary,” Petersen said in a Marine video entitled “Breaking Barriers.” “The opportunities were there. I’m more proud of the fact that at the time of my retirement, I was the senior aviator in the United States Marine Corps.”

As previously reported by theGrio, Petersen’s honors earned during his more than 35 years of service from 1952 to 1988 include the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Meritorious Service Medal, according to the Marines.

Almost precisely 160 years prior to the warship’s commissioning, a man named Robert Smalls was among several enslaved Black people who “commandeered a Confederate ship from the harbor’s dock and delivered it to the Union Navy,” per the Post and Courier.

“I can think of no better place to recognize a man, a legend, and an American war hero like Lieutenant General Petersen,” Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina said at the ceremony.

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