The United States Navy has christened a new vessel, naming it after an outstanding African-American military hero. The guided-missile destroyer will be commissioned this spring bearing the motto “Into the Tiger’s Jaw,” a saying the Black Marine often said in combat.
Gen. Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first African-American Marine Corps aviator and the first Black Marine Corps officer to be promoted to brigadier general, will be immortalized with an Arleigh Burke-class vessel to be commissioned in Charleston, S.C., on May 14 at 10 a.m.
The ceremony will be hosted at the Columbus Street Terminal, Gate 19, at the intersection of Concord and Charlotte Streets, near the Aquarium. The location will be the same place where the USS Ralph Johnson was launched in 2018.
This honor is being bestowed on the officer seven years after his death at age 83.
The Frank E. Petersen Jr. [DDG 121] left HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding division on April 8, 2022, to make its way to Charleston. The ship will be the 33rd destroyer Ingalls has built for the U.S. Navy, with five more currently under construction for the government, a release said.
Kari Wilkinson, president of the Ingalls Shipbuilding, said of those who worked on the vessel, “I’m very grateful for the resilient and dedicated shipbuilders on our team, each is world-class.”
Donny Dorsey, Ingalls vice president of operations and previously DDG 121 ship program manager, agreed that the ship represents resilience.
He said, “Watching Frank E. Petersen Jr. sail away demonstrates what this shipyard is capable of, even in the face of a pandemic.”
“The Ingalls Shipbuilding team, and all those that contribute to the mission, are the best,” Dorsey said. “Despite challenges, the hard work of the entire shipbuilding team enables this very proud day — watching the Navy sail this ship and join the fleet to support the defense of our nation.”
Resilience was key in Petersen’s career.
Petersen was born in Topeka, Kansas, on March 2, 1932, and joined the Navy as a seaman apprentice in 1950. He was an electronics technician until 1951 when he joined the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. A year later, after he completed flight training, he accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, an extraordinary feat for a Black man in the Jim Crow era.
His daughter Dana Moore said, “The navy had already had a black pilot, the marine corps had not, so he chose the Marine Corps.”
As a ranking officer, he served two combat tours in Korea in 1953 and Vietnam in 1968. He also made history as the first African-American to command a fighter squadron, a fighter air group, an air wing, and a major base. Petersen, at the height of his career, flew over 350 combat missions and logged more than 4,000 flight hours in a multitude of different types of fighting and attack aircraft.
The history-maker was also a scholar. In 1967, he graduated from George Washington University and then received his master’s degree. He achieved these accolades while still on active duty.
Petersen retired in 1988 as the senior ranking aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy with respective titles of “Silver Hawk” and “Grey Eagle.
Even with all his achievements, he still faced racism. Despite being a decorated officer, landlords still refused to rent to him.
His son, Frank E. Petersen III said, “I remember he would tell the story of how he was of course the senior ranking officer and people wouldn’t salute him.
“There was a man that wouldn’t salute him,” he continued. “And rather than get into a firefight about it, he just said, can you at least salute the uniform, you may not want to salute me as a black man but at least salute the uniform.”
When talking about his exceptional career and becoming the first Black Marine Corps general, Petersen Jr. said, “Just to be able to say you kicked down another door was such a great satisfaction.”
During his career, he was known to use a phrase that will be the motto for the ship, “Into the Tiger’s Jaw.” The expression exemplified “unbridled spirit in confronting and overcoming social injustice and prejudice as well as bravery in combat and courage in the broad sense,” according to a media release from the Petersen Commissioning Committee.
After the vessel is commissioned, it will sail to its homeport at Hawaii’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.