Document created : 19 January 00
Air & Space Power Journal

Into the Tiger’s Jaw: America’s First Black Marine Aviator: The Autobiography of Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen by Frank E. Petersen with J. Alfred Phelps. Presidio Press, 505-B San Marin Drive, Suite 300, Novato, California 94945-1340, 1998, 334 pages, $24.95 (cloth).

Frank Petersen could have been a Navy steward. That’s what his recruiter wanted him to be after a retest proved that his high test score did not result from cheating. That episode seems to encapsulate the world in which Petersen made his career. In 1950 a black seaman customarily became a steward. The racist assumption was that blacks had limited capability and potential. Petersen refused to accept a second-class fate, demanding electronics school instead. Even in electronics, he might have remained obscure. But when he heard that the Navy’s first black aviator had died, he was determined to become a pilot. With that decision, he began to write a story of struggle against the odds—struggle that culminated in his becoming the Marine Corps’s first black aviator, first black colonel, and first black general. In his 38-year career, more than one pivotal event could have thrown Petersen back into obscurity worse than that of a successful if insignificant steward’s or technician’s career. He had more than one opportunity for inglorious failure. After all, he was not the first black marine to try—he was the first to succeed. Petersen’s career encompassed two wars and a civil rights revolution—and he was heavily involved in each.

Alfred Phelps is no beginner, having previously authored a biography of Air Force general Daniel James and a study of blacks in the American space program. His experience shows in this excellent work. Too often, memoirs and autobiographies seem to be written in the third person. What should be a highly personal story oftentimes is a self-censored, self-serving half-truth written in awareness that history lurks just beyond the written word. Phelps and Petersen reveal the bad along with the good and make the general a human being. Especially effective is the use of “mutual voices”—the words of colleagues and family emerging at appropriate places to balance, sometimes contradict, the narrative. This use of multiple perspectives on the same event reinforces the authors’ effort to reveal the Petersen who might otherwise have fallen into self-censorship.

This work provides lessons about how a successful career depends on many things. Petersen had them all—opportunity, persistence, hard work, sacrifice, and luck. He made the most of his opportunities, persisting in the face of racism and near failure. He worked hard and sacrificed—even his marriage. And he had luck—fortuitous timing as it were—when someone else who might have been first fell by the wayside. Petersen also made sure that he filled in all the blanks—schools, jobs, and sponsors—appropriate to each stage of his career. There is no starry-eyed idealist in this story—just a hard-headed, hard-driven realist. This story is worth telling and worth heeding.

Dr. John H. Barnhill
Tinker AFB, Oklahoma


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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