Into the Tiger's Jaw: America's First Black Marine Aviator: The Autobiography of Frank E. Petersen

Frank E. Petersen, Author, J. Alfred Phelps, With Presidio Press $24.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-89141-675-3
Like many 18-year-olds who sign up to serve with the U.S. Navy, Petersen was looking for adventure when he enlisted. The difference between him and the average kid of 1950, when he enlisted, was that Petersen was African American. At the time military opportunities were limited for blacks, so it was remarkable that Petersen--revealed here as an intense go-getter--was admitted to the highly competitive naval aviation cadet program. He would go on to become the first African American pilot, then flag officer, then three-star general in the deeply conservative Marine Corps. Assisted by veteran biographer Phelps (They Had a Dream), Petersen relates his personal and career trajectory from wide-eyed kid to seasoned combatant. Although the presentation at times is overly detailed, with recollections of Petersen's acquaintances sprinkled liberally throughout (""Yeah, I remember Frank...""), this work offers valuable insight into the evolution of both the military and the society at large through the experience of one man and his family. 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. To Petersen's credit, he includes much commentary from his first wife, Ellie, who is candid about the toll of being married to an ambitious pioneer. Through her, readers see the mettle of that rare breed of social groundbreakers. Photos. (Dec.) FYI: This month, two other books analyze African Americans in the military--Gerald Astor's The Right to Fight (Forecasts, Oct. 19) and Theodore Taylor's The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown (Forecasts, Oct. 12).
Reviewed on: 08/03/1998
Release date: 08/01/1998
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