Navy Christens Destroyer Named for First Black Marine General Officer

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commissioning of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Frank E. Petersen Jr.
Sailors stand in formation during the commissioning of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. (DDG 121) in Charleston, S.C. May 14, 2022. (Brian M. Wilbur/U.S. Navy)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — With Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro calling it “the very best ship that our nation has to offer,” the U.S. Navy christened Aegis-class destroyer USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. (DDG 121) during ceremonies in Charleston, S.C., Saturday.

The Petersen, built by Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, is named in honor of U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first black Marine Corps aviator and the first black Marine to rise to the rank of three-star general.

Serving two combat tours — Korea in 1953 and Vietnam in 1968 — Petersen flew more than 350 combat missions and had over 4,000 hours in multiple fighter and attack aircraft.

In 1979, Petersen was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first Black general officer in the Marine Corps. He retired in 1988, with awards and honors including the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit with Combat “V”, Distinguished Flying Cross; Purple Heart; Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V”, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

Petersen died in August 2015 at the age of 83. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Saturday’s keynote speaker was Carlos Campbell, former Navy aviator and assistant Secretary of Commercie for Economic Development, who served alongside Petersen and spoke of Petersen’s courage and dedication.

“He received a (fragment) wound, he was treated in the field, and returned to combat,” Campbell recalled of Petersen.

“It is fitting that a name synonymous with service and sacrifice be emblazoned on the steel of this American warship,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday. “Sailors aboard this mighty warship will deploy wherever, whenever needed, with General Petersen’s fighting spirit and tenacity, for generations to come.”

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, was also among the dignitaries on hand.

“General Petersen was a man of many firsts,” Berger said. “There’s a saying that ships take on the characteristics of their namesakes, and if that’s true, then God help any adversary to ever confronts the Frank E. Petersen Jr.”

Members of Petersen’s family were on hand for the christening, with his daughter, Gayle Petersen, speaking for the family and paying tribute to one special person in her father’s life.

“We would not be having this ceremony today if not for a gentleman named Robert Adams,” Gayle Petersen said. “When my dad was shot down in Vietnam, he was rescued by Robert Adams.”

She also paid tribute to the Ingalls shipbuilders who brought DDG 121 to life.

“I would like to thank all who had a hand in building this ship, from stem to stern.”

The Petersen’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Daniel Hancock, reported the ship ready, and — assisted by Gen. Petersen’s daughters Gayle Petersen, Dana Petersen Moore, Lindsay Pulliam and Monique Petersen — ship sponsor D’Arcy Ann Neller gave the traditional order to “man our ship and bring her to life.”

Neller is the wife of former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller. Co-sponsor Alicia J. Petersen, Gen. Petersen’s widow, died last September.

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