By John Philip Wyllie
When retired Brigadier General Robert Cardenas arrived in San Diego 80 years ago, he found an environment much different from the one that exists here today. Born in Mexico’s Yucatán Península five years before to a Mexican mother and an American father, Cardenas grew up speaking two languages, but he quickly became assimilated into the American culture.
“There were no Mexican-Americans back then. You were either Mexican or American,” Cardenas said Saturday at last weekend’s 11th Annual Wings Over Gillespie Air Show. “I grew up on Date Street in Little Italy. There were a lot of Italians in the area, some Japanese and a few Mexicans, but I really didn’t grow up in a Mexican area.”
Growing up in a time when immigrants were generally anxious to shed the culture of their homelands and blend into the 1920s American landscape, Cardenas had little difficulty adapting to life in his newly adopted home. An extraordinary student with a superior intellect, he rose to the top of his San Diego High School class.
Cardenas and three other honor students were selected upon graduation to enroll in San Diego State’s two year program with a focus on engineering. At the time, San Diego State College did not award engineering degrees, but it was announced that the top student would be granted a full scholarship to Cal Tech’s School of Engineering. Cardenas earned that scholarship.
“Unfortunately, Hitler overran Poland at about the same time (September 1939) and I was penalized. I left San Diego as a private in the rear ranks of the Army Coast Artillery,” Cardenas recalled.
It was the beginning of a truly remarkable military career. As one of the few enlistees with college experience, Cardenas was recommended by his commanding officer for the Flying Cadets. Again rising to the top of his class, Cardenas was selected upon completion to be a flying instructor. After two years as a flight instructor, Cardenas decided he wanted a more direct role in fighting the war. Through some contacts he had made earlier, he finagled his way into the 44th Bomber Group.
In early 1944, he piloted a B-24 Liberator on 20 missions over German occupied territory. During that final mission, his bomber was shot down over Germany near the Swiss border. He eluded capture, swam across frigid Lake Constance and connected with a series of people who eventually led him back to his base in England. Shortly thereafter, he began his career as test pilot. If there was something more dangerous than flying combat missions, it was being a test pilot.
This chapter of his career made him one of the first Americans to fly jet aircraft. In 1945, Cardenas test flew a captured German ME-262 jet captured from the German Luftwaffe. Two years later, he participated in one of the most historic flights of all time.
Cardenas was chosen to fly the B-29 from which Chuck Yeager in his X-1 was launched to begin the era of supersonic flight. Later, he flew the peculiar looking YB-49 Flying Wing. On one occasion, he flew it down Pennsylvania Ave. over the U.S. Capitol Building under the orders of President Harry S. Truman. He served as a test pilot during the Korean War and returned to combat in the mid-sixties to fly a series of missions over North Vietnam. By the time he left the military in 1973, Cardenas had attained the rank of Brigadier General and been honored with a long list of awards and decorations.
Today, at the age of 85, Cardenas stays active as the Chairman of the Veterans Memorial Museum and Center in Balboa Park and serves as a member of the Mayor’s Veteran Advisory Board. He remains a fascinating public speaker and is involved in a project that records the experiences of the rapidly dwindling number of World War II veterans.