When Vice Adm. Diego “Duke” Hernandez retired in 1991, he was the highest ranking hispanic in the Navy. A native Puerto Rican, Hernandez was a Vietnam war hero who rose to the highest levels of the Navy.
In the lead of a flight of Navy F-4B aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) into North Vietnam on Dec. 16, 1967, Lt. Cmdr. Diego “Duke” Hernandez’s orders were to destroy a heavily defended bridge, electrical transformer and motor maintenance facility near the port city of Haiphong.
As the flight leader, he had planned a two-prong attack to knock out the facility, but instead of leading the main attack, he took the role of flack suppression, selflessly exposing himself to danger, to pave the way for his squadron mates from Fighter Squadron 21 to deal the decisive blow on the main target.
According to the citation awarding him the Silver Star — the nation’s third highest decoration for valor in combat Hernandez, “silenced an 85-mm site near the Kien An Highway Bridge with a perfectly placed rocket salvo and then, while checking the other half of his group, sighted an active anti-aircraft site at Kien An Airfield,” threatening his squadron mates. He chose to make a second flack suppression run, the citation detailed, knocking out the site and saving the mission.
“As he pulled out of this run, his aircraft sustained a direct hit which destroyed both hydraulic systems and rendered the control stick useless,” the citation reads. “With the stabilizer locked in the full up position, Hernandez flew the aircraft through a series of high G, rudder-controlled barrel rolls out of enemy territory.”
Once out to sea in the Gulf of Tonkin, Hernandez and his radar officer ejected and were quickly rescued.
That wasn’t the only narrow escape Hernandez had during his two combat tours that saw him rack up 147 combat missions over North Vietnam and having two aircraft shot out from under him.
His combat service would also see him awarded the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross, ten air medals and three Navy Commendation Medals, all with Combat V devices. Along the way he racked up 5,732 flight hours and 750 carrier landings.
Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Hernandez was the son of two working class schoolteachers. His love of reading and continuous learning, a habit recognized for creating strong minds, great leaders, and military professionals, began with the subtle example his parents provided and set him on a path to be one of our great Naval heroes.
“I didn’t plan to have a career as a naval officer, I saw a chance to get a free education in the United States and I took it,” Hernandez said in a 2011 interview. “When I was in high school in Puerto Rico, I heard the Navy gave scholarships to study in the United States,” referring to the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, which still remains one of the premier commissioning programs available to high school seniors.
Hernandez would rise to command Fighter Squadron 84, the oiler USS Truckee (AO-147) and the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). As a flag officer, he commanded Naval Forces, Caribbean, Carrier Strike Group SIX, and U.S. Third Fleet. He finished his incredible career as deputy commander of U.S. Space Command and vice commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command before retiring in 1991. At the time, he was the senior Naval Officer of Hispanic descent on active-duty.
After his retirement, he served on the advisory committee for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Minority Veterans, helped plan future transportation needs for Miami-Dade County, and even co-founded the Town of Miami Lakes Veterans Affairs Committee, where he called home.
Still, he never forgot his Puerto Rican roots. In 1998, Hernández testified before the Senate urging Congress to respond in the Puerto Rican struggle to achieve political self-determination as a state of their own, consistent with the sacrifice to our nation he and others like him had, and continue to fight, to defend.
Hernandez passed away July 7, 2017 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Hernandez’s contribution to our Navy’s legacy came from his own words in that 2011 interview about an inner feeling all who serve on active-duty and in the reserves today can identify with: “I was a professional pilot and naval officer. [It] was not what I did, it was who I was.”
Lt. Cmdr. Rolando Machado contributed to this story.