In the late spring of 1939, Robert Cardenas was a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student just finishing up his second year at San Diego State University.
He had taken some of the money he had earned working at Consolidated Aircraft and bought a car he drove to class from his folks’ house on 47th Street near El Cajon Boulevard.
Cardenas suited up for a flight in an F-105 fighter jet in 1965.
“To get to the campus from El Cajon Boulevard there was a single-lane dirt road coming out,” he remembers. “It was very rudimentary.”
Cardenas and a few classmates were members of the 251st Coast Artillery Regiment (Anti-Aircraft) of the California National Guard. Although the students attended monthly meetings, few entertained the notion of war interrupting their studies.
In fact, Cardenas had been offered a scholarship to Cal Tech and was planning to transfer to complete his degree. But Hitler was invading Poland and the United States government had other plans for the promising young engineering student.
"In my right hand I had a Cal Tech scholarship and in my left hand I had a letter from the commanding general of the 251st,” he recalls. “(It said) 'Welcome, private, you're going to the Philippines.' I couldn't do anything about it. They federalized the 251st and away I went."
"I have to fly?"
He got as far as Hawaii with the 251st where officials made note of his college studies and his experience flying gliders with former co-workers at Consolidated Aircraft. Cardenas remembers an officer handing him an application for the Army Air Corp flying cadets and strongly suggesting he complete it.
“I said, 'Does that mean I have to fly, sir?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'I don't know if I want to do that.'”
But as it turns out, the teenager’s two years at SDSU may have helped save his life.
Brigadier General Robert L. Cardenas
"If I had not had those two years of college, I would have gone with the rest of the 251st to the Philippines instead of flight school,” Cardenas says. “Most of the 251st died on the Bataan Death March."
Instead, by 1941 Cardenas was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corp where he began as a flight instructor and test pilot. In 1944 he was assigned as a captain to the 44th Bomb Group in England.
Leading his 20th bombing mission over Germany, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He bailed out of the burning aircraft and landed on the German side of Lake Constance. Having sustained a head wound and swimming to evade captors, he escaped to the Swiss side of the lake.
After the end of the war and with a promotion to Major, Cardenas headed a pioneering project to break the sound barrier. He commanded the aircraft that launched Chuck Yeager’s rocket plane in to supersonic flight.
In the Air Force, he flew combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and in 1968, Brigadier General Cardenas founded a commando group, the Air Force Special Options Command. He retired from the Air Force in 1973 having been awarded the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal and many more.
Beyond the military, the retired general has continued his service in a wide range of presidential, gubernatorial and other appointments. He led the recent effort to establish San Diego’s Miramar National Cemetery, which opened in 2010.
Back on campus again at the age of 93, Cardenas served as keynote speaker at SDSU’s Oct. 25 War Memorial Ceremony. Among the names on the monument are those of some of the general’s classmates from his days as a SDSU student.
“There were three or four times in my career when my name could have been added on there,” Cardenas told the crowd in reference to the monument that stands as a tribute to Aztecs killed in service to their country. “And it would have been an honor.”
Cardenas remains a strong advocate for programs serving veterans. He would like to see more scholarships to help student veterans at SDSU.
Why, after more than seven decades of service, does he continue lending his support to various causes? “Because they need the help,” is his simple explanation.
As the nation observes Veterans Day this month, there are few better examples of what the day is all about.