Patriots Aware held a Veterans Day Tribute on Nov. 12 at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club, honoring all who have served and providing a forum to hear from two special veteran guests: Rancho Santa Fe’s Captain Peter Kirn, retired US Navy who served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War and retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Cardenas, a 99-year-old veteran of World War II and Vietnam.
Growing up in San Diego, Cardenas used to build model airplanes which sparked his interest in aviation—he went on to fly over 60 different aircraft in his career as a test pilot, combat leader in bombers and fighters and commander of the Air Force Special Operations Force.
Cardenas earned many honors including the Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Presidential Citation and in 2008 was inducted into the San Diego Air and Space Museum’s Hall of Fame.
In World War II he flew combat missions over Germany and was shot down on his 20th mission—despite being injured, he evaded German capture swimming to the Swiss side of Lake Constance.
As a test pilot, he participated in the flight tests and evaluation of various aircraft prototypes. In 1947, he was a member of the testing crew for the Bell X-1 experimental plane, the plane in which Captain Chuck Yeager would become the first human to travel faster than the speed of sound. At the luncheon, Cardenas shared his memories leading up to the historic flight.
“We landed, we’d done it. It was a team effort but all honor to Chuck for having done it. On the ground when we landed, we all headed to Poncho’s,” he said, referencing Poncho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club outside of Muroc (now Edwards Air Force Base), a popular restaurant, bar and ranch retreat for the pilots.
As a test pilot, Cardenas also flew the flying wing prototype jet the YB-49. To get into the plane he had to crawl up the back through a tube to the cockpit. It was not his favorite plane as on one test flight it rotated backward in a stall, “No one had showed me how to get out of a tumble,” he recalled, adding how he cartwheeled the airplane into a spin to get out of it.
In February 1949, Cardenas was ordered by President Harry Truman to fly the YB-49 from Muroc to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington DC, which he did in a flight time of four hours and 25 minutes.
Once he arrived in DC, he was surprised when President Truman popped in to say hello. Cardenas said the president thought the plane looked pretty good and he wanted to buy some for the Air Force.
“I bit my tongue, I didn’t say what I thought,” Cardenas said.
Wanting to show off the new plane, Truman requested that Cardenas fly it down Pennsylvania Avenue at rooftop level. Cardenas shared a picture of that unbelievable moment, flying the plane as low as he could down Pennsylvania Avenue, dodging utility poles and pulling up to avoid the United States Capitol dome that was dead ahead at the end of the street.
In December 1949, Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Captain Glen Edwards who died in a crash of a YB-49 in June 1948. The plane was never mass-produced but Cardenas said the stalling problems were eventually solved and it evolved into the B-2 stealth bomber.
During the Korean War, Cardenas tested new fighters and bombers at Edwards Air Force Base and during Vietnam, he flew combat missions in the F-105 Thunderchief, in what he said was often an “unequal fight” against the enemy’s SA-2 guideline missiles.
Nick Dieterich of Patriots Aware thanked Cardenas for sharing his stories of what was an “incredible” career.
“Thank you so much for your bravery,” Dieterich said.
“What an experience to be a veteran”
“I did not really want to be a veteran,” admitted Captain Peter Kirn when he stepped to the podium.
Kirn had just graduated college and had a great job working in a bank when the Vietnam War was building up. To have control over where he ended up, Kirn picked the Navy and aviation—he was sworn in on a Sunday and by Monday morning his draft notice arrived. Kirn had picked the Navy because he figured it would take to years to train him and the conflict would likely be over by then. He was wrong.
“When I graduated from college, my number one goal was not being in the military. But the most important part of my life has been in the military,” said Kirn. “What an experience to be a veteran.”
Kirn said being in the military gave him the opportunity to serve in a lot of different places, see things he never would have seen in his life and learned the value of life, “Veterans know the true cost of freedom,” he said, noting during service they lose friends and are separated from their families. Kirn himself did not see his daughter until she was seven months old.
What he appreciated most from his service were the relationships he formed, including his friendship with Rancho Santa Fe’s Guy Freeborn, whom he has known for over 50 years—Freeborn was his first pilot on his first combat cruise in Vietnam. They flew over 100 missions together.
“The relationships you build up in the service are just incredible,” said Kirn of the bonding that occurs because of the stress and how much you rely on teamwork. “You learn to trust the other person unconditionally with your life. And they trust you with theirs.”
Kirn currently serves as a docent at the USS Midway Museum, one of 800 volunteers who contribute about 275,000 hours annually at the aircraft carrier downtown. He has found that volunteering on the Midway is a lot like being back in the squadron, forming that same special bond with his fellow veterans. He said he feels fortunate that he can help educate visitors, younger generations and the 55,000 students that visit a year about a life that they do not have experience with.
He said today’s culture has a short memory—90 percent of today’s grandparents were born after World War II and some people in their 40s don’t know anything about Vietnam. The percentage of Americans who have served in the military is declining.
“The Midway has become America’s living symbol of freedom,” Kirn said. “There’s no real memory of what it has taken for our country to be the land of the free and home of the brave. Midway bridges that gap. It helps remind people the sacrifices that people have given to keep our country free.”
Helping veterans in San Diego
Guests at the event also heard from Lisa Record, the vice president of development for Veterans Village of San Diego. Nationally recognized as the leader in serving homeless military veterans, the non-profit serves 3,100 veterans each year.
“We have been in business, sadly, since 1981 and I say that because we really don’t want to be in business, we would love to not have any veterans struggling or have any veterans who are homeless,” said Record.“Because they do need our help, we are there.”
Veterans Village serves 3,100 veterans each year, providing a variety of different tracks to meet all veterans’ needs including transitional housing, permanent housing, employment training and job placement, rehabilitation services and mental health care for veterans facing depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“They’ve had some hard times. When they show up to us, a lot of them are broken and feeling immense guilt,” said Record. “They don’t want to be there but they know they need help and we’re happy to be there to help build them back up.”
To donate or learn more about Veterans Village, visit vvdd.net