Manuel J. Fernandez
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|Manuel John Fernandez, Jr.|
April 19, 1925|
Key West, Florida
|Died||October 18, 1980
Grand Bahama Island, The Bahamas
|Place of burial||Arlington National Cemetery|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Air Force|
|Years of service||1943–1963|
|Unit||334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing|
|Battles/wars||World War II
|Awards||Distinguished Service Cross
|Other work||1956 Bendix Trophy Air Race winner|
Pete Fernandez was born in Key West, Florida on April 19, 1925. His grandparents emigrated from Spain and spent some years on the island of Cuba before finally arriving in the United States. Fernandez was raised in a working-class environment in Miami. His father, an early amateur radio enthusiast, became chief radio operator for Pan American World Airways. Pete grew up immersed in aviation and learned to fly before he could drive, earning his private pilot’s license at age fifteen.
In June 1943, at the height of World War II, Fernandez enlisted in the Army Air Corps as an eighteen-year-old private. Though small in stature and just a high school graduate, he became a flying officer through talent, determination and the enormous manpower needs of total war. In the first of many aerial teaching jobs, Fernandez served for the duration as a flight instructor in Texas and saw no action in the conflict. However, he served the next time a European war threatened during the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift. His wing,part of the 36th Fighter Group was sent to Germany to provide fighter cover for the slow transport aircraft that were the aerial supply operation's backbone. The group was conveyed to Europe by the carrier USS Sicily to the port of Glasgow, Scotland. The Lockheed F-80's were assembled at Renfrew Airport and then flown to Europe. It was only after nearly a decade in uniform that Captain Fernandez finally experienced battle. His turn came in the Korean War, where during a nine-month tour in 1952-1953, he proved to be one of the best combat aviators of his generation.
Fernandez was a crack marksman, one of the best in the Air Force at that time in the art of deflection shooting. Fernandez used stealth and cunning to stalk MiGs rather than attacking impetuously. His modus operandi in combat was to maneuver skillfully and trigger his guns only when he had attained an optimum firing position. Like all top aces in Korea, Fernandez routinely violated Chinese air space by crossing the Yalu River into northeast China to hunt his elusive MiG quarry. He had a reputation for taking care of his comrades and not being reckless with his wingman's safety in pursuit of air victories.
Prior to Capt Fernandez' going to the Korean War, he was an advanced instructor at Nellis Air Force Base Gunnery School in Las Vegas, NV. Fernandez wanted to be part of the action in Korea and several times requested a transfer to the war. At the time the Air Force was reluctant to send its best instructors, preferring they lead the severe training regimen ongoing at Nellis. His requests were denied. Finally in frustration, Fernandez decided to begin a disobedience program. He began showing up at 5:00 AM late, drunk, or sometimes AWOL. Ultimately the Air Force was forced into a choice, either court martial him, or send him to Korea. They sent him to Korea where he could use his extreme talents as a fighter pilot.
In Korea he became the third highest ranking American ace with 14.5 kills. What is particularly interesting about this record is that he achieved it in a very short period of time, approximately nine months. On May 13, 1953 to his frustration he was ordered out of Korea. The Air Force was in the habit of sending its aces home early to protect them, and Fernandez was then its #1 ace. Fighter piloting in war frequently carries with it a sense of great competition among the best pilots. At the time Fernandez, with 14.5 kills, was ahead of both Major James Jabara, 14 kills, and Capt. Joseph McConnell, 13 kills. Fernandez had only been in Korea 9 months, while Jabara saw 28 months and McConnell 11 months of combat.
Five days following Fernandez departure, on May 18, 1953, Capt. McConnell flew two missions encountering more than 30 MiGs. It was this last day of his tour that he got three kills, moving him from 13 to 16, ahead of both Fernandez and Jabara. And on July 15, 1953 Jabara earned his last kill bringing his total to 15, 0.5 ahead of Fernandez. On his return to Nellis Fernandez lamented that had the Air Force permitted him the two additional months, he would have maintained his #1 spot. Such is was the state of their competition.
In the spring of 1953, Fernandez returned home at the same time as his friend Joe McConnell, the "ace of aces" who had finished the war with sixteen kills. The two fighter pilots enjoyed a hero’s welcome, and were feted in city after city with parades and ceremonial keys. The new president, Dwight Eisenhower, wanted to bask in their reflected glory and invited them for a private "debriefing" in the White House. The fighter pilots' next duty station was California. McConnell got into flight testing, a coveted billet for its excitement and career-enhancing potential, and was sent to newly christened Edwards AFB. A major Hollywood production was in the works about Captain McConnell called Tiger In The Sky. Fernandez, stationed near Los Angeles at the time, was an obvious choice to be the film's technical advisor. This billet included flying many stunts. Movie production was gearing up for shooting when suddenly, the top ace was killed in a 1954 test accident. After this fatal Mojave crash, the film project was retitled The McConnell Story with the tragic ending added and released in 1955. It starred Alan Ladd and June Allyson as Joe and "Butch" McConnell, with a cinematic result more love story than war saga. The film's tale is made more poignant knowing the actors fell into their own star-crossed romance—both were married to other people—even as they portrayed forlorn lovers. Allyson diligently chronicled the whole story in her 1982 autobiography. Fernandez befriended Allyson on the set and after production ended, she and her husband, actor/director Dick Powell invited the ace and his family to their California ranch. There, Pete shared his battle experiences with filmmaker Powell, whose next project was a Korean War air combat picture entitled The Hunters and starring Robert Mitchum. Powell's final film was released to good reviews in 1958, and it contains much more realistic combat sequences than The McConnell Story. Fernandez and two other top Korea aces, James Jabara and Royal Baker, attended the premiere.
In 1956, Fernandez won aviation’s prestigious Bendix Trophy Race by maximizing his speed and fuel consumption with old tricks learned while at war over Korea and China. There was a level playing field in the 1956 Bendix run, as all six aviators in the competition were experienced Air Force fighter pilots riding the same mount, the USAF's newest fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre. The chosen route was Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, 1,118 miles from start to finish. Though aerial refueling was approved for the first time in race history, no USAF tanker planes were available, so the competing aviators did without. This situation made their pre-race calculations all the more critical, as there would be little margin for error. Pete stayed up late the evening before the event, meticulously plotting his flight profile to wring everything he could manage from each ounce of fuel. On August 31, the six aircraft lifted off from Victorville, California at dawn, one after another, with Fernandez leading the way. When Pete’s F-100 rolled past the finish line in Oklahoma City less than two hours later, there was just twenty gallons of fuel remaining in its tanks, enough to stay airborne about a minute. As in Korea, careful planning was critical to Fernandez’s Bendix triumph.
After these colorful postwar achievements, the jet ace sought assignment to flight testing in an effort to make rank. As a reserve officer, Fernandez would be forced to leave the service after twenty years unless he was tracked for higher command and given a regular commission. Hence, there was significant career pressure to get promoted. Pete was chosen in 1957 to try out for Test Pilot School at Nellis Air Force Base, though with just a high school degree, he was underqualified and clearly getting a break due to his war record. Further complicating matters, Fernandez was hindered by a USAF campaign then underway to “professionalize” itself by weeding out officers who had no higher education. (Pete’s advancement from Miami teenager to military aviator had only been possible due to the Air Corps’ unique and massive 1942-1947 expansion from an auxiliary Army branch into a modern air service.) At Test Pilot School, the Floridian had arrived at a critical juncture that would change the rest of his life. Finding himself scholastically unprepared for the academic challenge (the TPS curriculum had just begun to emphasize aerospace engineering), Fernandez decided to cheat on one of the entrance requirements, a calculus research project, and was caught. This act sank his future with the Air Force permanently. Pete was subsequently posted as a recruiting officer in Miami, then shipped to Argentina as a military trainer. He retired with the rank of major upon reaching twenty years’ service in June 1963.
After Fernandez died, he received obituaries in the Miami Herald and the New York Times, both of which mentioned widespread rumors that held the old ace had been working undercover. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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