Remembering Huntington Beach hero Luis Cardenas on his 100th Memorial Day


 Powered by Max Banner Ads 

.

.

.

luis cardenas collage

We had a tradition at this blog during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afganistan,where each Memorial Day we would write about each of the young Orange County men and women who had died on the battlefield that year.  Fortunately we haven’t had to do that lately, although those wars do grind on endlessly at a low simmer.  So THIS Memorial Day, we’re going to tell you about an unsung Huntington Beach hero, a World War II bronze star recipient who just died this May 10 at the age of 100, Lt. Col. Luis Cardenas.

With his sisters Elena and Mercedes.

With his sisters Elena and Mercedes.

Born into poverty in Oakland, on Washington’s Birthday 1916, abandoned by his Spanish father and supported by his hardworking Sicilian mother, 9-year old Luis (who would later refer to himself as a “frijole”) had to work cleaning bathrooms at the local elementary school.  Luis went on to work his way through UC Berkeley, graduating around ’39 with an engineering degree and taking a job at airplane manufacturer Vultee.  Talk about an exemplar of what would later be called “the greatest generation” – well, we’re just getting started.

In 1941, the US went to war, and like thousands of young men, Luis the engineer joined up and was sent to Europe as an officer, where he served in England, the Netherlands, France, and Germany.

In 1942 while stateside, Luis met and fell in love with a fellow UC Berkeley student at a dance.  They very much came from different sides of the tracks, he a struggling frijole from Oakland, Alice a well-off redhead from San Francisco whose family home at Van Ness and Lombard still stands.  They each arrived at the dance with other dates, but after Luis and Alice danced, there was “no more dating for either of them.”  Soon they were married, and during the war years and early post-war years they had four children, Paul, Marc, Mary and Luis Jr.

young with wife

Luis was to stay in the European “theater of operations” for the duration of the war – till 1945 – and his engineering skills were his strong suit.

Click for larger view of contemporary news clipping. "Vultairian" referred to an employee of Vultee Aircraft.

Click for larger view of contemporary news clipping. “Vultairian” referred to an employee of Vultee Aircraft.

 In fact he won his Bronze Star by “saving the B-26.”  As his daughter-in-law Janet Reese Cardenas (wife of Marc and a friend of mine from the Huntington Beach Facebook forums) tells it, 

“The Army Air Corps was losing B-26’s due to structural failure of the vertical stabilizer.  Luis Cardenas accessed and reviewed the base of stabilizer and found that the rivets showed distress where the rivets were moving during flight.  Failing along the rivet line was causing the vertical stabilizer to fall off.  Luis reported these findings to Northrup Grumman, which immediately grounded all B-26’s until a factory repair kit was ordered to cover the weakened area with an aluminum plate. That’s how he earned the Bronze Star.”  (Read more about the B-26 here.)

b26 one

Luis Cardenas' award box. The lower epaulettes and pin are those of a Nazi. officer who was 10 minutes ahead of his unit. The Nazi’s had taken over a French farmhouse. He was given orders to search out Nazi info before he was sent stateside. European African Middle Eastern Service Medal, American Theater Service Medal, American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Bronze Star Medal.

Luis Cardenas’ award box. The lower epaulettes and pin are those of a Nazi. officer who was 10 minutes ahead of his unit. The Nazi’s had taken over a French farmhouse. Luis had been given orders to search out Nazi info before he was sent stateside. Also:  European African Middle Eastern Service Medal, American Theater Service Medal, American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Bronze Star Medal.

When Luis returned from the war, he began working for McDonnell Douglas, eventually around 1953 moving down to the Westchester neighborhood of LA, then finally in 1966 to Huntington Harbour.  It was here in Huntington Beach where he helped develop the 3rd stage Apollo SRB Saturn 5 rocket.  As his family remembers, he had to make several long stays at Cape Canaveral for Space Lab.  By all accounts he remained passionately in love with Alice, who died thirty years ago.

in bathing suit

By the Pier, early 50’s.

Irascible but lovable, the “old goat” as his family jokingly called him made it to 100.  Here he is at 99 with his four kids, at 100 (last Washington’s Birthday!) with his daughter-in-law, my pal Janet (a big PTA mom and fighter for Oak View justice) and at a family gathering shortly before his death. Now Luis’ ashes can be joined with Alice’s, at Good Shepherd Cemetery, as we remember one of Huntington Beach’s unsung frijoles and heroes!

with his 4 children

2-22-2016

family gathering

Wait.  Huntington Beach?  Memorial Day?  This story needs a little music now.  Every year Huntington Beach has a Memorial Day celebration near the Pier, and last year I took this fun video of the HB High School Band performing an Armed Forces medley.  Make sure to stand and put your hand over your heart when the “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” comes up at the 53 seconds mark – in memory of Lt. Col. Luis Cardenas!


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.