Cardenas: Born in Mexico, He Became an American Hero
Born in 1920 in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, Robert Cardenas and his family moved to San Diego when he was 5 years old. Excelling in math and physics in high school, he attended San Diego State University, then in 1939 enlisted in the California National Guard. In 1940, he was designated an aviation cadet, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corp in July 1941.
In 1944, Captain Cardenas was on his 20th bombing mission over Germany when his aircraft was hit and he sustained a head injury. Bailing out of the crippled plane, he landed on the German side of Lake Constance, the border with Switzerland. An attempt to swim the lake to avoid capture almost cost him his life, but he was rescued by a boatman who landed him safely in Switzerland.
Cardenas was quickly arrested by Swiss authorities, and confined in a prisoner of war camp along with other American and Allied aviators who had either escaped capture by the German Army, or who had landed their damaged aircraft in neutral Switzerland. During his time in camp, the Swiss received approval from the U.S. government for Cardenas to instruct their air force pilots in how to fly the interned aircraft.
Eventually, he was able escape the prison camp and, with the help of partisans, move through German-occupied France to Paris, which he reached prior to D-Day. He later was flown back to England, and then to the United States to a rehabilitation center.
After World War II, Cardenas was assigned to perform evaluation test flights of the German jet aircraft, Arado 234 and ME-262. In 1947, he was command pilot of the aircraft that launched Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 into supersonic flight.
From June 1947 to July 1949, Cardenas was an experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
He was awarded the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters for experimental flights tests at Edwards AFB. And in 1948, he was chief Air Force test pilot for the YB-49 “Flying Wing” – a jet-powered, eight-engine predecessor of the B-2 Stealth Bomber.