Retired Navy Vice Adm. Diego Hernandez, who was the first Hispanic-American to serve as vice commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, has died at the age of 83.
According to a report by the Miami Herald, Hernandez, a Vietnam War veteran who was shot down twice and awarded the Silver Star among other decorations, passed away on July 7 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Hernandez was best known as the Navy’s highest-ranking officer of Hispanic descent.
Born in 1934, Hernandez came from a working-class family in Puerto Rico. In 1955, after graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology, he entered the Navy. In 1956, he was designated a Naval Aviator. After flying 147 combat missions over Vietnam, he attended the Naval War College and served on the faculty.
His later career included tours commanding VF-84 (the famous “Jolly Rogers”), Air Wing Six, the carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), and the Third Fleet.
During his time at the Third Fleet, Hernandez played a major role in integrating Alaska into United States Pacific Command and turning that force into one that was ready to take on the Soviets around the Aleutian Islands and off the Kamchatka Peninsula.
“Duke’s task was to turn this ‘McHale’s Navy’-style lash-up into a proper combat-oriented staff. It fell to Duke to awaken the whole Pacific Fleet to this, shall we say, cold reality,” retired Navy Capt. Charles Connor told the Miami Herald.
After commanding the Third Fleet, Hernandez took the post as vice commander as NORAD, which also made him the deputy commander of Space Command.
“He had his hands on the red buttons with all our atomic warfare,” former Miami mayor Maurice Ferré told the Miami Herald.
After his retirement, he served with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Minority Veterans as a member of the Advisory Committee. He also helped plan for the future transportation needs of Miami-Dade County, highlighted by the opening of the Port Miami Tunnel in 2014.
Admiral Hernandez’s funeral will be held Saturday at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Church in Miami Lakes.