Diego Hernandez, Once Navy's Highest-Ranking Hispanic Officer, Dies

Vice Adm. Diego Hernandez (Department of Defense)
Vice Adm. Diego Hernandez (Department of Defense)

When Diego "Duke" Hernandez was growing up in San Juan as the bookish son of schoolteacher parents, his mother took him to see a fortune teller. The soothsayer saw a future involving the sea and airplanes.

Call it what you will -- the power of suggestion, perhaps? -- but Hernandez's life soon revolved around the sea and airplanes. Even in retirement, as an appointed committee member who helped lead a visionary $10 billion transportation plan for Miami, Hernandez's focus included infrastructure improvements to the seaport and airport.

Adm. Diego Hernandez, a decorated vice admiral who commanded the Navy's Third Fleet, died Friday at 83 of complications from Parkinson's disease at his Miami Lakes home.

Hernandez's military career spanned from 1955 to 1991. He led 147 combat missions in Vietnam and, in 1966, led the first strike conducted against two surface-to-air missile sites in North Vietnam. He was shot down twice in the space of five months and earned the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

He was named commander of the USS John F. Kennedy in 1980 and commander of Naval forces in the Caribbean from 1982 to 1985. In 1986, as commander of the Third Fleet in the Pacific, he transformed a group of mid- and senior-grade officers from a training entity to a combat fleet facing the Siberian coast of the former Soviet Union.

Transforming a Navy culture was no easy task said his friend, retired Navy Capt. Charles Connor.

"The Pacific Fleet, it turned out, really liked warm weather," he said. They were accustomed to training exercises off San Diego and spent time in port in Hawaii. But they had to be ready for a maritime conflict with the Soviet Union where, as a combat fleet, they would have to fight in the cold, storm-tossed North Pacific. So Hernandez had them practice cold weather landings in the Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska and the Northern Pacific.

"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," Connor said in his eulogy.

But he faced another obstacle. Alaska-based forces did not report to the Pacific Command, owing to legislative language that stopped the Pentagon from making Alaska part of the Pacific Command. Hernandez, "became the new best friend to everybody who mattered in Alaska," Connor said.

He held press conferences, spoke at Rotary and Lions clubs, sent ships to ports all over Alaska and invited media out to sea to demonstrate how well the Navy and the Air Force could work together.

His confidence-building program was a success. The Alaskan Command was integrated into the Pacific Command aboard USS Nimitz at anchor in Anchorage on July 4, 1989 -- with Vice Admiral Hernandez presiding. "Duke once again pushed the whole system until he got what was needed," Connor said.

In his final military assignment, Hernandez served as deputy commander in chief of the United States Space Command and vice commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) from 1989 to 1991.

"He becomes a superstar and ends his career in the space center in Colorado. He had his hands on the red buttons with all our atomic warfare," said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre. "For a young kid from a working class family in Puerto Rico to end up as a three-star admiral is an amazing achievement."

In 1994, as vice chair of the Metro Commission, Ferre appointed Hernandez to lead a task force of more than 175 civic notables, which included developer Armando Codina, former Southeast Bank chief Charles Zwick and former Eastern Airlines president Samuel Higginbottom, to plan Miami-Dade's transportation future, with an aim to boost tourism and trade.

Among its goals, the ambitious Metro-Miami Marketplace Destination: 2001 program called for a tunnel underneath Government Cut, running in and out of the port, to keep cargo trucks off downtown streets.

The Port Miami Tunnel opened in 2014.

"Diego coordinated three committees and came out with important conclusions that are part of the strategic plans of Miami," Ferre said. A lot of things that have been done in Miami in the last 25 years came out of that study and Diego was an important part."

Born March 25, 1934, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Hernandez accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship and enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology and earned a degree in psychology in 1955. After graduating, he went into Navy flight training.

His skills were tested in Vietnam when his F-4 Phantom was shot down twice. The first time, while leading a strike in North Vietnam, he managed to maneuver his craft over the sea and punch out of the cockpit. "He recalled that he was rescued by helicopters so quickly, the socks inside his flight boots hadn't gotten wet," Connor said.

The second time, while attacking a munitions cave storage area near Dong Hoi, his aircraft sustained a direct hit. "Always the cool customer, Duke simply asked his wingman how long the flame was as compared to the length of his plane. Unfazed to hear that the answer was five times the plane's length, he was able to coax the Phantom out of enemy airspace over the relative safety of the Gulf of Tonkin," Connor said.

After his combat tour ended he studied at Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, joined its faculty for a year, and continued his military career.

In post-military retirement, Hernandez and his family moved to Miami Lakes. He served as a consultant for General Motors in Latin America and was a board member of the Tribune Company.

In 1999, after a fatal U.S. training accident on the island of Vieques, President Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary William Cohen named Hernandez to a four-member panel to examine whether the range on the tiny island in Puerto Rico should be closed to bombing exercises. The Navy pulled out of Vieques in 2003.

"Even retired, Duke never stopped pushing people to do their best work," Connor said.

Added Ferre, "I never met a more focused, dedicated, patriotic man than Diego Hernandez."

Hernandez's survivors include his wife, Sherry Hernandez; daughters, Selena Haines and Dolores Lane; granddaughter, Angelina Haines; and sister, Rose.

This article is written by Howard Cohen from Miami Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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