The forgotten ace from the forgotten war

  • Published
  • By Roy Heidicker, PhD
  • 4th Fighter Wing Historian
Back in 2007-2008 I wrote a series of ten articles called "The Greatest Heroes of the 4th Fighter Wing." I always knew, because of our plethora of heroes, that this series would be continued. September being Hispanic Heritage Month I am pleased to begin our new series with the story of Major Manuel J. "Pete" Fernandez who flew in the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, in the Korean War.

Sandwiched between World War II and the war in Vietnam, the Korean War has often been referred to as "the forgotten war." For the 4th Fighter Wing this is particularly frustrating because the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing accomplished something truly unprecedented in the Korean War. In World War II the 4th Fighter Group destroyed 1,016 German planes, the most kills by any wing or group in World War II and a record which will never be broken.

How do you top that? In the Korean War the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing shot down 506 enemy aircraft. But the entire United States Air Force only destroyed 802 enemy aircraft. Therefore, the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing destroyed more enemy aircraft than the entire rest of the US Air Force combined! It was to this hotshot outfit that Captain Fernandez was assigned in 1952.

Fernandez was born in Key West, Florida on April 19, 1925. His grandparents had emigrated from Spain. Growing up in a working-class Miami neighborhood, Fernandez's father was the chief radio operator for Pan American World Airways. Always consumed by aviation, he learned to fly before he could drive and earned his pilot's license at fifteen. During World War II, in June 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps as an eighteen year old private.

Although he was only a high school graduate, Fernandez became a flying officer through his incredible hard work and determination. He served the remainder of the war as a flight instructor in Texas. During the Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949 Fernandez flew the Lockheed P-80 jet escorting the transport aircraft. Following that he served as an advanced instructor at the Nellis Air Force Base Gunnery School. It was here that Fernandez honed his skills as a crack marksman in the art of deflection shooting. With the Korean War underway Fernandez demanded a transfer to the fight.

Fernandez arrived at Kimpo Air Base, Korea in September 1952, joining the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. His determination and his talent as a fighter pilot were quickly confirmed. On Oct. 4, 1952 he scored his first kill and he became an ace on Feb. 18, 1953 with his fifth and sixth kills. Fernandez would craftily stalk the enemy MiGs, sometimes sneaking into a formation of MiGs before he opened fire.

In May 1953, Fernandez was the leading ace in Korea with 14.5 kills. He had served there only nine months and requested an extension. His request was denied and he went back to the States. Shortly thereafter his total kills were overtaken by two pilots who had served longer in Korea. Fernandez finished the Korean War as the third highest scoring American ace and the only ace of Hispanic heritage.

In 1956, Fernandez used his knowledge and experience to win aviation's most prestigious award, the Bendix Trophy. He beat all competition in flying his F-100 Super Sabre over 1100 miles with no refueling. He could not be promoted to higher rank because of his lack of education so he retired from the Air Force as a Major in 1963. Fernandez's death in a plane accident in the Bahamas in 1980 remains shrouded in mystery.

Manuel J. "Pete" Fernandez overcame many obstacles to become one of the greatest heroes of the 4th Fighter Wing. Despite being among the very few Hispanic American pilots in the Korean War, he finished as the third highest scoring ace. Had he been allowed to serve longer in Korea, there is little doubt he would have become our top scoring ace in that war. Particularly during Hispanic American Month it is a pleasure to honor our "forgotten Ace."