Hispanic Heritage Month Showcase: Maj. Manuel John “Pete” Fernandez, Jr.

  • Published
  • By Mark Wilderman, 375th Air Mobility Wing Historian

Major Manuel John “Pete” Fernandez, Jr. (1925-1980)

Maj. Manuel John “Pete” Fernandez, Jr. was the third highest scoring U.S. Air Force and American ace of the Korean War with 14.5 victories. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star for extraordinary heroism in Korea on March 21, 1953.

Pete Fernandez was born in Key West, Florida, on April 19, 1925. His grandparents emigrated from Spain to Cuba before settling in the United States. His father, an early amateur enthusiast, became chief radio operator for the new Pan American World Airways, then pioneering the air routes to the Caribbean and Latin America. Pete earned his private pilot’s license at age 15. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps after graduating from High School in 1943, entering the Aviation Cadet Program. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and received his wings on November 20, 1944.  He became a pilot instructor at Midland, Texas, followed by instructor assignments in San Jose, Guatemala, and Panama. He didn’t experience any aerial combat in WWII.

He reenlisted in the new U.S. Air Force and flew Lockheed F-80 fighter escort missions to protect the slower cargo planes that were the backbone of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 with the 23rd Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group.

After nearly a decade of Air Force service, he finally experienced battle in the skies over Korea and China during the Korean War, flying 124 missions with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. In just eight months of combat flying, he scored 14.5 victories, becoming the leading U.S. Korean War ace at the time of his return to the U.S. However, one of his former students, Capt. Joseph McConnell, eventually exceeded his tally with 16 victories, to become the U.S. Korean War's top ace.

After returning from Korea, he was assigned to the Ninth Air Force at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina (August-September 1953) and then served in a series of fighter squadrons at George Air Force Base, California (November 1953-October 1956). 

In 1956, he won the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City in an F-100 Super Saber maximizing his speed and minimizing his fuel consumption with old tricks learned in aerial combat in Korea. His next assignment was at Edwards Air Force Base, California (October 1956-April 1957). As a Reserve officer, he attempted to enter the Test Pilot School field in order to make rank to earn a Regular commission, allowing him to be eligible for higher command and remain on active duty past 20 years of service. Unfortunately, the Test Pilot School was beginning to place a high degree of emphasis on aerospace engineering, and Pete was academically underqualified, having just a high school diploma.  He served as an Air Force Recruiter at Coral Gables, Florida, and then Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, from April 1957 to January 1960.  In August 1960, he was sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina, as an advisor to the Argentine Air Force. He retired with the rank of Major in the Reserves upon reaching twenty years’ service on July 1, 1963. 

Maj. Pete Fernandez died in a plane crash on October 18, 1980 at the age of 55. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with one bronze oak leaf and the Air Medal with one bronze oak leaf.