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

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 […]