WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hispanic Americans have been a vital part of American society since before the country unified. William Edward Cordero was welcomed into one of these pioneering families on July 20, 1935, in Santa Barbara, California.
His father, Walter Cordero, and his mother, Helen, had early Spanish explorer roots in California, which were traceable back to the 1700s. Perhaps it was this lineage that gave William the ambition to seek new opportunities and test boundaries.
Walter and Helen had limited educations. They worked multiple jobs to support their young family during the Great Depression, but Walter was best known as a blacksmith and Helen as a mom raising William in humble surroundings. Eventually William had a stepmother, Ida, who spent the majority of her time working for Catholic charities. All three parents instilled a faithful, devoted work ethic in the young man.
As he grew, William was an avid Boy Scout and developed an interest in sports, becoming a high school football player. Despite being an average student, he had aspirations of higher education and saw the opportunity when Loyola University introduced him to the ROTC. There, he received both a solid college education and a career with the Air Force. As luck would have it, this path led him to his wife.
William met Kathleen at a dance for Air Force ROTC students and nursing students from Mount St. Mary’s College. They were married in December 1957 and immediately began their life together as an Air Force family.
Their first assignment was in Texas, where the family began to grow. Their first two children were born in the Lone Star state, before the young family found themselves assigned to Oxnard Air Force Base, California, in 1961. There, the family of four became a family of six, as two more Corderos were born into the world.
Just before Thanksgiving 1963, Cordero, a captain at the time, left his growing family in the U.S. for a deployment to South Vietnam as an adviser with the 1st Air Commando Group. For nearly a year, his family would live without him; but in the summer of 1964, an assignment to Clark AFB, Philippines, reunited the family.
"In the brief time he had with us, he doted on us," recalled his son Tony Cordero. "He took us to Sunday mass. He made sure we had a ‘nipa hut’ playhouse when we arrived at Clark. He even took us on vacation in the Philippines."
Tony recounts dinners at the officer’s club and trips to the base swimming pool, leaving the memory of an attentive, committed and patriotic father on the young boy.
At only 4 years old, Tony recalled the time apart from his father was difficult on his family, and his mother was not particularly happy her husband volunteered to navigate a late night mission on June 21, 1965.
On that evening Cordero climbed into his B-57 Canberra with his pilot, Capt. Charles K. Lovelace. The pair departed Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, at approximately 5 p.m. accompanied by their wingmen in another B-57, Capt. John J. Adler, and 1st Lt. Russell H. Bonner Jr.
According to Bonner, the three-hour flight to Da Nang, Vietnam, was uneventful. There the two crews, JADE 21 and JADE 22, were briefed on their Rolling Thunder mission, armed-reconnaissance flight number 19G-5. They were heavily loaded with bombs, and were to be aided by a C-130 Hercules, AZTEC 2. They were briefed the weather would be overcast, and at 11: 40 p.m. they departed Da Nang.
The three aircraft stayed together, traveling between 6,000 to 10,000 feet along the way. Despite scattered clouds, they maintained visual contact with one another most of the flight. At approximately 1:15 a.m., AZTEC 2, the C-130, began dropping flares.
JADE 22 radioed to JADE 21, "Are you clear down there?"
JADE 21 replied, "Yes, but it’s raining."
As the weather worsened, the three found themselves in increasingly heavy cloud cover, with smoke from the first bombing run hindering their vision even further. According to Bonner, the two crews made a couple of additional orbits, then began their ascent.
JADE 21 radioed to JADE 22 for a fuel check and got no response — after another try, still silence. JADE 21 then asked AZTEC 2 if they can radio JADE 22, to which they replied, there was no answer.
Kathleen, then pregnant with the couple’s fifth child, would live with that silence for four long years. Her husband, a loving son, caring father and devoted Airman, was missing in action.
The family eventually flew back to California, sending regular care packages to the Red Cross with the hopes Cordero was being held as a prisoner of war. The family grew numb, according to Tony, waiting for word to come. When the casualty report was delivered in March 1969, the family felt isolated. The political climate and negativity surrounding the Vietnam War left them feeling that they couldn’t share their father’s story outside of the home.
"My dad saw himself as an Airman first," Tony said. "He didn’t think about being Hispanic when approaching his duties, but he was descended from Spanish explorers, indigenous peoples, sheep shearers and blacksmiths. All were marginally educated. He grew up to navigate a jet bomber with some of the Air Force’s most advanced technology of that time. He was a trailblazer."
According to Dr. Richard Wolf, the director of Air Force Historical Support Division, statistics for the Vietnam War did not generally break out demographics as the Air Force does today. Wolf’s office ran a search of casualties from 1960 to 1965 and found almost no Hispanic surnames at all — none in the officer corps. At the time, Hispanic Airmen were thought to make up only 4.5 percent of the Air Force population, putting Cordero among one of the first Hispanic officers killed in Vietnam, if not the first.
Today, Tony feels his father opened the door for other Hispanic men and women following in his footsteps. Tony is a college graduate and has started Gold Star Sons and Daughters in Touch. The support group is for children of the Vietnam War — children who, like him, missed out on growing up with their parents.
Cordero was promoted to the rank of major posthumously, and 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of his and Lovelace’s loss. Cordero would have been 80 years old this year.
Tony said he believes his father would tell the Airmen of today, "Everything is possible."