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Blog Topic: Talk with General Robert Cardenas

May17, 2015

General Robert Cardenas

General Robert Cardenas in the late 1960s. USAF photo.

Parachuting from damaged B-24

This past Thursday, I had the good fortune to be seated next to General Cardenas at a Daedalians luncheon in San Diego. He is now ninety-five years old, although I would never have guessed it. The general has had a long and illustrious military career and I asked him to tell me about his escape from Switzerland during World War II.

Twenty-four years old at that time, he told me that he was a captain then, and flight commander of his bomber group. In that role he was flying in a B-24 that was not his regular bomber. His job was to give commands to all three bomber squadrons. Therefore, he had secret codes and frequencies, to give radio orders to the other bombers.

On March 18, 1944, Cardenas' B-24 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and heavily damaged. He told me that he took the secret codes to the bomb bay to shred them and drop them out of the airplane. While he was doing this, anti-aircraft fire knocked him out of the bombay. When he realized that he was out of the plane, he pulled his rip cord and found that his parachute had already deployed in the blast, although a few panels were missing from the chute. He was coming down fast in the area of Lake Constance (Bodensee), which is on the border of Germany and Switzerland. Other crew members were soon coming down in parachutes, on the Swiss side of the lake1. (The B-24 crashed in Fehraltdorf, Switzerland).

Remains of Cardenas' B-29 in Fehraltdorf

Remains of General Cardenas' B-29 in Fehraltdorf, Switzerland.

During his rapid decent, General Cardenas realized that he would land in Germany, and could see German trucks already driving in his direction. He steered his parachute as close to the lake as possible, and upon landing, entered the lake and swam toward Switzerland. But he found that swimming in freshwater was much more work than swimming in San Diego Bay2, which is salt water. About one third of the way across the lake, Cardenas became exhausted and nearly drowned but a Swiss fisherman pulled him into his boat and took him to Switzerland. There he was put into an internment camp for American officers. (General Cardenas said that Americans were closely guarded because of a daily stipend paid by the US Government to Switzerland for every American soldier interned).

Escape from Switzerland

Agreeing to teach Swiss pilots to fly American warplanes, General Cardenas gained greater freedom of movement. One day at the Swiss railroad station, a Swiss woman asked Cardenas and another pilot if they would like to escape. They answered in the affirmative and the woman told them to put on aprons so as to appear to be delivering food to a train which was about to leave for France. The woman instructed them to get into a boxcar filled with Sikh prisoners who sat on the pilots to successfully hide them from the German guards. The two pilots later jumped out of the boxcar at the location given to them by the woman, and were rescued by the French underground.

Swiss memorial to U. S. aircrewmen of the 8th, 9th, 12th and 15th Air Forces

Swiss memorial. Text says: In memory of the gallant U.S. combat aircrewmen of the 8th, 9th, 12th, & 15th Air Forces who were left in Switzerland, 1943-1945 during WW 2, with "everlasting friends".

The two pilots stayed hidden in France until ten or twelve pilots had been rescued, at which point they arranged for a C-47 from England to land in a field one evening. Here the pilots were loaded onto the airplane and flown to England. General Cardenas told me that the Swiss woman who had helped him escape was eventually caught by the Germans and brutally murdered.

Test pilot

When General Cardenas returned to the United States, he requested an assignment as a test pilot and was assigned to fly aircraft at camp Muroc (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base). While in that assignment he flew the Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing. After doing a test flight, he reported that it was a dangerous and unstable aircraft, but Northrop disagreed and wanted another test pilot. General Cardenas warned the next pilot about the unstable flying characteristics of the aircraft, however, in a subsequent test flight, the Flying Wing crashed, killing the entire crew, and the project was canceled3. But forty-two years later, with the advent of sophisticated computers, a new jet powered flying wing, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, was developed and accepted by the USAF.

I should also mention that in 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first pilot to break the sound barrier, and it was General Cardenas piloting the B-29 that launched the X-1 supersonic aircraft. .

1 All crew members survived.
2General Cardenas used to swim in San Diego Bay as a youth.
3One of the crew members killed during this test flight of the Flying Wing, was the co-pilot, Captain Glen Edwards. Camp Muroc was later renamed Edwards AFB in his honor.


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