Around the world, leaders noted the 100th anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars” — a date only two years before Cardenas’ birth in Yucatan, Mexico.
“This is sort of like my other home,” he said of 8-year-old Miramar National Cemetery. “You are like my family.”
The 98-year-old veteran of three wars said “welcome home” to veterans where they one day “can rest until eternity.”
The former San Diego State student — introduced as a “really true American hero” — began his 15-minute remarks by saying: “I would like to thank the people of the United States for taking care of us veterans.”
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Cardenas touched on highlights — and lowlights — of his service career, including how in March 1944, as 24-year-old Capt. Cardenas, his B-24 bomber was shot down over southern Germany and he swam miles to neutral Switzerland.
“He stood on the shore of the lake and remembered the La Jolla rough-water contests he participated in as a youngster,” said Bill Heard of the Miramar National Cemetery Support Foundation ahead of the holiday event.
“Those were three-mile swims, and the distance to the Swiss shore looked about the same. Kicking off his shoes, he walked into the lake.”
Midway across, an exhausted Cardenas was picked up by a fisherman who landed him safely in Switzerland.
At Miramar, Cardenas recalled how the Swiss put him to work testing American bombers they had repaired — but not giving him enough gas to escape.
The French underground eventually took him to Grenoble, France, entering Paris not long after the Allied D-Day landings.
On Oct. 14, 1947, Maj. Cardenas was officer in charge of the Air Force unit that launched Capt. Chuck Yeager into supersonic flight over Southern California. He dropped Yeager from the bomb bay of the B-29 Superfortress he was flying.
His 34-year military career ended in 1973, which included special forces work in a classified 1962 operation in the Himalayas — which he briefly mentioned Sunday.
One account told how Cardenas, as director of Special Operations for Strike Command, led the 1050th Special Activity Group in preventing the Chinese coming from Tibet to invade India.
Cathy Fiorelli, president and CEO of the Miramar National Cemetery Support Foundation, recited the history of Nov. 11, 1918, and noted that Miramar holds the remains of two World War I veterans — Chief Petty Officers Clyde Flynn and Gasper Gaspellich.
“With the annual Veterans Day ceremony,” she said, “we honor Chief Flynn and Chief Gaspellich, and we commemorate the sacrifices of all those men and women who gave years of their lives, and in some cases have lose their lives, in defense of the United States.
“We say to them: Thank you for your service.”