U.S. Army Sgt. Fernando Q. Herrera is the highest-decorated Vietnam War veteran in San Antonio – it's why an Eastside park has been named after him.
“I never asked to have a park named after me, but then I never asked to be the target of hundreds of hostile Viet Cong trying to blow my brains out, leaving me nothing more than a bloody memory,” Herrera said.
These thoughts may well have been in the mind of the young man sitting on the bench that day in May 1986 as he waited for the commencement of the dedication ceremony that would give the park his name. When Fernando was interviewed for this story years later, he confirmed that those had been his thoughts, adding, “Why me?”
This modest San Antonian hardly seems the type to generate such attention, but then again he hardly seems the type to make military history. However, he enhances the image of San Antonio as “Military City USA,” a living testament to the fact that Hispanic soldiers excel in the military by demonstrating extreme bravery in times of need. Hispanics represent the highest number of Medal of Honor recipients compared to other ethnic groups per capita.
Born in San Antonio on Dec. 28, 1948 to Sgt. Jesse and Isabel Herrera, Fernando was raised in the Eastside. His father was a career Air Force man and the family followed him to his various military assignments.
While his father was stationed in San Antonio, Fernando attended Smith Elementary and Edgar Allen Poe Junior High.
In 1963, his father was transferred to Alaska, which meant a change in schools for Fernando. He always had an interest in music and took up playing the saxophone while in junior high school and later joined his high school band in Alaska. He graduated from West Anchorage High School in May 1966.
Although he did not come from a musical family, Fernando said he did have two relatives who were making names for themselves in San Antonio’s music scene: his uncle Mingo Saldivar and cousin Nando Aguilar. They both played important roles in advising Fernando about the music world.
After graduating from West Anchorage High School, he returned to San Antonio where he began playing with the Latin Tones and, on occasion, with his uncle Mingo Saldivar, who taught him the basic concepts of music.
On Jan. 5, 1968, Herrera was drafted into the U. S. Army. He was 20 years old. Six months later, he found himself in Vietnam where he saw combat duty as a radio telephone operator and tank commander, duties that he performed for 12 months.
What Sgt. Herrera accomplished during a 10-week period while stationed in Vietnam has earned him several distinctions and awards, making him “the most decorated U.S. Army soldier from San Antonio in the Vietnam War” in May 1969 by a local newspaper. Because of his heroic actions without regard for his own safety, he helped save fellow soldiers and friends from death in numerous skirmishes.
Fernando was humble when discussing his time in Vietnam. He said survival was utmost in his mind.
“At the same time, one develops brotherhood with fellow soldiers – looking after the other and doing what is necessary to survive and keep them safe,” he said.
Between December 1968 and March 1969, he was awarded seven medals: the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars with “V” device and first and second Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism, and the Purple Heart.
To understand the significance of these awards, one has to know the ranking order of the medals that the U. S. Army can bestow on its soldiers and the criteria required to be nominated for them. The top three military awards are: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Silver Star. Sgt Herrera was awarded two of these three top medals.
The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration that may be awarded by the U. S. Government and is presented by the President of the United States. It is conferred only upon servicemen who have distinguished themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life and beyond the call of duty.
The Distinguished Service Cross is the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the U. S. Army for extraordinary heroism. Of the 1,058 Distinguished Service Cross given to Vietnam veterans, 1,051 were given to Army servicemen.
The third highest award is the Silver Star medal given exclusively for combat valor. These military decorations are followed by the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Medal, and Purple Heart.
It is uncommon for someone to be awarded both the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross. In Sgt. Herrera’s case, the commanding general’s staff, in country and reviewing his award nomination, felt that his actions on Dec. 20, 1968 were deserving of a Distinguished Service Cross. They upped the award from a Silver Star to the Distinguished Service Cross.
So important was this action that the Distinguished Service Cross was presented to Sgt. Herrera, in country, by Maj. Gen. Creighton Abrams, then head of all American forces in Vietnam. In attendance were four other generals who had flown in specifically for the award ceremony.
Sgt. Herrera remembers that also attending the ceremony were more than 100 base camp troops. Normally they were sent out in squads on various assignments and usually wore fatigues – on this day they they had to spruce up because of the visiting generals.
On his last day in Vietnam, he recalls flying out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam with a plane full of soldiers, first landing in Guam, and then arriving at Travis AFB in San Francisco, where everyone was told to quickly change from their military clothing to civilian clothes. He remembers seeing and hearing some protestors of the Vietnam War. After leaving California, he didn’t encounter any more protestors, he said.
In 1971, the City of San Antonio reached out to the local veteran community to see how they could honor their service. Fernando was approached about having a park named after him. It took 15 years, but in 1986, after a two-hour ceremony, Herrera Park was dedicated at 199 J St. off South New Braunfels Avenue. The dedication ceremony was attended by then Mayor Lila Cockrell, then City Councilman Henry Cisneros, military brass, other notables, family and friends.
Around this time he met an especially talented musician named Frank Rodarte, who he was in “awe” of. He was an inspiration to him and, at one time, Fernando bought one of Frank’s saxophones.
Experiencing medical problems, Fernando gave up playing the saxophone altogether and put it in storage for 40 years. Five years ago he unexpectedly picked up a piano keyboard. He taught himself to play and has performed on and off for the past two years with Frank Rodarte as Dos Vatos Locos.
Sgt. Herrera has been married for 45 years to his wife, Lillian, and they have four daughters who are all proud of him. He has one uncle, a career military man who was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in the Koreas and Vietnam wars.
As we celebrate Memorial Day today, San Antonio can be proud such an outstanding veteran still calls this city "home."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Sgt. Herrera "retired." Instead, he served a two-year tour of military service.
Top image: Sgt. Fernando Herrera (center), Sgt “Killer” Kaiser (right), and two fellow soldiers take a moment to relax at night in Vietnam. "Tunnel rats" like Kaiser were slightly-built soldiers who crawled through North Vietnamese tunnels fighting North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong. After the Vietnam Conflict ended, it was discovered that Cu Chi had the highest number of tunnels in Vietnam, and the site included a hospital. Cu Chi, Vietnam, circa 1968. Photo courtesy of Sgt. Fernando Herrera.