Honoring Coast Guard’s past and present: Heriberto Hernandez

Heriberto Hernandez was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal with the Combat "V" device for his bravery under fire in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Alan Dillenbeck.

Heriberto Hernandez was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal with the Combat “V” device for his bravery under fire in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Alan Dillenbeck.

In a service of nearly 55,000 active duty, officer, reserve and civilian Coast Guard personnel, only 4 percent are Hispanic-Americans who have chosen to serve our country. We celebrate those currently serving, those who have served in the past and those will serve in the future during National Hispanic Heritage Month – a month in which we pay tribute to the generations of Hispanic-Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.

Not too long ago, the Coast Guard brought the past to the present with the commissioning of the 154-foot Fast Response Cutter named after enlisted hero Heriberto Hernandez in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Hernandez enlisted in the service in 1965 spending the first three years serving aboard Coast Guard Cutter Bering Strait, Loran Station Saipan, Base Galveston and in the spring of 1968, deploying to Vietnam aboard Coast Guard Cutter Point Cypress.

Known by his shipmates as “Eddie,” Hernandez had a formidable presence, according to Alan Dillenbeck, a shipmate aboard Point Cypress.

“There was no one who I would have felt more comfortable with watching my back,” said Dillenbeck. “I really don’t know why Ed chose to join the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard in the 60s had little minority representation, but I doubt that was a factor. I think he just wanted to be part of our nation’s struggle at that time.”

Serving alongside 285 Coast Guardsmen patrolling 1,500 miles of the Vietnamese coastline with 16 other patrol boats, Hernandez departed Point Cypress on Dec. 5, 1968, to carry out reconnaissance missions up the river of Rach Nang to locate any Viet Cong presence.

From left to right, Alan Dillenbeck, Point Cypress' South Vietnamese Navy liaison, a U.S. Navy medic and "Eddie" Hernandez. The photo was taken Sept. 20, 1968, after an operation using the 14-foot Boston Whaler shown in the picture. Photo courtesy of Alan Dillenbeck.

From left to right, Alan Dillenbeck, Point Cypress’ South Vietnamese Navy liaison, a U.S. Navy medic and “Eddie” Hernandez. The photo was taken Sept. 20, 1968, after an operation using the 14-foot Boston Whaler shown in the picture. Photo courtesy of Alan Dillenbeck.

Motoring along the river in a 14-foot Boston Whaler, Hernandez, Point Cypress’s executive officer and a visiting Coast Guard officer identified a shoreside bunker manned by Viet Cong and came under intense enemy fire. The small boat was able to evade the ambush, but not before Hernandez and the other two crewmembers were severely wounded.

Once Hernandez made it back to Point Cypress, he succumbed to his wounds and died surrounded by his shipmates. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal with the Combat “V” device.

Hernandez was just one of many Hispanic-Americans who influenced the Coast Guard, ultimately enriching the service and nation.

The history of Hispanic-Americans in the Coast Guard can be traced as far back as the early 1800s with Hispanic-Americans manning lighthouse stations as keepers and assistant keepers such as Juan Andreu and José A. Ramirez. There are still many who continue to break barriers today.

In 1991, Lt. j.g. Katherine Tiongson became the first Latina to command a Coast Guard cutter. In 2006, Ronald J. Rabago was the first Hispanic-American promoted to rear admiral, and in 2009, Rear Admiral Joseph Castillo became the first Hispanic-American to command a Coast Guard district.

As a service, we are proud to celebrate the Hispanic-American heritage while we all continue to uphold Service to Nation, Duty to People and Commitment to Excellence.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Heriberto Hernandez salutes the official party of the cutter's commissioning ceremony at Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico, Oct. 16, 2015. The cutter Hernandez is the Coast Guard's 14th commissioned 154-foot Fast Response Cutter. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jon-Paul Rios)

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Heriberto Hernandez salutes the official party of the cutter’s commissioning ceremony at Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico, Oct. 16, 2015. The cutter Hernandez is the Coast Guard’s 14th commissioned 154-foot Fast Response Cutter. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jon-Paul Rios)

Each Sentinel-class fast response cutter in the Coast Guard’s newest fleet of patrol boats is named after Coast Guard enlisted heroes. They deliver vital capability to the Coast Guard, helping to meet the service’s needs for missions including drug and migrant interdiction; ports, waterways and coastal security; fishery patrols; search and rescue; and national defense.

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