Bob Cardenas was born on March 10, 1920, in Merida, Mexico, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1936. He enlisted in the California National Guard on October 16, 1939, serving until September 15, 1940, when he was discharged to enlist in the Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Cardenas was commissioned a 2d Lt and awarded his pilot wings on July 12, 1941. He next served as a flight instructor at Kelly Field, Texas, followed by glider pilot training and then duty as a glider pilot instructor at Twenty-Nine Palms, California, and finally as a flight test officer at Wright Field, Ohio, before joining the 506th Bomb Squadron as a B-24 Liberator pilot in England in January 1944. Capt Cardenas flew 18 combat missions before being shot down in March 1944. He evaded capture and made it back to allied lines, and remained in England until October 1944. After returning to the U.S. in November 1944, he attended B-24 instructor pilot school and then served as a test pilot at Wright Field until June 1947, and then at Edwards AFB, California, until July 1949. Maj Cardenas attended Air Command and Staff School at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, from August to December 1949, and then served in the Flight Test Division at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, from January 1950 to August 1952. He next received an Air Force Institute of Technology assignment to the University of New Mexico, where he graduated in February 1955, followed by service as commander of the 51st Maintenance and Supply Group and then commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing at Naha AB, Okinawa, from March 1955 to July 1957. Col Cardenas attended Air War College at Maxwell AFB from August 1957 to June 1958, and then served a Pentagon tour with Headquarters U.S. Air Force from August 1958 to January 1962. His next assignment was as Chief of the Special Plans Division with U.S. Strike Command at MacDill AFB, Florida, from January 1962 to May 1964, when he attended F-105 Thunderchief Combat Crew Training. Col Cardenas served as the commander of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kadena AB, Okinawa, from July 1964 to June 1966, during which time he flew combat missions in Southeast Asia. He was commander of the 835th Air Division at McConnell AFB, Kansas, from July 1966 to June 1968, followed by service as commander of the Air Force Special Operations Force at Eglin AFB, Florida, from June 1968 to July 1969. From July 1969 to June 1970, Gen Cardenas served as vice commander of 16th Air Force at Torrejon AB, Spain, followed by service as U.S. Deputy Chief of Staff for LIVE OAK at NATO Headquarters, which was responsible for coordinating preparatory military measures to restore freedom of access to Berlin if the Soviet Union were to cut off access. His next assignment was as Chief of the National Strategic Target List Division on the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, from July 1971 until his retirement from the Air Force on July 1, 1973.
His Distinguished Flying Cross Citation reads:
Colonel Robert L. Cardenas distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as a Combat Strike Pilot in Southeast Asia on 8 May 1965. On that date, Colonel Cardenas demonstrated diligence and perseverance for exceeding that expected of an aircrew member in a hostile environment. His aerial actions resulted in significantly great contributions, both to the morale of his entire wing and the effectiveness and success of the United States Air Force in Southeast Asia. The professional competence, aerial skill and devotion to duty displayed by Colonel Cardenas reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.