Santa Barbara's Almost Mayor: Maj. William Cordero


Santa Barbara’s Almost-Mayor

by Tony Cordero

WILLIAM EDWARD CORDERO is honored on Panel 2E, Row 15 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


Years before the United States of America was born, Bill Cordero’s Spanish explorer ancestors arrived in what is now central California. The Corderos were one of the original “land grant” families, receiving thousands of acres from the Mexican and Spanish authorities that controlled California prior to its 1850 statehood.  By helping construct the iconic California missions, along with their ranching and farming, Mariano, Juan, Adolpho and other early generation Corderos left their fingerprints on Old California.

Bill Cordero was born in Santa Barbara in 1935, a rustic time between the Great Depression and World War II.  In their youth, Bill and his sister Dorothy moved to San Pedro, Calif., for a brief time while their father’s iron work experience took him to the wartime shipyards of the Port of Los Angeles.  After the war, the family returned to Santa Barbara, and Bill grew to become a Boy Scout, an altar boy and a high school football player. His father’s eighth-grade education and work as a blacksmith made Bill yearn for more. He dreamed of being the first of his extended family—seven generations of Californios, many without high school educations—to attend college. 

When he was accepted into the Air Force ROTC program at Loyola University in Los Angeles, Bill’s life plans were on track.  He thought, “I’ll graduate from college, obtain my officer’s commission and climb the ladder in the U.S. Air Force.  After 20 years, I’ll retire and return home to become mayor of Santa Barbara.” Back then, the seaside community featured an ethnic mix of blue-collar workers and growing middle-class families. 

By that calendar, Bill’s first run for political office would take place in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Little did he know that a very different campaign involving his name—and 58,000 others—would be waged in that time frame instead: on Veterans Day 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would be dedicated to the memories of the more than 58,000 service personnel who gave their lives in the Vietnam War. The war that had divided America for so long would be memorialized on the National Mall, listing the name of every serviceman—and eight service women—in the chronological order that they were taken from us.

But, that was decades in the future. In 1957, Bill married a young Irish girl from Los Angeles, and they quickly began their Hispanic-Irish-Catholic family. They welcomed a daughter and three sons before the 28-year-old Air Force officer left for his first combat tour of Vietnam.

Bill arrived at the Bien Hoa Airbase outside Saigon on the day that President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas.  As an Air Force navigator, he was among the Air Commandos who served as early advisors to the military forces of the Republic of South Vietnam. Viewing old photos of the Air Commandos alongside their B-26 bombers gives the impression of a scene from World War II, not the early 1960s in Vietnam. They were living on a jungle air strip, 8,000 miles from home, flying ancient planes that were literally falling apart on them. The conditions then would hardly pass for “modern warfare.”

After one tour in Vietnam, Bill’s plans were on track. He was credited with combat flying hours, had received commendations for his work, wrote love letters to his wife and inquired about life back in Santa Barbara.  “How was the fishing?  What’s up with the old gang?  How was the Old Spanish Days Fiesta?”  A growing war in Southeast Asia was on his mind, but his family and Santa Barbara were in his heart.

Santa Barbara, which today is a hideaway for the rich and famous, was originally a town filled with white stucco buildings and red-brick roofs, populated by hard-working people who took pride in their heritage and their community.  Bill wanted to balance Santa Barbara’s need for progress with respect and honor for its past. 

In August 1964, Bill’s wife and kids joined him at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Life on the Pacific island was a challenge: weather, food, cinder-block houses, intermittent running water all made for a unique adventure for the family. But they were together, and that was more important than any of the minor inconveniences. For nearly a year, the family traded road trips throughout the Philippines with two-week intervals when Bill would navigate a two-passenger B-57 to Saigon for bombing missions over North Vietnam.  As he looked down on the hostile terrain over Vietnam, it appeared vastly different from the views he saw from the cockpit when he was stationed at Oxnard Air Force Base in California and would fly over his boyhood home in the sleepy Santa Barbara hamlet.  “The beaches here in Vietnam are the most beautiful I have ever seen,” he once wrote.

In June 1965, Bill celebrated an early Father’s Day—he and his wife Kay were now expecting their fifth child—and departed for another series of bombing missions in Vietnam.  In the dark, early hours of June 22, 1965, Bill and his pilot Charles Lovelace disappeared in their B-57 while flying over the border of North Vietnam and Laos. Four years later, the wreckage was discovered just inside Laos, in the province of Bolikhamxai. Despite the mystery of exactly what happened, the nation had lost two warriors; two families had lost their husband and father; and Santa Barbara had lost its future mayor. 

Today, Bill Cordero and Charles Lovelace are buried together at Arlington National Cemetery, very close to the Tomb of the Unknowns.

On the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the names of William E. Cordero and his pilot are inscribed near the top of the second panel, beyond the reach of visitors and tourists, and just high enough to catch the glare of the daytime sun.