Many people know the end of the story.
On Feb. 18, 1966, while serving his second tour in Vietnam, Spc. Daniel D. Fernandez threw himself on a live grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.
That is the sum total many know about Fernandez, a life-long resident of the village of Los Lunas, but a recent book authored by local historians Richard Melzer, Cynthia J. Shetter and John Taylor explore the many facets of the man he became and the various chapters of his life.
“We were really trying to put a face on him and get more information out to everybody,” said Shetter at a recent presentation at the Daniel D. Fernandez VFW Post 9676 in Los Lunas.
Offering a sneak peek at the new book, Shetter said the goal of the work is to give people an image “not of the teenage boy who just came out of boot camp, but the man he was on the day they gave him the (Congressional) Medal of Honor.”
“Daniel Fernandez: The Man Behind the Medal of Honor,” features new interviews with childhood friends of Fernandez — often referred to as just Daniel or Danny by Shetter during her presentation — as well as the girl he wanted to marry.
“I was able to talk to her and learn about another side of him,” she said.
A lover of horses and a cowboy, Fernandez dropped out of high school to join the Army, first deploying as a “shotgun rider” on a helicopter.
“We’ve heard that he was assigned to a helicopter in Vietnam, but what we haven’t heard is there’s a 25th Infantry Division that Daniel was part of,” Shetter said.
Fernandez was part of a group of men who were part of a top secret mission, she said.
“Initially, we were there to help the South Vietnamese but the government didn’t want people to know they were going to have a buildup of troops there. So Daniel and several men from the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii were trained to go in and be helicopter gunners.
“They were actually the first ones that would be licensed to shoot back. They were actually called ‘shotgun riders’ like the guys on stagecoaches in the old west.”
Initially, Fernandez was due to be deployed for three months but he and his squad, Shotgun 9, ended up staying an extra month. During that time, he was wounded and received three Purple Heart citations and was awarded the Air Medal for valorous service. He came home on leave, but had already volunteered for a second deployment.
His death made national and worldwide news, with letters of sympathy pouring in to his family. Shetter said it took the family a week to respond to all the messages.
It took almost a year before he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was the first Hispanic to receive the medal in the Vietnam War, Shetter said.
There were songs and poems dedicated to him, as well as parks, buildings and bridges named for him — as close as here in Los Lunas and as far away as Hawaii and Valley Forge.
During his time in the Army, Fernandez took many photos of the men in his unit, which are featured in the book, Shetter said, most of which will be new to the general public.
Also new are the stories of the four men Fernandez directly saved that day — SP 4 George E. Snodgrass, Pvt. David R. Massingale, James P. McKeown Jr. and Sgt. Ray E. Sue.
Of them, only Sue is still alive. He sat for an interview with Shetter, recalling that horrific day and his words to Daniel.
As they were loading Sue onto a helicopter to take him to Saigon, he reached over to Danny, telling him, “I’ll see you at home.”
New book focuses on New Mexico recipients
Fernandez was one of nearly 50 Medal of Honor recipients featured in John Taylor’s new book, “A Legacy of Heroism: New Mexico’s Medal of Honor Recipients.”
The book tells the stories of medal recipients with ties to New Mexico.
The requirements for the Medal of Honor are standardized among all the services, requiring that a recipient had “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
When deciding who to include in his book, Taylor chose recipients who had been born, raised or lived a significant portion of their lives in New Mexico, as well as those who died here, enlisted here or received the medal for direct service in the state.
“We found 49 with a strong tie to New Mexico. Nine of them were awarded posthumously, and their ages ranged from 18 to 45,” Taylor said. “Their ranks were from private to brigadier general. There’s a saying, ‘Bullets don’t care whether you’re a private or a general,’ and this proves it.”
Recipients were tremendously diverse in terms of ethnicity and nationality, he said, and backgrounds — alter boys and misfits alike displayed gallantry and entered the history books.
Proceeds of the sale of Taylor’s book will go to the VFW Daniel D. Fernandez Post 9676 in Los Lunas.
Both books can be purchased at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, 251 Main St. NE, and on Amazon.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.