Col. Fred Cherry was a real hero

Published 7:50 pm Saturday, July 12, 2014

By Kermit Hobbs

Not long ago I worked with a committee of the Suffolk Foundation, helping to set up a written scholarship policy for the Col. Fred V. Cherry Scholarship program. The scholarship was established by Dr. Margaret Reid back in the early 1980s to assist needy college-bound African American students from Suffolk. Some years ago the responsibility for administering the scholarship had been passed over to the Suffolk Foundation.

I knew little about Col. Cherry, only that he was among the 500 or so prisoners of war who were released from North Vietnam military prisons in 1973, and he was from Suffolk. I have to confess that when I saw him ride by in the Homecoming Parade given in his honor that year, I had never heard of Col. Cherry.

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Fred Cherry enlisted in the Air Force in 1951, when racial integration of the military was still in its early stages. It was his personal ambition to fly combat aircraft, and he realized his goal in flying 52 missions over North Korea. He stayed with the Air Force, and in the mid-‘60s he was flying missions over Laos, bombing supply trails that led into Vietnam.

As the wartime tensions escalated, the targets became closer and closer to Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. On Oct. 22, 1965, Major Cherry led a flight of four F-105 Thunderchiefs on a mission to destroy a surface-to-air missile site 15 miles north of Hanoi. On that flight, Cherry’s plane was shot down. He survived but suffered a dislocated left shoulder, a broken wrist, and a broken ankle. He was the 43rd American flyer to be shot down and the first African-American.

Cherry believed that his North Vietnamese captors would honor the 1948 Geneva Convention rules for humane treatment of POWs, but he found that this would not be the case. On the contrary, they began a campaign of torturing captured American POWs. They used beatings, starvation and other horrific devices in an effort to force them to make derogatory statements about the United States.

Soon after Cherry’s capture, he was given a roommate. Lt. Porter Halyburton, a young Navy flyer from North Carolina, had been shot down just days after Cherry had. The North Vietnamese assumed that putting together two Southerners, one black and one white, would foment racial strife between them. In fact, the opposite happened. The two men came to depend on each other for survival.

The North Vietnamese soon put casts on Cherry’s broken wrist and ankle, but they continued to neglect his injured shoulder. His arm hung helplessly by his side. When they finally decided to repair Cherry’s shoulder, they seriously botched the job. Cherry was unable to get up from his concrete bunk alone; Halyburton assisted him in every aspect of staying alive. Cherry’s body weight dropped to an estimated 85 pounds; he was covered with bedsores that became severely infected; he became delirious with fever. It was through Halyburton’s demands of his captors that Cherry was once again given medical assistance.

The next medical procedure was horrific but ultimately successful. With Cherry’s determination, Halyburton nursed Cherry back to reasonably good health.

By this time, the captors had figured out that their experiment in stirring up racial tensions between the two had failed. They moved Halyburton to a different location, and the two rarely saw each other again during their seven-year imprisonment.

Cherry always credited Porter Halyburton with saving his life; Halyburton credited Fred Cherry with giving him a will to survive the horrific conditions as a North Vietnam prisoner of war.

The inspiring story of Cherry’s and Halyburton’s experience can be found in James S. Hirsch’s bestselling book, “Two Souls Indivisible.”

A fascinating 2012 interview with the two men can be seen at .

Nowadays we hear the term “hero” used often and usually with good reason. But I think there might be different levels of the word “hero.”

Col. Fred V. Cherry is the real thing.

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at