Cherry was a hero

Published 10:10 pm Thursday, February 18, 2016

All prisoners of war are heroes, but U.S. Air Force Col. Fred Vann Cherry is something of a local legend.

The Suffolk native was held in Vietnam POW camps, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” for seven years and four months. He survived numerous injuries, illnesses and less-than-first-class medical care, when “care” was given at all. He survived a year and 10 days straight of solitary confinement. He survived meager food rations. He survived torture without revealing American secrets. He survived that entire time with very minimal contact from his family, usually unsure if they were OK or how his five children, who are all young when he was shot down, were faring without him.

Cherry turned out to be the first and highest-ranking black officer to become a POW in Vietnam.

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About 1,350 Americans were taken prisoner of war or were missing in action during the Vietnam War. Some still haven’t returned to their families, presumably dead. Nearly as many we know were killed in action and also didn’t return, at least not alive.

Cherry was almost one of them.

He traded missions with a buddy to take the mission that ultimately decided his fate for the next seven years and four months. He took off from Thailand on Oct. 22, 1965, to target a missile installation.

Just prior to arriving at his target, he was fired on by Vietnamese on the ground. His aircraft was hit, and it exploded. He ejected and parachuted to the ground, while the people on the ground continued firing on him the entire time.

The experience tore up his left shoulder, and he also broke his left ankle and left wrist.

So began the horrifying experience of being a prisoner of war, which was punctuated by a variety of experiences both good and bad.

On the good side, he gained a lifelong friend in Lt. j.g. Porter Halyburton, who was confined in the same cell for about a year. The Vietnamese, apparently having heard tell of racial strife in America, put Halyburton, who is white, in with Cherry thinking that the two men would do anything — including tell military secrets — to get away from each other.

It didn’t work. You can read about it in James S. Hirsch’s book “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship that Saved Two POWs in Vietnam.”

Unfortunately, Cherry’s story ended earlier this week at the age of 87. He died after having lived a life that was heroic in ways many people couldn’t even describe. He died after leaving a legacy for his five children — all three boys served in the military. He died after protecting all of us with a 30-year career in the Air Force.

Many thanks for his service, and to all like him.