Cherry memorialized

Published 8:03 pm Wednesday, February 24, 2016

More than 250 friends, family and military veterans turned out Wednesday to bid farewell to retired U.S. Air Force Col. Fred Vann Cherry, a Suffolk native who spent more than seven years in captivity during the Vietnam War.

Cherry, who was the first and highest-ranking black officer to be taken as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was remembered as a patriot and hero, a savvy businessman with a big heart, a diehard Washington Redskins fan and a man who loved his family.

Cherry died Feb. 16 at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. His service awards and decorations include two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, the Air Force Cross, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars with Combat V, the Prisoner of War Medal and more.

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Before the funeral began at Union Baptist Missionary Church, Cherry — via an old family recording shared on dual big screens — recalled the last time he saw his mother.

It was April 1962 and Cherry, who had enlisted in the Air Force in 1951, was flying in to Langley Air Force Base. Before landing at Langley, he would circle low over his sister’s house in Elephant’s Fork and have the flight deck patch a call through to his sister, Beulah Watts.

“When I had my eye on the house … and they answered the phone, I’d say, ‘I’m touching the treetops,’” Cherry said. “I was moving … but everybody would run out of their houses. I would tell them to come pick me up at Langley.”

In the recording, Cherry remembered his mother’s last words on that visit. “She said I love you … and that I was going to come home.”

Sadly, his mother didn’t live to see that moment. Leolia Cherry died in May 1968, several years before Cherry’s release from Hanoi on Feb. 12, 1973.

During the hour before the funeral service began, a steady stream of mourners made their way up to Cherry’s casket. Several paid their respects, then stood and saluted the war hero.

“When he was released in 1973, I was 15,” said the Rev. Keith Mayfield, pastor at Little Zion Baptist Church in Suffolk. “I remember a great parade in his honor but not really understanding the ramifications or political implications of it all at the time.”

Longtime friend, physician and civil rights activist Dr. Daniel Smith called Cherry a patriot who was known for his “kindness, sense of humor and ability to get things done.”

Or in one case, not done, Smith said, chuckling. Despite having flown 52 combat missions during the Korean Conflict and 50 in Vietnam, Cherry somehow managed to avoid taking the swimming test required for service members.

“He was always absent on the days of the tests,” Smith said. “He set a high standard for people.

“I am proud and honored to have been his friend.”

Cherry, who opened his own engineering and government contracting business after retiring from the military, was a mentor for Suffolk businessman Bob Stephens. Cherry was always generous and willing to share his expertise, Stephens said.

“I knew him for 25 years … as my business mentor,” Stephens said. “When I started my defense contacting firm, Fred was my reality check.

“He taught me the importance of taking your time in negotiations and that you always have to leave something on the table for the other person,” Stephens said. “I am a byproduct of Col. Cherry’s work with others.

“When you were in the midst of Fred Cherry, you were in the midst of greatness. You knew you were blessed.”

Local leaders, including Mayor Linda Johnson and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, also spoke at the funeral, sharing their condolences of behalf of the city and East End Baptist Church, respectively. Cherry worshiped at East End Baptist Church as a young man.