Local heroism and unity

Published 10:16 pm Wednesday, September 26, 2018

By Tonya S. Swindell

Recently I learned about a friendship that sustained two American military men when racism and hatred were prominent within our nation and community.

Col. Fred Cherry, a local hero and the highest ranking black officer among U.S. POWs during the Vietnam war, unexpectedly befriended Cmdr. Porter Halyburton, a white, lesser-ranking officer from North Carolina. A true account of their relationship was written by James S. Hirsch in the book “Two Souls Indivisible — The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam.”

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Sen. John McCain penned the book’s endorsement: “A moving story of two men whose courage, sense of duty and love proved greater than the depravity of their captors. I highly recommend it.” Mr. Hirsch tells how Vietnamese captors placed Halyburton and Cherry in the same cell intending to cause divisiveness.

Despite initial feelings of distrust, Halyburton and other POWs showed Cherry kindness by tending to his wounds, assisting with bathing and making sure he got exercise. Their efforts contributed to Cherry’s survival of more than seven years of imprisonment. Halyburton acknowledged that helping Cherry provided a sense of purpose, which contributed to his own survival for approximately the same length of time.

On the afternoon of Aug. 25, a diverse group of participants at Morgan Memorial Library discussed the book’s themes of patriotism, unity and reconciliation. One of Cherry’s relatives mentioned his modesty and humble demeanor. Bob Stephens, Cherry’s friend of more than 20 years, confirmed that when confronted about never having disclosed his legendary status as a fighter pilot and POW, Cherry simply said, “You didn’t have a need to know … it was an experience that is behind me…”

According to “Two Souls Indivisible,” Sen. John McCain commented: “It is people like Fred, because of their capacity to forgive and forget, that have led to a lot of progress in race relations in the military and in America. I don’t know how he forgave that kind of treatment … I never would have. He’s a bigger man than I.”

On the evening of Aug, 25, themes of patriotism, unity and reconciliation resurfaced when I learned about the death of Sen. McCain. His choice to ask George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, to perform his eulogy in conjunction with Barack Obama, the first African-American president, was noteworthy. The actions of each man proved that working together is admirable and achievable.

People interested in learning more about the unique friendship of Col. Fred Cherry and Cmdr. Porter Halyburton may purchase copies of “Two Souls Indivisible” online or at local bookstores. Copies may also be checked out from Suffolk Public Library.

Cmdr. Halyburton is scheduled to speak at the dedication of a school named in Cherry’s honor at 7401 Burbage Drive, Suffolk, at 4 p.m. Sept. 30. The school is set to host CYBER Hawks STEM club with early access to technology and development of students’ interest in information technology. The club will be supported by the “Friends of COL Fred V. Cherry” group.

Tonya Swindell writes a blog for www.inspirenewlife.org and is a teacher for Kingdom Building Equipping School (KBES.com). She can be reached at 1brightot@gmail.com.