Bright future at Col. Fred Cherry Middle

Published 1:00 am Saturday, September 29, 2018

If you read this column early enough, I highly encourage you to attend the dedication ceremony for Col. Fred Cherry Middle School on Sunday. If it’s nearing the start time of 4 p.m. when you see this, don’t walk — run.

The dedication ceremony will be a momentous and meaningful event that will include a speech by Cmdr. Porter Halyburton, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who was locked up with Cherry, a former Suffolk resident who was the first and highest ranking black officer to become a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Cherry’s plane was shot down Oct. 22, 1965, when he was 37 years old. When he died back in February 2016, I did some enlightening research for the story and found a talk he gave at the U.S. Naval War College in 2012, where he candidly discussed many aspects of the day he was shot down and what followed.

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He took off from Thailand that morning to target a missile installation, he told the audience. He was hit by ground fire just prior to arriving at his target. He was so close to the ground he could see the Vietnamese soldiers firing on him.

Cherry fought valiantly to maintain control of the aircraft, but it exploded and he ejected. The soldiers on the ground continued to shoot at him as he parachuted to the ground.

His parachute opened just 200 feet from the ground. The impact broke his left shoulder, left ankle and left wrist. He was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp known as “The Zoo.” Prisoners were beaten, made to kneel on rocks and other sharp objects, subjected to solitary confinement and more.

But the Vietnamese, seeing that Cherry was black and other prisoners were white and apparently aware of the racial tensions in America, thought they had devised something worse than solitary confinement — inciting division by placing Cherry with white men, including Porter Halyburton.

Their devious plan backfired, and the friendship that developed between Cherry and Halyburton is the subject of a book, “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship that Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch. In full disclosure, I haven’t yet read it, but it’s definitely on my reading list.

Halyburton looked after Cherry while they were imprisoned together, pushing for his injuries to be treated — the shoulder injury never did heal properly, and it plagued Cherry to the end of his life. The friendship benefited Halyburton, too — it gave him purpose, something sorely needed for survival in such deplorable conditions.

Cherry eventually was released on Feb. 12, 1973, after about seven and a half years of imprisonment. Cherry went on to retire from the military in 1981 after attending the National War College and being assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency. He served more than 30 years in the Air Force and was awarded two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, the Air Force Cross and more.

He later became a successful businessman after starting his own engineering company.

That’s the remarkable back story for how Suffolk’s newest middle school came to be named after Col. Fred V. Cherry. The future is this — Cherry’s legacy will continue to be an inspiration to many thousands of young people who walk the halls of Col. Fred Cherry Middle School over the years. I have every expectation that they will turn out to be just as courageous, just as patriotic and just as world-changing as Col. Fred Cherry.

The school is located at 7401 Burbage Drive.