Cherry’s legacy still carries on

Published 10:19 pm Friday, February 14, 2020

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Feb. 16 is the four-year anniversary of the death of Suffolk native and American hero, Col. Fred Cherry.

As this is also Black History Month, and I happen to currently be reading “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship that Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch, I thought it a timely moment to pay tribute to Cherry’s outstanding record of military service.

There is, of course, a middle school in Suffolk named after Cherry, but some people may not have heard of all that this incredible man did for his country. If you haven’t, I strongly encourage you to check out the aforementioned book from the library — after I return it, of course — and learn more about Fred Cherry as well as the plight of all of our prisoners of war in Vietnam.

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Cherry grew up here in Suffolk, attending racially segregated schools and growing up in poverty. However, he had a dream to fly an airplane, and that he did.

He joined the U.S. Air Force and served in Korea. Later, he became the first and highest-ranking black officer to be taken prisoner of war in Vietnam.

He was shot down Oct. 22, 1965, at the age of 37. He was able to eject from his aircraft prior to its crash, but he had been flying so low that his parachute didn’t have time to slow him down much prior to him hitting the ground.

The impact broke his left ankle and left wrist and completely devastated his left shoulder. Field workers took him prisoner, and he eventually arrived at “The Zoo,” a prisoner-of-war camp.

For seven and a half years, Cherry was beaten, tortured, interrogated and placed in isolation. Prisoners were given subsistence rations that were moldy or filled with bugs and forced to listen to Vietnamese propaganda at top volume.

Cherry’s injuries went untreated for quite some time. He eventually underwent several surgeries — one without anesthesia — almost all of which caused infection. The shoulder was never the same again, and he remained unable to lift his left arm above his head for the rest of his life.

The one bright spot in Cherry’s imprisonment was his friendship with Navy Lt. j.g. Porter Halyburton. Halyburton, a white man from North Carolina, was placed in Cherry’s cell as a roommate, with the Vietnamese desperately hoping the racial tension would break them. While each was suspicious of the other at first, they soon trusted each other and leaned on each other for survival. Halyburton took care of Cherry’s physical needs and pushed for him to get treatment, while the renewed purpose saved Halyburton from mental anguish. While they were only roommates for a brief time relative to their entire imprisonment, Cherry and Halyburton truly saved each other — and it is this symbiotic friendship that is the main topic of the Hirsch book I’m reading now.

Cherry was released on Feb. 12, 1973. He went on to serve eight more years, retiring in 1981 after attending the National War College and being assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency. In retirement, he started his own engineering company.

Cherry’s 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.

On this fourth anniversary of his death, I express my deepest appreciation to Col. Fred Cherry for his remarkable service to our country.