View Full Version : Long but good read.....

05-07-2006, 02:49 PM
This man's daugter goes to my church. I had no idea that she even was his daughter. I think a movie about this man is coming out soon.

Name: Fred Vann Cherry
Branch/Rank: United States Air Force/O4
Unit: 35th TFS
Date of Birth: 24 March 1928
Home City of Record: SUFFOLK VA
Date of Loss: 22 October 1965
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 211300 North 1062300 East
Status (in 1973): Returnee
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F105
Missions: 52
Korea - 51 in F84G
Other Personnel in Incident:
Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK from one or more of the following: raw
data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA
families, published sources, interviews and CACCF = Combined Action
Combat Casualty File.
No further information available at this time.
Suffolk native featured in POW film opening at the Naro
BY DAVE MAYFIELD, The Virginian-Pilot
Copyright 1999, Landmark Communications Inc.
The North Vietnamese prison officials were armed with note pads and tape
recorders when they marched into his room.
They had news for Maj. Fred Cherry, prisoner of war. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. was dead, assassinated.
``See what they do,'' the head man said. See what your countrymen do? ``OK,
now what you have to say?''
Cherry, America's first black POW of the Vietnam War, turned his back to his
captors and fought back the tears.
Then he told them what he had to say, what The Code required him to say.
``Nothin'. ''
He'd been a prisoner -- one of the more than 600 Americans who would
eventually be held in North Vietnam -- for nearly 2 1/2 years.
The boy who had gleefully yelled ``I can do that!'' when practicing Navy
pilots buzzed the skies over his Suffolk-area home back in World War II was
now a man coming to grips with a horrible other facet of combat. Hollow-eyed
and emaciated, he'd already nearly died from torture several times.
Cherry is one of two dozen American aviators featured in the documentary,
``Return With Honor,'' which opens Friday at the Naro Expanded Cinema in
Norfolk. The title refers to the Vietnam POWs' vow to one another -- that,
despite the cruelty they suffered, they would adhere to the military Code of
If or when their release ever came, they were determined to leave with their
heads held high.
To the North Vietnamese, Cherry was a special project. If somehow, they
could beat or brainwash the Air Force fighter pilot into denouncing his
country and the war, thousands of young African-American soldiers in South
Vietnam might be persuaded to lay down their rifles. At least, that was
their reasoning.
``They thought I should be more sympathetic to their cause,'' because of his
skin color, Cherry recalled. ``I kept telling them, `I'm an officer in the
U.S. military. I just can't do that.' ''
The walls in Cherry's Washington-area home and office are lined with
evidence that he stuck to his word: plaques and decorations honoring his
military service, photographs of handshakes with former presidents.
He is 71 now, and life is good. He has a successful business, a dozen
grandchildren, hundreds of friends.
He buried his bitterness toward the North Vietnamese long ago. He even went
back several years ago to visit Hanoi and the prisons where he was held for
7 1/2 years.
The trip brought back memories both painful and poignant. Like many others,
Cherry was saved from death by his prison mates. They fed and washed him,
and salved his wounds, day after endless day.
``I don't think anybody learned more about how to treat your fellow men than
us guys who were there,'' he said. ``We were all Americans, a family, and we
all had to survive together.''
He was ``Pepper'' to his brothers and sisters. ``Pep,'' for short. The
youngest of eight, little Fred was always running, jumping, scurrying about
the little wooden house in what was then Nansemond County. At age 5, he
stood on tiptoes to reach the crossbar of a plow as his father guided the
family mule across the hot, dry fields.
His parents, aunts and uncles were as down-to-Earth as they came -- farmers
and laborers all. But Fred aimed for the sky. As the Navy planes from a
nearby auxiliary field danced overhead, he stretched out his arms and went
flying with them through the fields.
He was going to be a pilot, too.
As a teen-ager, Cherry drew inspiration from the Tuskegee Airmen, the
all-black Army Air Corps squadron that distinguished itself in World War II.
After the war, he heard how President Truman ordered the services to
integrate their units and afford equal opportunity to men of color. Cherry
went to a Navy officer-recruiting station in Norfolk and declared his
intention. Come back later, the recruiters said. He did. Over and over.
Finally, he got the message. Presidential order or not, the Navy wasn't
ready for black pilots.
On his last visit, he kicked open the lead recruiter's door, called him a
few choice names and left. ``I didn't want them anymore, and they didn't
want me,'' Cherry recalled. ``We were even on that score.''
Two years later, after graduating from Virginia Union University, he was
welcomed into the Air Force.
He flew 52 combat missions in Korea before that conflict ended, surviving
two hits on his F-84G fighter-bomber.
As the '60s began, Cherry was a seasoned flier and a devoted father of four
He didn't have much to prove, and he had a lot to lose. But he went off
eagerly to Southeast Asia as America's involvement in Vietnam grew. He did
two short tours out of Thailand, bombing North Vietnamese supply lines along
the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, and then radar sites, barracks and bridges in
the North. In the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Cherry was the only one of
dozens piloting F-105s to have previously flown in combat. Because of that,
everybody wanted to fly with ``The Chief.'' Cherry enjoyed the status he'd
When his orders to go home came in, he begged his squadron commander for one
last shot. Another month, he pleaded. He got two weeks. On Oct. 22, 1965,
one week later, he was shot down.
It happened so fast.
One minute Cherry's jet was screaming low across the forest canopy, heading
toward his target, a missile site north-northeast of Hanoi. Then the guns
started firing from below. Rifles mostly. There was a thump, but Cherry kept
on target. Moments after letting go of his bombs, smoke filled the cockpit.
Then came an explosion, and he hit eject.
Because he stayed strapped in his seat, his parachute didn't open
automatically. It turned out to be a fortunate malfunction. At the speed his
plane was traveling, almost 700 mph, the chute would have been ripped to
Finally, Cherry freed himself from the plummeting seat and popped the chute.
He had time to glance up to see his wingman's jet roar past, then get a
quick look at the ground before he hit. Within seconds, he was surrounded by
rifle-armed militiamen and hoe-waving farmers.
They marched him through the rice paddies for miles and into a dusty village
where gongs rang to announce his arrival. After some questioning, the march
resumed for several more miles. He was shoved into a truck that took him to
a school.
Outside, hundreds of North Vietnamese had gathered. As he was led out after
another interrogation, the people chanted ``Kill the Yankee! Kill the
Yankee!'' A young man slipped through the crowd and ran his fingers across
one of Cherry's arms.
``I guess he was trying to see if I was going to rub off,'' Cherry said. He
was, no doubt, the first black man that many in the jeering crowd had ever
By nightfall, his left shoulder, wrist and ankle were seething in pain, all
broken either during his ejection or hard landing. Cherry arrived at Hoa Lo
prison, better known to the American POWs inside as the ``Hanoi Hilton,''
hoping to get some rest.
Instead, the ``Hilton's'' keepers wasted no time letting him know how they
intended to treat this ``air pirate.'' Minutes after the questioning
resumed, Cherry's head was slammed down on a table, his chair kicked out
from under him. This went on all night.
For three solid weeks, they dragged Cherry into the torture chambers. They
twisted his arms and legs, bound them, stretched them. They wanted
information: his unit, his mission, anything he knew about the bombing in
the North.
Cherry coughed up a few lies, then remembered his mother's words: ``A lie
has no memory.'' If he went so deep that he couldn't remember what he'd told
them, he worried, they might beat him to death trying to straighten out his
Name, rank, service number and date of birth. He stuck to those. On Nov. 16,
Cherry was taken to Cu Loc prison in southwest Hanoi. Its inmates called it
``The Zoo.''
He spent 11 days alone before the prison keepers moved in a young Navy flier
named Porter Halyburton. The two danced round each other for weeks, neither
believing the other was a genuine American pilot.
Cherry figured Halyburton as an expatriate French spy for the North
Vietnamese. Halyburton, an aristocratic Southerner, couldn't fathom a black
man piloting a top Air Force jet. His Navy superiors had told him blacks had
depth-perception problems.
As time went on, mistrust gave way to friendship. Prejudices were put aside.
The ``negative feeling'' Cherry had long harbored toward the Navy that
rejected him was washed away during the long hours with his cellmate and,
later, other Navy fliers. ``They're good guys,'' he realized.
Halyburton's first act of kindness was to teach Cherry the prison tap code
-- a different sequence of taps for each letter. There were any number of
ways to employ it -- tapping on a wall, stomping across a cell floor,
clicking a cup, even coughing it out.
By whatever means, it opened up vistas for the POWs as each new arrival
joined in -- a secret way of communicating everything from the latest
torture techniques to news from back home. Each Sunday, the POWs stood in
their cells as their senior leaders presided over a tap-code church service.
Early in 1966, when a pause in the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam raised
hopes for a peace settlement, prisoners whose injuries had been untreated
were scheduled for surgery. Cherry's shoulder was repaired, and he was put
in a body cast. Then the peace hope faded, and the treatment stopped.
Cherry's incisions became badly infected and sores spread across his body.
Stuck in his cast, he grew more feverish by the day. Eventually, he was
unable to move. Halyburton fed him soup and bread, washed him, even propped
him on the edge of his bunk so Cherry could relieve himself into a bucket.
Cherry hallucinated. He saw himself leave his body and walk through his
prison wall. He imagined flying to an outdoor restaurant in South Vietnam
and watching his cook-to-order pork chops being turned on a grill. The
fantasy ended before the chops were served.
By the time he was put back in the hospital, he had withered to 80 pounds
from the 135 he had weighed when he'd been captured. As the attendants
removed his cast, layers of skin went with it.
They sent the writhing Cherry back to Halyburton, and more operations
followed. In one three-hour procedure without anesthesia, the surgeons used
scalpels to cut away dead flesh.
The doctors kept a sheet over his head and lifted it periodically to look at
his face, Cherry said. Each time, he said, he smiled at them. In the 1984
book ``Bloods,'' by Wallace Terry, about black veterans of Vietnam, Cherry
described it as the ``worst straight pain'' he had ever known.
Cherry stayed at ``The Zoo'' for more than five years, before being moved
back to the ``Hanoi Hilton.'' During that time, he was beaten with bamboo
sticks and strips of rubber and spent a solid year in solitary confinement.
His health problems continued. In one beating, a bone chip from his rib
pierced his lung. Months later, it was removed to keep it from entering his
heart. But the surgeons left in nondissoluble stitches. He coughed one up a
year later, Cherry said.
During one five-month stretch, his captors shelved brute methods and
concentrated on Cherry's mind.
Every day for hours on end, an interrogator reviewed America's long list of
atrocities against blacks: slavery, lynchings, discrimination. The
interrogator drew on the teachings of Malcom X, passages of books such as
Ralph Ellison's ``Invisible Man,'' and movies such as ``A Raisin in the
He called Cherry by a Vietnamese name: Xu. ``If one only hears one side of
things,'' he told the prisoner, ``he will soon start to believe it.''
Still, Cherry wouldn't sign a confession, wouldn't make a video denouncing
his country. He'd suffered too long to give in now.
It was that way with so many of the POWs.
The North Vietnamese, he said, ``could never understand that. They just
couldn't understand why you would stand up so strongly against something as
simple as saying, `I don't agree with the war.' It was simple to them.'' One
of the hardest things about his confinement was not hearing from his family.
His first letter from home arrived 4 1/2 years after he had been captured.
It came from his oldest sister. Her letters never said that their mother had
died and that, not knowing his status, his wife had started a relationship
with another man.
He also didn't find out until after his release that his two sons, who he'd
hoped were in college, had enlisted in the Army instead. Much of what he
learned about what was going on in America came from newly arriving POWs.
For a while, the more he heard, the less excited he was about going home.
Anti-war protests, long hair, drugs. It seemed to Cherry and other prisoners
that America had been taken over by ``beatniks'' and ``anti's.'' But as time
went on and hopes for a release returned, the POWs tuned in to news that
cheered them. The country really wasn't coming apart at the seams. There was
still a place for the military. And fantastic new fighters like the Navy
F-14 and the Air Force F-15 were coming out.
At the ``Hilton'', the POWs formed their own university. They started
language and math classes, practiced speech-making, re-enacted movies.
Cherry learned walking-around Spanish and became a crack gin rummy player.
Behind prison walls, he conquered his fear of public speaking.
On Monday Feb. 12, 1973, a bus pulled up to the ``Hanoi Hilton'' and 40 POWs
boarded. Cherry was one of them. They would be on the first flight to
freedom. At the airport, Cherry got on a waiting C-141. He hugged his prison
mates and found a seat. A few minutes later, the plane was airborne. As the
wheels retracted, the men let loose a thunderous cheer.
Cherry stayed in the Air Force, but his wartime injuries barred him from
anything but training flights. He switched to intelligence and retired in
1981 as a colonel.
He divorced within weeks of his release, but got to know his children again.
He later remarried and divorced once more. He has outlived all his brothers
and sisters.
After the Air Force, he started a second career as a marketing consultant
and, eventually, launched his own government-contracting business. About 10
years ago, Cherry got a call out of the blue from an old Air Force buddy.
When they got together, the man poured out his guts. ``I've been feeling
like hell for all these years because of when you made that change with
me,'' he said.
What change? Cherry asked.
That morning back in '65 when Cherry was shot down, they'd switched
assignments as flight leaders. Otherwise, Cherry wouldn't have been on that
``I told him, and this is the honest-to-God truth: `This is the first time
that had ever crossed my mind', '' Cherry said. ``All those years, he
thought I blamed him for what I'd been through.''
The two hugged. Cherry's friend cried.
And Cherry got to thinking about his POW years.
There was no need for regrets.
``I made friends that I never would have made,'' he said. ``I realized
things about myself I never would have become aware of had I not had this
Most of all, he said, ``I learned never to take what we have in this
country, the greatest country in the world, for granted.''

05-07-2006, 03:47 PM
Amazing. Great read Bearcat. Thanks.

A movie would be great. I'll be looking for it.

05-07-2006, 09:14 PM
~S~ Thanks, Bearcat....