Fred Cherry, the African American U.S. Air Force pilot who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has passed away at 87. With all due respect to Joe Louis, Fred Cherry was the real Brown Bomber.
Born in Suffolk, Virginia, Fred Cherry experienced racial prejudice and segregation first hand but did not let it hold him back from achievement. He graduated from Virginia Union University in 1951 and joined the U.S. Air Force. A skilled pilot, Cherry would soon be flying combat missions over Stalinist North Korea.
In 1965 Cherry was flying an F-105 fighter-bomber over North Vietnam when he took anti-aircraft fire and his plane exploded. He bailed out, suffered major injuries, and fell captive to the enemy. The North Vietnamese thought they had a real find and threw Cherry in a cell with Porter Halyburton, a white pilot from North Carolina. The Vietnamese Communists hoped to stoke racial friction that would break down Cherry and make him a propaganda tool. The captors’ plan backfired.
Halyburton duly attended to Cherry’s wounds and watched over his black countryman around the clock. Cherry credited the white southerner with saving his life, and Halyburton thought Cherry had done the same for him. The two became lifelong friends but in captivity both faced a hard road. The Vietnamese Communists slapped Cherry into solitary confinement for 702 days and the pilot endured punishment and torture for 93 straight days. Before his release in 1973, Cherry racked up 2,671 days in captivity.
The story of Cherry and Halyburton emerged in Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton (2014) by American pilot Lee Ellis. He had been shot down in November 1967 on a mission to destroy the guns that protected the Quang Khe ferry that supplied the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the Hoa Lao prison, which POWs dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis learned firsthand about North Vietnam and its systematic torture of American POWs. As the author notes, the North Vietnamese tortured more than 95 percent of American POWs including eight tortured to death. But the torture wasn’t all physical.
The captors piped in propaganda and, Ellis explains, “the afternoon broadcasts were especially disheartening because they featured Americans spouting words that could have been written for them in Moscow and Hanoi.” New Left icon Tom Hayden “was a regular speaker,” later joined by his wife “film star Jane Fonda.” For this pair, the American POWs were war criminals and their reports of torture were lies.
Ellis charitably calls Fonda an “anti-war activist,” but she and Hayden were not against war in general. They only opposed American participation in a war against the North Vietnamese regime they served as propagandists. Hayden was their voice in the cells of the Hanoi Hilton and Fonda even partied it up with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft squad.
Lee Ellis, Porter Halyburton and Fred Cherry managed to survive, and Cherry received the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism as a prisoner of war. His long stretch in captivity left him with a number of family problems but the African American flyer attended the National War College and Defense Intelligence School before retiring in 1981 as a staff officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
James S. Hirsh wrote about Cherry and Halyburton in the 2004 Two Souls Indivisible.
Cherry’s story also showed up in the public television documentary Return with Honor about U.S. fighter pilots who became prisoners of war.
Col. Fred Cherry passed away in a Washington hospital on February 16, in the midst of Black History Month. Even so, the President of the United States did not rush to the podium to honor the departed hero. That should come as no surprise.
Fred Cherry defied the Vietnamese Communists but he also explodes a common stereotype. The American left prefers to portray blacks as angry, alienated, and perpetually in need of help from the government.
Fred Cherry had endured more than his share of racial discrimination and hardship. But as Porter Halyburton told the Washington Post, “he was such an ardent patriot. He loved this country.” May he rest in peace.