Fred Vann Cherry was born March 24, 1928, the child of poor Virginia dirt farmers. Cherry had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up in the Jim Crow-era, but he stuck to his studies. As a boy, Cherry attended racially segregated public schools in Suffolk Virginia, later attending the historically all-black Virginia Union University, and the United States Air Force Aviation Cadet Training Program.
An Air Force fighter pilot, Cherry flew 52 combat missions over North Korea, before going on to serve during the Cold War period, and the American war in Vietnam.
On October 22, 1965, then-Major Cherry’s F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire, fifteen miles north of Hanoi. “The plane exploded and I ejected at about 400 feet at over 600 miles an hour. In the process of ejection, I broke my left ankle, my left wrist, and crushed my left shoulder. I was captured immediately upon landing by Vietnamese militia and civilians.”
Any fool can judge a man by the color of his skin. Most fools, do. Fred Cherry’s North Vietnamese captors were no exception. The first American of African ancestry to fall into the hands of these people, Cherry was told things could go easier. If only he spoke out about racial discrimination, in the United States.
When that failed to produce the propaganda victory they wanted, jailers assigned Cherry a cellmate, the self-described “southern white boy”, Naval aviator Porter Halyburton.
“I guess they thought if they had a Southern white boy taking care of a black man, it would be the worst place for both of us,” Halyburton told the Washington Post. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Halyburton looked after his injured cellmate, changing the dressings on his infected wounds, feeding him, bathing him and watching over him. “He said I saved his life, and he saved my life. . . . Taking care of my friend gave my life some meaning that it had not had before.”
For eight months, the two men lived in a series of putrid, stinking cells, 10-by-10-foot compartments with nothing to sleep on but filthy straw mats, or the floor.
“I was so inspired by Fred’s toughness,” Halyburton said. “He had grown up in the racial South [and] undergone a lot of discrimination and hardship. But he was such an ardent patriot. He loved this country. It inspired me, and it inspired a lot of others.”
The two cellmates were separated in 1966, in what Halyburton remembers as “one of the saddest days of my life.” Cherry recalled “I spent 702 days in solitary confinement…At one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.”
The pair didn’t see each other again until 1973, when the two met at the military hospital at Clark Air Base in the Philippines following release from captivity.
Colonel Cherry and Commander Halyburton gave a number of joint talks at military institutions and colleges, and toured in 2004 to promote a book about their story, “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch.
Fred Cherry died on this day in 2016 at the age of 87, forty-three years to the day, from the news conference photographed above. The Washington Post remembered in his obituary, what Colonel Cherry wrote in a 1999 collection of POW stories:
“I was always taught to love and respect others and forgive those who mistreat, scorn or persecute me. . . . [This] allowed me overcome the damages of discrimination, Jim Crow, and the social and economic barriers associated with growing up a poor dirt farmer. . . . My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right.”
It’s an inspiring message. One worth remembering.