Veteran’s Peacetime Mission to Vietnam Reunites Him With Former Foe
Brigadier General Dan Cherry’s last mission in Vietnam was a personal one.
For 36 years, Cherry had carried a vivid memory of his brief but clear glimpse of an enemy pilot in his parachute. Cherry, then a major, had fought with a Soviet-built MiG-21F at 15,000 feet on April 16, 1972, finally taking it out with a Sparrow missile. There was a moment when Cherry saw the pilot in his parachute, and then flew on. Already an experienced pilot at the time, he went on to record 295 missions in two tours.
For Cherry, now retired, the route that led him back to Vietnam began improbably at a VFW club in Enon, Ohio. Visiting the Air Force Museum in nearby Dayton along with friends, he heard there was an old F4D Phantom II on display in Enon. Nostalgia drove him to go take a look, but what he found meant even more to him than he expected.
The aircraft before him – despite its disrepair – was not just the same type he had flown in Vietnam, it was his old plane, complete with a star denoting his aerial victory so long ago. It had last flown in 1989.
Now on display in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Phantom is a centerpiece for the new Aviation Heritage Park. Moving and restoring the plane was done with the cooperation of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force; Warren County, Kentucky; and the city of Bowling Green. Other efforts included forming a nonprofit organization and raising funds.
The effort inspired one more project – finding the pilot whose face he had seen 36 years before. Cherry started by discussing it with his friend Ed Faye, who knew people in Vietnam. One contact led to another, until they corresponded with a television program in Vietnam that often reunited people before their audience. The show title translates as “The Separation Seems to Have Never Existed.”
In April, Cherry found himself on a long flight across the Pacific to meet a former North Vietnamese fighter pilot named Nguyen Hong My in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
Cherry was not without hesitation. He had no idea how the other pilot would react, and could only hope the show and meeting would turn out to be respectful and polite.
“My hope was that we would find elements of common interest as fighter pilots,” he said.
That proved to be the case. Both men understood that they had a mission and had attempted to take out the other aircraft. It wasn’t personal. But seconds after the fight ended, that had changed for Cherry.
“It became personal to me because I saw him up close in his parachute,” he said.
In fact, he narrowly missed him, taking sharp evasive action to avoid the parachute.
Their meeting was cordial, but not apologetic. “Absolutely not,” said Cherry. “We were both airmen fighting for our countries.”
The two pilots greeted each other and completed the TV program, had dinner at a rooftop restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, and flew to Hanoi the next day – passing over the same airspace that had once been their combat scene.
Hong My, who spoke some English, told Cherry how he had sustained a back injury and two broken arms during the ejection, requiring a year of treatment before he returned to flight duties. Hong My, who had been a lieutenant at the time of their encounter, went on to fight for two more years. His wings had been presented to him by Ho Chi Minh in person.
At Hong My’s home, Cherry was introduced to Hong My’s family members and joined them for dinner. The next day Hong My accompanied him on a tour of Hanoi, that included the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” A somber Hong My asked Cherry if he had known anyone there, and Cherry found a picture there of a friend, John Flynn.
Today, motivated by the hope his story will help provide a measure of closure for many other veterans who gave so much in Vietnam, Cherry is continuing the efforts in his hometown to open the Aviation Heritage Park. The growing display will soon include a Navy F-9F Panther and there are plans for several more aircraft.
The story has not ended for the two men. The ribbon-cutting on the display in Bowling Green is tentatively set for later this year, and Nguyen Hong My is planning to be there.
The story is documented in photographs titled: “An Unlikely Reunion: Dan Cherry’s Journey to Vietnam,” by photographer John Fleck, www.johnfleck.com.
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