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Vietnam War pilots become fast friends decades later

Dan Cherry will fly into Tampa this week with his new friend, showing him the sights like an excited tour guide. Visits are planned to Disney World and a Lakeland air show.

Few who see these two tourists together could guess at their similarities. For one thing, they come from different ends of the Earth. They don't share the same language or culture. And while one ended his career as an Air Force brigadier general, the other ended his as an insurance man.

Their friendship is based on a unique combination of traits:

Bravery.

Devotion to duty.

And, almost 40 years ago, a fierce determination to kill each other.

• • •

It was April 16, 1972, when F-4 Phantom pilot Dan Cherry chased an enemy MiG-21 into a cloud bank over North Vietnam during a mission searching for enemy "bandits."

The U.S. Air Force pilot lost the MiG in the clouds. But as Cherry pulled out of a cloud bank, his wing man "Baby Beef" called out, "Two o'clock high. He's right above you, Dan."

Cherry lit his afterburners to close the space between the fighters and tried to launch a heat-seeking missile. Nothing. He pulled the trigger again and again. Still nothing. A malfunction.

"Baby Beef" moved in for the kill. But his missiles malfunctioned, too. The pilots were snake bit. "Break left, Beef!" Cherry called out on the radio.

"Go get him, Dan."

About 4,000 feet behind the MiG, Cherry pulled the trigger on a sparrow missile, expecting little. This time, he got a good launch. The missile ripped the MiG's right wing off.

"Got him! I got him!" Cherry cried excitedly.

The MiG went into a hard spin, trailing fire and smoke. Then a parachute opened just a few hundred feet in front of Cherry's Phantom. He had to make a hard turn to avoid hitting it.

As Cherry rocketed past the chute, he saw the MiG pilot in a black flight suit drifting to earth. It was impossible to know if the pilot was injured or dead.

It's an image Cherry knew he would never forget.

• • •

Cherry flew 185 combat missions in the Phantom. The MiG, however, was the only enemy fighter he ever shot down.

Cherry returned to the states and was assigned for a time as an operations officer at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

He later earned a prestigious appointment to the Air Force's demonstration squadron, the Thunderbirds, and served as its commander.

He retired in 1988 as a brigadier general and moved to Bowling Green, Ky. From time to time, someone would ask him about that long-ago dogfight. But mostly, Cherry didn't talk about it.

Cherry believes in the wisdom of providence, that events touch each other like falling dominoes to bring a person to a destination he never anticipated.

The first domino fell when the F-4 Phantom that Cherry flew in Vietnam was assigned to an Air Force Reserve unit in Ohio.

In 1989, the unit converted to the more nimble F-16 and the old Phantom was destined for the boneyard. But as the Air Force prepared to fly it to a base in the Arizona desert where it would be scrapped or cannibalized for parts, mechanics discovered a crack in the fuselage.

It could not be flown.

So the proud fighter suffered a final indignity. It was towed to a VFW post in Enon, Ohio, and put on display.

• • •

In June 2004, Cherry and a group of friends visited the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. During the visit, a museum staff member mentioned the Phantom on display in nearby Enon.

Cherry had briefly seen the Phantom at the VFW post four years before, so he wasn't surprised that the very same jet he flew in Vietnam was still around.

His small group made the 20-mile pilgrimage to the VFW post. A red star near an engine recorded the date of Cherry's MiG kill: "16 APR 72."

The fighter was in awful shape. Bird droppings marked the fuselage. Rust spread like a rash.

That didn't faze Cherry's friends, who were mesmerized and eager for details of the dogfight. On the ride home, someone suggested Cherry find the MiG pilot, if he were still alive.

Cherry guessed it was a long shot.

• • •

The visit to that Phantom sparked a desire among the friends to plan a rescue of the battered fighter and put it and other planes on dignified display in Bowling Green.

One day Cherry met an attorney friend who had contacts in Asia. Cherry mentioned his curiosity about the MiG pilot's fate.

The attorney called friends in Hanoi. They had an idea.

A TV program in Ho Chi Mihn City, formerly Saigon, might be helpful. The program's name, roughly translated, is The Separation Never Seems to Have Existed. It specialized in reuniting long-separated friends or family.

With Vietnamese networks owned by the government, finding the MiG pilot proved simpler than Cherry could ever have imagined.

The pilot was alive and quickly traced to Hanoi. Cherry was invited to come to Ho Chi Mihn City for a reunion on live TV.

On April 5, 2008, Cherry stared across the television studio as a bald, well-built resident of Hanoi strode purposefully toward him. Cherry was relieved to see the good-natured look on his face.

Cherry and Nguyen Hong My shook hands forcefully.

Hong My, who speaks some English, said through a translator that he hoped the two of them could be good friends. Referring to the dogfight, Hong My smiled and said, "You won that battle."

Hong My had been severely injured in the crash. He had broken both arms, hurt his back. He didn't fly much after that day. He joined an insurance firm after the war.

Later, Hong My took Cherry to his home. During dinner, a neighbor came in and started talking about the destructive U.S. bombing of Hanoi.

Hong My shook his head, stopping such talk. Politics would not intrude here.

The next day they visited the Hanoi Hilton together, the infamous prison where American pilots were held for years, often tortured by their captors.

It was an emotional experience for Cherry. As he gazed at a picture of imprisoned American pilots, Hong My whispered in his ear, "You have friend in here?"

Cherry nodded, pointing to one pilot. "He is my friend," Cherry said.

Hong My shook his head sadly. Outside the prison-turned-museum, he put an arm around Cherry's shoulder affectionately.

• • •

Cherry, now 70, wanted to bring Hong My, 63, to the United States to show him around. The organizers of the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland helped pay for the trip. Last Tuesday, two days shy of the 37th anniversary of their four-minute dogfight, Hong My came to Bowling Green with his son.

They will fly into Tampa on Tuesday for events at the air show and a flight museum in Polk County.

Cherry says they are quick friends. The reunion brings some closure to both, Cherry says. He sees in Hong My part of himself, and part of every fighter pilot who ever took to the sky. He sees confidence, intelligence, good humor.

"I discovered he's like a lot of fighter pilots I have known," Cherry said.

Before arriving in the United States, Hong My talked of a U.S. fighter he shot down just a few months before his dogfight with Cherry. Like Cherry, Hong My had always wondered about the fighter's two-man crew.

Cherry did some research and discovered that both crewmen had survived the war, though the pilot had since died. But Cherry found the backseat navigator.

Sometime soon, a second reunion is planned. Hong My will meet a crewman he shot down in Vietnam. Hong My, Cherry and the crewman plan dinner.

Cherry knows they won't talk politics. There will be no recriminations. Conversation may instead lead to a subject that binds them all.

The joy of flight.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Duo at Fly-In

Dan Cherry and Nguyen Hong My will talk about their experiences Wednesday through Saturday at the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland. For a schedule of their appearances, go to the Sun 'n Fun Web site.

Audio on the Web

To hear audio of the radio traffic during Dan Cherry's 1972 dogfight with Nguyen Hong My.

Also ...

The History Channel produced a brief segment about the dogfight. View Dogfights: Hell over Hanoi.

Vietnam War pilots become fast friends decades later 04/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 2:45pm]
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