Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Enemy, My Friend

I had an interesting weekend afternoon. The University of Texas at Dallas hosted a lecture. The focus was a series of events over North Vietnam in 1972 that linked 3 men and an airplane into a circle that closed in 2009.

Dan Cherry, assigned to the 13TFS/432TRW, flying out of Udorn AB, Thailand, shot down a NVAF MiG-21 on April 16, 1972. The engagement was southwest of Hanoi, and has been documented in the History Channel's "Dogfights" series (episode "Hell Over Hanoi"). Cherry was flying F-4D 66-7550 when he scored the kill. The enemy pilot was able to eject from his burning aircraft.

Dan Cherry found that same F-4D in 2004, sitting in a state of disrepair outside a VFW post in Ohio. Cherry, a retired BGeneral and MiG Killer, was able to convince the USAF to let him move the aircraft to his hometown of Bowling Green, KY, where it was painted in the scheme and markings it carried at the time of the kill. It has become the centerpiece of an aviation historical park.

Along the way, Cherry had wondered what ever happened to the pilot of that MiG, the one he saw hanging in his parachute. In a roundabout series of events, Cherry ended up in Vietnam, participating in a TV show where he was introduced to that same pilot, Nguyen Hong My. Mr. Nguyen had survived the war, was a successful insurance salesman in Hanoi, and was in very good shape.

During their time together, Cherry noticed that Nguyen wore a decoration that indicated he had shot down an enemy aircraft. Answering the inevitable question, he said that he had shot down an American RF-4C recon aircraft. He asked Cherry for a favor. He had always wondered what happened to the crew of that RF-4, would he mind seeing if they were still alive, for Nguyen would like to meet them.

After returning to the US, Cherry was able to locate the RF-4's backseater, John Stiles. The pilot had passed away a few years ago. Nguyen traveled to the US and met Cherry and Stiles in Washington. The circle closed when Nguyen traveled to Bowling Green to attend the dedication of 66-7550 in its new place of honor. In what may be the only time this has ever happened, a pilot (Nguyen) sat in the cockpit of the very plane that had shot him down 37 years before.

Cherry, Stiles, and Nguyen spent two hours telling us their story. Two very emotional hours. The coincidences were amazing. Stiles account of his shootdown was harrowing - it is frankly incredible that he and his front seater survived. Another piece of the history puzzle, Bob Noble, was in attendance. Bob, in an Air America Huey, rescued Stiles from the jungle 8 hours after his plane went down.

The auditorium was packed, extra seats had to be brought in, and there were still people standing along the walls. Cherry asked for all Vets in attendance to stand. A third of the people there stood up, most appearing to be of Vietnam service age. The fellow sitting next to me, wearing a River Rats polo shirt, and I visited a bit. He was a RF-4C pilot, in the same unit as Chiles - though not at the same time. He had been cornered by two MiGs during one of his missions, but they inexplicably did not shoot at him. During Chiles' account, this fellow was gripping the arms of his chair, and you could see tears appearing.

The auditorium was deathly quiet as Cherry recounted touring the Hanoi Hilton during his Vietnam visit, and showed pictures of it. It was visibly difficult for some of the people there to watch that.

All in all, the presentation was very well received, with several standing ovations.

The men were going to do a Q&A afterwards, but some a*hole stood up and rambled on in an incoherrent political statement about the war. They stopped it at that point. I was upset - I had several brilliant (I thought) questions thought up for them.

Cherry wrote about all of this in a book, "My Enemy, My Friend". The proceeds are helping fund the memorial in Bowling Green.

Thank you, gentlemen, for sharing this story with us.

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