Col. Fred Vann Cherry passed away recently at the age of 87. That name may not be familiar to you, but it should be. His story is one of unusual courage and character. In his youth he suffered the indignities that went along with being an African American in the Jim Crow South. As an Air Force fighter pilot he was shot down over North Vietnam in October of 1965 and was held for over seven years as a POW. He was defeated by neither.
Cherry earned a college degree at a historically all-black college in Virginia —Virginia Union University— graduating in 1951. Despite the effects of growing up under the institutional racism of the Jim Crow laws, he still felt the desire to support his country by serving in the military. He joined the U.S. Air Force and became a fighter pilot serving both in Korea, where he flew over 50 missions, and in Vietnam.
On October 17, 1965 he was shot down while on a mission over North Vietnam. He would be held as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese for the next 2,671 days; that’s over 7 years!
What he endured as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, along with his fellow POWs, puts him among the greatest of our national heroes. During his imprisonment he endured 702 days in solitary confinement, the longest period of which lasted 53 weeks. Like all the other POWs he endured the arbitrarily imposed punishments of the guards and, during one period, he experienced 93 straight days of torture.
The North Vietnamese knew of the racial history of America and attempted to use it against Cherry. They told him that he would be spared from the usual treatment given to the other POWs if he spoke out against America for its racial history. He refused.
When Cherry first arrived at the POW camp, the North Vietnamese prison officials, knowing that history, particularly in the South, purposefully placed Cherry in a 10′ by 10′ cell with another POW who was a white man from the South, Porter Halyburton. It was the guards’ hope that the situation would be intolerable for both of them.
But the opposite happened.
These two men formed a deep friendship. Halyburton cared for Cherry’s wounds and was inspired by Cherry’s resilience and courage. Cherry’s courage in turn inspired the other prisoners as well. Halyburton and Cherry would become life long friends.
Cherry returned home with the first wave of former POWs on February 12, 1973. He would remain in the Air Force and would attend both the National War College and the Defense Intelligence School in Washington, D.C., retiring finally in 1981.
Col. Fred Vann Cherry’s life was a powerful story of courage and true moral character. He overcame the unjust limits that state-sponsored racism placed on him in his youth. In serving the nation in the U.S. Air Force, he would endure the worst that his North Vietnamese torturers could do to him over seven years of captivity and not be broken. He was a man of deep religious faith who chose at every challenging moment in his life to live with dignity, great compassion, and moral character. He was a true example of a United States military “officer and a gentleman.” He is a role model for all of us.
to remember this great man, Col. Fred Vann Cherry. We offer our respect and our thanks to him and to his family for his service to the nation and for his examples of moral courage, both at home and in war.