Throughout the history of war, there have been times when soldiers have to put aside their differences and work together to survive the war. Sometimes in those times, they form lasting bonds, and even become best of friends.
The battle between North Vietnamese forces and US pilots flew on over the jungles of Vietnam, and the wreckage of the war remained in the area for decades to come. The warbirds that flew over the border, however, did not suffer the same fate.
Two war heroes, one from each service, were on the same plane on its way home from Vietnam, and became close friends. They’d enjoyed the war, and had managed to keep their friendship strong. In fact, they were so close they were able to joke about it, and even act like the war was a fun adventure. However, once they were back stateside, it was clear that those differences were still there, and the friendship could not be reconciled.
Thirty-six years after a confrontation over North Vietnam, two fighter pilots reconcile
Major Dan Cherry of the Air Force
On the evening of the 28th. In April 2009, two Vietnam veterans gave a double lecture at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Thirty-seven years ago, they fought a life and death battle over North Vietnam. But on this night in 2009, former enemies Dan Cherry and Nguyen Hong Mai met as friends to talk about the amazing events that led to this unlikely moment.
Edward Daniel Cherry was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1939 and joined the United States Air Force in July 1959. After completing his flight training in 1965, he was posted to the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing at Spangdalem, West Germany, where he flew the Republic F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bomber. From January to August 1967, Cherry flew 100 combat missions over North Vietnam in F-105D aircraft with the 421st and 44th Tactical Fighter Squadrons from Royal Thai Air Force Base at Korat.
After returning to the United States in 1971, where he served as an F-105 instructor at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, Cherry requested a second tour of duty in Southeast Asia, arriving in June with the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Royal Thai Air Force Base in Udorn, where he flew a McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II fighter-bomber. The following year it flew 185 combat missions, including 50 over North Vietnam.
The 30th. In March 1972, the North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam in what became known as the Easter Offensive. Although the United States withdrew all but two of its combat brigades, it continued to provide vital air support to South Vietnam. The 6th. April, President Richard Nixon launches Operation Linebacker, a campaign to bomb North Vietnamese industrial and transportation facilities. The North Vietnamese Air Force responded with a formidable air defense triangle of anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG fighter jets.
The 16th. In April 1972, Cherry recalls, my name was called for the mission. I was in the 13th tactical combat squadron, and we were pretty well trained. The Phantoms of his unit had to escort the bomb-laden Phantoms from Korat Air Base to the vicinity of Hanoi. Captain Frederick S. Olmsted, Jr. with Captain Stuart Maas as Weapons Systems Officer, led the flight of four aircraft with Captain Steve Cuthbert and Captain Daniel Sowell in command. They were followed by Cherry, then a major, and Captain Jeffrey S. Feinstein. Their wingers were captain Greg Crane and captain Jerry Lachman. Each F-4D is equipped with radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles. All aircraft, except Crane, were also equipped with AIM-9 Sidewinders thermal guidance systems.
The aircraft left Udorn at 0730 and circled over Ban Ban, Laos, but the fighter never arrived at the rendezvous point. Olmsted then flew his plane north on a secondary mission to find and destroy enemy MiGs.
As the Phantoms approached the North Vietnamese Air Force base at Yen Bai, Maas, who was piloting the plane, saw enemy aircraft approaching 20 miles away. Pilot Olmsted turned to the bandits. When the range was reduced to five miles, the Americans saw two MiG-21s flying at 5,000 feet above them. Olmstead and the other drivers turned and stood up.
I was on the outside of the turn, Cherry then signaled, so I fell back into the turn. Halfway through the turn, my wingman called for a third MiG. It was a camouflaged MiG-21, it was at 12 o’clock altitude from me and in position behind the Olmstead link. The North Vietnamese apparently set a trap with two silver MiGs as decoys. The camouflaged MiG was at low altitude, and as we began our turn, he gained altitude, hoping to push us between the two leading MiGs and himself. But their separation was not great enough, and the hunter suddenly became the hunted. As agreed, we divided the flight into two parts. Olmsted continued to follow the two leading MiGs while I jumped on the camouflaged 21. The MiG must have seen me as I came out of the turn and headed for it, because it turned left and came into the clouds.
Cherry followed in the clouds and – after entering open terrain with his wingman Crane – saw a third MiG climb above them in 2 hours and 5,000 feet. I put the afterburner on full power and turned to chase him, Cherry said. But when it fired its two Sidewinder missiles, they were not located. The MiG came into a nose-down spiral. As the Phantoms chased him, Crane said: Go ahead. I’ll go right. Cherry recognized it and moved into a wing position.
The pursuers were at about 25,000 feet when Crane fired his AIM-7. The first two are out of order. His third was about to strike, Cherry noted, but at the critical moment the MiG pilot made a sharp jab, and Sparrow flew right past his tail without exploding.
Cherry overtakes his opponent in the photo Lou Drendel The MiG That Didn’t Get Away / Lou Drendel
Crane fired his bolt, but the fleeing MiG-21 lost speed and Cherry was down to three Sparrows.
As I turned Greg’s corner, I started to pull. Meanwhile, I called Jeff over to the back seat and said: I’ve got the MiG in my sight… Lock on! He did, and the analog display lit up, indicating a good radar position. It took me a while to get comfortable with Greg. When I did, I pulled the trigger again… not expecting the missile to explode. Suddenly, ooh! The great AIM-7 smoked for us. The missile hit its target and tore off the MiG’s right wing, causing it to spin to the left, taking smoke and debris with it.
After about two somersaults, the MiG pilot came down right in front of me, Cherry says. I swung out to the left to jump on the chute and make sure Jeff saw the guy and the MiG go up in flames….. We must have been near supersonic speed with the afterburners ….. and I know we weren’t more than 50 feet away when we passed him. But I did see it. …. He wore a black flight suit, and his parachute was predominantly white with a red patch. I thought so: It’s just like in the movies!
A few minutes after Cherry’s victory, Olmsted caught up with the two larger MiG-21s. The leader did a split-S maneuver and dove onto the deck, but his winger stayed behind. Olmsted fired an AIM-7 that destroyed the MiG’s right horizontal stabilizer. His second Sparrow hit right in the middle and destroyed the MiG with a fireball. It was Olmsted’s second win. Earlier, on the 30th. In March, he was assigned a MiG-21.
Back in Udorn, the Phantom teams had a party. In addition to their success, an F-4D of the 432nd TRW, flown by Captain James C. Null and Captain Michael D. Wahue, shot down a third MiG-21. It was an exceptionally good day for the 432nd TRW and a bad day for the North Vietnamese, whose records do not mention any loss of pilots but do confirm the loss of the three MiG-21s. As a result, the enemy air force limited MiG activities south of the 20th parallel. Latitude, where they are located in the demilitarized zone covering the north and south near the 17th parallel. The latitude separators would have been in close proximity to US forces.
By late 1972, the bombing of Operations Linebacker I and II had resulted in American tactical victories that, like many others before them, made little difference to the ultimate outcome of the war-the fall of South Vietnam on 30. April 1975 – changed. Cherry continued his career in the Air Force, which he left on the 1st. He retired in December 1988 with the rank of Brigadier General. He received numerous awards including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star with oak leaf border, and the Distinguished Flying Cross with nine oak leaf borders.
Two crews from the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron celebrate victory over the 16th. April 1972. From left to right: Jeffrey Feinstein, Cherry, Fred Olmsted and Stu Maas. / Courtesy of Brigadier General Dan Cherry, retired U.S. Air Force.
Back in her hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, Cherry has few memories of her war experiences. Still, he wondered what had become of the enemy pilot he had shot down.
In June 2004, Cherry visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. In nearby Enon, the Veterans of Foreign Wars post took over from Mr. Phantom, who served in the Reserve Air Force until his retirement in 1989. Although the aircraft was painted in its current gray camouflage colors, there was a red star on the air intake manifold. By checking the plane’s serial number – 66-7550 – Cherry determined that it was the same F-4D he was flying when he shot down the MiG.
Although the Phantom suffered from neglect, Cherry arranged for it to be transported to Bowling Green, where an aviation heritage park dedicated to Kentucky military pilots will be constructed. His F-4D was the first of several aircraft on display. When the restoration was complete, Cherry noted: It was in better condition than when I flew it in April 1972.
The discovery and resurrection of her spirit made Cherry believe that anything was possible. He began to make inquiries to see if he could identify the pilot of the downed MiG. So a lawyer with friends in Vietnam contacted the producers of a popular reality show that brought together people who had lost touch with each other. A few weeks later he received a message from Thu Huyen Nguyen-Pham, producer of the programme No Separation, broadcast in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
Please write me a letter, she said. Tell me what you’d like to do and why. Two weeks after Cherry emailed her with the details of her fight, she replied: We have found a brave MiG pilot and we would like you to come to Vietnam to meet him.
Cherry consulted with the U.S. Embassy and former prisoners of war, including Lt. Col. Wallace G. Newcomb, a former F-105D pilot with the 13th Air Force. TFS, which was launched at 3. In August 1967 he was shot down and spent the rest of the war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp. I was encouraged from all sides, Cherry said. Wally Newcomb told me: Dan, this is too good an opportunity for you to pass up.
It was a pleasure to work with Tu Uyen, Cherry says. She had been educated in the United States and was a Fulbright Scholar [an exchange program for American and foreign scholars] – very professional. When the show began at 9 p.m. on April 8, 2008, he had not yet met his former opponent, Lieutenant Nguyen Hong Mi.
I’ve never seen a picture of Hong My before, Cherry said. So it was very dramatic when he came on stage. He was an imposing figure – I thought he would make a good movie star. We immediately looked at each other critically, but he had a pleasant expression on his face, and I remember he had a very firm handshake. He spoke a little English and said: I hope to see you in good health and hope we can be friends.
Cherry and Hong Mai first meet on the TV show Separation, which turns out not to be in Ho Chi Minh City. / John Fleck.
Nguyen Hong Mai, born in 1946 in Nghe An province, central North Vietnam, went on 1. In July 1965, he joined the Air Force and was trained in the Soviet Union. I graduated as a pilot in 1968 and immediately returned to my country to fight, Hong Mai said. My unit was the first. Squadron of the 921st Air Force Fighter Regiment, nicknamed the Red Star Squadron.
The 921. This unit was the first in North Vietnam which was equipped with MiG-21s. Some pilots before me had shot down Phantoms, but we hadn’t really learned or had a plan on how to attack enemy aircraft, Hong Mai said. It was a question of you or me.
In North Vietnamese records, Hong Mi is credited with shooting down an RF-4C Phantom photo reconnaissance aircraft near the Laos-Vietnam border on January 19, 1972, for which he was awarded the North Vietnamese Victory Insignia. Cherry’s investigation revealed that Major Robert C. Mock and Lieutenant John Stiles of the 14th Squadron, 432nd TRW, were shot down in exactly the same place, but on the 20th. January. The discrepancy between the data may be due to an accounting error. Mock and Stiles, who were under anti-aircraft fire at the time, thought they had been hit by a 37 mm artillery shell.
Cherry is certain that the R-3C missile, hastily fired by Hong Mis, hit the RF-4C and that the American crew, focused on air defense, did not see the missile hit.
The 19th. In January 1972, when I discovered John Styles’ RF-4C, Hong Mai told me that my fuel tank was very low. I was called back from the air base, but I still followed his plane and shot it down. Then I returned to Tho Xuan Air Base, near Thanhua City. … Immediately after landing my plane ran out of fuel and stalled.
Hong My, like Cherry, wondered what had become of his opponents. Eventually, Mock and Stiles were rescued by a helicopter.
Almost three months later, Hong Mai survived his fateful encounter with Cherry during an attack on the American Phantoms. In the North Vietnamese Air Force, he said, we were taught never to run away from the enemy, both at the academy and in combat – it showed bad character. We’ve learned to dodge most of your missiles.
North Vietnamese Lieutenant Nguyen Hong Mai of the 921st Fighter Regiment looks on from the cockpit of the MiG-21PFM / Courtesy of Brigadier General Dan Cherry, retired US Air Force.
Their My explained the events of the aerial duel as he saw them: There were only two planes on my flight on the 16th. April 1972. I tried to dodge your missiles and dodged five, but eventually my plane was hit by your missile and shot down. I just climbed into my parachute – I didn’t have time to think about what was going on. I was just trying to get off the plane as fast as I could. Two of my arms were broken, and my back was badly injured. I spent a long time, six months, in the hospital. I’ve had four operations. The doctor said my health wasn’t good, that I couldn’t fly anymore.
Nevertheless, he returned to duty.
I retired from the Vietnam Air Force in 1974, Hong Mai said. As a pilot, it was hard to find a job. I went to school to study business and foreign languages. After graduation, I worked for a Vietnamese insurance company. I retired in 2006 and now can’t find a job. But I’m busy enough as a grandparent!
After the TV show in Ho Chi Minh City, the former rivals continued to communicate with each other. Being from Kentucky, I brought him a gift – a small bottle of Maker’s Mark [bourbon whiskey], Cherry said. As we got to know each other, the chemistry got stronger and stronger. I saw two medals he proudly wore on his chest – wings first class awarded by Ho Chi Minh and a badge for victory in the air.
We became instantly famous after witnessing a fight on the roof of the Majestic Hotel in downtown Saigon. At one point, he pointed to my hand and asked: Aren’t you going to fire the rocket? When I showed it to him, he tapped me on the finger with an open laugh. …. At the end, he said: I want you to come to my house in Hanoi.
It was very surreal because we were flying with Vietnam Air over the same country that I had flown over countless times. I stayed at the Metropol Hotel, which is just steps away from the Hong Mi House. We had a wonderful walk through the streets of Hanoi, past the old French Opera building. At his home I met his daughter Jiang and his son Quan. Then Hong Moi let me hold his grandson, little Duk, who had just celebrated his first birthday.
The next day we did a tour of Hanoi, all the museums. The exhibits in the military museum – including a photo of my squadron, 13 TFS – were a sad reminder of the war. But even sadder was the Central House, the Hanoi Hilton. Originally the French used it for political prisoners and it was a terrible place, but now it is a museum. Hong Moi went dark as we walked through the exhibitions, and he asked me: Do you have a friend here? And then a picture of Colonel John Flynn caught my eye, and I said: Yes, I am.
Flynn, known to Cherry as a member of the 49th TFW at Spangdalen Air Force Base, was deputy commander of the 388th TFW at Korat when his F-105D was shot down by a land-based missile on the 27th. Oct. 1967. Flynn was a police officer until he was discharged on the 14th. March 1973, the highest-ranking American POW in North Vietnam.
When Hong My learned that his new friend knew the POWs personally, he bowed his head and walked away, leaving me alone with my thoughts, Cherry said. When I came out, he put his arm around my shoulders.
Cherry added: Our POWs have nothing to do with the pilots who fought with us. They always have something against the government and the prison administration.
After returning to the United States, Cherry wrote a brief account of her odyssey in My Enemy, My Friend, published in February 2009. But the ending of this book was not the end of the story.
Cherry reciprocated Hong Mi’s hospitality and invited him and his son to visit Bowling Green. The 16th. April 2009, exactly 37 years after the air battle in Vietnam, Hong Mai and Quan sit in the cockpit of the 550th Bombardment Wing. This gives him what could be a unique opportunity to be the only defeated fighter pilot in the fighter plane that actually shot him down, Cherry said.
Cherry flew his Cessna 172 to Frankfurt. I cried when I was at the Vietnam Memorial in Kentucky, the Vietnam veteran said. When I saw the names of all the American soldiers who had died in the war, I also thought of all my friends.
Hong Mai wanted to know if the pilots he had shot down were still alive. Unfortunately, Pilot Mock was killed in a car accident in Colorado, two months before Cherry began her search. The navigator, Stiles, lived in North Carolina. We have a full double circle: Hong Moi visited Stiles and met his family, and they also became friends, Cherry said.
On the 26th. April, Cherry, Stiles and Hong May traveled to Washington, D.C. I think a lot about this visit, Hong My later noted. I want my country to cooperate in the repatriation of the mortal remains of all soldiers who disappeared during the war. I had two memorable experiences during my visit. First: The governor made me honorary colonel of Kentucky! On another occasion I met John Styles for dinner. I felt very lucky.
The two pilots were able to talk about their shared experiences at the National Air and Space Museum. concluded Cherry: I hope this will help veterans of the Vietnam War on both sides move on and be an inspiration to both our countries. If I have learned anything from this experience, it is that there is no need to hold grudges.
For me, Hong Mai noted, the joy and wonder of it all is that here we are, me, Dan Cherry and John Styles, still alive and together in Washington, D.C. V
John Guttman is the head of research for Vietnam Magazine. Cherry’s book, My Enemy, My Friend, which he co-authored with Fran Erickson, and more information are available at aviationheritagepark.com.
This article was published in the April 2023 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more articles from Vietnam Magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook :
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