30 November 1957 – Capt Benny Lacombe is killed when he unsuccessfully attempts to bail out of Lockheed U-2A, 56-6704, Article 371, 13 miles SE of Laughlin AFB. Ejection seats had not yet been fitted to U-2s at this point. The history of the U-2 program is fraught with fatalities and crashes. “CIA pilots Wilburn S.
Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.
On June 29, 1951, after his college graduation, Cherry enlisted in the Aviation Cadet Training Program of the U.S. Air Force and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was awarded his pilot wings at Webb Air Force Base in Texas on October 25, 1952.
Cherry was soon serving in the Korean War, where he flew F-84 Thunderjets on more than 100 combat missions, with the 58th Fighter-Bomber Wing, which was stationed at Taegu Air Base in South Korea
During a combat mission on October 22, 1965, Cherry’s F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was shot down over North Vietnam. Cherry ejected and landed with a broken ankle and wrist, and a crushed shoulder. He was immediately captured by the North Vietnamese militia.
Cherry was the first and highest-ranking black officer among U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. According to Cherry, his North Vietnamese captors wanted him to make public statements about racial intolerance in the United States, but he refused. As a result, Cherry spent 702 days in solitary confinement and was tortured or placed in punishment for 93 days in a row.
Cherry’s jailers placed U.S. pilot Ensign Porter Halyburton, a Southern white man, in Cherry’s cell in the hopes that the two men would become antagonists. Instead, the two pilots helped each other to survive confinement and became very good friends. After seven years as a prisoner of war, Cherry was released from captivity on February 12, 1973. Cherry told the story of his POW’s experience to Wallace Terry
Later career in the USAF
After returning home, Cherry discovered that his wife, Shirley Brown, had taken all of his life savings after the Air Force declared him missing in action and started dating another man. Cherry started legal proceedings with the Air Force to have back salary and other payments returned to him.
After Vietnam, Cherry attended the National War College and was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency. He retired from the Air Force with over 30 years of service on 1 September 1981.
In 1982, the United States Court of Claims found the Air Force negligent in handling Cherry’s military pay and awarded him $38,449 in compensation. At the time of the award, Cherry stated that he would contest the decision, saying that he wanted more of the $129,000 that his wife had received from the Air Force.
Cherry’s life is the subject of the book, Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam, by James S. Hirsch, author of Hurricane. Cherry was also featured in the documentary, Tom Hanks Presents: Return With Honor, the story of Vietnam fighter pilots held as prisoners of war.
Following his retirement from active duty, President Ronald Reagan commissioned Cherry to serve on the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board. Cherry also served as the Director of Technical Support Services for E.H. White & Co., and as Marketing Manager for Data Transformation Corp. Most recently, Cherry has served as Chief Executive Officer for Cherry Engineering and Support Services and Director of SilverStar Consulting.
Cherry died of cardiac disease on February 16, 2016, at a hospital in Washington, DC. He is buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
A new middle school bears his name, the Colonel Fred Cherry Middle School, which seats 800 students and opened in the Fall of 2018, it was the fifth and newest middle school in Suffolk Public Schools; Suffolk, Virginia.