Fred Cherry, Former Air Force Pilot and Vietnam POW, Dies at Age 87

February 22, 2016 Updated: February 23, 2016

A former U.S. Air Force pilot who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam recently passed away at age 87.

Fighting against racial prejudice and segregation, the black hero joined the Air Force in 1951, and showed so much skill that he was soon flying combat missions over North Korea.

In 1965, Fred Cherry was flying an F-105 fighter over North Vietnam when anti-aircraft fire hit his plane.

My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right, or what some might call, doing the right thing.
— Fred Cherry, former POW, Air Force Colonel

Cherry bailed out just before the craft exploded, and fell captive to the communists.

“The plane exploded and I ejected at about 400 feet at over 600 miles an hour,” Col. Cherry wrote in a 1999 collection of war stories by POWs and Medal of Honor recipients. “In the process of ejection, I broke my left ankle, my left wrist, and crushed my left shoulder. I was captured immediately upon landing by Vietnamese militia and civilians.”

Former POW, Air Force Col. Fred Cherry, center, of Suffolk, Va., poses with his two sons, Don, 19, right, and Fred, 17, both PFCs in the Army, after returning to Andrews Air Force base near Washington, D.C., Feb. 16, 1973. Cherry was one of seven POWs who were flown to Washington. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)
Former POW, Air Force Col. Fred Cherry, center, of Suffolk, Va., poses with his two sons, Don, 19, right, and Fred, 17, both PFCs in the Army, after returning to Andrews Air Force base near Washington, D.C., Feb. 16, 1973. Cherry was one of seven POWs who were flown to Washington. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

Cherry was thrown into a cell with Porter Halyburton, a white pilot from North Carolina, a story recounted in Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, a book from another American pilot, Lee Ellis, and Two Souls Indivisible, by James S. Hirsh.

While their Vietnamese captors expected them to turn on each other, Halyburton helped Cherry recover from his wounds and they stayed strong together until their release over seven years later. 

“Fred never complained about anything, in spite of this incredible pain and discomfort he went through,” Halyburton said in 2012. Both of the men were tortured.

Cherry stayed strong because he saw it as part of his duty.

“He knew what to expect,” Cherry’s son Fred Cherry Jr. told the Suffolk News-Herald. “To dad, those seven and a half years was his duty.”

“When all hope seemed to fade and creep away, my faith would grasp the fading hope and reel it back within my reach,” Cherry said in his story.

“Without the sound values deeply embedded in me, my performance as an American fighting man in the hands of the enemy would have been miserable and so would my ability to face myself in a mirror today.”

I use as my embedded standard: honor, integrity, faith in God and country and love.
— Fred Cherry, former POW, Air Force Colonel

“My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right, or what some might call, doing the right thing. I use as my embedded standard: honor, integrity, faith in God and country and love. Believe that right will prevail over wrong. Know that honor, integrity, faith in God and country, respect and love will set you free,” he added.

After his retirement in 1981, Cherry went on to start an engineering company.

“I’ve never, ever, ever heard any ill will against my father,” Cherry Jr. said. “Everybody that met him adored him, respected him and loved him.”