Men become lifelong friends under awful conditions

September 25, 2007

Men become lifelong friends under awful conditions

By Michael J. Ross
AMERICUS, Ga. Retired Air Force Col. Fred Cherry and retired Navy Cmdr. Porter Halyburton both explained at a symposium Wednesday at the Rylander Theatre that their horrendous experience as cell mates in a prison of war (POW) camp in Vietnam forged a lasting and nurturing friendship to this very day.

Cherry and Halyburton ended up in the camp, when each of their fighter planes was shot down by ground artillery over Hanoi, Vietnam just within days of each other.

Cherry estimated that his aircraft was traveling about 700 miles per hour when he had to eject from the plane. He suffered several broken bones in his ankles and wrists and an injured shoulder because of the rough ejection, he explained.

Initially, Cherry and Halyburton weren’t jailed together at the “Hanoi Hilton” and didn’t know each other, even though they were both officers in the U.S. military.

The Vietnamese army interrogated both Cherry and Halyburton for months separately. Halyburton said each time he wouldn’t answer their questions, they would move him to a worse cell and living conditions. He said this particular punishment escalated about three times.

Halyburton said he was almost at his breaking point. He had been in solitary confinement and hadn’t spoken to a friendly face in months, when the Vietnamese decided to move him to the worse cell possible, so they thought.

He said guards threw him in another dark cell and yelled, “Take care of Cherry.” The Vietnamese thought it was the ultimate insult in 1965 for a Southern American white man to have to take care of a Southern American black man.

But Cherry and Halyburton both said that was the best thing the Vietnamese could have did for them at that point. Cherry was in a very dire condition from the wounds he had received from his airplane ejection.

Halyburton described how Cherry couldn’t move and hadn’t been allowed to bathe since his capture. Cherry’s captors had only given him the most basic of medical care, he remembered.

“Haly had to do everything for me. He even had to feed me and he never complained once,” Cherry recalled at the symposium. Finally, the doctors at the prison camp decided they were going to operate on Cherry’s injured shoulder.

But this operation only made his health drastically worse. Halyburton recalled that the doctors put a cast on Cherry from his waist to his neck with no padding or bandage on the incision.

Halyburton remembered that the cast was bound super tight and Cherry could hardly exhale or inhale and eat. He said the doctors finally treated Cherry for the infection, after Halyburton caused a lot of trouble and ruckus to get them to do anything.

Cherry said they removed the cast, dug out the infected flesh without any anesthesia and doused his entire upper body with gasoline to supposedly clean the wounds.

They both said the Vietnamese army tried to force them to make audio or written statements denouncing the war, but they wouldn’t.

Cherry said the Vietnamese figured that many American blacks wouldn’t enlist if the Vietnamese could use him as a propaganda tool. “They knew propaganda was the only possible way they could win they war,” Halyburton said about the Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese eventually separated Cherry and Halyburton, and Bill Robinson then became Cherry’s cell mate. Cherry revealed at the symposium that he was imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton for 7 1/2 years.

But Cherry and Halyburton eventually reunited after captivity and when they returned to the States. Now, they are lifelong friends.

They both have revisited Hanoi decades after their release. Cherry and Halyburton have moved on with their lives and have no ill will or hatred toward Vietnam or its people, they explained.

Michael J. Ross writes for the Americus (ga.) Times-Recorder.

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