Vietnam vet reunites with pilot he shot down in ’72

April 20, 2008

Vietnam vet reunites with pilot he shot down in ’72

By JIM GAINES, The Daily News, jgaines@bgdailynews.com
Saturday, April 12, 2008 9:45 PM CDT

John Fleck/Special to the Daily News
Former Vietnam War adversaries Dan Cherry (left) of Bowling Green and Hong My of Vietnam meet for the first time earlier this month in Vietnam.


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On April 6, Dan Cherry and Nguyen Hong My were back in the air near Hanoi, capital of Vietnam.

Almost 36 years before – on April 16, 1972 – Cherry shot down My’s MiG-21 fighter in the same area.

My parachuted as his plane crashed, breaking his arms in the process; and now Cherry’s plane, an F4D Phantom II, is restored to its wartime colors and parked in the Aviation Heritage Park on Three Springs Road.

Last week, the two men flew together past the scene of their earlier encounter, chatting in the comfortable seats of a jetliner on their way to My’s home.

“It was, I guess, the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my lifetime,” Cherry said.

Cherry volunteered for combat duty in Southeast Asia in 1966, then for a second tour in 1971. He flew 295 missions, most of them over North Vietnam. He retired as a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force and went on to a career in Kentucky state government and managing the Kentucky TriModal Transpark.

But, Cherry said, he often wondered what happened to the pilot he shot down. When the Aviation Heritage Park was in its planning stages 2 1/2 years ago, one of its local backers half-jokingly suggested trying to find the MiG pilot.

Cherry worked through friends to contact a reunion show on Vietnamese TV, which worked through the Ministry of Defense to identify Nguyen Hung My.

In December, a producer of the show – called “As If We Never Parted” – e-mailed Cherry with the news and asked if he’d appear on the show .

After flying to Vietnam for his first visit since the war, he went to the TV studio April 5. According to Cherry, the show’s host introduced him and told the audience about his life. After showing pictures of Cherry’s family, she introduced My.

Cherry said he was nervous, wondering how he’d be received. But My smiled as he came out and shook Cherry’s hand. Through an interpreter, My said he was glad to meet Cherry. The anchor told about My’s life, his four years of flight training in the Soviet Union and his war service.

Thanh Nien News, a major newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City which publishes in Vietnamese and English, reported on the pilots’ meeting. According to that story, My said he’d never thought about looking for the pilot who once shot him down. After the war, he studied English and finance, and worked for an insurance company, the paper said.

My flew for two more years after recovering from his bail-out injuries, speaks Chinese and Russian, has a great sense of humor, and is obviously highly respected by friends and family, Cherry said.

After the show, the two sat down backstage and talked about flying and their respective families.

“We hit it off really well,” Cherry said.

Later, they and the TV staff went to a rooftop restaurant in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Over dinner, My asked if Cherry would visit his home in Hanoi. Cherry – already planning to go to Hanoi the next day as a tourist – thought My meant some indefinite time in the future; it turned out he meant the next day. When Cherry agreed, My changed his own travel schedule so they could be on the same flight.

My’s house, it turned out, was within walking distance of Cherry’s hotel. That night he and his friends Larry Bailey and John Fleck made their way to My’s house along streets teeming with motor scooters, Cherry said.

They had dinner with My’s family, and Cherry got to hold his former opponent’s 1-year-old grandson, he said.

“It was just a tremendous experience to be welcomed so completely,” Cherry said. “I’ve made a good friend in Mr. Hong My.”

In return, he gave My a bottle of bourbon and invited him to visit Bowling Green, perhaps later this year, he said.

My offered to guide them around the city the next day, showing up at 8 a.m. in a car with his son-in-law and friend. He took them to one site after another, including a number of military museums that ordinary tourists wouldn’t get to see, Cherry said. They saw past displays of Soviet-built fighter planes, including MiG-21s like the one My flew in 1972, he said.

Cherry also visited the “Hanoi Hilton” – the building made notorious as a prison for American pilots shot down over North Vietnam. It’s now a museum. Most of the exhibits, though, are devoted to the Vietnamese who were held there during the decades of French rule, Cherry said; there’s only one small room describing its time as a prison for American.

The overall impression he had of Vietnam is that what the Vietnamese call the “American War” has been put far behind them, he said.

“They’re moving on to the future. They don’t hold any grudges,” Cherry said.

My also asked for help with one task: He shot down an American plane, too, but believes that pilot was killed, Cherry said. So he asked if Cherry could help him find that pilot’s family. He would like to express his respect and condolences, Cherry said.

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