After the gunfire ceased
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 14, 2013 1:50 AM
In this News-Argus file photo, Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, left, and Lt. Col. John Stiles, center, toast with their former foe, Nguyen Hong My, inside the 335th Fighter Squadron bar on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Cherry and Stiles will speak as part of a Wayne Community College Foundation program Thursday.
Editor's note: April 18, two days after The Wall That Heals arrives in Wayne County, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry will deliver the keynote address at an opening ceremony event. That evening, Cherry and fellow fighter pilot, retired Air Force Col. John Stiles, will share their war experiences at 7 p.m. in Wayne Community College's Moffatt Auditorium.
His eyes focused on an F-15E Strike Eagle climbing into the clouds, Nguyen Hong My bent back his fingers and tilted his arm -- using his hand to mimic the aircraft's every movement as it began rolling across the horizon.
Moments later, a retired Air Force brigadier general put his arm around the man -- smiling as he recalled their encounter more than 30 years ago in similar skies thousands of miles away.
Dan Cherry remembers April 16, 1972, as a "seminal" day in his career as a fighter pilot.
But what has unfolded in the decades since that dogfight -- when Cherry, commanding an F-4 Phantom, shot down Hong My's camouflaged MiG-21 over a war-torn country -- he says, is what truly defines that particular mission.
"April 16, 1972, was a huge day for me professionally as an Air Force pilot. That day ... in the height of the Vietnam War ... I became engaged in a very intense dogfight. Fortunately, the end result of all of that was I was victorious," Cherry said. "What I have learned since then, though, has been the remarkable part of the whole story."
It started with a simple letter -- the general's account of all that happened during the several minutes he sought Hong My's aircraft just over Hanoi.
He sent it to a television producer in Vietnam, hoping to learn the fate of the man he watched, more than 30 years before, make his way to the ground via parachute.
"That day, when my missile impacted the MiG, I saw the MiG pilot eject from his airplane. I clearly saw him in his parachute," Cherry said. "There's a human element there, even for a warrior. You think about the person's name. You know that he probably has a family. You wonder about those things."
A few weeks later, his former enemy had been identified as a retired Vietnam Air Force lieutenant.
"I gave the date, the time and place of the dogfight and (the show) researched it through the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense," Cherry said. "Then, I get an e-mail that says ... 'We have found the brave MiG pilot. We want you to come to Vietnam and meet him.'"
And on April 5, 2008, the two, for the first time, met eyes on the set of "The Separation Never Seems to Have Existed," a show centered around reconciliation.
Hong My wore scars on his arms -- a lasting reminder of the body broken by the impact of Cherry's missile and his ejection.
And when he bent his fingers back and tilted his arm to show the general just how he remembers what unfolded during that dogfight, it was clear to Cherry that he had found his mark.
"Whether or not he is the real MiG pilot, I know good and well he is," Cherry said. "Hong My was injured very badly in his ejection, and he has the scars to prove that. But he also knows all the circumstances of that day and he and I (have) compared notes. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the real deal."
Cherry and Hong My's latest reunion in Wayne County -- one that took place in 2010 at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base -- was not the only story unfolding that afternoon.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Stiles was also on hand with a particular memory to share.
Cherry's 2008 visit to Vietnam revealed that Hong My, too, was looking for answers.
He told his former adversary about an aircraft that he once shot down -- how he, too, had watched an enemy crew guide parachutes into the jungle.
Cherry brought that information back to the United States and began to research just which of his comrades went down Jan. 20, 1972.
And in 2009 in Washington, D.C., during their first face-to-face meeting, Stiles and Hong My made their connection.
"He talked about what he saw and what he did, and there is nobody else in the world who would know that except for (Stiles' pilot, Bob Mock), myself and Hong My," Stiles said. "I am convinced, there is no doubt in my mind, that he shot us down."
So Stiles -- along with his wife, Barbara, and their daughter, who was just an infant the day her father's F-4 was shot down -- welcomed the opportunity to join Cherry and Hong My for a day in Goldsboro.
And the colonel's participation in the events that unfolded that day -- and knowing that Stiles made it home to his family -- was special for his former foe, Hong My said through a translator.
And although their friendship would have seemed like an impossibility during the war, it is one that each now cherishes.
"Hong My actually says it the best. He says, 'We were doing what our countries told us to do, what our governments said was the right thing,'" Stiles said. "So there is no animosity there. Actually, I think he's a great guy. He was just a pilot who did his job very well."
Standing at the bar inside the 335th Fighter Squadron lounge, Hong My, Stiles and Cherry raised their glasses, toasted and shared a drink.
And in that moment, it seemed clear that these days, the men see themselves as comrades.
"When I had the opportunity to meet Hong My for the first time, I wondered what kind of a person he was and whether or not we could possibly become friends," Cherry said. "But my intuition told me that as pilots ... we would have far more in common than we ever had differences.
"A fighter pilot's war is totally different than an infantry soldier's war. It's not as personal. You're trying to destroy or disable the airplane, and you're not really thinking about the pilot. We both strapped it on the same way, knowing the risks, that day."
Hong My agreed.
"The war has ended," he said through his translator. "Right now, the only thing (I) am thinking about is friendship and friendship only."
So when he heard about the book Cherry published in 2009 about their shared experiences during and after the war, the retired Vietnamese pilot was rather direct about his distaste for one aspect of it.
"When I wrote the book ... I came up with the title, 'My Enemy ... My Friend.' When Hong My traveled to the United States ... for the first time, I presented a copy of (it) because, above all, I wanted him to like (it)," Cherry said. "The next morning, he said, 'Dan, I didn't like the book.' It just crushed me.
"As it turns out, as I asked him more about why he didn't like it, he said what he really meant was he didn't like the title. He thought we were never really enemies. We were just, as he puts it, 'We were just soldiers doing the best we could do.'"