Vietnam Air Combat Foes to Reunite in Friendship
An unlikely reunion will take place at UT Dallas on Saturday, June 25, when a former Vietnamese fighter pilot will meet with three former U.S. adversaries all connected by the same series of events.
Their presentation, titled My Enemy … My Friend after a book by one of the guests, is this year’s McDermott Library Jalonick Memorial Lecture. The event, set for 4 p.m. in the UT Dallas Jonsson Performance Hall (JO 2.604), is free and open to the public.
The event has its origins in a trip to Vietnam by retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry. Former fighter pilot Nguyen Hong My, whose plane Cherry had shot down in 1972, invited him for a meeting that was televised on Vietnamese television. Cherry later reciprocated by iniviting Hong My to the U.S. to dedicate an aviation park.
The two men will meet again Saturday on the UT Dallas campus along with U.S. airman John Stiles, whom Hong My had faced in a separate air battle, and Air America helicopter pilot Bob Noble, who helped rescue Stiles after his plane was downed.
In advance of the lecture, Gen. Cherry answered questions about the events of the past three and a half years.
Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry wrote My Enemy … My Friend about his experiences in Vietnam and his later meeting with a fighter pilot he had faced in combat.
How did you acquire your old American F-4D Phantom for the Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, Ky., and what were your first thoughts about Hong My’s appearance at the dedication?
“It was an incredible feeling just to discover my airplane again after so many years. Sitting in a field with tires flat and all covered with bird droppings, it was a bittersweet reunion. But she was still a proud bird with my red victory star on the intake and my name on the canopy rail. All she needed was a little TLC. These days she continues to serve her country and be an inspiration to youth as she sports a new paint job in her new home at Aviation Heritage Park. And what a thrill it was to have MiG pilot Nguyen Hong My present as we dedicated the park. For the first time in history, a fighter pilot returned from combat to sit in the cockpit of the actual aircraft that shot him down. An amazing experience.”
What emotions did you experience when the offer came to travel back to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to meet Hong My face-to-face on live national television?
“At first I was very skeptical and suspicious, afraid that it might be a hoax and an effort to embarrass me or my country. But after checking with the U.S. Embassy, I accepted the invitation.”
What was your reaction upon first seeing Hong My in person?
“I had never seen a picture of him, and all I knew was his name. As he stepped from behind a curtain on the TV set, my heart was racing. I really wanted this meeting to go well, but I had no idea how the chemistry would work between us. Hong My looks like a fighter pilot. Not too tall but very muscular, with head shaved, he looked like a warrior should look. He came walking toward me, and I extended my hand. He had a pleasant look on his face – not a smile, but a pleasant look. As we clasped hands in a very firm handshake he said, ‘Welcome to my country, I am glad to see you are in good health, and I hope that we can be friends.’ ”
At what point did you feel at ease with your former adversary?
“After the TV show, we went to a restaurant, had a few glasses of wine and got to know each other better. With the help of an interpreter we talked about flying and our families. Then he invited me to his home in Hanoi to have dinner with his family. That was when I knew that we had a real basis for friendship.”
What was it like when Hong My first came to see you in the United States?
“When Hong My came in April 2009, it was his first trip to the U.S. It made me proud to show him where I live, reciprocate with dinner in my home, visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and speak at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Did you have any particular reaction watching Hong My and his son climb into your Phantom that nearly ended his life?
“Before we even arrived at the aircraft for the dedication ceremony, I had in mind asking him to sit in the cockpit, and I wondered if he would want to do it. However, as we rounded the curve on Three Springs Road and the big Phantom came in sight, Hong My said, ‘Is that your Phantom?’ The canopies were open for the ceremony, and the next thing he said was, ‘May I get in it?’”
Were there any other extra special memories of Hong My’s first U.S. visit?
“When he first arrived in Kentucky I gave him a copy of my book, My Enemy…My Friend. He reads English quite well and after he had the book for a day or two he said, ‘Dan, I don’t like your book.’ Of course this really upset me, but in the interest of harmony I didn’t pursue it. Then just before he left to go back home I asked him, ‘Hong My, why didn’t you like my book?’ And he said, ‘Oh, no, Dan, I didn’t mean I didn’t like your book, I just don’t like the title, because I don’t believe you and I were ever really enemies, we were just soldiers doing the best we could for our two countries.’ And he was right. We were just soldiers.”
Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry (left) and former fighter pilot Nguyen Hong My faced off in the skies above Vietnam in 1972. (Photo by John Fleck)
Cherry met Hong My in friendship in a Vietnamese TV studio in 2008. (Photo by John Fleck)
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