Nguyen Hong My was the name of the enemy pilot Maj. Dan Cherry saw ejecting from a MiG-21 jet fighter he just shot down with his F-4D Phantom. But Cherry didn't know the pilot's name until he came face to face with the man 36 years later on a television show in Vietnam.
Now, as a retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen., Cherry recalled the day when he met Hong My to Legion family members attending the 94th American Legion National Convention.
On April 16, 1972, Cherry sortied with three additional F-4D Phantoms from an air base in Udorn, Thailand, to escort a few B-52s on a bombing run. However, the B-52s never appeared so Cherry and the other pilots proceeded on their secondary mission — hunting for enemy fighters. It was during this mission that Cherry shot down Hong My's MiG-21, his first — and only — air victory during the Vietnam War. Later that evening while many celebrated the successful mission, Cherry found himself wondering about the fate of the MiG pilot he had seen parachuting to the ground.
"The very next day, I was up flying another combat mission," Cherry said. "So for 36 years, I put that way in the back of my mind, the questions of who he was and did he survive."
Legion family members watched the "Hell Over Hanoi" episode from The History Channel's "Dogfights" series, which featured Cherry's exploits in shooting down his future friend, Hong My. "If you've ever tried to have someone explain to you the dynamics of a dogfight," Cherry said, "it's very, very difficult to tell the details of something that's so changing and so dynamic."
For Hong My, there was no celebrating — both of his forearms broke and his back was seriously injured from the rough landing. After multiple surgeries and rehab, Hong My returned to the flight line. But by that time, the Vietnam War was over.
Cherry returned to the States from Vietnam in June 1972, and served as an instructor pilot. In the 1970s, he commanded the Air Force Thunderbirds — the famous aerobatics squadron — and continued on to command the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying the F-16, in South Korea. He retired in 1988 and returned to his hometown of Bowling Green, Ky. Upon his return to Bowling Green, Cherry and his friends received news about an F-4D Phantom fighter on display at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post near Dayton, Ohio. The plane was in disrepair.
"We discovered that it was none other than Phantom 550, the airplane I was flying on April 16 (1972)," Cherry said. "We had to go find the airplane and see it."
Cherry and his friends drove to Enid, Ohio, and found his plane, "looking somewhat lonely and forlorn, grass growing up all around her, her tires were flat. But it made me very proud to see my red victory star still on the air intake," Cherry said.
Cherry and his friends, along with many other supporters, salvaged the Phantom 550 and made it a centerpiece at Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green. And soon after discovering his plane, Cherry was contacted by a Vietnamese television producer who invited him as a guest on a popular talk show to be united with Hong My. So in April 2008, Cherry arrived in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
"Now keep in mind, I have never seen a picture of him (Hong My). All I know is his name. Other than that, I didn't know a thing about him," Cherry said. Hong My stepped out from behind a partition, walked over to Cherry and gave him a firm handshake. "And he (Hong My) said to me, ‘Welcome to my country. I'm glad to see that you're in good health, and I hope that we can be friends.' And that's how this amazing relationship started," Cherry said.
Cherry later wrote, "My Enemy, My Friend," an account of his encounter with Hong My in aerial combat and their subsequent friendship. He said his "war story" is "truly a story of forgiveness, reconciliation and the power of friendship — all things that we as human beings desperately need on a daily basis."