In 1971, the U.S. Air Force offered a checkout in the McDonnell F-4 to Republic F-105 drivers who had completed a 100-mission combat tour and were willing to volunteer for a second tour. I dearly loved the Thud, but with its numbers dwindling due to combat losses, its future was bleak.
I checked out in the F-4 at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida and in June arrived at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. The usual mission of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron was two-ship bombing flights under forward air control in Laos and an occasional reconnaissance escort into southern North Vietnam. By protecting the recon guys from MiGs, aircrews felt they were really doing something productive and, according to the rules of engagement, if the recce airplanes were fired at, we could drop bombs.
In 1972, combat missions grew more challenging. More reconnaissance escorts were dropping bombs and more F-4s were sent on multiple-flight missions against specific North Vietnam targets. On April 15, the air tasking order for the next day called for 20 airplanes to fly MiG patrol in the Hanoi area for bombing flights taking off from other F-4 and F-105 bases. The gloves were coming off.
At 8 a.m., the four airplanes of Basco Flight, each with three external fuel tanks and less than a full load of missiles, roared off Udorn's Runway 12, with Fred Olmsted and Stu Maas leading and Jeff Feinstein and me flying number 3. We jettisoned our empty centerline tanks and accelerated across the border into North Vietnam, heading straight for Hanoi. Enemy surface-to-air missile radars were on us immediately but we ignored the warnings: Our mission was to kill MiGs.
From the back seat of Basco Lead, Maas radioed that he'd spotted MiGs: two "bandits" dead ahead at 20 miles. We jettisoned our inboard fuel tanks, lit afterburners, and set switches as two MiG-21s tracked down the radar screen. Olmsted gained visual contact on the silver fighters as they passed overhead. We made a hard right turn to get into firing position.
Out of nowhere came a camouflaged MiG trailing the first two. I rolled out of the turn and headed straight for him, following as he broke into a cloud bank. "Lock him up, he should be right off our nose," I told Feinstein. But we were unable to lock on in the clouds, with surface-to-air radar warning blasting in our ears, so I pulled up into the clear. Flying with no visibility in a high-threat area is not what you want to be doing, MiG or no MiG.
Basco 4, Greg Crane, was hanging in there just fine as we popped out in the clear on top of the clouds. Then he spotted our MiG at 2 o'clock high. We made a hard climbing turn into firing position. Fire one Sidewinder. Fire two. No results. Something was wrong with my fire control system.
Frustrated, breathing hard, I switched element lead with Crane, who, in a descending right turn, fired three AIM 7 Sparrow missiles. Nothing. Are we snake-bit, or what? I took the lead again.
I concentrated on smoothly tracking the MiG in my gunsight and setting up switches for a shot. Lo and behold, at about 4,000 feet Feinstein got a full system lock-on. I clamped down on the trigger—with no expectations—and swoosh, out came a Sparrow. It hit the MiG in the right wing root. The wing blew off. Flame, smoke, and pieces of airplane went in all directions. What remained of the aircraft went into a snap roll and then, right in front of me, out popped the pilot with his parachute. I had to maneuver quickly to avoid the white canopy with one red panel. Crane confirmed the kill, and we joined up and headed home. Then came Olmsted's call, "Scratch another MiG-21," confirming his kill on one of the silver MiGs.
Two confirmed MiG kills, and all of Basco Flight coming home safe and sound. The Udorn Officers Club was the hot spot that night.
In June 2004, during a visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, some friends and I discovered the very airplane I had flown that April day 32 years ago. F-4D no. 66-7550 was on static display on the outskirts of Dayton, with my name and the red victory star, but the elements had taken their toll. Citizens in my hometown, Bowling Green, Kentucky, working to establish an aviation museum there, arranged to borrow Phantom 550 for future restoration and display.
We constantly brainstormed ways to promote Aviation Heritage Park and raise money to acquire more aircraft. The idea of trying to find the MiG pilot came up, usually over a couple of beers, and in jest. Still, I had always been curious about his fate—who he was, whether he survived, if he had a family—so we set about seeing what we could find out.
Through an acquaintance, I learned about a Vietnamese television show, "The Separation Never Seems to Have Existed," which reunites people who have lost touch. When the producer heard of my quest, she asked me, via e-mail, to write a letter stating my intentions and the circumstances surrounding the dogfight. Within two weeks she had found the MiG pilot, and invited me to Vietnam to appear on television with him.
On April 5, 2008, on live television, my heart pounded as Nguyen Hong My—the man I had last seen in a black flightsuit, swinging under a red and white canopy—walked onto the set. He greeted me with a firm handshake and words of welcome, and expressed his desire for us to become friends. We sat down at a table with the producer, Thu Uyen. The interview began with our histories and pictures of our families. I teared up when I saw photos of our children and grandchildren on the monitor, and so did Hong My—two tough old fighter pilots weeping on national television.
After the show, we had dinner and wine on the roof of the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, and with the help of an interpreter, we got to know each other. In the early 1960s, Hong My spent four years in the Soviet Union, training to fly and checking out in the MiG-21. He told me that Ho Chi Minh himself had presented him with his pilot wings and that he had been credited with one American shootdown. In our engagement, he broke both arms and severely injured his back in the ejection, but he recovered and went on to fly for two more years.
Hong My then invited me to his home in Hanoi. I had already planned to fly to Hanoi the next day, so he changed his airline reservation to fly with me. With my former adversary by my side, we flew over the same countryside where I had flown so many combat missions.
After I checked into my hotel we walked to Hong My's home through the streets of Hanoi, passing the beautiful old French Opera House and dodging motor scooters. I was introduced to his son, Quan, his wife, Giang, and grandson, Duc, who was celebrating his first birthday. Hong My was holding Duc, and as I came close, the little boy reached out to me. And then, Hong My placed Duc in my arms. I couldn't help thinking that had things gone differently in the sky that day 36 years ago, Duc wouldn't have been here for me to hold.
After a wonderful Vietnamese dinner, Hong My offered to take me back to the hotel on his motor scooter. (Everyone in Vietnam has a scooter.) We zipped through the streets of Hanoi, the MiG pilot and the F-4 pilot, laughing, dodging traffic, and having a grand old time.
The next day, Hong My was my tour guide. We went to every museum, war memorial, and tourist attraction, including the "Hanoi Hilton." Hoa Lo Prison, now a museum, was built by the French at the turn of the century, when Vietnam was a French colony. Most of the exhibits are about the French imprisoning Vietnamese citizens who had fought for independence, but a few showed American POWs during their incarcerations.
Usually gregarious and outgoing, Hong My turned quiet and somber. As I studied photographs of American POWs, he whispered, "Did you have friends in here?" I pointed to a picture of Colonel John Flynn. "He is my friend." Hong My lowered his eyes and shook his head.
As we emerged, I was overwhelmed with sorrow. Hong My put his arm consolingly around my shoulder and patted me on the back. On the street in front of the infamous POW jail, my enemy had become a true friend.
Dan Cherry served with the U.S. Air Force for 29 years, during which he commanded the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing and the Thunderbirds, and flew 295 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He retired with the rank of brigadier general. To purchase his just-published book, send a check for $25 to Aviation Heritage Park, My Enemy My Friend, P.O. Box 1526, Bowling Green, KY 42102-1526. Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on April 27.