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MiG and Phantom Foes: Back Together Again

Former F-4 and MIG-21 adversaries Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, U.S.A.F. (Ret.) and Nguyen Hong My shared the stage at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington on April 28 to talk about their 1972 dogfight over North Vietnam. Now good friends, My says even though he suffered a broken arm and four surgeries stemming from his bailout, he harbors no hard feelings toward Cherry and has put the events of the war behind him. After the lecture, Cherry said, “The common thread that runs through us is flying.”

Cherry, then a lieutenant on his second tour of duty in Southeast Asia in 1972, was in one of four jets searching for enemy aircraft when he spotted the MiG-21 flown by Lieutenant My, and broke away to attack. My ducked into a cloudbank, then Cherry’s wing man spotted the Vietnamese fighter again. Cherry reset his sights, but his adversary went into a dive and evaded five sidewinders by “expert maneuvering,” he said. The Phantom’s sixth missile, however, blew away My’s right wing and the MiG went into a hard spin. My ejected from the burning plane, and Cherry had to quickly maneuver to avoid the parachute.

Cherry had always wondered what happened to the pilot he shot down, and only recently had found him. The two pilots’ first arranged meeting was on a Vietnamese TV reality show in 2008. This spring, My, 63, came to the United States to visit Cherry, 70, and the Phantom number 66-7550 that shot him down over Hanoi, now on display in Bowling Green, Ky. “He and his son, Quan, sat in the cockpit of 550,” Cherry said, “which gave him possibly the unique distinction of being the only vanquished fighter pilot to sit in the fighter that actually shot him down.”

Cherry flew 295 combat missions during the war and eventually became commander of the Air Force Thunderbirds and retired as a brigadier general. He worked for the Kentucky Justice Cabinet and retired as president of Kentucky Transpark, a regional economic development project. In Vietnam, My left the military in 1974 and retired from the insurance business in 2006. Their Washington presentation was preceded by a showing of the History Channel’s Dogfights, which showcased the April 16, 1972, encounter between the two pilots.

Obama Offers Plan to Break VA Claim Backlog

Shortly after visiting U.S. troops in Iraq in April, President Barack Obama addressed an audience of wounded veterans to announce the government’s progress in its effort to streamline the military’s healthcare system by transitioning to electronic health records of active-duty troops and veterans, part of the Joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic Initiative between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The president said the plan should help reduce the current six-month backlog in disability claims at the VA and lower other bureaucratic hurdles veterans now face.

“The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have taken a first step towards creating one unified lifetime electronic health record for members of our armed services that will contain their administrative and medical information—from the day they enlist to the day that they are laid to rest,” the president said. “Currently, there is no comprehensive system in place that allows for a streamlined transition of health records between DoD and the VA. And that’s why I’m asking both departments to work together to define and build a seamless system of integration with a simple goal: When a member of the Armed Forces separate from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a DoD duty station to a local VA health center; their electronic records will transition along with them and remain with them forever.”

The president said his proposed budget includes the largest single-year increase in VA funding in three decades and supports an unprecedented effort to address posttraumatic stress disorder. In addition to the 33,000 wounded in the wars the nation is currently fighting, demand for VA medical services continues to rise from the millions of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War.

John McCain: ‘Best Wishes’ to Hanoi Hilton; Giap ‘Military Genius’

On Sen. John McCain’s recent tour of Asia, he made a two-day stop in Hanoi and visited the Hao Lo prison, adding his name to the guest book and writing “Best Wishes.” He escorted Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina through the “Hanoi Hilton,” now a museum run by Vietnam’s Communist government. In 1993 the Vietnamese tore down most of the prison and replaced it with commercial buildings, and McCain’s cell is no longer there, but one wing remains with the tiny cells—about 6 feet by 3 feet— much like the cell that held McCain for 5 ½ years during the Vietnam War. While walking past a photo of Vietnam’s legendary Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, McCain reportedly told his fellow senators that the man who masterminded battlefield victories over the Americans “was a military genius.”

Cost of Iraq War Will Surpass Vietnam’s by Year’s End

According to figures recently released by the Pentagon, by the end of 2009 the monetary cost of the war in Iraq will exceed that of the Vietnam War to make it the second most expensive military conflict in American history, behind World War II. Pending Congressional approval of President Barack Obama’s supplemental funding request submitted in April, the cost of the war will rise by $87 billion for 2009, including a previous supplemental approved during the Bush administration.

Added to the amount spent through 2008, it would mean the Iraq war will have cost taxpayers a total of about $694 billion. By comparison, the Vietnam War cost $686 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars and World War II cost $4.1 trillion, according to a Congressional Research Service study that was completed last year.

In Vietnam, U.S. forces at their peak had up to three times as many troops at any one time as in Iraq and suffered 58,000 deaths, more than 13 times as many as have died in Iraq. The Iraq war is the second-longest modern war ever fought with an all-volunteer U.S. force, behind the smaller-scale effort in Afghanistan. Volunteer forces are more expensive, largely as a result of the higher salaries and related costs needed to retain people.

The U.S. spent $34 billion in Afghanistan in 2008. This year, the Obama administration, which is sending additional forces to the country, plans to spend $47 billion. Military analysts believe Iraq war costs will continue to decline and the Afghanistan war costs will increase.

Secret CIA Air America Documents Now Open

A freedom of information request from the University of Texas at Dallas has yielded some 10,000 pages of declassified CIA documents on Air America. During the Vietnam War, Air America, secretly owned by the CIA, flew hundreds of clandestine missions and rescue operations. While some of its work may never be publicly acknowledged, much of Air America’s critical role in wartime rescues can now be told, such as rescues undertaken by Air America’s civilian pilots and accounts of the chaotic evacuation after the fall of Saigon. It was an Air America helicopter, perched precariously atop an apartment building as a long line of people climbed aboard, that was in one of the war’s most famous images.

Other declassified documents detail the rescue of wounded from a secret mountainous Air Force radar station in Laos known as Lima Site 85. A 1968 North Vietnamese raid killed 11 Americans, the largest single loss of Air Force personnel on the ground during the Vietnam War.

“These Air America documents are essential to understanding a large untold history of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia,” said Paul Oelkrug, Coordinator for Special Collections, University of Texas McDermott Library, at an April symposium that coincided with the release of the papers.

Brian K. Johnson, a former Air America helicopter pilot and past president of the Air America Association, said flight crews would often race to be the first to pick up downed military personnel. “These untold stories of the Vietnam War,” he said, “could help change Air America’s image.”

Air America formed in WWII under the name Civil Air Transport, and did contract work for the Chinese Nationalists. Control of the airline eventually shifted to the CIA, which set up shell companies to disguise its true ownership. In Southeast Asia, planes flew scheduled passenger flights out of Taiwan, but they also began flying covert missions in Laos and South Vietnam to supply anti-Communist forces.

Huey 808 and Its Ia Drang Crew Recovered After 43 Years

The Joint Task Force-Missing in Action team has found the crash site of an Army Huey helicopter and its crew, missing since December 28, 1965. Tail number 63-08808 was one of 10 helicopters in a platoon of A Company, 229th Assault Battalion that was flying alone along Route 19, a familiar trip, when it went missing in a mountain pass between An Khe and Qui Nhon. All four of its crew had fought the previous month in the Ia Drang Valley. Aboard the aircraft were two experienced pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Jesse Phelps and Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancel, along with crew chief Don Grella and door gunner Jim Rice. Without a word of distress, Huey 808 disappeared. For months, search teams in helicopters and on the ground scoured the rugged hills of the mountain pass looking for clues, but found nothing.

According to newspaper columnist and former UPI reporter Joe Galloway, who was at the Ia Drang battle, in early April Department of Defense officials informed the surviving family members of the four missing crewmen that search teams had found and positively identified the wreckage of Huey 808. The Joint Task Force-Missing In Action team at the site also recovered dog tags, personal artifacts and some human remains. The remains were taken to the Central Identification Library in Hawaii, where they will undergo analysis, before being turned over to their families. More than 1,600 American servicemen are still listed as missing in action in Vietnam.

Florida Vietnam Vet Tribute Grows Into Largest Reunion in Nation

Florida’s 22nd Annual Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion in late April drew some 100,000 veterans and visitors to Melbourne’s 400-acre Wickham Park. Over two decades, the event has grown into what is billed as the largest veterans reunion in the nation, attracting vets from across the United States, as well as Canada, Australia, and Europe and many Vietnamese who served in the South Vietnam forces. The event also brings out veterans from other wars, including many who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It started out just to be a barbecue with friends and family,” said Ralph Earrusso, director of the reunion committee. “We saw what it did for people, just the healing process, being able to meet with friends.” In 1988, about 3,000 people showed up for what veterans describe as a large campout. This year, by the time the weeklong events surrounding the reunion and the display of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall ended, organizers estimated the turnout at about 100,000. There were exhibits from the Americal Division, the Rangers and the 1st Cavalry. Helicopters were on display, complete with pilots who flew them, and schools sent busloads of students on field trips to learn more about the war.

Wheel of Fortune Host Pat Sajak and Taking Chance Writer Michael Strobl Named 2009 VVA Arts Award Winners

Vietnam War veterans Pat Sajak and John Phelps have been selected as this year’s recipients of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Excellence in the Arts Award, and Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (Ret.) will receive the organization’s President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, given to those who did not serve in Vietnam.

Soon after arriving in Vietnam in 1968, Sajak became the DJ at Armed Forces Radio’s popular morning music show Good Morning, Vietnam!, a position he had for about a year and a half. Following his discharge in 1970, he had a variety of broadcasting jobs, before Merv Griffin recruited him in 1981 to take over as the host of Wheel of Fortune, then a daytime game show. Sajak built the show’s popularity, making it the top-rated syndicated television program since 1983, when the show switched to the nighttime version.

Sajak is looking forward to sharing the evening with his fellow veterans at the annual VVA awards ceremony in Louisville, Ky., in August. “The people in my business love to give awards to each other,” he said. “Hardly a week goes by without some ceremony at which plaques and statues are handed out. However, the VVA 2009 Award for Excellence in the Arts is one I’m truly honored to receive. I feel any award given in connection with military service is one that reflects on all the men and women who have served.”

Award-winning artist and sculptor John Phelps’ art commissions include the World War II monument in Fremont County, Wyo., and the “Phelps Award,” a half-size Vietnam helmet he designed for New York’s Vietnam Veterans Plaza Committee, and given as an annual award.

Lt. Col. Michael Strobl was serving with the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., in 2004 when he volunteered to accompany the body of Marine Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps, who had been killed in Iraq, from Dover Air Force Base to his family home in Wyoming. Strobl’s memoir from this experience was widely published, and was the inspiration for the acclaimed 2009 HBO movie, Taking Chance, for which Strobl co-wrote the screenplay.

The VVA, founded in 1978 and exclusively dedicated to Vietnam-era veterans, has been giving these awards since 1987.


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here