They were never really enemies. That is what Nguyen Hong My likes to say – as if they were college football rivals, not members of opposing militaries in a war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese.
They were not playing a game. They were fighting in the Vietnam War, which makes Hong My’s friendship with the American pilot who shot him down, Dan Cherry, and the American navigator Hong My shot down, John Stiles, all the more incredible.
“It’s a war story, but the primary message is one of forgiveness and reconciliation,” says Cherry, a 74-year-old retired Air Force Brigadier General.
It is a story told in images in John Fleck’s photography book, The Unlikely Reunions: a Story of Reconciliation from the Vietnam War, an updating of an earlier, privately printed book that is scheduled for release Veterans Day.
There you can see Cherry holding Hong My’s first grandson, one-year-old Hong Duc. Cherry on the back of Hong My’s scooter, his arms wrapped around Hong My’s waist. A few pages later there is another shot of them together: the slight American in khakis wearing a button-down and the bald and buff Vietnamese man with multiple gold chains. The same man whose military career Cherry ended more than four decades earlier when he shot down Vietnam Air Force Lieutenant Hong My’s MiG-21 in 1972. Hong My survived, but both his hands were broken and his back severely injured in the crash.
Their dogfight lasted almost five minutes, about four minutes longer than the average encounter – an eternity. Later, Cherry’s comrades toasted him with whiskey and champagne. But in the back of his mind he thought about the pilot he saw parachuting toward the ground: Who was he? What happened? Did he survive?
It wasn’t until 2008 that Cherry found his answers when he met Hong My on the set of a Vietnamese television show that specializes in reuniting people. Hong My also had questions and asked Cherry to help him find the man Hong My shot down several months before his own downing.
They learned that that American pilot had died, but his navigator, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Stiles, was alive. Just before being rescued by helicopter, Stiles was confronted by a man with a gun. For some reason the man didn’t shoot and Stiles escaped. But the memories of the downing – the hours he spent in Laos evading the enemy, the time he spent hanging from the trees, watching the wreckage of his plane burn – stayed with him. Every year they returned around the anniversary of the crash in the form of panic attacks. That stopped when he met Hong My in 2009.
“Unless you’ve experienced it, I don’t think there’s any way you can understand totally, but war is always there,” says Stiles, who is 67. “And people who have taken other peoples’ lives will know exactly what I’m talking about. But that concern, that element of frustration, anxiety, turmoil, self-questioning is [now] gone.”
The trio now regularly reunite in the U.S.; they visit war memorials together, speak at air shows and hang out in Cherry’s Kentucky home and Stiles’ place in North Carolina. Last year Hong My sent Stiles a friend request on Facebook. Stiles accepted immediately.