A lesson for today: No racial divide for two American POWs

A lesson for today: No racial divide for two American POWs
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Two millennia ago, the Roman historian Plutarch penned a series of Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans. He would juxtapose some notable figure from classical Greece against another from classical Rome in order to entertain, inform and teach. He presented a capsule biography of each, then appended a short essay comparing and contrasting between them. For example, he wrote parallel biographies of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, two conquerors of lasting renown.

In so doing, Plutarch aspired to help readers learn how to live. He encouraged them to emulate the virtues they found among the ancients while spurning what they found low, or base, or unbecoming. Plutarch never wrote a biography of two friends, but he has a worthy successor in reporter James S. Hirsch. In his book, “Two Souls Indivisible,” Hirsch recounts the story of Fred Cherry and Porter Halyburton, U.S. aviators shot down over North Vietnam and imprisoned for eight years. They spent part of their ordeal together.

Their story is worth retelling on this Fourth of July weekend.

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Halyburton, a retired U.S. Navy airman, was one of my professors and later a colleague at the Naval War College during the 1990s. He seldom spoke about his experiences in Indochina. We knew he had been a prisoner of war from 1965-1973. He was missing long enough to be declared dead. He reputedly kept his gravestone and used it as an anchor for his fishing boat after the war.

Hirsch fills out the story in calm, spare prose that magnifies the impact of his account. The author describes the traumas of the Vietnam era — racial animus, bitter domestic strife over the war — without presuming to sit in judgment. “Two Souls Indivisible” originated with his interest in how the armed forces desegregated. The military, he says, represents “the country’s premier example of how a large institution successfully integrates.” He adds that “the seeds of that success were planted in Vietnam.”

In other words, transforming large institutions with ingrained attitudes and customs isn’t easy. It often takes a painful stimulus of some sort — not just a mandate from top leadership.

The Vietnam War applied such a stimulus. The fortunes of war threw Halyburton, a genteel white North Carolinian, together with Cherry, an African American U.S. Air Force officer who suffered grave injuries when North Vietnamese gunners brought down his F-105 fighter jet. When prison officials failed to wring military secrets or a confession to war crimes out of Halyburton, they decided to break him by compelling him to care for a Black man.

The guards called their ultimatum “better place-worse place.” They gave their captives a stark choice. They could cooperate with their captors and receive decent treatment, or refuse and be condemned to even more deplorable conditions. The guards also banked on race to get their way. They believed they could impose unbearable stress on Halyburton by inverting the normal racial hierarchy of 1960s America.

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Confining him with a Black man would be the worst place possible for a white Southerner.

Or so prison officials thought. Hirsch points out that Halyburton could have let Cherry perish in prison and no one back home would have been the wiser. Instead, he nursed his wounded colleague. Cherry underwent several botched surgeries. On one occasion his doctors withheld anesthetic to retaliate for a U.S. bombing raid. It took efforts verging on superhuman to keep him alive.

By no means is the book all about Halyburton, though. Cherry comes across as a true-to-life action hero. He had a hardscrabble upbringing in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Hirsch depicts the Cherry family as followers of Booker T. Washington’s doctrine of self-reliance. Coming from this background, Cherry regarded himself as a champion for Black America within the military.

He earned a reputation among fighter pilots for badassery.

For example: While returning from a combat mission during the Korean War, his wingman’s nose landing gear wouldn’t lock in the down position for landing. So Cherry improvised. He moved in under the stricken aircraft and used his wing to nudge the gear into position. That’s the stuff of legend. He stolidly bore injures, privation and torture in Vietnam — further cementing his heroic stature.

Cherry and Halyburton were cellmates for only seven months of their eight-year confinement, but facing the hardships of captivity together fortified them to endure the rest of their years in the camps. Indeed, Hirsch depicts prison life as an ennobling experience. Denied basic comforts such as books or palatable food, captives depended on one another. They feared letting their brothers-in-arms down more than they dreaded torture.

In the end, then, the Vietnamese foe unwittingly did the U.S. armed forces a favor by forcing white servicemen to rethink their assumptions about their Black comrades. Concludes Hirsch, Cherry “ceased being Black” for his fellow prisoners. He came to be “just another American pilot.” In fact, Halyburton likes to joke that the racial divide wasn’t so hard to span — the gulf between the U.S. Navy and Air Force was the true divide!

That’s progress. The POW experience helped transform the armed forces. As attitudes shifted, so did American military culture. Desegregation came to be more than just formal policy. 

Plutarch would approve of these parallel lives.

James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.