Veterans mark Air Force's 50th year Maryland airmen honored with exhibit

November 11, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

One flier trained in an open-cockpit biplane during World War II and retired after flying supersonic jets. Another spent more than seven years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. Still another flew United Nations missions in Bosnia with the Maryland Air National Guard.

For these Maryland airmen -- and military fliers nationwide -- Veterans Day 1997 has special significance: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force as a separate military service, rather than as part of the Army.

"I went from 90 miles an hour in an old cloth-covered, prop-driven Stearman biplane to twice the speed of sound in a jet fighter, and from Army brown to Air Force blue," recalled Col. Herman G. "Hank" Tillman Jr., 75.

Through Friday, artifacts of his 31-year career -- with those of Col. Fred V. Cherry, the former POW, and Maj. Andre L. "Sleepy" Johnson, the Air National Guardsman -- are on display as part of a Veterans Day exhibit at the Fallon Federal Building in Baltimore.

The one-of-a-kind exhibit, assembled from private and Air Force sources, highlights the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as a separate service Sept. 18, 1947.

The display includes models of planes the three men flew in combat, World War II memorabilia and examples of historic gear and equipment, in- cluding an Army Air Corps uniform.

The stories of the three men -- recently honored by the Department of Veterans Affairs regional office and the VA medical center in Baltimore -- provide a panoramic view of the changes in military aviation since World War II.

Tillman, a Kent Island resident who spoke recently at the White House for the Air Force anniversary, was a B-17 pilot at age 20 and flew more than 50 missions over Europe, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He later qualified as a jet pilot and flew noncombat missions during the Korean War before returning to battle in Vietnam.

He flew 105 missions over Vietnam, including one in which he took an unarmed photo-reconnaissance jet repeatedly into heavy enemy ground fire to get needed pictures and brought his plane back safely -- just as he had nursed a crippled bomber back to England from Italy a generation earlier. He won his second DFC and a Silver Star for gallantry.

Cherry, 69, won medals for aerial combat in Korea and Vietnam.

But it was his heroism and leadership in a North Vietnamese prison from 1965 to 1973 that earned him the Air Force Cross, the second highest decoration for valor after the Medal of Honor. As a prisoner, he endured torture, beatings and starvation.

"We learned a lot how to care for each other, how not to take things for granted," he said of himself and his fellow POWs. "We learned that religious faith and the common values we were taught as children got us through."

Cherry returned to Vietnam four years ago with five other former POWs. They visited their former prison and met two of their former jailers. "It was a very pleasant visit, almost as if we had been allies instead of enemies. There was none of the bitterness among the POWs as among other" former servicemen, he said.

Now head of a Silver Spring engineering firm, Cherry hopes to return to Vietnam again to establish a business relationship.

Cherry and Tillman were career military men. Johnson, a pilot in the 175th Wing, Maryland Air National Guard, represented a branch of the service that includes citizen-soldiers.

Johnson, the wing's chief of training, enlisted as a private in 1980 and rose to staff sergeant as an aircraft mechanic before applying for flight school and qualifying in 1987.

The Maryland Air National Guard is considered among the best, and its fighter and transport sections have drawn repeated overseas missions, including in Somalia and the Balkans.

Johnson, a full-time Guardsman, flew ground-support combat missions in A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack aircraft in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994, 1995 and 1996 as part of the U.N. peacekeeping force.

Budget and personnel reductions in the active-duty forces have imposed additional strains on the National Guard and Reserve units, Johnson said, adding, "Being a citizen-soldier is very demanding on the families."

Most of his fellow Air Guard fliers are airline pilots and government employees "and it takes a lot of family support to balance their careers and the proficiency demanded by the Guard," Johnson said. "But the Guard, the Reserve and the active-duty are a total force, and each makes a contribution to the common goal."

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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