Date: 2005-04-05 20:10:03
Chew on this for a while these are all authors and historians.
Even with the publication of a number of books on the VPAF by Hungarian Dr. Istvan Toperczer, it is still problematic determining which Vietnamese pilots flew which aircraft, and what they really did accomplish in combat.
One case in point is the notorious "Colonel Tomb", reputedly shot down by Cunningham and Driscoll on 10 May 1972. This individual really did exist and was one of the senior pilots in the VPAF and a crack pilot, but he is a combination of two men, not one single pilot. The actual pilot's name was Dinh Ton, but his name was mangled by the U.S. press as "Tomb". Jack Anderson of the Washington Post wrote about him in 1971. Anderson, using material obtained from an unnamed intelligence source, saw the name in Vietnamese telegraphic spelling. He pointed out that the Vietnamese spelled the name T - Long O sound - N - rising inflection tone; but once the press and writers got hold of it, nobody noticed or cared. "Colonel Tomb" sounds far more dramatic.
However, his exploits are mostly those of one of the senior pilots in the VPAF, Dang Ngoc Ngu. Both first flew MiG-17s, but transitioned into MiG-21s by late 1965. Ngu was the "old man" of the VPAF and flew missions up until his death on 8 July 1972. Ironically, Ngu was shot down by a missile fired from a US Navy cruiser, not an air-to-air missile.
Ton was paired with another pilot named Bieu, of whom we still do not have a good record. Bieu was shot down at least once, flew a MiG-21 in an attempt to attack an SR-71 in which he again had to bail out, and planted a third MiG-21 outside of Bai Thuong when he had an altimeter failure over the airfield, no GCA and 10/10 cloud cover. Ton was noted as THE Maverick of the VPAF and, as such, had a number of wild tales told about him. Before continuing, it is only fair to recount some of the tales about Ton so that the reader can understand why his legend grew among U.S. pilots in Southeast Asia.
Unlike many of the others, Ton was selected for "Lone Wolf" tactics, such as single attacks under crazy circumstances. He also enjoying playing with U.S. pilots, usually Air Force F-4 jocks, just for the fun of it. There are a number of instances where F-4 flights would suddenly gain a PFM wingman; it was usually "Ton" flying formation with them, and more often than not with bare missile rails. Once spotted, he would usually give a cheery wave, go inverted, and split-S away on full burner.
The story recounted by Captain Don Logan in Lou Drendel's book Phantom II about seeing such an incident occur right after being hit by an Atoll on 5 July 1972 has all the hallmarks of one of Ton's capers. However, it is now known that the pilot who shot him down was probably Ngu.
The boldest of Ton's adventures occurred in the fall of 1971 when the VPAF carried out "Operation B-52", an attack on an ARCLIGHT raid of three B-52 bombers with the mission of destroying one. Ton had no qualms about volunteering and apparently bet he could get one. When an ARCLIGHT mission was located headed into the Laotian panhandle, he took off and headed for the area given him by the ground coordinator. The B-52s were escorted by 16 F-4s as MiG activity had been warned; four flew at each point of the compass around the big bombers as they lumbered on at 45,000 feet, right at sunset. Just as the bombers prepared to break up for their bomb run, they were spotted by Ton who rolled in to attack at once.
He switched on both his radar and, in typical fashion, his anti-collision lights as well; he went in through four flustered Phantoms on full afterburner. Ton locked on to the center aircraft, fired both of his missiles when his SPIN SCAN radar sight indicated full lock-on (all the radar indicated was that he was within range and pointed dead at the target; Atolls are heat-seekers, not beam-riders) and did an Immelman back through the surprised Phantoms who marveled at the lights as he went by at a closing speed of some 2000 MPH. "Ton" saw an explosion as he left the area and the lights of the B-52 as it fell out of control and figured that he got a "big one". Champagne supposedly flowed at Phuc Yen that night.
What had happened was that one of the two missiles locked on to the setting sun and "went west"; the other tracked true right up to the last second. The tail gunner on the B-52, seeing the missile whiz by, ejected (and apparently became an MIA); but the missile dropped under the B-52 at the last second and detonated approximately 100 feet under the cockpit. The worst real casualty of the detonation (other than the unfortunate gunner) was the co-pilot who caught a piece of shrapnel in one of his big toes. But the explosion under the cockpit when the aircraft was switched to the radar bombsight caused it to go into a spin and it fell almost 40,000 feet before the pilots could jettison their ordnance and get the now damaged bomber back under control and headed for Thailand and safety. The bomber made it to Nakhom Phanom (a base NOT designed for B-52s) and made a safe landing. Ton got the bad news the next day that he had missed.
Neither Ton nor Ngu was killed on 10 May 1972. Ton was not noted in action, but Ngu was posted to the new 927th FAR at Kep. He and his wingman took off when the first strikes rolled in, and had the misfortune to be spotted by Curt Dose and Jim McDevitt. They shot down Ngu's wingman, and while he later claimed them as a kill (often mis-associated as shooting down Cunningham and Driscoll) nothing of the sort took place.
The three kills claimed by Cunningham and Driscoll were all MiG-17 drivers, but to this day all of the VPAF's senior aces have been accounted for, so it was not one of the aces who fought with them. But who was it?
Other factors now go into the equation. Based on the Soviet style system used by the VPAF, the regimental commander also flies with his men and, in many cases, is also the leading scorer. For example, during the Korean war Evgeniy Pepelyaev, who at the time was a Lieutenant Colonel and regimental commander, was also the highest scoring Soviet pilot and top scorer in his regiment. The man that Cunningham and Driscoll tangled with was probably a unit commander, either company or more likely regimental level, who was warned to break off the combat and land. But as a senior commander (i.e. a colonel) he could disregard the order with a relative degree of impunity (R.H.I.P. — easy; just outrank the ground controller).
Some Western aviation writers still believe that "North Vietnamese pilots often flew different aircraft types". This is a nice idea, and would make some things fit, but it is not the Soviet way, and was not the VPAF way. Once trained on a specific aircraft type, the Soviet goal is to make the pilot get the most out of that particular aircraft rather than "rate" on a number of different types. As an example, according to recent Russian articles on the VPAF, in December 1972 they had 194 pilots on hand but only 13 qualified in making night combat flights. The average VPAF pilot had only 450 hours in the air — while compared to WW I standards a great deal, but that works out to only slightly over the basic and advanced training requirements for most modern pilots to begin familiarity with the aircraft. This statement alone does not support the claim of "swapping" types at random.
Once VPAF pilots transitioned into the MiG-21, and even moreso the MiG-21MF, they did not change aircraft types. This was a honor, as they were the hottest aircraft around and had the added advantage of the GSh-23 gun pack, thus giving a modicum of a fair fight once missiles were expended.
The MiG-17 pilot faced by Cunningham and Driscoll was probably a senior in the 923rd FAR - a flight leader, a squadron commander, or possibly the regimental commander. The main question today is who was it?
The VPAF claims a pilot named Nguyen Van Tho (pronounced T-UH) was the one who had the big fight with Cunningham but they also claimed he survived the fight which does not seem credible. Only examination of the records of that day will provide the information, as the VPAF has muddied the waters in its official history which Dr. Toperczer has faithfully translated. They also claimed that Dang Ngoc Ngu survived the war, even though it was obvious to US Intelligence on 8 July 1972 when he was shot down and his wingman nearly suffered a nervous breakdown in flight as he saw him disintegrate in midair.
Which of these pilots fought with Randy Cunningham and Willie Driscoll and paid the ultimate price for a mistake? We still do not know who it was, we only know who it was not.
This is a post by respected author Tom Cooper
Here is a post by Tom Cooper who has written several OSprey series books on Iranian F-4 and F-14 units.
Tom Cooper Aug 5 2001, 7:37 am show options
From: muf...@yline.com (Tom Cooper) - Find messages by this author
Date: 5 Aug 2001 07:37:19 -0700
Local: Sun, Aug 5 2001 7:37 am
Subject: Re: Colonel Tomb
Reply to Author | Forward | Print | Individual Message | Show original | Report Abuse
the matter is slightly more complicated if all aspects that matter are
taken into the context.
As first, by early 1970s, different US services listened very
intensively to NVAF comms, simultaneously also working with the help
of such devices like "Combat Tree" etc. While this is still not widely
known in the public - nor is the importance of such operations really
recognized as such - it sounds very plausible
Lets go through some stuff in chronological order.
The first US kill on 10 May 1972 was scored by Lt. C. Dosé/Lt.Cdr. J.
McDevitt which surprised two MiG-21MFs of the 921st FR, flown by Dang
Ngoc Ngu and Nguyen Van Ngai at take off from Kep. Missile fired at
Ngu hit the ground under his MiG, while Ngai was shot down by the
second Sidewinder several seconds later. At the time, two other
MiG-21MFs were readied for start at Kep, one of them piloted by Le
THANH Dao (the other by Vu Duc Hop). Le Thanh Dao was indeed one of
NVAF's leading aces at the time, and finished the war with six claims
to his credit. But, in this case, warned by Ngu, he aborted the
Then came the clash between "Oysters" and what - apparently (according
to Toperczer's book) - must have been either four or six J-6s
(MiG-19s) and two or four MiG-21s, which ended with three Vietnamese
and one Phantom being shot down (by Pham Hung Son). One of the
Vietnamese MiGs was shot down by Capt. S. Ritchie/RIO Capt. C.
DeBellevue, for their second kill. Ritchie was to reach the status of
an "ace" only during the summer of 1972 (followed by DeBellevue, which
- as RIO for Ritchie and John Madden - became the US "leading
MiG-killer" of that war, with six kills), not on 10 May, and they flew
for the USAF.
For the rest of the day, the NVAF increased the pace, starting with
another foursome of J-6s which - at 10:14AM - intercepted the Harlow
flight (USAF), out of which Nguyen Manh Tung downed the F-4E flown by
Capt. J. Harris and Capt. D. Wilkinson (both KIA).
Around 01:00PM, during the battle of Hai Duong, seven MiG-17s were
shot down by USN Phantms and one damaged (by an A-7 of VA-147). This
is the moment in which Lt. R. Cunningham/RIO Lt. W. Driscoll have
scored their 3rd, 4th and 5th kills for becoming first USN aces of the
war. However, the battle went not - as officially (and so often)
explained - without air-to-air losses for USN Phantoms. To contrary.
And, this is the point where Le Thanh Dao comes into the game for the
second time, but this time flying an MiG-21PFM of the 927th FR,
together with Vu Duc Hop. Dao and Hop sneaked upon two F-4Js of the
VF-92 and attacked them at the same moment Phantoms came under a heavy
flak fire. Le Thanh Dao fired the first K-13, damaging the Phantom of
Cdr. H. Blackburn/Lt. S. Rudloff; his second K-13 blew the fin of the
F-4J (Lt. Rudloff believed that an 85mm shell shot the fin off) and
the Phantom crashed, killing Cdr. Blackburn. Seconds later, the F-4J
flown by Lt. R. Dilworth was hit by an K-13 fired by Vu Duc Hop. The
damage shut one engine down. Dilworth - which never saw any of the two
MiGs - managed to land safely back at USS Constellation (and almost
shoot down the A-7 flown by Lt. G. Goryanec - the pilot which
previously damaged an MiG-17 - by the Sparrow he ejected!). Yet
Dillworth's Phantom (155560) was subsequently w/o.
Consequently, we have here a name Le THANH Dao, which certainly sounds
similar to "Toon" for somebody listening to comms from hundert or so
kms away, at the time Cunningham/Driscoll were in the air.
Thus, if the intelligence about "Col. Toon" was foremost based on
listening NVAF comms, then it sounds plausible,
- that "Toon" - but actually Le THANH Dao - was understood as flying
(at least) two times that day;
- that "Col. Toon's" first - but actually that of Le THANH Dao -
sortie would then be the one in the morning, when he rolled to the
start at Kep, right after Dang Ngoc Ngu and Nguyen Van Ngai which were
attacked by Dosé and Hawkins. US-services could hear even comms of
NVAF fighers while these were still on the ground, no prob with that;
- that "he" - but actually Le THANH Dao - was understood to have been
in the air again at the time Cunningham/Driscoll shot down their fifth
MiG. The only differences would be, that he flew MiG-21 and never meet
them, but passed nearby just some 30 seconds before future USN aces
were to engage their 5th MiG.
Considering the available informations, that sounds as most plausible
explanation to me.
These are excerpts from Steve Ritchie's interview in 1972 , he is the only other Ace in the Vietnam war and part of the AIR FORCE! Back then the navy and Airforce did not see eye to eye. To imply that Cunningham is "making up" the story is shameful . The Air Force believed it at the time as well
Robey Price Aug 6 2001, 9:58 am hide options
From: (Robey Price) - Find messages by this author
Date: Mon, 06 Aug 2001 16:46:57 GMT
Local: Mon, Aug 6 2001 9:46 am
Subject: Re: Colonel Tomb
Just to add to the confusion...in Steve Ritchie's _Oct 72_ interview for the
USAF Oral History program says, "As it turned out, we engaged a flight
of four MiG-21s with two MiG-21s and two [MiG] 19s high and in trail
with the first flight."
>IMHO, a rather probable version is, that Lodge and Markle have got
>both MiG-21s, and Ritchie - which followed rather a radar than visual
>contact (!) - has got Nguyen Hong Son on MiG-19, shooting it finally
>down by a Sparrow.
Respectfully, Ritchie reports that Lodge and Markle took face-shots
killed two MiG-21 then the 4-ship coverted to the rear hemisphere on
the second pair of 21s. Ritchie had a 'tally' on the MiG he shot down.
A MiG-21 from about 5000'-6000' feet aft.
>Of course, these are only names starting with T, but, knowing about so
>many different (and partially completely wrong) English spellings of
>certain other names (for people, places etc.) I wouldn't be surprised
>if some misinterpreted name was indeed the reason behind the whole
>legend behind the "Col. Toon"....
Again from Ritchie's perspective (as indicated by his interview),
Q: Are you familiar with Nguyen?
SR: Yes, he's called several different things—Tome, Colonel Tome,
General Nguyen, and the Red Baron.
Q: When you left [SEA], was he back on flying status?
SR: As far as I know.
Q: As far as you know?
SR: That's right.
Q: Do you know who shot him down?
SR: Do I know who shot him down? No. It is my understanding that he
has been shot down, since early in the war, a couple or three times
and that he ahs a number of F-4s to his credit. I've seen him a couple
of times. Of course, I didn't find [that] out until after the action.
The guy can really turn the airplane—really maneuver the
airplane—but he loses wingmen on a regular basis. He has little
concept of mutual support and doesn't care anything about his wingman.
He'll save himself, but he just leaves his wingmen and his wingmen
normally get shot down.