Above & Beyond: Nights Over North Vietnam
A former South Vietnamese Air Force commander shares his military experiences in a new book.
- By Nguyen Cao Ky
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
(Page 3 of 3)
A few weeks later, in the afternoon of what was to be my third penetration mission, I went home to prepare for an 8 p.m. departure. I spotted Lieutenant Phan Thanh Van, one of my best pilots, in front of his apartment. Contrary to regulations, he usually flew bare chested to beat the heat, and rarely bothered with a safety belt. He invited me in for a drink, but I declined, explaining that I was flying that night.
“I’ll go in your place,” said Van. “I’d like to fly that mission tonight.”
“If you want to take it, then go,” I replied. About 1 a.m. the duty officer called me to the phone at the nightclub to say that the plane was missing and presumed down over the North. It would be almost a decade before I learned that Van’s plane had been shot down. When the aircraft hit the ground he was thrown through the cockpit window—and thus survived the fire that killed almost everyone else aboard.
Van’s face was sliced up by windshield fragments, but Hanoi plastic surgeons restored much of his handsome visage. After his operation, however, he was locked up in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous Hanoi Hilton. His flight engineer, the only other survivor of the mission, died there. Van was freed after several years, and barely eked out a living doing menial work in Hanoi. Then a relative in France, working through the French ambassador, persuaded North Vietnam to allow him to emigrate to France.
Such eventual fortune, however, was not what was in store for the brave men we had delivered over the North. Every last one was picked up by the Communists, most within a few days of arrival. A few were shot, the rest imprisoned. Some spent over 30 years in confinement before they were released. The CIA had failed to note that virtually all North Vietnamese wear sandals. All the men that we dropped in wore shoes. We also failed to realize that in only five years the Communists had so thoroughly indoctrinated the people that subtle but telling disparities between Northerners and Southerners had appeared. There were differences in vocabulary and in the way people tendered pleasantries. Northerners even ate differently, using different condiments to season their soup and gripping their spoons with different fingers. Anyone not known to a particular small, insular community was immediately viewed with suspicion. The men we dropped in towns or villages were soon spotted as outsiders.
We made mistakes, and these cost men their lives or their liberty. Nevertheless, we were fighting a war. We had to try to get intelligence, even at the sacrifice of dozens of men. I think the agents understood this. Most survived their captivity, and when they were finally released in 1995 the U.S. government gave each of them a settlement of $50,000. There could never be enough money to repay them for their suffering, but besides the money they were welcome to live in the United States if they so chose. I believe every one of them left Vietnam.