Many of my trips to Vietnam have run together in my memory, including some of the 180 I made in McDonnell F-4 Phantoms during what the Vietnamese call “the American war.” But one I took in 1997 will always remain distinct. On that trip I met North Vietnamese ace Nguyen Van Bay (pronounced “win von by”).
I was on a kind of mission, one that really got started seven years earlier when I went to Hanoi with state department official Ken Quinn, later the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia from 1996 to 1999. Quinn was searching for information about U.S. servicemen who were classified as missing in action, and one of them, Major John “Robbie” Robertson, was a friend of mine, a squadron mate. In 1966 we both flew F-4Cs from Ubon Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand during the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. On a strike mission on September 16 that year, Robbie’s flight was ahead of mine. He didn’t return. The squadron could get very little information about his crash, and Quinn and I were hoping to find out more. There was a rumor that Robbie had survived, based mainly on a soon-to-be infamous photograph, which Quinn had brought with him, of three POWs alleged to be alive and captive in Laos.
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The Vietnamese officials we talked to promised to investigate the photograph, which turned out to have been a hoax. They also eventually put me in touch with several fighter pilots from the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, the air force of North Vietnam. That’s how I came to be sitting across a table from two VPAF pilots in 1997: Do Huy Hoang (pronounced “doe wee wong”) and Nguyen Van Bay. I was the first American pilot either of these men had ever met.
Bay is credited with seven kills. At 63, he is a small, frail-looking man with a deeply lined face. He grows mangos and raises fish for a living on a small farm near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the capital of the South, where he moved after the war ended. He’s a heavy smoker, and I noticed as I sat down across from him the brand he was smoking was 555, the same number as my old squadron, the Triple Nickel. We regarded each other through a haze of blue smoke. I turned on the tape recorder, thinking that we’d go through his seven claims first and then I’d see what I could find out about Robbie.
Bay read from a tattered piece of paper, which, according to the interpreter, listed all his dogfights, including seven victories. He began the description of each engagement by reading off the date, then he described the details of the air battle—the location, flying conditions, number and types of aircraft, maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, and how the fight ended. The interpreter tried his best to keep up, and as he spoke, I checked Bay’s narrative against the reports I had brought with me from official U.S. records and North Vietnamese documents. It’s difficult to sort out the melee of a dogfight after the fact, and I was surprised to find how well his reports correlated with the official ones.
I had been intently taking notes and checking documents for about two hours when Bay began describing incident number 6.
“Sixteen September 1966,” said the interpreter.
I stopped writing and looked up. Bay also looked up from his paper, and hesitated for a moment. Then he nodded, and I could sense that he knew he was about to describe a fight already familiar to me in some way.
“I was there…almost,” I said. The interpreter leaned toward Bay and spoke.
Another puff from the 555. Another nod. Then Bay read from his list the description of how he had killed Robbie.
The alarm to scramble sounded at Gia Lam airfield near Hanoi in the early afternoon. Bay flew the third position in a flight of four, led by Ho Van Quy (pronounced “ho von kee”), who had one F-4 kill to his credit. By this time, Bay had one of each: an F-4, a Navy Vought F-8 Crusader, and a Republic F-105 Thunderchief. Luu Huy Chao (pronounced “loo wee chow”) flew as the lead’s wingman. Chao also claimed three kills at this date and eventually became an ace.
Bay was the first to spot Robbie’s flight. When he asked permission to attack, Quy expressed doubt that the slower MiGs could catch the F-4s up ahead. But as the MiGs tried in vain to close the distance, Bay saw the Phantoms make a mistake. He saw them begin a climbing turn.