In June 2004, during a visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, some friends and I discovered the very airplane I had flown that April day 32 years ago. F-4D no. 66-7550 was on static display on the outskirts of Dayton, with my name and the red victory star, but the elements had taken their toll. Citizens in my hometown, Bowling Green, Kentucky, working to establish an aviation museum there, arranged to borrow Phantom 550 for future restoration and display.
We constantly brainstormed ways to promote Aviation Heritage Park and raise money to acquire more aircraft. The idea of trying to find the MiG pilot came up, usually over a couple of beers, and in jest. Still, I had always been curious about his fate—who he was, whether he survived, if he had a family—so we set about seeing what we could find out.
Through an acquaintance, I learned about a Vietnamese television show, "The Separation Never Seems to Have Existed," which reunites people who have lost touch. When the producer heard of my quest, she asked me, via e-mail, to write a letter stating my intentions and the circumstances surrounding the dogfight. Within two weeks she had found the MiG pilot, and invited me to Vietnam to appear on television with him.
On April 5, 2008, on live television, my heart pounded as Nguyen Hong My—the man I had last seen in a black flightsuit, swinging under a red and white canopy—walked onto the set. He greeted me with a firm handshake and words of welcome, and expressed his desire for us to become friends. We sat down at a table with the producer, Thu Uyen. The interview began with our histories and pictures of our families. I teared up when I saw photos of our children and grandchildren on the monitor, and so did Hong My—two tough old fighter pilots weeping on national television.
After the show, we had dinner and wine on the roof of the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, and with the help of an interpreter, we got to know each other. In the early 1960s, Hong My spent four years in the Soviet Union, training to fly and checking out in the MiG-21. He told me that Ho Chi Minh himself had presented him with his pilot wings and that he had been credited with one American shootdown. In our engagement, he broke both arms and severely injured his back in the ejection, but he recovered and went on to fly for two more years.
Hong My then invited me to his home in Hanoi. I had already planned to fly to Hanoi the next day, so he changed his airline reservation to fly with me. With my former adversary by my side, we flew over the same countryside where I had flown so many combat missions.
After I checked into my hotel we walked to Hong My's home through the streets of Hanoi, passing the beautiful old French Opera House and dodging motor scooters. I was introduced to his son, Quan, his wife, Giang, and grandson, Duc, who was celebrating his first birthday. Hong My was holding Duc, and as I came close, the little boy reached out to me. And then, Hong My placed Duc in my arms. I couldn't help thinking that had things gone differently in the sky that day 36 years ago, Duc wouldn't have been here for me to hold.
After a wonderful Vietnamese dinner, Hong My offered to take me back to the hotel on his motor scooter. (Everyone in Vietnam has a scooter.) We zipped through the streets of Hanoi, the MiG pilot and the F-4 pilot, laughing, dodging traffic, and having a grand old time.
The next day, Hong My was my tour guide. We went to every museum, war memorial, and tourist attraction, including the "Hanoi Hilton." Hoa Lo Prison, now a museum, was built by the French at the turn of the century, when Vietnam was a French colony. Most of the exhibits are about the French imprisoning Vietnamese citizens who had fought for independence, but a few showed American POWs during their incarcerations.