Above & Beyond: Nights Over North Vietnam

A former South Vietnamese Air Force commander shares his military experiences in a new book

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Nguyen Cao Ky trained as a pilot in France and North Africa with Vietnam’s army in 1951, and by 1964 he was named commander of South Vietnam’s fledgling air force. The following year the army installed Ky as prime minister. He was the senior South Vietnamese official at the Paris Peace Talks. After the Communist victory in 1975, Ky went into exile in California, declining U.S. citizenship. Today, at 71, he sits on the boards of international corporations and consults with business and political leaders in Asia and the United States. This article is adapted from Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam, Ky’s autobiography, which he wrote with Martin J. Wolf, published last May by St. Martin’s Press.

BY 1960 THERE WAS AN UNDECLARED WAR between the two Vietnams. The Communists regularly sent intelligence agents and other infiltrators into the South, and because we had a relatively free society, many escaped detection. We, on the other hand, were getting no intelligence from the North. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency proposed sending intelligence agents into North Vietnam using South Vietnamese airfields and aircraft.

I decided the best way to insert people into the North from the air would be to come in at night from the sea, very low, under the enemy’s naval radar, and follow a river up-country to the mountainous and relatively unpopulated border area, where the agents could parachute to the ground. A few instructors, Americans in civilian clothes, flew in from the States, and we started our night training, flying C-47s from Saigon to the mountainous region near Da Lat, about a hundred miles northeast. We did so well that after a few days it was apparent that we didn’t need U.S. help. The Americans went home, and after that, night after night, in any weather, we flew practice missions, following river beds through narrow mountain passes, learning to maneuver at low altitude in tight airspace at night.

Our objective was to drop small groups of agents with radios. After landing, they would disperse and take up residence in various towns. Once they were established, they could be used for almost any intelligence purpose or perhaps, eventually, as saboteurs. I didn’t need to know much about that; my job was merely to deliver the agents to the North and get back undetected and in one piece.

Several weeks before the first mission I was introduced to William Colby, who was in charge of our mission (he would later become chief of the CIA). A compact, handsome fellow who spoke French but not Vietnamese, Colby was about 40. With thick eyeglasses and a disarming demeanor, he might have passed for an academic or an accountant. We became friends, often going out for dinner or a drink. As I came to know him better I realized that behind those glasses was a brilliant mind—he didn’t miss much.

For the North Vietnam infiltration mission, the CIA built a scale model of the entire flight profile, complete with mountains, rivers, and bridges. This was to be a night mission, and there would be few landmarks visible along our route. Once we were inland, we had to fly by dead reckoning. That meant dividing the flight plan into segments of five minutes or so each, keeping very careful watch over airspeed, and making each planned course correction by the clock. We had nothing to enhance the pilot’s night vision, and we didn’t dare use lights in the cockpit, not even to read the map. I had to memorize every detail of the entire flight plan.

We moved to the Bien Hoa air base, north of Saigon. Upwards of 12 hours a day we practiced the navigation and the rest of the mission. During this training, as during the mission, the copilot and the navigator stood behind me, calling out the time in one-minute intervals. “Three minutes, two minutes, coming up on the turn of the river, 30 degrees left, one more minute…” I had to keep every detail in mind, and the other crew members also memorized the flight plan.

We went over it again and again, by day and night, sitting in a C-47 in a closed hangar. Even while I slept, the flight path was always in my mind: the map, the route, the elevation of surrounding terrain, how many minutes and how many seconds to fly at what speed for each leg of the flight, where the river turned, the locations of bridges, power lines, and other obstructions. Even now, I think I could fly most of that route without looking at a map.

On the day before the mission we flew to Danang, about 300 miles north of Saigon. After dark we went through a final check of our aircraft. As a full moon rose over the South China Sea, six or seven Vietnamese men in dark, nondescript farmers’ clothing loaded equipment and parachutes into our ship, then climbed in. They were all volunteers, paid by the CIA and specially trained for this mission. It would be a long time before I knew much more than that about them.

Like our passengers, the air crew wore the black cotton pajamas of the Vietnamese peasant farmer. In our pockets were small sums of North Vietnamese money, North Vietnamese cigarettes, even North Vietnamese matches. If our plane went down over enemy territory, we needed to be able to blend in with the locals. But each of us also carried a hundred U.S. dollars, in case we had to bribe someone. (If we crashed, I could foresee no situation where we’d have time to use our parachutes. If we went down, we would be very lucky to have any use for currency or cigarettes.)

We took off from Danang, near the southern end of the Gulf of Tonkin, climbed to several thousand feet, then headed out to sea. Once we were out of sight of land, we descended, and when I could see white froth atop individual waves, I leveled off. We were two or three feet above the water at nearly 200 mph, and if enemy radar was pointed our way we hoped that our image would be lost in the clutter of the sea surface.

After heading east for several minutes, I brought the nose around to the left until it was pointed north by northwest, which took us straight for the mouth of the Red River. At Thanh Hoa we turned inland, crossing into North Vietnamese airspace.

Once inland, we followed the Red River. With the full moon behind me to illuminate the landscape and no more worries about naval radar, I climbed just enough to avoid bridges and power lines. The land rose, the river valley narrowed, and the dark mountains loomed all around. With my copilot and navigator calling out course changes, we found the drop zone. As far as I could tell by moonlight, every parachute opened.

It was impossible that no one on the ground had heard us pass, but they had no time to react. If we returned the same way that we had come, however, the Communists would be waiting. So we continued west into Laos. Once out of North Vietnamese airspace I climbed to 12,000 feet, then flew south until we could turn east. Inside friendly airspace, I let the autopilot take over while we smoked a few cigarettes.

It was dawn when we landed in Saigon and taxied to an unmarked hangar. To my astonishment, Colby was waiting inside with a group of Americans and Vietnamese—and two cases of good French champagne.

After our second or third mission, Colby came to Tan Son Nhut with a delegation from Washington. They all wore civilian clothes; I assume they were CIA officials, there to observe how my pilots performed. Colby asked me to fly them from Saigon to Hue, and I did so in routine fashion. For the return trip, I gave them a taste of what their agents encountered. I flew out to sea, then turned south and descended until our prop blast blew foam off the wavetops. Then I pushed the throttles forward and flew at maximum speed. At this point, my crew later told me, all the Americans became very pale.

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.

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