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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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.

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