An Old Soldier Still Fights Vietnam War


Gadfly or Hero? Former Pilot Fights On Against Vietnam
by Seth Mydans, The New York Times 

BANGKOK–Some old soldiers don’t even fade away. They keep on fighting, trapped in their own past as the world around them changes, ghosts of a long-dead war.

I have the duty to liberate my country! shouted Ly Tong, wearing bright yellow prison pajamas, through a double screen of wire mesh at Bangkok’s central jail.

The only thing that matters is, the Communists still control my country, he shouted over the hubbub in the caged visiting area recently. I’m a pilot. This is what I can do.

His country is Vietnam and the Communists have controlled it since 1975, when they defeated the South Vietnamese Army, for which Mr. Tong fought, along with its American allies.

But time has moved on, and President Bush was just in Hanoi, shaking hands and praising the government’s great capitalist strides forward.

Mr. Tong, 62, who emigrated to America and became an American citizen in the 1980s, could only watch in frustration from his Thai jail cell.

The last time an American president was in Vietnam  Bill Clinton in 2000 Mr. Tong went into action, doing what he could do as a pilot to turn back history…


Pretending he wanted a flying lesson, he commandeered a small plane in Thailand, flew to neighboring Vietnam and scattered thousands of leaflets over Ho Chi Minh City calling for a popular uprising.

He knew the airspace. He had been shot down nearby in a jet fighter and was captured in the final days of the war, spending five years in a re-education camp before he escaped and fled the country.

What he saw below him was a bustling modern city, more than half of whose population was born after the war, where tens of thousands of his fellow refugees return on commercial airliners every year bringing gifts and flowers for the Tet holiday.

But for Mr. Tong, nothing had changed since 1975; he was still at war.

My people are looking for leadership, that’s why I drop the leaflets, he said in the jailhouse interview. You know, the Soviet Union collapsed. All the Communist countries Vietnam, China, North Korea must collapse. We have to push them to make them surrender.

He signed his leaflets Global Alliance for the Total Uprising Against Communists.

Mr. Tong was arrested as soon as he returned to Thailand, and spent nearly six years in jail for hijacking. That term has ended, but he has remained behind the wire mesh as he appeals an extradition order that would send him back to Vietnam, in handcuffs this time.

How could you do this to a renowned freedom fighter? he cried when a court approved his extradition order in September.

Indeed, this man with the battered face and tiny, defiant ponytail is a hero to many Vietnamese refugees for whom Vietnam really has remained in a reversal of an often-repeated phrase a war, not a country.

War-torn Vietnam of the 1970s lives on for them, as it does for many American veterans, while the Vietnam of today rushes forward mostly without regrets, without nostalgia, without animosity toward former enemies. For these people, Mr. Tong is a symbol of courage and redemption, a tragic hero in the tradition of Vietnamese history.

It’s a quintessential Vietnamese thing, dying for a cause, trying and failing for a cause, said Hoi Trinh, an admirer of Mr. Tong who lives in Little Saigon in Orange County, California. Vietnamese, we are not set against failure. We think it’s a very beautiful thing.

Mr. Tong is not alone in his hopeless fight to win back his homeland from the Communist government. He is the most daring and flamboyant of many small groups and adventurers continuing to take jabs at their former country.

The most recent example came in November, just before Mr. Bush’s visit, when Vietnam convicted and deported three Vietnamese Americans it said had plotted to take over radio airwaves and call for an uprising.

In April, South Korea detained another Vietnamese American, Chanh Huu Nguyen, 57, who heads what he calls the Government of Free Vietnam from a base in Southern California. The real government of Vietnam accused him of plotting to bomb Vietnamese embassies in the Philippines and Thailand.

In passionate rallies similar to past demonstrations on behalf of Mr. Tong, supporters in Little Saigon demanded his release.

There have been dozens of plots and attempts like these over the years, but no one has a story as spectacular as that of Mr. Tong.

It begins in 1980 with his escape from the re-education camp in Vietnam and a journey through five countries, verified at the time by American diplomats, that was a virtuoso display of guts and ingenuity.

On his 17-month trek, he made his way by foot, bicycle, train and bus through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, breaking out of jails, threading his way through minefields, dodging security patrols and crawling through the jungle to avoid border posts. On his final leg, he swam across the Johore Strait from Malaysia to Singapore, where he hailed a taxi and presented himself at the American Embassy.

In the United States he found a job as a security guard, like many refugees, and worked his way through college, earning a master’s degree in political science from the University of New Orleans. All this was adventure enough for a 300-page autobiography, Black Eagle, that helped make him an icon of resistance among his fellow refugees.

But it was only the first episode. In 1993, he decided it was time to return to action. As he did later during Mr. Clinton’s visit, he used leaflets as his weapon, calling for demonstrations, strikes and an overthrow of the government to build an independent, free and prosperous Vietnam.

At first he tried to commandeer a Thai air force plane for his raid. Failing that, he hijacked a commercial Air Vietnam Airbus 300 on a flight from Bangkok. He claimed to have a bomb and directed the pilot to fly low over its destination, Ho Chi Minh City.

THIS time, after dumping his leaflets, he strapped on a parachute and leaped from the plane, following the leaflets to the ground.

He was captured immediately and spent six years in a Vietnamese prison before he was released in an amnesty in 1998 and returned to the United States.

Mr. Tong became a celebrity, making speeches, accepting awards, parading through the streets of Vietnamese communities standing in a jeep, smiling and waving.

In 2000, he loaded up a Cessna aircraft in Florida with more leaflets and dumped them over Havana, calling for an uprising against the old dinosaur Fidel Castro. He signed the leaflets: Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Anti-Communist Forces of the World.

As punishment, he lost his pilot’s license but was not charged by the United States with any crime, which left him free to plot his raid during Mr. Clinton’s visit to Vietnam.

Mr. Tong may have reached the end of his story now, the final tragedy to cap his futile campaign. If, as is likely, he is deported in the coming months to Vietnam, there seems little chance that he will be set free again.

He is embracing his fate already.

Life in prison and life outside, to me, are not different, he said. In America I went to school, I studied, I read. I still do the same in prison. And in Vietnam, even if they chain me, they shackle me, I will be free in my mind.

Mr. Tong knows what he would do if he does somehow find freedom again. He would go back to war. You cannot enjoy yourself when your whole country is in pain, in torture, he said.


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