Cunnigham's Fifth Victim
Victories Over Vietnam, 10
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by Dave Aungst
I found a version of the following narrative on the Internet back in 1998,
written by Cookie Sewell. I wrote Cookie to see if I could include this in my
"ShowTime 100" posting. He gave me permission and updated the original narrative
that I had found to include the latest information on the subject. What follows
is the narrative he sent me.
Cookie tells me the events outlined in this version are correct and even the
VPAF corroborates all but the loss of Ngu (They were a bit embarrassed and
grounded the wingman for about six weeks to get his head straight. They also
didn't like him going to pieces in a fight nor blabbing the other pilot's name
over the radio.)
Even with the publication of a number of books on the VPAF by Hungarian Dr.
Istvan Toperczer, it is still problematic determining which Vietnamese pilots
flew which aircraft, and what they really did accomplish in combat.
One case in point is the notorious "Colonel Tomb", reputedly shot down by
Cunningham and Driscoll on 10 May 1972. This individual really did exist and was
one of the senior pilots in the VPAF and a crack pilot, but he is a combination
of two men, not one single pilot. The actual pilot's name was Dinh Ton, but his
name was mangled by the U.S. press as "Tomb". Jack Anderson of the Washington
Post wrote about him in 1971. Anderson, using material obtained from an unnamed
intelligence source, saw the name in Vietnamese telegraphic spelling. He pointed
out that the Vietnamese spelled the name T - Long O sound - N - rising
inflection tone; but once the press and writers got hold of it, nobody noticed
or cared. "Colonel Tomb" sounds far more dramatic.
However, his exploits are mostly those of one of the senior pilots in the VPAF,
Dang Ngoc Ngu. Both first flew MiG-17s, but transitioned into MiG-21s by late
1965. Ngu was the "old man" of the VPAF and flew missions up until his death on
8 July 1972. Ironically, Ngu was shot down by a missile fired from a US Navy
cruiser, not an air-to-air missile.
Ton was paired with another pilot named Bieu, of whom we still do not have a
good record. Bieu was shot down at least once, flew a MiG-21 in an attempt to
attack an SR-71 in which he again had to bail out, and planted a third MiG-21
outside of Bai Thuong when he had an altimeter failure over the airfield, no GCA
and 10/10 cloud cover. Ton was noted as THE Maverick of the VPAF and, as such,
had a number of wild tales told about him. Before continuing, it is only fair to
recount some of the tales about Ton so that the reader can understand why his
legend grew among U.S. pilots in Southeast Asia.
Unlike many of the others, Ton was selected for "Lone Wolf" tactics, such as
single attacks under crazy circumstances. He also enjoying playing with U.S.
pilots, usually Air Force F-4 jocks, just for the fun of it. There are a number
of instances where F-4 flights would suddenly gain a PFM wingman; it was usually
"Ton" flying formation with them, and more often than not with bare missile
rails. Once spotted, he would usually give a cheery wave, go inverted, and
split-S away on full burner.
The story recounted by Captain Don Logan in Lou Drendel's book Phantom II about
seeing such an incident occur right after being hit by an Atoll on 5 July 1972
has all the hallmarks of one of Ton's capers. However, it is now known that the
pilot who shot him down was probably Ngu.
The boldest of Ton's adventures occurred in the fall of 1971 when the VPAF
carried out "Operation B-52", an attack on an ARCLIGHT raid of three B-52
bombers with the mission of destroying one. Ton had no qualms about volunteering
and apparently bet he could get one. When an ARCLIGHT mission was located headed
into the Laotian panhandle, he took off and headed for the area given him by the
ground coordinator. The B-52s were escorted by 16 F-4s as MiG activity had been
warned; four flew at each point of the compass around the big bombers as they
lumbered on at 45,000 feet, right at sunset. Just as the bombers prepared to
break up for their bomb run, they were spotted by Ton who rolled in to attack at
He switched on both his radar and, in typical fashion, his anti-collision lights
as well; he went in through four flustered Phantoms on full afterburner. Ton
locked on to the center aircraft, fired both of his missiles when his SPIN SCAN
radar sight indicated full lock-on (all the radar indicated was that he was
within range and pointed dead at the target; Atolls are heat-seekers, not
beam-riders) and did an Immelman back through the surprised Phantoms who
marveled at the lights as he went by at a closing speed of some 2000 MPH. "Ton"
saw an explosion as he left the area and the lights of the B-52 as it fell out
of control and figured that he got a "big one". Champagne supposedly flowed at
Phuc Yen that night.
What had happened was that one of the two missiles locked on to the setting sun
and "went west"; the other tracked true right up to the last second. The tail
gunner on the B-52, seeing the missile whiz by, ejected (and apparently became
an MIA); but the missile dropped under the B-52 at the last second and detonated
approximately 100 feet under the cockpit. The worst real casualty of the
detonation (other than the unfortunate gunner) was the co-pilot who caught a
piece of shrapnel in one of his big toes. But the explosion under the cockpit
when the aircraft was switched to the radar bombsight caused it to go into a
spin and it fell almost 40,000 feet before the pilots could jettison their
ordnance and get the now damaged bomber back under control and headed for
Thailand and safety. The bomber made it to Nakhom Phanom (a base NOT designed
for B-52s) and made a safe landing. Ton got the bad news the next day that he
Neither Ton nor Ngu was killed on 10 May 1972. Ton was not noted in action, but
Ngu was posted to the new 927th FAR at Kep. He and his wingman took off when the
first strikes rolled in, and had the misfortune to be spotted by Curt Dose and
Jim McDevitt. They shot down Ngu's wingman, and while he later claimed them as a
kill (often mis-associated as shooting down Cunningham and Driscoll) nothing of
the sort took place.
The three kills claimed by Cunningham and Driscoll were all MiG-17 drivers, but
to this day all of the VPAF's senior aces have been accounted for, so it was not
one of the aces who fought with them. But who was it?
Other factors now go into the equation. Based on the Soviet style system used by
the VPAF, the regimental commander also flies with his men and, in many cases,
is also the leading scorer. For example, during the Korean war Evgeniy Pepelyaev,
who at the time was a Lieutenant Colonel and regimental commander, was also the
highest scoring Soviet pilot and top scorer in his regiment. The man that
Cunningham and Driscoll tangled with was probably a unit commander, either
company or more likely regimental level, who was warned to break off the combat
and land. But as a senior commander (i.e. a colonel) he could disregard the
order with a relative degree of impunity (R.H.I.P. -- easy; just outrank the
Some Western aviation writers still believe that "North Vietnamese pilots often
flew different aircraft types". This is a nice idea, and would make some things
fit, but it is not the Soviet way, and was not the VPAF way. Once trained on a
specific aircraft type, the Soviet goal is to make the pilot get the most out of
that particular aircraft rather than "rate" on a number of different types. As
an example, according to recent Russian articles on the VPAF, in December 1972
they had 194 pilots on hand but only 13 qualified in making night combat
flights. The average VPAF pilot had only 450 hours in the air -- while compared
to WW I standards a great deal, but that works out to only slightly over the
basic and advanced training requirements for most modern pilots to begin
familiarity with the aircraft. This statement alone does not support the claim
of "swapping" types at random.
Once VPAF pilots transitioned into the MiG-21, and even moreso the MiG-21MF,
they did not change aircraft types. This was a honor, as they were the hottest
aircraft around and had the added advantage of the GSh-23 gun pack, thus giving
a modicum of a fair fight once missiles were expended.
The MiG-17 pilot faced by Cunningham and Driscoll was probably a senior in the
923rd FAR - a flight leader, a squadron commander, or possibly the regimental
commander. The main question today is who was it?
The VPAF claims a pilot named Nguyen Van Tho (pronounced T-UH) was the one who
had the big fight with Cunningham but they also claimed he survived the fight
which does not seem credible. Only examination of the records of that day will
provide the information, as the VPAF has muddied the waters in its official
history which Dr. Toperczer has faithfully translated. They also claimed that
Dang Ngoc Ngu survived the war, even though it was obvious to US Intelligence on
8 July 1972 when he was shot down and his wingman nearly suffered a nervous
breakdown in flight as he saw him disintegrate in midair.
Which of these pilots fought with Randy Cunningham and Willie Driscoll and paid
the ultimate price for a mistake? We still do not know who it was, we only know
who it was not.
Text Copyright ©
2002 by Cookie Sewell
Page Created 10 May, 2002
19 April, 2004
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