The Buzz

The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace

Cunningham suddenly noticed a lone MiG-17 heading straight toward him. He decided to meet its approach — a nearly fatal mistake as the MiG-17 spat cannon shells at him in a head on pass.

Lacking a gun on his F-4, Cunningham swerved upwards.

The MiG-17 peeled up in pursuit — rolling over onto the Phantom’s tail. With only a short distance between them, Cunningham could see the number 3020 on the MiG.

He attempted to shake the nimble fighter with a rolling scissors maneuver, but the MiG pilot matched his Phantom’s every move.

The two aircraft burned up their energy in a series of tight turns, slowing further and further until the heavier Phantom was close to stalling.

This kind of low-speed knife-fighting was the MiG-17’s strength. Driscoll inquired nervously whether Cunningham shouldn’t abandon the fight — but Cunningham refused to give up.

Instead, he lit his afterburners, making the engine gulp fuel at a prodigious rate, and surged two miles ahead before turning around for another head on pass at the MiG, this time at an angle so the MiG couldn’t shoot back.

It didn’t work — the MiG latched immediately back on his tail.

So Cunningham disengaged and turned around a second time — but this time, as the MiG began to line up on his tail after the pass, he cut the throttle and hit the airbrakes. Denied thrust, the Phantom fell behind the MiG-17. But Cunningham’s fighter was too close for his missiles to lock onto the vulnerable MiG.

The MiG pilot rolled into a steep dive toward the ground, the heat from which would soon mask him from heat-seeking missiles.

As the MiG distanced itself from Cunningham, he fired a Sidewinder missile. It hit the MiG, which plummeted into the ground and exploded. There was no parachute in sight. Tomb had been defeated.

Shortly afterwards, an SA-2 surface-to-air missile hit Cunningham’s Phantom. Nursing his flaming fighter towards the coast, Cunningham and Driscoll ejected just over the water’s edge and were rescued at sea. They had shot down three fighters in one day, and had become the first U.S. aces in Vietnam.

Driscoll went on to work as an instructor at the Navy’s Top Gun school. Cunningham served 15 years as a Republican congressman for California before being jailed for corruption in 2005.

Legend and Myth:

As relations improved with Vietnam over the years, aviation historians began to inquire with Hanoi’s top pilots, seeking to learn more about the legendary Col. Tomb.

They all received the same reply — “Colonel who?”

None of the Vietnamese pilots had heard of Col. Tomb, and he was not in any of their records.

Tomb and “Toon” are not even Vietnamese names. (Some argue the NSA may have misheard the names “Tuan” or “Tonh.”) Most Vietnamese aces flew MiG-21s, not the older MiG-17s, and didn’t switch plane types back and forth.

Logically, there doesn’t seem to be any reason the Vietnamese air force would cover up its highest scoring ace — such an individual would have been highly celebrated. And other pilots lost in action had been commemorated, not erased from history.

Tomb wasn’t a legend. He was a myth.

But the Vietnamese disavowal didn’t put an end to the legend.

One theory was that Tomb was a Russian pilot. During the Korean War, Russian pilots had flown in Chinese and North Korean air force units. Thousands of Russian technical advisers assisted North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. But post-war, no Russians have claimed to have flown in air-to-air combat in Vietnam.

A U.S. pilot, Col. Jack Broughton, claimed in his memoir Thud Ridge that he had seen a Russian pilot in the cockpit of an opposing MiG-19 with “blonde hair and blue eyes.” It seems quite a feat of perception.

There is one Russian credited with shooting down six American planes. But he was the commander of a surface-to-air missile battalion.

Another theory is that Tomb was actually two pilots — Din Tonh (hence “Toon”), and Dang Ngoc Ngu. The latter scored more aerial victories, while the former had a reputation as a maverick prone to lone wolf attacks. Supposedly, Din Tonh would sneak into formation alongside American fighters, waiting to see how long they took to notice his presence.

But both pilots flew MiG-21s, not MiG-17s, and neither were present for the air battle on May 10, 1972.

Another theory advanced by aviation historian Tom Cooper, a War Is Boring contributor, is that SIGINT picked up the call sign of Le Thanh Dao, a Vietnamese ace with six kills to his name, who was known to be flying on that day. But Le Thanh Dao flew a MiG-21, and was not shot down that day.

And what does the NSA report have to say about Tomb’s fate? “When the air war was at last winding down, Comrade Toon, decorated and promoted, was a forward ground controller, directing MiG reactions to U.S. air operations.”

So who was Cunningham’s opponent? Some argue he was a senior officer of the 923rd Fighter Regiment with the authority to ignore orders to disengage.

The Vietnamese air force claims he was a pilot named Nguyen Van Tho, and that he survived the loss of his plane — which doesn’t correspond to the explosion Cunningham witnessed.

The Real Col. Tomb:

To invert a popular saying — the Americans didn’t need to invent Colonel Tomb, because he already existed.

Nguyen Van Coc, Hanoi’s top-scoring ace, had nine air-to-air kills in his MiG-21. And the MiG-21 he flew? It was number 4326.

The 13 stars tallied on his plane included the victories of other pilots who had flown it, as per Vietnamese air force custom.