The Buzz

The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace

Nguyen Van Coc was 26 years old when he and a dozen other Vietnamese pilots trained in Russia in 1966 to operate the MiG-21 — the hottest ride in the Soviet inventory at the time. In his youth, his father and uncle were members of the Viet Minh and were killed by the French.

Van Coc was shot down before scoring his first kill on Jan. 2, 1967 in Operation Bolo, a U.S. aerial ambush. He went on to destroy an F-105 in an attack out of the sun on April 30, and then scored eight more kills through December 1969 using heat-seeking R-3 Atoll missiles.

Of nine victories, two were drones, and for the aircraft, six of the seven can be confirmed in U.S. records — making him the top-scoring pilot of the war no matter how you count it.

Van Coc was then pulled out of frontline service to focus on training the next generation of Vietnamese pilots, who were heavily engaged in the air battles of 1972. His protégé, Nguyen Doc Soat, went on to score six victories.

Another Vietnamese ace, Nguyen Van Bay, scored his seven kills flying the older, slower MiG-17.

His victims included Korean war ace Maj. James Kasler, and two Navy F-8 Crusaders — much more agile aircraft than the F-4.

He was one of the few pilots since World War II to successfully hit a U.S. Navy ship when he and his wingman Le Xuan Di bombed the USS Oklahoma City and USS Highbee, respectively. (Other attempted MiG attacks suffered heavy losses from naval SAMs.)

All three of these aces survived the war.

Van Coc retired as Chief Inspector of the Vietnamese air force in 2002, while Duc Soat ended his career as Deputy Chief of the Army in 2008. Van Bay now grows mangos on a farm outside Ho Chi Minh City — an account of his meeting with one of his former aerial opponents, Col. Ralph Wetterhahn, makes for fascinating reading.

Unlike American pilots, most of whom returned home after a single tour of duty, many Vietnamese pilots served for most of the conflict. Because there were so many American planes and fewer Vietnamese fighters, the best pilots racked up more aerial victories. In all, there were 16 Vietnamese aces recognized in the war.

Tomb is a fascinating case of a hero enshrined in legend by his opponents in the conflict. In the end, searching for the “real” Col. Tomb may be a wild MiG chase — but there were many Vietnamese pilots who lived up to his fearsome reputation.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here

Image: Creative Commons.