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.
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.