Ex-Vietnamese fighter pilot's exploits continue to inspire
BY PAUL BRINKLEY-ROGERS
Some Vietnamese Americans like to think of Ly Tong as their
own James Bond.
''Some call him crazy,'' a Vietnamese intelligence expert
says. ''Some really admire him. He is a daredevil.'
Many Vietnamese-owned stores -- including businesses in
South Florida -- carry Vietnamese-language copies of his
autobiography titled Black Eagle. Vietnamese-American
schoolchildren often write compositions lauding his daring
exploits, and poetry idolizing his Don Quixote brand of tragic
heroism has appeared in Vietnamese-language magazines.
The former 51-year-old South Vietnamese air force fighter pilot
has had a dramatic life full of angst for the loss of his
homeland. His adventures have often captured the imagination of the one
million-strong Vietnamese-American community, especially former South
Vietnamese military men for whom the pain of losing a war is difficult to endure.
Jailed in a harsh ''reeducation camp'' for five years after his
A-37 Dragon Fly jet
fighter was shot down in 1975 just before the communist North scored its victory
over U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Tong refused to bend.
He escaped and embarked on a 17-month trek through mountains and
across five Southeast Asian nations, including communist-run Laos and
Cambodia, before making it to Singapore, barefoot and suffering from malaria.
WORKING ON DEGREE
Tong, who has three daughters by different girlfriends, first
arrived in the United
States 10 years ago. He took a job as a security guard, earned a master's in
political science from the University of New Orleans, and became an American
citizen. Nowadays he splits his time between his home in New Orleans, where
he's now working on a doctorate, and California, where he is politically active in
the Vietnamese-American community.
After publishing his 300-page biography and becoming active in
his own stridently
anti-communist organization called The Voice of the Oppressed based in San
Jose, Calif., Tong went back to Southeast Asia. He was determined to embarrass
his communist captors.
In 1992, he tried to comandeer a Thai air force plane to bomb
Vietnam. A few
months later, he successfully hijacked an Air Vietnam Airbus 300 on a flight from
Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City -- once known as Saigon -- and forced it to fly low
over the former South Vietnamese capital.
After dropping 50,000 leaflets over the city calling for strikes
and urging its citizens to ''build an independent, free and prosperous Vietnam,''
Tong strapped on a parachute and jumped. This man who signed himself
''Commander of the Uprising Forces'' on the leaflets was jailed by the Vietnamese
until September 1998, when he was released along with 5,219 other Vietnamese
prisoners of conscience.
While Tong was imprisoned, the Vietnamese-American community clamored
SONGS FOR HIM
In the pages of the Nguoi Viet Daily News, which has wide circulation
California, a poet exclaimed, ''Ly Tong my hero, Ly Tong my conscience, Ly Tong
my duty.'' Fund-raising drives, letters to American lawmakers, and street
demonstrations continued through the years. Songs were written in his praise.
''This is a man,'' said Tran Do, who runs a grocery store in Margate.
should pin a medal on him for doing what we all think is right, but we don't have
the courage to do.''
Do said that in recent months Tong has taken on what he claims
inside the Vietnamese-American community in addition to launching blistering
verbal attacks on Vietnam's communist government. Tong has a Web site
outlining what he stands for at http://chimens conf.com/
Do said he remembers Tong's dogged resolution made after he escaped
re-education camp. ''He said: 'If I go forward, I die. If I go backward, I die. Better to
go forward, and die.''
Herald staff writer Marika Lynch contributed to this report.