The Miami Herald
January 2, 2000

Ex-Vietnamese fighter pilot's exploits continue to inspire


 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 jungles
 across five Southeast Asian nations, including communist-run Laos and
 Cambodia, before making it to Singapore, barefoot and suffering from malaria.


 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 demonstrations
 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 for
 his release.


 In the pages of the Nguoi Viet Daily News, which has wide circulation in
 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. ''Someone
 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 is corruption
 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

 Do said he remembers Tong's dogged resolution made after he escaped from the
 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.