April 2016, a group of 11 American veteran-fighter pilots led by Colonel, former pilot Charlie Tutt – had a reunion with Vietnamese counterparts in Hanoi. The meeting, though small by size,- was then described by the media as a historic reunion of the former enemies after more than 40 years.

From the first historic reunion

The greeting atmosphere and the activities during the historic reunion impressed on the American /fighter pilots/soldiers of a peaceful Vietnamese people.When They were requested to visit the Vietnam Airforce deceased pilots’ memorial, the former US pilots presented flower banquets to show respect for the sacrificed Vietnamese /fighter-pilots/soldiers.

It is emotional to see the picture of former Navy Rear Admiral (RADM) Kenneth “Pete” Pettigrew, John Kerr and 11 other US veteran pilots saluting the fallen Vietnamese soldiers on the windy Soc Son Mountain, and the image of the fallen pilot Nguyen Van Ngai’s family welcoming Navy pilot Curt Dose. Pilot Ngai’s sister was hand in hand with pilot Curt Dose to the grave to show the respect to the fallen soldier. All the people who observed those moments felt new wind passing, which marked the new chapter of the relationship among the veteran pilots of the two nations.

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After more than one year, in September 2017, under the invitation of the US Veterans, the Vietnam’s former combat pilots including 12 members led by General – Hero pilot Nguyen Duc Soat visited San Diego – Head Office of US Navy to join series of meaningful events and meetings with the slogan “From Dogfights to Detente” the second time in the history. They were representatives of the former pilots MiG - 17, MiG - 19 and MiG – 21; and the eldest was the famous pilot Nguyen Van Bay at the age of 82, a typical Southern famer.

The meeting at San Diego during that year attracted attention of the US pilot community. It became really hot after the list of the Vietnamese pilots was sent out. Colonel Charlie Tutt, one of the main organizers, shared that over 100 former pilots and Air war history researchers from many States booked to join. The former pilots had almost one day together to meet by each topic to discuss about the air engagements they had participated in more than 40 years ago. Many old, yellow maps, air battle logs, fighting diagrams and diaries were displayed and discussed very straightforward. Many questions accumulated over the past 40 years were raised …

 “I was only 19 years old and only a Private First Class soldier”

Former USN Captain Roy Cash, 1.90 meter in height, bold with jeans and striped shirt, flew from Memphis to San Diego a few days ago. When the bus carrying Vietnamese pilots stopped in front of the hotel, he walked out, looked around and searched for someone in the magazine he was holding. When he found pilot Pham Phu Thai – the person in the picture, he hugged and introduced that they already met in the sky on the engagement of 10 July 1968 “I shot you, after many years, I still wondered your destiny and how you have been living”

The Americans are realistic, and humorous, they are not afraid to say “you shot me down, or I shot you down”! When Roy Cash told the story about the air battle and shot downed General Pham Phu Thai, Gen. Thai smiled and replied “Your victory should not be considered too glorious, because by that time I was only 19 years old and a First Class soldiers with little experience?”. The ballroom laughed clapped hands and was curious about the response from Roy Cash. Known as a famous Navy pilot graduated from the famous Top Gun /pilot training school, Roy Cash said “I just knew this today, if I had known that the pilot in the MiG was just over 18 years old solder, I would be too afraid to press, since I would have be in troubles with American teenage/juvenile/ laws!”. Everyone applauded the former enemies for the full of humorous and friendly interactions.

Opposite to the artistic style of Roy Cash, Thomas Hanton, who was shot by Gen Thai on 27 June 1972 fighting, was very knowledgeable, calm, gentle man who always accompanied by his petite, beautiful wife. They flew thousands of kilometers to San Diego to meet the man who shot him down 40 years ago. The wife held Gen. Thai’s hands and said “I am very grateful to you for shooting down Tom’s aircraft and letting him still alive. When Tom was in Hilton Hanoi, his ex-wife left him, and I got the chance to get married to Tom”.

“General Soat destroyed my beautiful day …”

There were nearly 500 former pilots, residents in the area and the media from many States in the US who were interested and participated in the reunion. The Vietnamese Group were arranged to sit right middle in the front, including Gen. Nguyen Duc Soat, Colonel Ace Le Thanh Dao, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Quy and former F-4 pilot John Cezak, who was shot down by Gen. Soat on 27 June 1972 fighting. When MC McGaugh asked John Cezak about his feelings when he was shot down, he said “It was a beautiful day, we flew over the border with a very good mood/excitement/, but Gen. Soat had ruined such a summer day and shot me down…”. Everyone laughed at his humorousness.

Knowing that in the list of the former ACE pilots (terms meaning pilots shooting down more than 5 aircrafts) visiting San Diego, there was Gen. Soat who shot down his F-4 in 1972, John Cezak came early with his wife. He joined this reunion with an unanswered question for many years: After being shot by Pilot Soat on 27 June 1972, he was injured during the parachuting. He was also informed that that pilot would come to Hilton Hanoi to see him. After many years, he was curious to know who that pilot was. And now in San Diego, he not only knew but met in person with Gen. Soat, who saw him in Hilton Hanoi 40 years ago.

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The attraction of a living Legend Fighter Pilot Nguyen Van Bay

Nguyen Van Bay was the eldest in the team, and was always the center attraction of the media and the US pilot community, with many requests to take pictures and videos, interviews together.

During the discussion, one of the former pilots asked “Did you shoot down 7 aircrafts without any /parachuting/parachute once? Why did you decide to have a beard similar to that of Ho Chi Minh?” Nguyen Van Bay smiled kindly with his Southern style “Yes, I did not known how the smell of parachute except only once being hit by F-4 missile, but safely landed at airport, after landing there were 8o holes on the fuselage and tail of the aircraft. However, I know fighting with the USAF was very fierce, chances you can be hit by the missile any time, could not say anything in advance. Around middle of 1967, when I was preparing for the mission the following morning, I got an urgent request from the senior manager to stop the air combat’s mission. Until later, I know that it was the decision from Uncle Ho. He said “We should withdraw Bay out of the fighting team, if he is sacrificed, later in the reunification country when the Southern people ask where our Hero Bay is, we would not known how to answer …”. If I had continued, I might have shot down 2 or 3 more, but I might have not be able to survive and stay here today… I decided to grow my beard similar to Uncle Ho to show my respect to him”. One American pilot stood up and joked: it was lucky that you stopped your mission, so we could not meet again on the Vietnam sky fighting, otherwise, maybe today I am not alive to be here ….. The whole room applauded.

F-4 pilot Hubert E.Buchanan asked Nguyen Van Bay at the reunion: Did you join the fighting against F-4 on 16 September 1966? After 2 sides described some actions and listened to Mr. Bay’s story to move the 37mm Gun to the aircraft wings instead of the control cabin of the F-4, so that the pilot at the back could parachute, Buchanan hugged Nguyen Van Bay, cried and said “If you had not done that, I must have dead”. The two men over 80 years old hugged each other during a few minutes.

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In 2016, in the delegation of the US pilots to Hanoi, there was only one woman, Mrs. Molty, the wife of pilot Clint Johnson, who took off from USS Midway and had to fight against 2 MIG-17 of pilots Mai Duc Toai – Nguyen Van Lai on 20 June 1965. Mrs. Molty was a commercial airlines steward and always beside her husband during the trips back to Vietnam. She especially likes pilot Nguyen Van Bay, who is same age as her husband, small-shaped but has inside himself many stories of Legendary

When she met pilot Nguyen Van Bay again in the US and was presented a typically Sothern-style handkerchief, it made her moved. At the moment of saying goodbye, she cried, her eyes turned red showing her admiration towards the small but legendary Vietnamese pilot. She could not say anything and run away when she discovered tears on her face. It was not only about the emotions between the two people but huge respects on the hero of Vietnam. Photographer Vu Tuan caught that very precious moment…

Do you hate Americans?

San Diego is in the special natural and strategic position for the Navy base, with a long mountain across the port to stop all the huge stormy sea waves, and very deep water level. This the base for USN 3 Fleet – the place of departure of most USMC troops during World War II and Vietnam War. USS Midway Aircraft Carrier was launched during World War II and sent to Vietnam 3 times with total more than 200 days. Many attacks to the North of Vietnam began from USS Midway. During April 1975, USS Midway participated in the transportation of the last US soldiers away from the South of Vietnam. At the retirement of the USS Midway, it became a air war museum attracting millions of tourists every year.

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In the evening of 21 September 2017, USS Midway observed another event related to Vietnam war, but in a different situation – not the sounds from the attacking aircrafts tooking off, but the warm reunion of the former enemies 40 years ago. No one in the 20th century could believe that the former fighter pilots /soldiers/ from North Vietnam were welcome as special guests on the board and join the historic meeting  with the former US Fighter pilots.

Mr. Scott McGaugh is one of founders of the Museum, also the speaker of the Museum. Although he is a famous MC with hundreds of talks every year for all kinds of audiences, but might be his first time was a MC of meeting between the former enemies. Scott McGaugh not only gave normal questions – answers, but also very special, surprising circumstances to attract the participants.

To test the ability of response of Vietnamese pilots in the US, he asked Gen. Soat “After 40 years, can you share with us if you still hate the American?”. Gen. Soat responded calmly “Not similar to the ground fighting, soldiers might see the face of each other, we-fighter pilots- cannot see each other in the sky. We might fly kilometers from each other, they did not register impression of the enemy’s face. Instead, in front of pilots, there were very fat maneuvers planes they were supposed- to shoot down. Actually,7 years ago, I myself suggested that Col. Charlie Tutt and I need to hold a meeting of Vietnam-US former enemy pilots to close the past, can meet again and understand each other. Our presence in the USS Midway today is the best answer to your question”. The hall had a long applause, not only agreeing with Gen. Soat’s opinions but welcoming the new moment where the enemies started to close  the past and talk about the future.

Veteran diplomatic – Why not?

Once the formal diplomatic approaches are limited, people diplomatic will open new opportunities. The world has seen ping pong diplomatic, basketball diplomatic, culture diplomatic, etc. During the visits to Vietnam, the Former President B.Obama and President D.Trump also mentioned about the roles of veterans in the process of curing the pains of the two nations. During the war, the veterans tried to kill each other to survive, but now when the war /finished/stops, if they are brave enough to close the past and sit down together, that became a strong message for the two nations to normalize the diplomatic relations, because they are best understand the cost of the wars and they paid the highest cost!

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At the beginning, the former pilots might not have been aware of the meanings of the reunion, but the encourages outcomes from the two dialogues exceeded the expectations, opened a new chapter in the relationship of the former pilots of the two countries. Some newspapers later called this is a type of ‘People Diplomatic”, “Veteran Diplomatic”. “From Dogfight to détente”, at the beginning, was just the name of the meeting between Viet Nam/US fighter pilots, now become a slogan, a message after the former enemies sat down, understood each other, felt the loss of the war and the value of peace to look forward to the co-operations between the two nations as shown on the agreements signed by leaders. In the speech, Colonel Charlie Tutt – US Team Leader – said “We are getting closer, understand better and high appreciate these meaningful meetings, we hope that it would help bring the relationship of the two countries closer and closer”.

When Scott McGaugh requested one short sentence about the impression of this meeting, ACE pilot Le Thanh Dao said “I believe that such meeting will leave a special mark, as a testimony to the new phase of bilateral relation. In order to end this, I just want to say: We cannot change the past, but have responsibility to build the future”.

Former pilot

NGUYỄN SỸ HƯNG

          Nguyen Sy Hung was a former MiG-21 pilot, later became famous Aviation psychologist in Vietnam, Former Chairman of Vietnam Airlines. He is also a translator of many books such as The myth of Ho Chi Minh Road, Marshall Joseph Stalin, Condi – Story of Condoleezza Rice, Bomb trading, Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin – short stories... and the Author of Books: “Air Engagements over North Vietnam Skies (1965-1975)-as vewed from both sides” and :” Aviation Psychology”….