15 February, 2016

Profiles 108, 109: FINISHED—"The Snakes" of the North

"If all of your heroes die, you have no more heroes."

Hold that thought.

Have a look at the MiGs above and below—they're ex-NVAF birds flown by two of North Vietnam's ranking heroes of the Vietnam War.  The silver one was flown by Nguyen Van Bay (7 victories) while the green one was flown by Le Hai (6 victories).

I drew them last year to present to the pilots as gifts.  Though I've met a few NVAF pilots before, these two were especially interesting in that they flew this almost-obsolete jet in combat against the American state-of-the-art.  They did pretty well, too—between the two of them, their aerial claims account for almost 50% of the type's victories during the entire Vietnam War.

Judging by website stats and emails I receive, the Vietnam War is coming into a new vogue and predictably, the audience is half the age of those who served.  Of course, that makes sense as the days when MiG-17s were scrambled to meet American iron were two generations ago.   As in, 1966.

And, since 1966, the world's population has more than doubled.  Today, it's around 7.5bn.  Back then, it was 3.3bn. Put another way, statistically, there's a whole new "1966 world" that has come to life after the fact. Put another way, pretty soon, the Vietnam War is going to be utterly absorbed in time.


break break.

Ok.  So here's the scene:  ex-POW Capt. Charlie Plumb and I are on a bumpy bus heading west from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  We're in the front bench seat while behind us, two ex-NVAF fighter pilots are flanking our translator.  I'm cranked around getting my palm read by one of the pilots, Tu De De. He's making a big show of it and then announces that, though I was an 'intellectual,' I was probably impotent.  (Half right, take your pick).


He then looks over at Charlie, smiles and makes a kind-of-bow.  Prior to my "reading" (more like a curse), he'd read Charlie's palm and proclaimed him strong, handsome and virile. 

It would have been a whole lot more awkward if it hadn't been so damn funny!  Then again, it wasn't the first time a writer got dissed in a crowd of warriors.  In hindsight, I have a million awesome comebacks but that's the problem when you're an intellectual—it takes so long... (drum roll, rim shot).
General Le Hai (Ret) as a Lieutenant, circa 1967
Photo from Dr. Sy Hung's "Red Book" 
Anyway, the other pilot was General Le Hai.  He'd been following the banter with sideways glances; I wasn't quite sure if he was amused or not, but I've come to expect such that from Generals* as they tend to have mastered the art of keeping a diplomatic distance.  Tu De was, on the other hand, a Colonel and therefore capable of providing comic relief (at least I hope that's all it was).

Eager to change the subject, I started asking questions of Tu De, who seemed to like the attention. Our translator was especially quick and the conversation flowed easily.  I learned a ton about the air war that took place post-American involvement, circa 1973-75.  There's so much more to that story, it deserves a book so I'll leave it at that.  However,  when it came to, "So did you claim any aerial victories?" our translator stopped and waved his hand as if to say, "No."

No as in "No victories" or No as in "Don't ask this"?

"I will not ask the question," said the translator.  "It is (pause for the correct word) impolite."

Irony alert.

"Why not?"  I asked. 

"It is, respect.  For the General."  

Tu De and Le Hai were following the translation with interest, though I wasn't quite sure how much they were picking up.  But, being an intellectual (ha ha) I figured that somehow, the Asian concept of Saving Face was coming to light.  On the other hand, being impotent, I figured I had nothing to lose by pressing the issue.

"Ok, just one more question - did Tu De score more than General Hai?"

"I do not know and I will not ask.  Maybe later.  Not now."  The translator smiled awkwardly and made a quick sideways glance at Le Hai.   Tu De looked away and started watching the scenery pass by at the excruciatingly slow speed of 35 mph.  Oh-kay...

A few hours later, just he and I, the translator explained that bringing up Tu De's achievements in front of a superior officer was bad form.  So too was palm-dissing someone with a blog read by thousands of people, but I digress... (touché, Tu De!)

General Le Hai, Capt. Charlie Plumb, Nguyen Van Bay at Van Bay's farm.
They were trying to recreate a moment in time from April, 1967 (hence the map and tokens)
Note the logo over the dude's house...
Photo: Me
Fast forward—it's night time and we'd just spent the day at Nguyen Van Bay's farm (awe-some!).  Tu De and Le Hai were in another car and Van Bay had hitched a ride with us back to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).  It was late, we were exhausted and no one was particularly enjoying the 2.5 hour bus ride in pitch black rural Vietnam.  However, unencumbered by protocols, Van Bay was proving to be an excellent conversationalist.

I couldn't quite determine whether Van Bay was the prototypical Party Ideal (he even looks like Ho Chi Minh!) or rugged individualist (going from fighter pilot to farmer?!) but his story was compelling.  Armed with a 3rd grade education and a childhood of comparative poverty, Van Bay rose to the rank of fighter pilot with the native instinct of a bird.  Here's the kicker; out of thirteen sorties** (making contact with American aircraft) he scored on seven, achieving a victory each time he fired his guns.  

Ho Chi Minh himself grounded Van Bay on account of the pilot's hero-factor. 

Anyway, up until this point, we'd talked more about tactics, weapons, history and what it was like to be a fighter pilot with a 3rd grade education. It was Van Bay who shifted the tone of conversation. "One of (your generals) said that you would bomb us into the stone age, correct?"  

"That'd be General LeMay.  Yeah, he's supposed to have said that."

"It was true, I didn't even have a stone bowl!" (he laughed).

Nguyen Van Bay circa 1967.
Photo from Dr. Sy Hung's "Red Book" 
It seemed a good time to now ask the question everyone asks me to ask them,  "So what did you think of (Americans) during the war?"

His reply was quick. "Whoever hates me is my enemy." 

He  then looked away,  thought for a bit and added, "(But) no one won (the war).  We were (both) unlucky that it happened.  Now, I am happy that I don't have to fight. We can be colleagues."  He nodded at our translator, Captain Plumb and myself, punctuating the gesture with an authentic, beaming smile.  

It was the perfect time to move the conversation away from the past and onto something brighter.  Grandkids, his farm, maybe bottling his homemade hootch***... "So what do you want to do with the rest of your life?"

Upon the translator's restating, the smile receded.  Van Bay paused momentarily, and if my memory serves me right, took another look out into the black.

"Now?  I will tell you.  I want to go to America and meet the families of those that I killed.  I (can) never say I'm sorry.  But, I want to give them my respect."

Hmmmm.  There's another story there but I'm not sure how to proceed.  Wish me luck.

Back to the quote at the beginning of this post - "If all of your heroes die, you have no more heroes." —that came from General Le Hai.   He seemed especially eager to say it, nodding at Captain Plumb, then my pen and notebook.   I remember the General affectionately patting our translator's arm, too. 

So, I dedicate this post to our translator—a Vietnamese intellectual himself, father of two and as honored to spend time with his country's heroes as I am my own.  I hope he and I are smart enough to keep them alive, too. 

And in response to Le Hai's quote, I totally agree.  If the memories of our heroes die, future generations have nothing to go on other than superstitious guesswork.

PS - Why "Snakes"?  It was a derisive nickname given to the little MiGs on account of their manueverability, ground-hugging tactics and sometimes snake-colored camouflage.

OH YEAH!  If you'd like to build your own MiG-17 in Van Bay's markings, click here.

*Le Hai worked his way up the ranks.

**13 seems like a low number but it bears out considering the frugality and absolute authority of the NVAF's "Ground Control" mode of operations.  As for scoring every time he fired, Van Bay expressed the dicta of so many WWI and WWII aces of maneuvering to fire at the closest possible range.  He told me that they were taught to be, in his words, "...close enough to touch the enemy's belt."

***Actually, pretty good.  It was tart, sweet and thick, if you're a fan of Sour Patch Kid candy, imagine them liquified and tinged with Rum.

To own prints of either MiG, signed by their pilots, click here.

UPDATE - OFF.  THE.  CHART.  Interest in these MiGs has been huge...and though this post is actually a few posts "down" from the opening post, it's the #1 'click.'  Readers have been weighing in to varying degrees and one has sent pictures of a MiG-17 model that he built. 

It's really a remarkable model in that he's captured the crude paint scheme as it's been described to me.

1:33 scale MiG-17 a'la Jim Rotramel.  Based on my experience with researching ex-NVAF aircraft,
he totally nailed this.  His 'build' is one of three that make me wonder if there are dudes out there with access to time machines (chicks don't make model airplanes, right?)