Name That Toon — Was North Vietnam’s Most Feared Flying Ace A Myth?

"Advantage Cunningham" by Mark Waki is one of many paintings that immortalize Lt. Randy Cunningham's victory over the legendary and feared North Vietnamese flying ace Col. Toon. Painting used with permission of the artist.

“Advantage Cunningham” by Mark Waki is one of many paintings that immortalize Lt. Randy Cunningham’s victory over the legendary and feared North Vietnamese flying ace Col. Toon. Painting used with permission of the artist.

“Cunningham and Driscoll’s most famous dogfight occurred on May 10, 1972 when the pair downed three MiG-17 fighter jets in a single day, one of which was supposedly flown by North Vietnam’s best fighter pilot of the war.”

Randy Cunningham. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Randy Cunningham. (Image source: WikiCommons)

LAST WEEK, news outlets across the United States reported former California Congressman Randy Cunningham’s release from federal prison.

The 71-year-old Republican legislator had been serving an eight-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2005 to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from defence contractors.

Prior to the scandal, the 14-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives was probably best known for his career as a U.S. Navy combat pilot. In fact, Cunningham and his former radar intercept officer Willy Driscoll were the navy’s only flying aces of the Vietnam War.

In just a few months while serving in South East Asia, the two aviators destroyed a total of five enemy planes in their two-seat F-4 Phantom II fighter/bomber, winning themselves each a Silver Stars and a couple of Navy Crosses in the process.

Cunningham and Driscoll’s most famous dogfight occurred on May 10, 1972 when the pair downed three MiG-17 fighter jets in a single day, one of which was supposedly flown by North Vietnam’s best fighter pilot of the war – a mysterious ace known only as Col. Toon.

Small and agile, in the right hands the MiG-17 was a formidable opponent. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Small and agile, in the right hands the MiG-17 was a formidable opponent. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Phantom vs. MiG

The legendary encounter began minutes after a massive daylight raid on a North Vietnamese rail yard at Hai Duong near Hanoi. The bombing run was one of the first missions of the six-month U.S. air campaign known as Operation Linebacker — an epic undertaking aimed at disrupting communist supply lines.

As the flight of 35 warplanes from the carrier USS Constellation sped for the safety of the fleet, a formation of Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) MiG-17 Frescos ambushed the American strike group.

With enemy fighters bearing down, Cunningham and Driscoll turned their Phantom jet towards the bandits and engaged. They quickly downed a pair of the smaller Soviet-made interceptors with air-to-air missiles. Only one more victory away from their fifth career kill and the coveted “ace” designation, the pair scanned the skies for a fresh victim. They found one: a lone MiG-17.

As Cunningham lined his jet up to take a shot, the pilot of the nimble VPAF fighter numbered “3020” spied the incoming Phantom and turned his battery of cannons on the American aircraft. A hail of 23 and 37-mm shells sent Cunningham and Driscoll jinking and turning. A savage duel dragged on for several harrowing minutes as the two navy officers struggled to gain the upper hand.

The two-seat, twin-engine F-4 Phantom was the U.S. Navy's principle fighter bomber during the Second World War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The two-seat, twin-engine F-4 Phantom was the U.S. Navy’s principle fighter bomber during the Vietnam War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

After a series of high-speed passes and sharp turns, the adversaries spiralled skywards in a twisting climb. As the planes rocketed towards the stratosphere, Cunningham reportedly eased off the throttle allowing the MiG to shoot out ahead and right into the Phantom’s sights. Still climbing, but bleeding off airspeed fast, the enemy jet shuddered, stalled and plunged towards the ground. Determined to get their kill, the Americans dove after it. Cunningham centred the MiG in his HUD and loosed a single AIM-9 Sidewinder at the fleeing fighter. The missile struck home and the enemy jet vanished in a fireball.

Unfortunately, Cunningham and Driscoll weren’t able savour their triumph for long. Minutes after the dogfight, their Phantom was struck by a North Vietnamese surface to air missile (SAM). The two fliers bailed out over the South China Sea and had to be rescued by helicopter.

Cunningham and Driscoll take questions from reporters following their famous May 10, 1972 dogfight over North Vietnam.

Cunningham (left) and Driscoll (right) take questions from reporters following their famous May 10, 1972 dogfight over North Vietnam.

Colonel Toon: Man or Myth?

After the dogfight, some speculated that the MiG the two navy fliers fought was actually piloted by North Vietnam’s deadliest combat ace: Col. Nguyen Toon (sometimes called “Tomb”). The enigmatic aviator was believed to have brought down as many as 13 American planes between 1965 and 1972.

Following the May 10 encounter, Cunningham and Driscoll were heralded for ridding the skies of Vietnam of a dangerous foe. But questions soon emerged: Exactly who was Col. Toon? And more importantly: Did he even actually exist? To this day, there seems to be no clear answer.

Some sources have argued that the famous North Vietnamese flier was a complete fabrication. Hanoi propagandists supposedly conjured up the deadly ace to bolster morale on the home front or possibly to scare American pilots.

Others claim that the mythical pilot wasn’t a concoction of enemy publicists at all, but rather a figment of American pilots’ imaginations. Proponents of this theory maintain that sometime during the war, navy or air force aviators likely picked up the call sign “Toon” (or maybe “Tomb”) from enemy radio chatter and later used the name as jargon for any capable MiG pilot they tangled with. Toon was later incorrectly reported by the American media as a real enemy pilot and the legend took on a life of its own. Long after the war, when Western researchers visiting Hanoi asked their hosts about the famous ace, VPAF officials were supposedly baffled. In fact, many have observed that the name “Toon” isn’t even Vietnamese.

While photos supposedly exist of a MiG-17 bearing the numbers 3020 and emblazoned with 13 small red victory stars on the fuselage, it’s been pointed out that the VPAF typically assigned multiple pilots to the same aircraft. The stars symbolized collective kills by all of that airplane’s pilots, as opposed to the achievements a lone ace.

Others make the case that Toon was actually two different VPAF fighter jocks: a seasoned veteran by the name of Dinh Ton and another flier named Bieu. According to this source, U.S. intelligence wrongly recorded Ton’s name as “Toon,” which was later erroneously edited to “Tomb” by an American reporter in 1971. Somehow Ton and Bieu’s combat achievements were conflated and possibly even confused with those of a third Vietnamese flier, Dang Ngoc Ngu. Interestingly enough, none of these pilots were involved in the May 10, dogfight, let alone shot down in it.

Despite this, whatever pilot was at the controls of that third MiG on May 10, 1972, it’s clear that he was no amateur. Even though the flier’s jet was destroyed by a an American missile, the unknown individual succeeded in putting the skills of two of the U.S. Navy’s best aviators to the ultimate test, and very nearly won.

MilitaryHistoryNow.com reached out to William Driscoll last week via email for comment on the Toon controversy. The former navy flier-turned-San Diego real estate agent and keynote speaker did not respond to our requests.

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