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Ly Tong in a parade in Miami in 2000, after scattering anti-Communist leaflets over Havana. Months later, he did the same in his native Vietnam.Credit...Robert Nickelsberg/Liason, via Getty Images
BANGKOK — Ly Tong, a South Vietnamese Air Force veteran who dropped anti-Communist leaflets over Vietnam from hijacked planes long after the war’s end, playing out the fantasies of many defeated soldiers of the south, died on Saturday in San Diego. He was 74.
The cause was lung disease, his family said.
A man who never accepted defeat, Mr. Tong considered it his personal mission to take back his country from the Communists, who have ruled it since winning the Vietnam War in 1975.
“I have the duty to lớn liberate my country!” he said in an interview more than 30 years later. “You cannot enjoy yourself when your whole country is in pain, in torture.”
Mr. Tong became a anh hùng to many Vietnamese refugees in 1992, when he hijacked a commercial airliner after takeoff from Bangkok, ordered the pilot khổng lồ fly low over Ho bỏ ra Minh city — known as Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, before the Communist victory — & dumped thousands of leaflets calling for a popular uprising.
He then strapped on a parachute và followed the leaflets down to certain capture. He was released six years later in an amnesty & returned to the United States, where he had become a citizen after the war.
In 2000, under the guise of taking flying lessons in Thailand, Mr. Tong made a second trip over Ho chi Minh City, sending down a new cascade of leaflets, which he had signed “Global Alliance for the Total Uprising Against Communists.”
He was arrested on his return to đất nước xinh đẹp thái lan and spent six years in prison for hijacking. He was not armed, & no one was hurt on either of his flights.
“The only thing that matters is the Communists still control my country,” he shouted through a double screen of wire mesh during an interview at Bangkok’s central jail. “I’m a pilot. This is what I can do.”
He timed his second flight to lớn coincide with President Bill Clinton’s visit khổng lồ Vietnam, the first by an American president since the kết thúc of the war. Soon after Mr. Tong scattered his leaflets, Mr. Clinton was in Hanoi, the capital, where he delivered a very different message: “The history we leave behind is painful và hard. We must not forget it, but we must not be controlled by it.”
As the years passed and a new generation of Vietnamese-Americans accepted the unsentimental facts of history, the veterans’ fantasies of liberation became relics of that distant war.
But at the kết thúc of his life, it became clear that the legend of Mr. Tong — who proved time and again his loyalty lớn a country that no longer existed — still compelled devotion.
As word spread that his health was failing, visitors converged on his hospital room in San Diego — as many as 200 people on one recent weekend.
Mr. Ly Tong in 2006 in Bangkok, where he spent years in prison for hijacking. His postwar feats made him a hero to many of the defeated soldiers of South Vietnam.Credit...Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press
His most devoted followers were former soldiers like himself, liberated from years in Communist labor camps under an agreement with the United States & arriving by the tens of thousands in the 1990s, the last và saddest wave of refugees.
“They have come prepared to lớn show the courage of the former soldiers of South Vietnam, but they are showing themselves only as a group of misfit people,” Yen Ngoc Do, who was then the editor of the Vietnamese-language newspaper Nguoi Viet, said in an interview. “Their political and military past has been totally forgotten.”
Broken in health & spirit, too old or tired to start over again, many of the veterans lapsed into listlessness and despair.
“I survived the war, I survived prison,” one of them, Phan Nhat Nam, a former paratrooper & wartime journalist, said in a 1995 interview in the Little Saigon area of Orange County, Calif.
“Now I must survive my freedom, và it is very hard,” he said. “We are old men now. We have lost the ability lớn adapt & renew.”
For people lượt thích these, Mr. Tong offered an alternate reality — a vision of courage & action, a tragic nhân vật in the tradition of Vietnamese history.
Ly Tong was born Le Van Tong on Sept. 1, 1945, in the central Vietnamese đô thị of Hue, according to lớn his family. (Other accounts have said that he was born in 1948.) He was the son of a well-to-do farmer who was executed as a revolutionary.
Mr. Tong joined the South Vietnamese Air Force and served in its elite đen Eagle fighter squadron. As the war neared its end, he was shot down and sent to a re-education camp.
His postwar story began in 1980, with his escape & a 17-month trek to freedom through five countries. He picked his way through minefields, he said, broke out of jails, dodged security patrols and crawled through jungle to avoid border posts.
In early 2000, years after his first flight over Ho đưa ra Minh City, Mr. Tong burnished his anti-Communist credentials with a flight over Havana in a rented plane, scattering leaflets as he had in Vietnam. He was commended on his return by Cuban-Americans in Florida, who gave him a victory parade. His second foray into Vietnam came later that year.
In his final and most bizarre act of defiance, in 2010 in California, Mr. Tong assaulted a Vietnamese singer whom he deemed sympathetic to the government of Vietnam. Disguised as a woman, he walked lớn the edge of the stage, reached up as if lớn hand the singer a bouquet và squirted a liquid, which may have been pepper spray, in her face. He was sentenced on multiple charges to lớn six months in jail and three years’ probation. He appeared at his trial in drag.
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Mr. Tong lived out his final years quietly in San Diego. He is survived by a half brother, a half sister, three daughters and several nieces và nephews.