Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977, by István Toperczer, Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas, 1998, paperback, $9.99.
For decades, accounts of the American bombing effort over North Vietnam have amounted to detailed studies of U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft, aircrews, strategy and tactics, with the North Vietnamese defenders described in the sketchiest, most general terms. Aside from vague allotments of unreliable propaganda, little hard information has been available on North Vietnam’s air defenses, even through other Communist countries–the Vietnamese, with their centuries-long tradition of xenophobia, did not seem to trust anybody.
Things inevitably change in the course of time, however, and it was a curious and persistent Hungarian, Dr. István Toperczer, who managed–after nine months of persuasion and delicate negotiations–to travel to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, gain access to the archives of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) and talk to some of its Vietnam War veterans. The results of his efforts are now available in English as one of a series of books on various combatant air arms from Squadron/Signal Publications, as Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977.
Squadron/Signal has long specialized in publications aimed at model builders, and Air War Over North Viet Nam is no exception, with a multitude of photographs and color profiles of VPAF aircraft. As with a good many of the publishers’ recent efforts, however, there is solid scholarship in this book’s text, with a full breakdown of the VPAF’s air regiments and a complete list of VPAF claims in air-to-air combat. The descriptions of major air battles include Hanoi’s record of Mikoyan-Gurevich fighters shot down, along with an accounting of pilots who were killed, injured or bailed out safely in each particular fight. This hitherto-unavailable data fairly begs for comparison with American claims and losses (which happen already to be available from previous Squadron/Signal publications dealing with the American side of the war, including Lou Drendel’s much-reprinted and updated classic, …And Kill MiGs!).
In addition to the chronology of the VPAF’s evolution and combat record, Air War Over North Viet Nam presents surprising facts about activities that went outside of North Vietnam, including the details of the VPAF’s first air-to-air victory–a South Vietnamese-flown Fairchild C-123 Provider downed over the Laotian-North Vietnamese border on February 15, 1964. The victor, Nguyen Van Ba, was flying a piston-engine North American T-28 Trojan trainer-turned-ground attack plane, obtained from a Laotian Air Force defector in September 1963 and made airworthy using parts from another shot-down T-28.
The book also includes information on 16 VPAF aces, including the top-scoring fighter pilot of either side during the war, Nguyen Van Coc, with nine victories. As for the long-perpetuated story of a Colonel Tomb, who was credited with 13 American aircraft before being killed in a classic one-on-one dogfight with the McDonnell F-4J Phantom crewed by Lieutenant Randall H. Cunningham and Lt. j.g. William P. Driscoll on May 10, 1972, that myth is finally put to rest–none of the VPAF veterans who the author spoke to ever heard of him. Compared with the three MiG-17s credited to Cunningham and Driscoll that afternoon, the VPAF’s 923rd Fighter Regiment recorded two MiG-17s shot down out of the four it sent up to engage the Phantoms, with one pilot, Nguyen Hang, killed and the other, Nguyen Van Tho, parachuting to safety. American claims over North Vietnam on May 10, 1972, totaled 11 MiGs, for the loss of two Phantoms. The VPAF claimed six Phantoms that day, for the loss of two MiG-21s destroyed and two damaged, one MiG-19 destroyed and one damaged, and two MiG-17s destroyed.
Air War Over North Viet Nam represents a breakthrough in research that transcends its modeler-oriented appearance. Giving American readers an unprecedented view of the other side, it is an outstanding reference and an essential addition to the library of any serious scholar of aerial warfare over the North during the Vietnam War.