There has been a proliferation of information on the North Vietnamese air force in the past few decades, mostly culled by Hungarian air force doctor and aviation enthusiast István Toperczer. The latest entry, however, is the work of Canadian Kirk R. Lowry, who has compiled a comprehensive history of a North Vietnamese aviation expansion that ultimately grew to four fighter regiments with 36 aircraft each (provided that all were present or accounted for).
Gold Stars Over the Red River: The Fighter Regiments and the Aces of the Vietnam People’s Air Force was originally published in Vietnam, but there is now a Canadian-printed, English-language version updated in late 2019.
Lowry offers a chronology of events and biographies of virtually every North Vietnamese pilot who made a claim on an American airplane, helicopter or drone. He includes—whenever the information could be ascertained—the identities of the pilots shot down, the date and the location where they were forced to eject (in some cases more than once) and whether they were killed in action. All of this can be useful to anyone seeking to identify and verify American air-to-air combat claims.
Gold Stars not only covers the operations of the North Vietnamese 921st, 923rd, 925th and 927th Fighter regiments but also sheds more light on the training process that made a formidable fighter force of people who seldom had exposure to the technology of a tractor.
That training was provided by foreign advisers from multiple communist countries, including Korean War ace of aces Soviet pilot Nikolai Sutiagin (22 victories). Only one country, North Korea, supplied combat pilots to supplement North Vietnam’s air defenses.
The North Korean unit, called Force Z and led by Kim Chang Xon, rotated 87 pilots in and out of one MiG-21F-equipped company of the 921st Fighter Regiment and two companies of Shenyang F-5s (Chinese-built and exported MiG-17s) in the 923rd.
Flying combat missions from 1967 to 1969, the North Koreans claimed 26 victories and a loss of 14 pilots though, oddly, North Vietnam acknowledges only eight of the claims and 12 Force Z-flown aircraft lost, which are listed in the appendix.
Illustrated with 50 photographs, Gold Stars Over the Red River makes a useful resource and provides insight into the air war’s “other side.”
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This article appeared in Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: