Officially, the Vietnam War ended in April 1975, when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces swept through Saigon and gained control of the U.S.-backed South. But for Ly Tong, a former South Vietnamese fighter pilot, the struggle against communism would last for decades more.
As younger generations came of age in a world where Saigon was known as Ho Chi Minh City and the war had receded into the past, Mr. Tong continued his fight, dressing in a military jumpsuit and bomber jacket with his jet-black hair pulled back in a ponytail.
Dubbed “the Vietnamese James Bond,” he drew on his military training to hijack planes, twice dumping tens of thousands of anti-communist pamphlets over Ho Chi Minh City. Urging residents to take up arms against the government, he performed a similar pamphlet drop above Havana, where his rented Cessna was shadowed by Cuban MiGs as he flew back toward South Florida.
Mr. Tong, a self-described “freedom fighter” who made a daring escape from a communist “reeducation” camp, was granted asylum in the United States and later employed nonviolent protest techniques such as hunger strikes, was 73 when he died April 5 at a hospital in San Diego. He was suffering from lung disease and had drawn hundreds of well-wishers in recent weeks, including many South Vietnamese veterans who sought to pay homage to a man who was variously regarded as a terrorist, a revolutionary and a misguided idealist.
“Only people who suffered under Communism will understand what he did, and why he did it,” one of his supporters, Mai Nguyen of San Jose, told the Mercury News in 2012. “We will never forget our history. The younger generation that was born here, they don’t understand. He’s a hero. Nobody else will do what he did.”
Among Vietnamese Americans, Mr. Tong’s reputation largely stemmed from his actions on Sept. 4, 1992, when he boarded an Air Vietnam flight carrying 155 passengers from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City. Placing a noose around a flight attendant’s neck and wielding a plastic knife, he soon made his way into the cockpit, according to news accounts and the Aviation Safety Network.
Mr. Tong said he had a bomb strapped to his body — it was actually a set of binoculars taped to his leg — and forced the pilot to descend to 500 feet, reduce speed and circle Ho Chi Minh City. He spent half an hour throwing sacks of pamphlets out the cockpit window.
“People of Saigon — fill the streets!” they read, according to a translation in the Philadelphia City Paper. “Occupy the radio and television stations! Ask the police to join the revolution or return to their barracks. An overseas invasion force is on the way! I will soon be there to lead the fight. Await instructions!”
Mr. Tong eventually threw himself out the window, using a secondhand parachute he had purchased in Bangkok to land safely in a swamp. None of the passengers or crew were injured, and Mr. Tong was arrested within two hours.
“Put me on trial,” he told interrogators, according to a Wall Street Journal profile. “I want to be sentenced to death.” Instead of martyrdom, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, released early in 1998 as part of a general amnesty.
He returned to the United States a folk hero: A Vietnamese magazine in Houston had solicited poems written in his honor, and a California radio station held daily readings from his 300-page autobiography, “Black Eagle,” which took its name from the fighter squadron he served in at the close of the Vietnam War.
An unchastened Mr. Tong went on to broaden his fight against communism, dropping leaflets over Havana on New Year’s Day 2000 that urged Cubans to rise up against “the old dinosaur Fidel Castro.” They were signed, “Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Anti-Communist Forces of the World.”
Two American planes had been shot down off the coast of Cuba in 1996, but Mr. Tong returned to Florida unscathed. He lost only his pilot’s license as a punishment, and later that year traveled to Thailand, where he hijacked a twin-engine plane and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. Again, he dropped anti-communist pamphlets, this time on the eve of a visit from President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Tong said he had hired the plane, not hijacked it, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. No matter, he told the New York Times from jail in 2006, one year before his release: He was merely doing his duty.
“The only thing that matters is, the Communists still control my country. I’m a pilot. This is what I can do,” he said. “You cannot enjoy yourself when your whole country is in pain, in torture.”
Le Van Tong was born in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam, on Sept. 1, 1945. His father was a farmer who was killed during the war against the French, when Mr. Tong was 2, according to the Los Angeles Times.
By age 17, Mr. Tong had joined the South Vietnamese Air Force. His A-37 attack plane was shot down near Nha Trang shortly before the end of the war, and Mr. Tong was captured and sent to communist prisons. Some of his toenails were ripped out, he was placed in solitary confinement inside a cargo container, and he was hung by his feet and beaten.
Mr. Tong escaped in 1980 and embarked on a 17-month trek through Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, traveling by bike, bus, rail and foot. He eventually swam at night across the Johore Strait to Singapore, hailed a cab and arrived at the U.S. Embassy to request asylum.
He became an American citizen and studied political science at the University of New Orleans, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as encouragement from historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who suggested he pursue military history.
“He said, ‘No, I want to learn how to make a revolution,’ ” Ambrose told the Houston Chronicle in 1993. “He always thought big. Even if he didn’t always think very straight.”
Mr. Tong had nearly completed work on a PhD when he left for Thailand, where he said he tried to steal a Royal Thai Air Force plane to bomb Vietnam, before settling on his hijacking plot. He was later foiled in a plan to drop anti-communist leaflets over Seoul during a visit from China’s president.
Survivors include three daughters, a half brother and a half sister. His death was confirmed by a niece, Loc Xuan Le.
In recent years Mr. Tong lived in Southern California, where in 2008 he went on a month-long hunger strike in front of San Jose City Hall, seeking to get a stretch of Vietnamese shops recognized as Little Saigon. Two years later he embarked on perhaps his most unusual action, donning a brown wig, print dress and high heels for a concert in Santa Clara.
Approaching a Vietnamese singer viewed as an ally of the communist government, he offered the performer a flower and allegedly sprayed him in the face with pepper spray. Mr. Tong later testified that the spray was a mixture of fish sauce and perfume, and that he had intended to jump onto the stage and pull up his skirt, revealing slogans pinned to his underwear: “Down with Ho Chi Minh,” “Down with communism.”
“It is humiliation to [communists] to put it in underwear,” he explained during the trial in halting English, before being sentenced to six months in county jail. “Fish sauce is a kind of humiliation.”