Did the Legendary Colonel Tomb Actually Exist?

The Vietnam War is particularly notable for how, despite the long time that has passed since the war’s end, there are some legends from the war that persists today. There is the controversy regarding Robert Garwood, there were the legends regarding Soviet advisors and “white Viet Cong,” the effects of Agent Orange, etc. One legend, the ace pilot Colonel Tomb (sometimes spelled “Toon”), is particularly remembered among Air Force and Navy veterans and aviation enthusiasts for being supposedly the highest-scoring ace in the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF), the air force of North Vietnam with roughly thirteen kills. The only issue though, is did Col. Tomb even exist at all?

Nguyen Van Coc with Ho Chi Minh
Nguyen Van Coc with Ho Chi Minh

Officially, the highest scoring ace in the Vietnam War was another VPAF pilot by the name of Nguyen Van Coc. Serving in the 921st Fighter Regiment, or Sao Dao (Red Star), Coc primarily flew a MiG-21 “Fishbed” and went on to score nine kills, two being F-4 “Phantoms,” five being F-105 “Thunderchiefs,” and two being unmanned drones. Although some sources suggest Coc had as many as eleven kills, the most common official number is nine kills. Regardless, Nguyen Van Coc became a huge figure in the VPAF. He developed tactics that were taught in other flying schools, and his skills became well-known among American pilots. There was even an event in 1969 in which Coc was able to meet Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam who congratulated Coc and proclaimed to the hundreds of soldiers present “As a new year is coming, I wish that the Air Force and Air Defense Command have more people like Coc.”

Nguyen Van Coc in his MiG-21
Nguyen Van Coc in his MiG-21 “Fishbed”

What does Nguyen Van Coc have to do with the mythical Col. Tomb? It’s important to examine the status of an ace pilot in North Vietnam. The advanced technology and superior numbers of the U.S. Air Force meant that the VPAF was almost perpetually small, and that those pilots who survived tended to be aces. Coc’s unit, the 921st, is renowned for producing a number of other aces such as Pham Ngoc Lan, Tran Hanh, and Nguyen Nhat Chieu. As such, the aces in the VPAF tended to know each other personally; Nguyen Van Coc had his first engagement with fellow ace Nguyen Ngoc Do who went on to have six kills of his own. There was even a policy that pilots in the VPAF “flew until they died” simply because there were too few pilots and too many Americans.

However, when sources in Vietnam are asked who exactly the ace Col. Tomb was, the answer is always the same: he never existed. Even the aces Nguyen Van Coc and Pham Tuan (who later went into space aboard the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz-37) both stated in interviews that they had never even heard of him. Researchers have also been unable to find any records of either Tomb or Toon in VPAF records (or any records at all for that matter). In fact, the words “Tomb” or “Toon” have no equivalent in the Vietnamese language, or even anything that sounds similar, with the closest being “Tuan.”

A MiG-17 with the number
A MiG-17 with the number “3020”

There is also the propaganda value in aces, especially in Communist countries. As stated above, Nguyen Van Coc was able to meet Ho Chi Minh and became a huge propaganda symbol in North Vietnam. If Col. Tomb did exist, then he would have been a hugely important figure in the VPAF. There is the theory that if Tomb had been alive and was killed, the North Vietnamese government would have censored his existence, similar to what the Soviet Union and other Communist countries did. That is extremely unlikely, as even if Tomb had been killed in combat he would have become a martyr.

So where did the legend of Col. Tomb come from? As one might have guessed by now, it was American servicemen who claim that he was in fact real. In particular, Air Force and Navy pilots, as well as personnel involved in Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT. The majority of all information regarding Col. Tomb is derived from the information gathered by SIGINT, which was the act of listening to enemy radio communications. If Col. Tomb didn’t exist, then how is it the name Tomb/Toon was heard over the radio enough between North Vietnamese aircraft and ground controllers that U.S. intelligence and pilots came to believe he was real?

MiG-17
MiG-17 “3020” and MiG-21 “4326”

Another factor is how an image began circulating of a MiG-17 “Fresco” with the number “3020”  The MiG-17 in question also had a series of red stars near the nose signifying the number of kills it had attained. Initially it was believed that this “3020” aircraft belonged to Col. Tomb, however the red stars were literally referring to the number of kills of the aircraft, not the pilot. For example, there was a MiG-21 with the number “4326” which was circulated in a Vietnamese magazine which was piloted by nine different individuals. Therefore, an aircraft may have a large number of recorded kills, but it’s only because it had gone through multiple pilots rather than one very skilled individual. There is also how the main aircraft used by the 921st Fighter Regiment was the MiG-21, which is why numerous pilots such as Nguyen Van Coc had to be sent to the Soviet Union in order to learn how to pilot them. In fact, most aces in the VPAF piloted the MiG-21, which makes it seem odd that Col. Tomb piloted a MiG-17.

Lt. Cunningham (left) and RIO Driscoll (right)
Lt. Cunningham (left) and RIO Driscoll (right)

However, what is strange is how even though the Vietnamese claim Col. Tomb did not exist, American ace Randy Cunningham states he shot him down. Lt. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and William “Irish” Driscoll, Cunningham’s Radar Intercept Officer, were Navy pilots on an F-4 Phantom II during the Vietnam War, and on May 10th, 1972 Cunningham reportedly engaged a MiG-17. After a dogfight, Cunningham shot down the enemy aircraft, which was confirmed to have been MiG-17 “3020” whose pilot did not survive the aircraft’s destruction. Cunningham claims that the enemy pilot was very skilled, although it is likely that Cunningham merely exaggerated the event. Driscoll however states that the odds were repeatedly not in their favor, and asked Cunningham to withdraw although Cunningham insisted that he was in control of the situation. Either way, the shoot down was confirmed although the F-4 ran out of fuel on its way to their aircraft carrier and Cunningham and Driscoll had to safely eject before being picked up by a helicopter. However, both individuals went on to become the only Navy pilots to be declared aces throughout the Vietnam War.

Russian pilot with his VPAF comrades
Russian pilot with his VPAF comrades

If Col. Tomb did exist, and he wasn’t Vietnamese, then who was he? Most theories suggest that Tomb was in actuality a Soviet pilot, which wouldn’t be the first time a Soviet was accused of fighting against U.S. forces in Vietnam. In fact, many individuals in the Air Force believed that the Soviets had pilots from the Soviet Air Forces (VVS) operating with the VPAF. Col. Jack Broughton, an ace who served in both the Korean War and Vietnam War, believed that he had encountered a Soviet pilot in one encounter as he recalled in his autobiography Thud Ridge. During a maneuver while engaging a J-6 (a Chinese copy of the Soviet MiG-19 “Farmer”), Broughton claimed that the pilot had blonde hair and blue eyes.

Col. Vadim Petrovich Shcherbakov
Col. Vadim Petrovich Shcherbakov

While the Soviets officially didn’t have any combat pilots from the VVS serving in Vietnam, there were advisers and others there to train the North Vietnamese use Soviet equipment. Eventually the Russian Federation would admit that over 3,000 Soviet soldiers fought in Vietnam, the majority of whom served with SAM (surface to air missile) launchers in order to stop American air raids. One officer, Vadim Petrovich Shcherbakov, was a SAM launcher commander sent to North Vietnam in 1966 who is credited with eleven victories and received the Order of Lenin. Overall, there’s some evidence to suggest that Col. Tomb may have been a Soviet pilot. That would explain why the VPAF has no records of him, why his name is unlike any Vietnamese names, and why his death would have been covered up.

This is all speculation of course, and there are plenty of theories to explain Col. Tomb. The Vietnamese side of things claim that he never existed, and that he may have even been fabricated by the American Air Force for propaganda purposes, while those on the American side claims that he had to have existed from the amount of SIGINT regarding the individual and the testimony of Lt. Cunningham and Driscoll. Like certain mysteries of the Vietnam War, it seems the legend of Col. Tomb or Toon is one that will remain unsolved unless some source from the intelligence community or the Communist side comes forward.

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