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World Ly Tong, Vietnamese pilot who hijacked planes to fight communism, dies at 74

Pilot Ly Tong gestures as he responds to a reporter after receiving medals from the Brothers to the Rescue and the Cuban American Veterans Association in Miami, Monday, Jan. 3, 2000.

ALAN DIAZ/The Associated Press

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 April 5 in San Diego. He was 74.

His family said the cause of death was lung disease.

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.

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“I have the duty to liberate my country!” he exclaimed 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 hero to many Vietnamese refugees in 1992, when he hijacked a commercial airliner after takeoff from Bangkok, ordered the pilot to fly low over Ho Chi Minh City – known as Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, before the Communist victory – and dumped thousands of leaflets calling for a popular uprising.

He then strapped on a parachute and followed the leaflets down to certain capture. He was released six years later and 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 Thailand and spent six years in prison for hijacking. He was not armed, and 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.”

Mr. Tong was born Le Van Tong on Sept. 1, 1945, in the Vietnamese city of Hue, 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 Black 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 and 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 the jungle to avoid border posts.

He was accepted as a refugee in the United States, where he worked as a security guard and earned a degree in political science from the University of New Orleans. He published a 300-page autobiography, Black Eagle, which made him a celebrity among overseas Vietnamese.

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