Daredevil Ly Tong, dubbed ‘Vietnamese James Bond’ for his anti-communism stunts, dies at 74
The Vietnamese-American community lost a folk hero Friday, April 5, with the death of Ly Tong – dubbed the “Vietnamese James Bond” for his audacious exploits combating communism.
Tong’s derring-do included three renegade flights – two over his home country and one over Cuba – to drop political leaflets.
The former fighter pilot died of lung disease at age 74, said his longtime friend Hoa Thai Cu, president of the South Vietnamese Air Force Association of San Diego, in which Tong was active.
A weekend-long memorial service for Tong will take place April 20 and April 21 at Westminster Memorial Park Mortuary, Cu said. He expects hundreds of visitors to pay their respects during the public viewing.
Tong will be buried at the cemetery Sunday after a funeral procession through Little Saigon.
“People will line the streets,” Cu predicted. “Everybody loved him very much.”
Tong’s death-defying feats began as a teenager when he served in the South Vietnamese Air Force. The North Vietnamese captured him after his A-37 fighter jet was shot down at the end of the Vietnam War and he was sentenced to “re-education” camp.
Managing to escape five years later, Tong spent months walking, biking and swimming his way out of Vietnam through Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. In Singapore, he hailed a cab to the U.S. Embassy and requested asylum.
After landing in New Orleans in 1980, Tong worked as a security guard, received two degrees in political science and became a U.S. citizen.
In 1992, he boarded a flight from Thailand to Vietnam. As the plane approached Ho Chi Minh City, Tong forced his way into the cockpit by falsely claiming he had a bomb. Then he ordered the captain to fly low, and released 50,000 anti-communist fliers through the cockpit window.
“I will soon be there to lead the fight,” Tong declared on the pamphlets. “Await instructions!”
As a coup de grace, Tong parachuted from an emergency exit. Landing in a swamp, he was quickly arrested by Vietnamese authorities and served six years in prison.
Time behind bars proved little deterrent for Tong. In 2000, he rented a Cessna in Miami and flew to Cuba to distribute newspapers urging revolt against Fidel Castro.
That adventure cost him his pilot’s license. But just a few months later, he paid a private pilot in Thailand to fly him to Vietnam so, once again, he could scatter fliers. For that stunt, he served time in a Bangkok prison.
Even close friends sometimes questioned Tong’s flamboyant approach to freedom fighting.
“Fifty percent (of people) think he’s crazy,” Nguyen Phuong Hung told the Orange County Register in 2006. “Sometimes I’ve called him and said, ‘That’s a stupid action.You have to obey the laws.’”
At the time of his death, Tong lived in San Diego. He never married, but leaves three children from three different relationships.
“He’s like James Bond even in that way,” Cu said, chuckling.
The public viewing will take place from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, April 20, and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, April 21, at Westminster Memorial Park Mortuary, 14801 Beach Blvd. Tong will be interred at the cemetery, April 21, after a procession through Little Saigon. For more information, call 619-733-8263.
Staff writer Martin Wisckol contributed to this story.