BACK FROM HELL
Diary of a “White Egret” Pilot, Phan Thanh Van
Foreword: In 1957, after the French transferred transportation airplanes to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), as a first lieutenant in the Air Forces, he was the training officer in the Transportation Wing 1 under the command of LTC Nguyen Cao Ky.
Early 1958, he was dispatched to fly for Air Vietnam (commercial airline), replaced French pilots retuned to French.
In 1961, the Air Forces called him to come back for new duty. He was given order to fly one of the two “White Egret” especially used for missions in North Vietnam. Dropping commando team by parachutes, and resupplying the commando teams hidden on the ground. (The CIA funded and directed these two White Egret. One flight crew commanded by Nguyen Cao Ky, the other by Phan Thanh Van. The planes named White Egret because they were sterilized, erased all signs, symbols).
On July 1st 1961, he replaced Nguyen Cao Ky on a mission to North Vietnam, supplying the commandos. This was a faithful flight. His airplane was shot down by North Vietnamese anti aircraft guns at 1:15 am, 2nd of July 1961 when the airplane was approaching North Vietnam from the sea. The airplane crashed near the village of To Hieu, county Kim Son, Ninh Binh province. The flight crew under his command included: two pilots, 1st Lt. Phan Khac Thich, 2nd Lt. Tran Minh Tam, two navigators, 2nd Lt. Tieu Huynh Yen, 2nd Lt. Pham Trong Mau, radio operator Sergeant Nguyen Van No, mechanic Master Sergeant Pham Van Dang, and three commandos, Master Sergeants Loc, Khoa and Sergeant Tiet from Office 45 (North Vietnam Office, later evolved to Strategic Technical Directorate).
The airplane crashed on a rice paddy field and caught fire. One man was trapped inside the burning airplane and died, others died later from the wound. Only three people survived the crash that included himself, the mechanic and one of the three commandos. All were wounded and captured by local people militia. After spent time locked up in Hoa Lo prison (Hanoi Hilton) for interrogation, the three men was taken to Central Military Court on November 15th 1961and received sentences:
- Dinh Nhu Khoa, commando, 15 years.
- Phan Thanh van, chief pilot, 7 years.
- Pham Van Dang, mechanic, 3 years.
After receiving the sentence, Phan Thanh Van was sent to a re-education camp Bac Bat (Ba Vi, Son Tay province). Later, he was transferred to camp Pho Lu, section E (Lao Kai).
In 1971, Phan Thanh Van was released from prison, after serving ten years. His release due to the request from his older sister (probably French citizenship) via the French Red Cross. He reunited with his family and lived in French.
Today is the 29 of December (Luna calendar), only a few days from the Tet (Luna new year). This Tet is the “Year of the Pigs” (1971), the 10th Tet that I lived lonely, away from family and country.
In the afternoon, after I finished making a wooden double bed, the political commissar, manager of the communion wood production Dong Tien in the town of Ba Vi, Son Tay province called me to report in the office, and said.
- You can stop working, go back to your place and collect your belongings for the trip back to Ha Noi.
- Yes, Officer... But I go back to Ha Noi for what purpose and how long?
- Don’t ask! It is an order from the central (authority), I don’t know. You should prepare for the trip... And you might not be back.
Out of the office, I went back to my place (just for sleeping), collected tools and clothes put in a bag. My head still wondered... what is this news? I was sent to this communion wood shop to work and controlled for nearly two years. Every day, I lived with a scar in my mind as a criminal “Air Pirate” of the American and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
In 1961, after receiving 7 years sentence, my life drifted from prison to prison, from Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton)... and ended up at section E, in Pho Lu prison. I tried hard to adapt to this new environment and to work hard as a “good citizen”... then after serving my 7 years sentence, I was “awarded” additional 2 years of “self-controlled” at the prison. Yes, I felt relief, in 1969 (a little more than 7 years), I was sent to this communion wood production, I “thank” the party (Labor, Communist party), the government and the people for giving back my life. I worked here as a carpenter under the watchful eyes during the day and reported before go to bed.
That night, I could not sleep... there were too many questions, too many things happen but they have passed through my life. Why they sent me back to Ha Noi? Hoa Lo prison? I got up and smoke tobacco using water pipe (very common in North Vietnam – cheap).
I walked outside, in the communion, people (men) sat around an outdoor fire cooking a very large pot of “banh chung” (Vietnamese custom, only for the Luna new year. Pork covered with rice and green bean, wrapped by banana leaves and steam cooking, therefore men have to watch and pour more and more water). If nothing happened in the afternoon, I should be happy sitting out there with them.
Next morning before 9am, there was a command car (Russian Jeep) parked in the front yard of the communion. I was ready, when the communion manager called to report to the office for meeting with an office from the “Central”. Walked into the office, my leg hesitated “This Mr. Toan again?” He was the person responsible of “taking care” of me during the last two years after I was granted “freedom”.
After I was allowed to sit down, Mr. Toan told me softly.
- How are you? Today I come here to take you back to Ha Noi then to the airport, so you can take a flight to French for reunification with your family. The party and the government had pardoned you, and approved the request from your older sister in French.
Listening to this point, I could not believe my ears. My heart beat rapidly, almost jumped out of my body... I tried to hold myself, continued listen to the “one way, one direction speech”. Mr. Toan continued, and handed out papers to me.
- Here is the travel document so you can go to another country. Here is the ticket from Air France to take you from Ha Noi to Paris. Your sister purchased the ticket for you. Then we can go now. Do you want to say anything before we depart?
I was so happy, moving. I replied like a stutter.
- Yes. Officer... yes, yes but no Sir!
I got up... Unbelievable! I was so happy, following Mr. Toan walked to the car with my legs trembling. At the car, the communion chief ran up and handed me a bag.
- Mr. Van. Take this bag of “banh chung”, it is the gift of Tet from this communion... and good lucks on your trip.
The car left Ba Vi, heading to Ha Noi. I was so happy... It was so unbelievable... only in a dream. The view along the road was beautiful... Everything was beautiful, even the trees in the winter without leaves. It was “Tet” in my heart.
I was so happy, not noticed that we already passed Ha Noi and arrived at Bach Mai airport. Again, I followed Mr. Toan to the ticket counter. I was a foreigner, Mr. Toan did all the paper works for me... and finally, he said to me.
- It’s time. You go straight to the airplane. I wish you well, and don’t forget what you had learned. Try to be a good person.
- Yes, yes Sir! I thank you.
The Illouchine 14 of the Russian Airline slowly ran to the air strip ready to take off. I saw the Russian pilot, and... I was a pilot too. When the airplane lifted off from the ground, I closed my eye... and the horrible flight from ten years ago rolled back into my mind like a movie.
The white C-47 (White Egret) with me as the chief pilot flew across parallel 17th to North Vietnam. We flew at very low altitude, just above the sea level for avoiding radar detection. The plane carried seven crew members and three commandos from Office 45 or Office of the North. It was tense, very tense. We looked at one another face but did not say a word in this secret mission. When the C-47 approached land from the sea, I glanced at the watch. It was 1:00 am then suddenly, in the dark sky, I saw some orange lights flashed out in front of the airplane. The airplane started shaking, and I tried to keep the airplane stable. I saw Mau and Thich held their arms together then I did not see or feel anything more...
I did not know for how long until I felt the cold. I opened my eyes looked into the dark night then I felt pain. My body might be broken into hundred pieces... I already died or dying. Regaining consciousness, I felt more pain and realized that I was on a wet muddy field. I moved my hand and found out my face was full of blood. I still could not see anything then I felt painful like someone hit me on the head then fell back into unconsciousness.
Again, I did not know the time went by then I heard the wind blow and the cream “Help me! Help me! Too hot... Too hot! I am dying”
I still could not move, half of my body was in the mud. I tried to open my eyes and saw a big fire, and the screams came out, not very far from where I laid. I realized that the C-47 was shot down and burning. I fell back to unconsciousness again until before the sun rise next morning. In the early morning, I fell my head was burning with severe pain then I heard human voices, yelling from a distance. As a reaction, I tried to move but was not able as the voice was approaching louder and louder. North Vietnamese people were surrounding me, both men and women, some held torches in their hand and they screamed at me. Then someone pulled me out of the muddy rice paddy field.
The morning light has come, many people surrounded me. I saw them clearer, some had guns, and others carried wooden sticks. I knew that I was in the enemy hand... These people wanted to tear my body into thousand pieces. I was so scared, closed my eyes, waiting for my fate. I heard “Kill him! Kill him! He is commando who worked for American and Diem (the first president of the RVN)” then fell unconsciousness...
By Phan Thanh Van
AUBIH, translated by Hieu D. Vu,