By Dr Michael Hankins
A recent post on the popular website The Aviation Geek Club told the story of what they called ‘the most epic 1 v 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation.’ This is the story in which Lieutenants Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William Driscoll, from among the first batch of graduates from the US Navy’s then-new Top Gun training program, shot down the number one North Vietnamese Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Toon, and became the first American aces of the war. Very little of that tale is true, but it makes for an exciting story, and this website is not the first to tell it. Although the details of these claims bear some scrutiny, the tale raises more interesting more significant questions about how and why legends like this form and grow over time.
Combat situations breed storytellers. Any stressful, exciting, death-inducing human endeavour does. Perhaps even more so among fighter pilots engaging in acrobatic dogfights at near (or above) the speed of sound, combat stories, as they are told and retold, heard and re-heard, become legendary. Especially enticing is the need to explain defeat or even a lack of decisive victory. During the Vietnam War, skilled North Vietnamese pilots shot down US aircraft in numbers that some Americans found embarrassing. The final official tally of air-to-air combat kills was 137 to 67, almost exactly 2:1 in favour of the US. This sounds like a victory to some. Indeed, General William Momyer, Commander US Seventh Air Force, saw it that way when he recalled later that winning by 2:1 was ‘an acceptable rate.’ However, it did not seem acceptable to those who drew historical comparisons. The US had fared better in previous wars, peaking in the Korean War, which saw US F-86 pilots defeating MiG-15s by a factor of more than 10:1. By those standards, Vietnam felt like a massive step backwards.
Explaining the seeming backslide in combat performance was the official task of several investigations, from the US Air Force’s Red Baron Reports to the US Navy’s Ault Report. Pilots ranted about the poor performance of their planes, especially the F-4 Phantom’s thick black smoke trails that gave away its position to anyone caring to look up. Pilots scoffed at the lack of training in basic combat manoeuvring, much less dogfight training. They decried the fact that only ten percent of their missiles hit anything, and that their F-4s lacked the most basic instrument of air combat: a gun. Without a trigger to pull, many argued, how were they supposed to shoot anyone down?
Other pilots took to creating legends. What could explain the fact that so many US aircraft were getting shot out of the sky by an allegedly inferior, third-world country’s hand-me-down air force that only had a few dozen aeroplanes to its name? There must be an amazing, inexplicable, near-mythical, born-genius dogfighter on the enemy side.
Thus, was born the legend of Colonel Toon, AKA Colonel Tomb, AKA Nguyen Tomb.
Telling the Tale
As the legend goes, Toon was more than a double ace, with at least twelve kills to his name, maybe as high as 14, which was how many stars were allegedly painted on the side of his MiG. Toon displayed the typical fighter pilot personality characteristics of aggressiveness and independence. He utilised frequent head-on attacks and a ‘lone wolf’ style of engaging in which he refused to obey the orders of his ground controller and engaged F-4s in vertical manoeuvres, where his MiG was at an inherent disadvantage. According to the typical story, as American pilots struggled, the US Navy’s Ault Report had led to the introduction of Top Gun: a graduate school for fighter pilots. The intensive training there gave US Navy aviators the skills to destroy MiGs wherever they found them. Moreover, allegedly, Top Gun graduates Cunningham and Driscoll used their newly found skills to shoot Toon out of the sky on 10 May, during a massive dogfight at the beginning of Operation Linebacker. Cunningham claimed this himself, and the story is still often repeated in popular outlets.
There is just one problem: almost none of this is true. Top Gun, although undoubtedly useful, was, at the time, a tiny outfit that many leaders in the US Navy did not take seriously. The narrative of Top Gun as the saving grace of air-to-air combat also ignores all of the other useful changes instigated by the Ault Report, as well as other practices the US Navy was doing at the time. These included enhancements to their aircraft, upgraded missiles, the increased reliance on early warning radar systems that gave pilots situational awareness, and the increase in jamming of enemy communications that limited North Vietnamese situational awareness. Besides that, Cunningham and Driscoll were not even Top Gun graduates. Moreover, what of Colonel Toon? He was simply not real. He did not exist.
To unravel these tales, let’s start with Cunningham and Driscoll at Top Gun. The principal disputed aspect of the common claim hinges on the word ‘graduates.’ Cunningham and Driscoll had not been students at Top Gun, but they were involved with the school. Before the start of Operation Linebacker in 1972, Top Gun was in bad shape. It had struggled and fought to get access to aeroplanes to train in, and throughout 1971 most of the instructors assumed it was only a matter of time before the US Navy would shut the place down. With limited student slots, selection for Top Gun was competitive. Only the top-performing pilots of select squadrons were picked, and Cunningham had simply not made the cut – twice. Cunningham’s roommate Jim McKinney, and later Steve Queen, both of whom were his colleagues in VF-96, were selected ahead of him. This was in part because they were viewed as more skilled, partially because Top Gun selection favoured career officers the US Navy could count on to stay in the service after the war, which did not, at that time, describe Cunningham. Also, as his skipper noted, Cunningham was simply immature. Top officers and those selected for the coveted Top Gun training needed to be more than just typical fighter jocks, they needed to be well-rounded officers capable of strong leadership. Cunningham’s commander did not see those qualities in him. His fellow pilots noted the same lack of leadership. When Cunningham later pled guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes as a congressman, those that served with him said they were ‘not necessarily surprised,’ because even when he was a pilot during the war, he had shown a remarkable lack of officership. Some noted that Cunningham was ‘a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.’
Just because Cunningham was passed over for Top Gun does not mean he was not participating in some way. In 1971, during his squadron’s turnaround period, Cunningham was assigned to temporary duty at Top Gun as a ‘gopher,’ mostly doing paperwork for the school. However, it gave him a chance to listen to some of the lessons and occasionally sit in the backseat of adversary aircraft. He spent much time with the Top Gun instructors, including Jim Laing, J.C. Smith, Dave Frost, and Jim Ruliffson. The squadron then went on leave for a month, during which time Cunningham’s new commanding officer, Early Winn, permitted him to run exercises in the squadron’s F-4 Phantoms since they would be sitting idle for that time. Cunningham used the opportunity to practice what he had learned from his informal lessons. Upon returning from leave, the whole squadron became the first to go through the new Fleet Adversary Program, which some described as ‘mini-Top Gun.’ Primarily the program was a short workshop that introduced some of the concepts that Top Gun explored in more detail. VF-96 ran the workshop twice before returning to Vietnam.
The claim that Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates, as is often repeated, is false, but it is easy to see why many might be confused about that. Indeed, in an ad hoc sense, the pair had some access to higher level training than others, including Top Gun instructors. The other claim; that the duo’s fifth kill was the legendary Toon – or that there even was a Toon – is much more dubious.
Part of the confusion comes from the insistence of US SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Toon was real. Claiming to have cracked the North Vietnamese callsign system, the NSA, intercepting enemy communications, began keeping track of individual pilots. They especially singled-out a North Vietnamese MiG-21 ace pilot named Toon, based at Phuc Yen, who developed a reputation for aggressively disrupting B-52 raids. They referred to him as ‘The Red Baron of North Vietnam,’ or ‘an airborne outlaw in the image of a Wild West gunslinger,’ who, whenever he was spotted, ‘U.S. planes took up the chase like some sheriff’s posse of old.’ The NSA claimed that Momyer was ‘obsessed’ with destroying Toon. This could be possible, although it is strange then, that Momyer does not mention Toon at all in his book on the subject.
Cunningham’s debriefing report from 10 May 1972 – in which he very carefully words his statement to give the reader the impression that he was a Top Gun student without stating that directly – has ‘The 5th Kill (Col. Tomb)’ typed in the margin. After describing the dogfight, he claimed:
Intelligence later revealed that this 17 driver was Colonel Tomb, the North Vietnamese ace credited with 13 U.S. aircraft.
Cunningham did not identify who told him this, and his claim raises questions, as it seems to contradict the intelligence from the time. The NSA referred to this pilot as ‘Toon,’ not ‘Tomb,’ and did not identify him as a Colonel. The NSA also specified him as a MiG-21 pilot whereas the Cunningham kill was a -17. They also credited Toon with five kills, not the 13 that Cunningham referenced. Furthermore, the NSA report states that Toon was never defeated, and eventually was promoted out of combat flying and became a ground controller. Cunningham might be telling the truth that some intelligence source, which he does not identify, told him that the -17 he killed was Tomb, but because his claims are so at odds with the NSA’s information on nearly every point, Cunningham’s story raises more questions than it answers.
However, the NSA could also be wrong. In fact, they probably are. Even though the NSA claimed Toon was real at the time, there is little evidence to verify this. Indeed, any ace pilots that North Vietnam had – and eventually they had fifteen that were confirmed by US sources, though Vietnamese records claim sixteen, which was triple the number of US aces – would be of immense propaganda and morale value for their cause. If Toon were real, he would likely have been celebrated as a national hero. When researchers and former pilots began talking to North Vietnamese veterans, any questions about Toon were met with confusion. There’s no record of a Toon or Tomb, which is not even a Vietnamese name. Some have claimed that ‘Toon’ was the result of SIGINT operators mishearing the name of Din Tonh, who was an effective pilot known for ‘lone wolf’ attacks. However, Tonh also flew the MiG-21, not the -17, and was not an ace, much less one with kills in the double digits.
Historian Roger Boniface travelled to North Vietnam and conducted extensive interviews with former MiG pilots. His conclusion? Toon was merely an invented figment of American fighter pilots’ imagination, made up specifically to stroke their damaged egos. As he put it:
The existence of Colonel Toon in the mind of an American pilot may have provided a psychological comfort zone if a North Vietnamese pilot should out-fly him or, even worse, shoot him down.
The closest real pilot to fitting the description, however, was Nguyen Van Coc. He flew a MiG-21 with 14 ‘kill’ stars painted on the side. Vietnam officially credits Van Coc with nine kills of US aircraft, and the US has officially recognised six of them. Still, Van Coc cannot have been the ace-making kill for Cunningham and Driscoll, not only because he flew MiG-21s, but by 1968 he had already been pulled out of combat duty and made an instructor of new North Vietnamese pilots.
Why does this controversy – and others like it – continue to plague the memory of the Vietnam War? Possibly because losing a war is psychologically devastating. This is evident simply in how divisive it is to call the American-Vietnam War a ‘loss’ for the US. Some are reluctant to do so in any terms, but no one can deny that the US did not achieve its strategic goal of creating a stable, independent, non-communist South Vietnamese state. Indeed, North Vietnam did achieve its goal of creating a unified communist state. However, the air-to-air war was not at all the make-or-break factor in any of that. The US did not fail in their goals because of the MiG force. Also, former war records aside, Momyer was not wrong to claim that a 2:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat is still a victory, in at least a technical definition although the ability of MiGs to frequently interrupt bombing strikes was a more significant problem. Despite these clarifications, Vietnam felt like a loss even to many air combat pilots. Explaining that sense of loss, or even just a sense of a lack of decisive victory is difficult at best. Many pilots, and some historians and observers since, including Cunningham and Driscoll, found it easier to invent an enemy rather than must deal with those painful feelings head-on. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly every war sees these types of inventions as a coping mechanism. Toon may not exist, but what he represents as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma of warfare, is all too real.
Dr Michael Hankins is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II ‘Showtime 100,’ which was assigned to VF-96 of Carrier Air Wing 9 onboard USS Constellation Lieutenants Randy Cunningham and William Driscoll used this aircraft for their third, fourth, and fifth MiG-kills on 10 May 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Dario Leone, ‘Showtime 100 Vs Colonel Toon: the most epic 1 V 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation,’ The Aviation Geek Club, 9 May 2018
 William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.
 For example, see: Kenneth P. Werrell, Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).
 Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.
 For Cunningham’s claim, see: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984), pp. 107-8.
 For a more in-depth look at some of these changes in both the US Navy and the USAF, see Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63 (2016), pp. 7-24.
 Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.
 Ibid, pp. 207-8.
 Alex Roth, ‘Shooting down Cunningham’s legend: Ex-comrades in arms say disgraced congressman was a good fighter pilot but a poor officer with flair for self-promotion,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 15 January 2000.
 Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, pp. 210-12; Cunningham, Fox Two, p. 106.
 ‘On Watch: Profiles from the National Security Agency’s past 40 years,’ National Security Agency, 1984, declassified 2007, pp. 58-9.
 US Air Force Academic Library, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham, ‘Naval Intelligence Debriefing of 10 May 1972 MiG Engagement by VF-96,’ 10 May 1972, pp. 5-6.
 ‘On Watch,’ pp. 58-9.
 Sebastien Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace,’ War is Boring, 3 July 2016.
 Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam, p. 74.
 Ibid.; Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace.’