Former U.S. and Vietnamese fighter pilots meet to "close old chapter"

By Viet Anh, Vuong Anh   April 18, 2016 | 02:44 pm GMT+7

Veterans from the U.S. and Vietnam find reconciliation more than forty years after the Vietnam war ended.

“On this same runway, it is easy to remember the two MiG – 21 fighter jets taking off as I and other jets came roaring down, firing off a missile that took out a Vietnamese plane before the pilot had a chance to eject,” former fighter pilot Curtis Dose told VnExpress on his visit to Kep Airfield in the northeast province of Bac Giang.

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Former American pilot Curtis Dose shakes hands with former Vietnamese pilot Tu De at Kep Airfield, Bac Giang province. Photo: NVCC

Returning to Vietnam after the end of the war, Dose was surprised to meet the family of a soldier that he shot down on May 10, 1972 - pilot Nguyen Van Ngai. Dose was one of the U.S. Navy pilots in charge of protecting the strike force that was targeting Hai Phong.

“Ngai’s older sister and other family members met me and they brought out his photo. It was very special to me. I found out that we have the same interest in protecting our countries and doing what we are supposed to do, we are just the same," Dose said. "When we fought against each other, we didn’t know the pilot, we just knew that the plane was over there and I was trying to shoot him down."

Colonel Tu De, who witnessed the air fight at Kep Airfield in 1972 and the death of Ngai, said that he felt “a sense of distance” between him and Dose when they saw each other for the first time. However, when they went together to the airfield, Dose said: “Both sides were on duty, we were at war at that time.”

De realized the importance of leaving history behind for the “former enemy”, and since then the two have become friends.

De was a pilot from the “Quyet Thang” squadron who flew A37 aircraft to bomb Tan Son Nhat Airfield on April 28, 1975.

Meeting with 20 other former American and Vietnamese pilots in Hanoi and other central provinces, Dose explained that he had come to Vietnam to close the curtain on the war. Since arriving in Hanoi, he has sent e-mails to family and friends everyday to tell them about what he's done and whom he has met in Vietnam. Dose couldn’t hide his joy at being able to talk to the pilots who were on the other side of the frontline. They understood more about each other, they drank and had big laughs together. It helped him to “close a chapter on the past”.

At 28 years old, Dose traveled with the U.S. Navy to Vietnam. He completed his duty and returned home in 1972. Afterwards, he continued to work as a navy pilot for four years, experimenting with new types of aircraft. Dose spent the next 25 years working for carriers such as Tiger Air and Fedex Airlines. He is married with two daughters and 10 grandchildren.

Dose said he loves Vietnamese people and the country's scenery. He believes that Vietnam – US relations have developed at an unprecedented rate.

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Former Vietnamese and American pilots, who were once enemies during the Vietnam War, held a special meeting. Photo: Van Anh

Colonel Jack Ensch, a pilot who fought from 1966 to 1973, said that he had traveled to Vietnam to learn about the people who were his former enemies, and life after the war. He also wanted the opportunity to look back at the old days when he was jailed for eight months.

The food clearly tastes much better now compared to back then, he joked.

"Time will heal the wounds but still leave scars. The war has ended, we should let it be in the past and look towards the future," Ensch said.

Captain Clinton Johnson, a pilot who fought from 1965 to 1966, said he had received information about the Vietnamese pilots he shot down during the war. They have a lot in common - the same age and also a son.

"I have only one desire which is to meet him again today," Johnson said.

Former chairman of Vietnam Airlines Nguyen Sy Hung, one of the organizers of the meeting, said he felt touched to witness the former American pilots pay tribute to the Vietnamese pilots who were killed. He expects many other former American pilots to visit Vietnam and contribute to the Vietnam-US partnership.

The meeting of former American and Vietnamese pilots took six years to arrange. It was the idea of Lieutenant General Nguyen Duc Soat – former commander of the High Command of Vietnam's People's Air Force, and Colonel Charlie Tutt, a retired U.S. marine. They were once enemies in the air from 1965 to 1973.