Ly Tong’s Long Trek To Freedom

More than 1 million Vietnamese – primarily « boat people » who risked the South China Sea – are estimated to have fled their country since the end of the Vietnam war in April 1975 . Hundreds of thousands have died in the attempt .

For 5 years , former South Vietnamese Jet Pilot Ly Tong was an inmate of various prisoner-of-war camps . During that time he often defied his captors and risked his life in abortive escapes . Eventually he managed to flee overland , and for 17 months he walked , rode , swam , and crawled through five countries . His fight has become one of the great escape sagas of our time .

The way his friend died convinced 27 year-old Ly Tong that he had to escape . It was visitors’ day in the summer of 1975 , and Ly Tong was watching as married prisoners queued for a 15-minute talk with their families waiting outside the camp’s barbed-wire fence . Excited by the sight of his wife and family , his friend broke line and stepped toward the fence . A North Vietnamese guard opened fire , and Ly Tong’s friend died instantly , under the eyes of his horrified family .

A couple of months later , Ly Tong and a fellow prisoner escaped from a lightly guarded wood-choppịng detail . On their second evening at large , a roadblock guard demanded to see identification . Ly Tong’s companion panicked and blurted out the story of their escape . I must go alone , Ly Tong told himself as they were taken back to camp . A bachelor with both parents deceased , he was responsible only for himself . I will turn these circumstances into strength .

And strength he needed immediately . Hauled before a « people’s court » , he was ordered to kneel as the charges were read . Ly Tong refused and was sentenced to « conex » imprisonment . Once simple jargon for a type of freight container , conex has become a most feared word in Vietnam prison vocabulary . The metal boxes are now used as solitary-confinement cells . For six months , Ly Tong existed in an 8-foot-high by « 4,5-foot-wide conex » . Interior daytime temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit . At night , plummeting temperatures stiffened Ly Tong’s limbs . Stones thrown against the conex boomed like out-of-tune drums and denied him sleep . Air , food – handfuls of rice and salt – and Ly Tongs own wastes passed through the same few holes in a side of the box .

Though he was finally released from the conex , the Communists did not forgive Ly Tong’s bad attitude . After a year , he was transferred to one of Vietnam’s worst camps .

As stories of his defiance became legion , his continued refusal to kneel to his captors strengthened their resolve to break him . Guards at Camp 52 knocked him down and jeered : Not on your knees here . On your face . How do you feel now ?

Honorable ! Ly Tong spat back . Six men treat me like an animal . But who is the animal , who the man ?

He was ordered to construct a scaffold and to dig a grave . When I gut you with this knife , how happy I’ll feel , one guard taunted . Eventually tiring of their sport , the guards tied Ly Tong in a yoke and left him in it for two weeks .

As soon as he was released from the yoke , Ly Tong began planning his next escape . To toughen himself , he put aside what meager comforts camp life provided . In cold weather he would sleep without a blanket . On the hottest day , he worked without head-covering .

Ready to Try

On July 12 , I980 , at Camp A30 in Phu Khanh Province , some 240 miles northeast of Saigon , he made his move . After ten days of laboriously working a nail to loosen the bar on a toilet-hut window , he crawled out and inched his way across the prison yard . With small pilfered scissors , he broke through the strands of two barbed-wire fences , and then walked all night to Tuy Hoa , the nearest big city . There a friend gave him money , and he finally hailed a bus headed for Nha Trang .

You’re from A30 prison , aren’t you ? asked the conductor , spotting Ly Tong’s hunted look . Then you’ve got trouble . There’s a control post dead ahead . Get off and walk through with a crowd of local people . They seldom check all the ID cards . I’ll wait for you on the road beyond .

Once in Nha Trang , Ly Tong got in touch with an old girlfriend , who furnished him with clothes , cash and a train ticket to Ho Chi Minh City . There Ly Tong joined the new Saigon’s shadow world of Vietnamese in flight from communism’s controls . Until September 1981 he lived by selling fake identity cards , so desperately needed by « shadows » like himself . A plan to escape in a boat fell through . Then a new idea formed : I’m a pilot . Why not steal a plane ?

Ly Tong had once been based at Tan Son Nhut airport . But when he penetrated the base , he found no suitable aircraft . Cut off from US made spare parts , Vietnamese mechanics had kept only a handful of planes in the air by cannibalizing those on the ground .

Reluctantly , Ly Tong concluded that he must escape overland . With just 150 dong ( $7,50 on the black market ) , he took a bus to the Kampuchean ( Cambodian ) border , where he crossed by foot on smugglers’ tracks .

The country in which Ly Tong would spend the next five months had endured a bloody five-year civil war ending in 1975 , followed by some three years of genocidal vengeance by Communist PolPot’s victorious forces and invasion by Vietnam in 1978-1979 . Although the Vietnamese occupation army had pacified main population centers and most highways , guerrilla war still raged in much of the countryside .

Catch Him ! 

Road-blocks constantly halted travelers , but as long as Ly Tong was on foot or in a crowded bus , he was relatively safe . It was in a bus that he reached Phnompenh , the national capital .

There he bought a train ticket to Batdambang , close to the Thailand border , but a Kampuchean station guard took a second look at him . Once again , Ly Tong was under arrest .

The police locked him in a small room . Outside the door a guard settled with a machine gun and a guitar . As the Kampuchean plucked out a tune , Ly Tong squeezed through the small , solitary window . But he had not run more than 100 yards when he heard warning shots and had to surrender .

This time he was handed to the Vietnamese police , who threw him into Phnom Penh’s 7708 jail , a notorious prison camp . In a few weeks , he was told , he would be transported back to Vietnam .

By now , however , Ly Tong had confidence in his jail breaking ability . Here the weakest spot was his dormitory window , a wooden frame with six iron bars . Before dawn one morning , with the guards drowsing , he tested the bars . After three hours of tugging – and using the first freed bar as a lever – the last bar came loose . Ly Tong crawled through .

For the next four months , he moved northwest across Kampuchea , following the mighty Mekong River . At one river village near Kampong Chhnang , he worked for three months clearing fishing traps and earned about 1500 riels ( $75 on the black market ) – enough for a bicycle , food , clothes . Then it was time to move north again .

The jungle and rice paddies surrounding Sisophon , the last major town on Ly Tong’s route to Thailand , harbor one of Asia’s nastiest guerrilla wars . To avoid danger , Ly Tong carted his bicycle into the jungle . Reaching a river , he asked some fishermen to help him cross , but they shook their heads .

Their unfriendliness bothered Ly Tong – and for good reason . Suddenly , an armed Kampuchean soldier on a motorbike barred his way . So you’re the man with the bike and funny accent , he said Follow me ? As they passed a dense section of jungle , Ly Tong leaped from his bike and scrambled into the undergrowth . The soldier opened fire , missed , and then roared off in search of help .

Soon drum-beating soldiers mustered the area’s villagers in a manhunt through the jungle . Loudspeakers blared :
Look for a man in black clothes and carrying a green towel . Catch him !

The bush in which Ly Tong hid covered a large ant heap . Fearful of attracting attention , he was forced to stay motionless for six hours as thousands of ants swarmed over him , repeatedly biting . When all was quiet , it took Ly Tong another hour to rid his clothes and body of them . As darkness came , he set off again . Ly Tong’s luck had held .

The Phantom

Now in his path lay many creeks and large ponds . So often was he forced to strip for a swim that after a while he went naked , holding his clothes in a bag on his head . His strange appearance may have saved him . As he walked along a riverbank , he saw four young soldiers coming his way speaking Vietnamese . Unable to avoid them , he crouched beside the water . When they spotted him , he leaped into the air with an unearthly yell : Whoooo ! Though armed , the youths fled .

Ly Tong ran in the opposite direction – straight into a Vietnamese camp ! All around him stood two story huts housing sleeping soldiers . He could hear soldiers scouring the riverbank for a « phantom» . By inching himself on his stomach through the darkness , he finally cleared the compound .

After walking for several more hours , he thought : By now Thailand must be very close , probably under my feet already . With the sunrise came a feeling of elation , until he spotted a camouflaged sniper on a platform high in a tree . I haven’t passed the border . And ahead lay a great danger : mines .

From his mine-clearing labors as a prisoner , he remembered that the Hanoi army is taught to place small anti-personnel mines wherever a man might take cover : beside a tree trunk or boulder , under a bush . Avoid cover , he told himself . And move only by night .

For 2 days Ly Tong hadn’t eaten . There was no water . Half crazed by thirst , he lost track of time . Then , suddenly , he heard the sound of barking . For more than seven years of famine , Kampucheans had been eating their dogs . Dog mean a food surplus he reasoned . This must be Thailand .

And it was . Creeping to within earshot of a peasant’s hut , he could hear a language that was neither Kampuchean nor Vietnamese . Following the sound of traffic to a highway , he waved down a passing motorcyclist and asked to be taken to the Red Cross .

Into Prison

But Ly Tong’s troubles were not over . To deter an endless stream of refugees , and because Hanoi often « seeds » new waves of refugees with subversives , Thai police first jail and interrogate border-crossing lndochinese . For ten months , despite repeated protests and a hunger strike , Ly Tong was kept in prison in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet . Finally , his story reached US consular officials in Singapore , who confirmed Ly Tong’s air-force service .

Instead of passage to the United States , however , Ly Tong was consigned by a Thai colonel , whom he had offended during one of his protests , to a sprawling refugee settlement at Nong Samet , on the Kampuchean side of the border . It was time , yet again , to escape .

For months Ly Tong had been studying English and questioning refugee-relief workers about conditions in countries west and south of Aranyaprathet . Now he planned to escape across south Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore – perhaps 1400 miles and three more borders .

On February 1 , 1983 , Ly Tong climbed over his camp’s fence , picked his way through a mine-field , swam five creeks , pushed through jungle and headed for Aranyaprathet , 15 miles to the southwest .

The next morning , however , at the first Thai roadside checkpoint , he ignored an order to halt , and the soldiers began shooting . He managed to race ahead of them to a field where he hid in a clump of tall grass . Some minutes later , he heard soldiers run up and then the sound of a cigarette lighter , as one of them tried to set fire to the grass .

For 15 years Ly Tong had not wept . Now , crying softly to himself , he began to pray . With your help I have come so far . If I am no longer worthy , kill me now ! Don’t let me fall into enemy hand . When the grass failed to catch fire , the soldiers finally walked away . I believe in God , Ly Tong told himself . I cannot die anymore .

The next day Ly Tong reached the house of a young woman he had met when she visited the Nong Samet settlement . Despite the risk to her own life , she had offered help , and now the pair set out for Bangkok by bus , passing themselves off as husband and wife . At the Bangkok railroad station , she handed him money for a train heading south .

Ly Tong left the train at Hat Yai , Thailand’s southernmost large town , reasoning that it would be better to cross the border on foot than to face guards and immigration officials at the regular check-point . He followed the railroad tracks until night fell and he saw lights , trucks , uniforms . The Malaysian border !

Giving the immediate area wide berth , he detoured through the jungle and , doubling back to the highway , saw the sun rise on Kangar , the first town inside the border .

Ly Tong had no trouble catching a bus to Kuala Lumpur , and then another to his last border , Malaysia-Singapore . At about 8 pm , the bus reached the checkpoint at the Malaysian end of the causeway to Singapore , across the Johore Strait . Ly Tong slipped away into the darkness and walked about two miles west along the seaside .

Winds whipped the channel . Tying his clothes in a bundle on his back , he entered the water . Singapore’s lights beckoned , and at the halfway point of the nearly two mile swim came a fresh surge of energy . Soon there was sand beneath his feet .

After a few hours’ sleep in a seaside park , Ly Tong made his way to the US Embassy . I’m a Vietnamese , he explained to an official , and I’ve just swum the Strait from Malaysia .

In last night’s weather ? said the American . Impossible .

It was February 10 , 1983 . Behind Ly Tong were almost 2000 miles of land and water , five countries , four border crossings , a half-dozen escapes from custody .
If you’ve got a moment , said Ly Tong , let me tell you my story …

* * *

Ly Tong is in a class by himself
Barry Wain – The Wall Street Journal

After six months in a refugee processing center , Ly Tong flew to the United States . He is now living in Texas and has just finished a book about his escape . He hopes to qualify soon for a scholarship to study political science , « to prepare me for the day my country is free again » .

Thơ của Tổng Thống Ronald Reagan

Anthony Paul ( Reader’s Digest 06/1984 )


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