SAN DIEGO — Ly Tong, a former pilot for the South Vietnamese Air Force who became a household name in Vietnamese American communities for his fervent anti-communist activism and controversial tactics, is dying from lung failure at a hospital in San Diego, according to the Vietnamese-language newspaper Nguoi Viet Daily News.
Tong has been in a coma since Tuesday and is not expected to survive, said Cu Thai Hoa, president of the South Vietnamese Air Force Association of San Diego, who has been caring for Tong since he was admitted to the hospital on March 7.
Doctors are waiting for Tong’s older brother to fly to San Diego to make a final decision about whether to pull life support, Hoa said in a phone call early Thursday evening. His brother is expected to arrive in San Diego around 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
Tong is known in San Jose and Vietnamese communities across the world for his anti-communist activism, daring stunts and extreme tactics. For a generation of refugees from a culture of vibrant, but often acrimonious political activism, Tong is regarded as both a folk hero and “freedom fighter,” though considered too extreme by many others.
His A-37 fighter jet was shot down at the end of the Vietnam War, and after being captured by North Vietnamese forces, Tong was imprisoned for five years at a re-education camp, according to the Orange County Register.
After several attempts, he managed to escape and spent nearly a year and a half fleeing on foot across Southeast Asia, eventually swimming across the Johore Strait to Singapore, where he requested asylum at the U.S. Embassy, according to the Register.
He settled in New Orleans in 1984 and got a degree in political science, according to Nguoi Viet. In 1992, Tong traveled to Thailand, where he hijacked a plane leaving Bangkok for Vietnam and ordered the pilot to fly low while he dropped 50,000 fliers calling for a political revolution over Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon among refugees.
According to the Register, Tong parachuted out the cockpit window and landed in a swamp but was quickly captured by the Vietnamese government. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison but granted amnesty and released in 1998 after the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam.
The incident earned him, among fans, the nickname, “the Vietnamese James Bond,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
In early 2000, he flew a small plane over Cuba to distribute political newspapers, and later that year was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for hijacking a plane to release more leaflets over Ho Chi Minh City. He hired a South Korean aircraft in 2008, but was arrested before he could distribute fliers over North Korea.
Tong is perhaps best known in San Jose for waging a month-long hunger strike in 2008 and losing nearly 30 pounds to push for renaming a business district on Story Road “Little Saigon.”
In 2008, he also joined protesters in Orange County against Nguoi Viet Daily News, the oldest and largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the country, for publishing a photo of a student’s art project — a foot spa painted with the colors of the flag of the former South Vietnam.
The student’s project was meant to be a homage to the student’s mother, a nail salon worker. But protesters felt the photo disrespected the flag and picketed for more than two months, harassing the paper’s staff and then-publisher Anh Do, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose father founded the newspaper.
Then in 2010, disguised in a dress and wig, Tong approached singer Dam Vinh Hung onstage at the Santa Clara Convention Center, dousing him with what prosecutors say was pepper spray but Tong claimed was a less toxic mixture of fish sauce and perfume.
The singer is controversial among many Vietnamese refugees who view him as a propaganda tool for the Vietnamese government.
Tong was found guilty by a jury in 2012 of misdemeanor assault and resisting arrest, and two felonies for using tear gas and second-degree burglary with the intent to commit a felony.
Tong moved to San Diego six or seven years ago, said Hoa, who helped the activist find a new place to live and get settled in San Diego. Tong went to the hospital after having difficulty breathing, but quickly began to decline, Hoa said.
Tong never married and has three children from previous relationships. Hoa said the South Vietnamese Air Force Association of San Diego will help pay for the cost of Tong’s funeral and arrangements when he dies.
Contact Thy Vo at 408-200-1055 or [email protected]
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