Reuniting as friends

Air Force veteran Latham meets with Vietnamese pilots in San Diego

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
U.S. Air Force veteran and former F-4 Phantom II pilot Joe Latham, right, met with several Vietnamese veteran pilots last week in San Diego during an event to bring the two groups together. One of the former Vietnamese pilots he met, Nguyen Van Bay, is famous for his feats during the Vietnam War.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO U.S. Air Force veteran and former F-4 Phantom II pilot Joe Latham, right, met with several Vietnamese veteran pilots last week in San Diego during an event to bring the two groups together. One of the former Vietnamese pilots he met, Nguyen Van Bay, is famous for his feats during the Vietnam War.

Over five decades after dogfighting with enemy pilots over North Vietnam, United States Air Force veteran and Marshalltown native Joe Latham met several pilots from the other side of the conflict.

Despite being former foes in the Vietnam War, the American and Vietnamese pilots treated each other like old friends during the veteran-organized U.S./VN Air Crew Meeting in San Diego last week.

“It’s been like 45 to 50 years,” Latham said. “This is typical of pilots … after the war’s over and time goes by, the pilots kind of have an affinity for one another; the Vietnamese pilots were very friendly, and they often treated the American pilots as if they were long-lost brothers.”

The three-day event started with introductions, and soon the Vietnamese guests and American hosts were recalling their experiences in the air during the conflict. Among the Americans were former pilots of aircraft like the F-4 Phantom, which Latham flew, as well as the F-105 Thunderchief, A-1 Skyraider and others.

One panel discussion saw a former American pilot and a former Vietnamese pilot recall a dogfight they’d had against one another in the skies over the Southeast Asian country.

Latham was also able to meet with famous Vietnamese ace pilot Nguyen Van Bay, who many of the other Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps veterans also wanted to meet.

“He shot down five F-4 Phantoms … and he shot down an F-8 Crusader and also an A-7 Corsair, so he had seven kills,” Latham said. “He was the first big-name pilot there, so Ho Chi Minh liked him a lot and gave him various medals.”

Van Bay was said to have dined with Minh, who was the leader of North Vietnam, on several occasions. Latham was able to have a lengthy conversation with the ace, and said it was a pleasure to meet him.

“He was the guy that everybody wanted to see because he was so famous,” he said of Van Bay.

Another connection Latham made came as a happy surprise. One former Vietnamese lieutenant general was the neighbor of a pilot Latham had shot down during the war: Dong Van Song.

He said wanted very much to get in contact with Van Song if he could, and he had brought with him a picture and information on the Vietnamese MiG-21 pilot.

During another part of the trip, Latham joined the Vietnamese guests on a retired aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Midway. He also got to see an air show featuring the well-know U.S. Navy Blue Angels, and described the spectacle as “marvelous.”

While the pilots on both sides got along very well, Latham said issues surrounding prisoners of war, or POWs, were not discussed.

“At no time was the POW situation ever mentioned, that would’ve been a really sore spot,” he said. “[The North Vietnamese] pilots weren’t involved in that, but their government was.”

Last week’s event was a follow-up to a 2016 gathering in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, when American veterans visited the country.

Latham said he wasn’t surprised by how well the two nations’ veterans got along. He said the hosts and visitors bonded over a shared experience as fighter pilots, and formed genuine friendships along the way.

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Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com