A search party went out to find more vines
To tie the raft up tight.
In twenty minutes they returned,
Their faces pale with fright.
They said a quarter mile down river
We DID find a waterfall.
It’s over a hundred feet in height.
It would have killed us all.
All my children of the sun.
And that is why on the banks
Of a far off wilderness stream,
Which none of us, none of us,
Will ever see again,
There stands a cross for someone,
Hardly older than a boy.
Who, we thought, was only
Trying to destroy.
All my children of the sun.
(Pete Seeger, “All my children of the sun”)
Continuing with this story by Russian reporter Mikhail Moshkin. Where we left off yesterday, we learned — and this came as a revelation to me as well — the extent of the Soviet involvement in the Vietnam War. That was back in the days (mid-70’s), with Brezhnev at the helm, when the Soviet Union employed a reasonably progressive foreign policy, assisting socialist and National Liberation type movements around the globe, especially those fighting against American imperialism.
Of course, superpowers rarely do good deeds just for their own sake, and there was a lot of Realpolitik going on here, including the Soviet-Chinese conflict, which affected Indochina and came into play later. But the basic situation at the time, was that the Soviet Union provided significant military assistance to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.
This was all supposed to be, if not covert, then at least discrete. Technically, the Soviet Union was not a “participant” in this war. The Soviet “group of specialists” were officially just providing military and engineering assistance to the Vietnamese. According to Russian military historians, from the start of 1965 through 1974 the number of Soviets serving in Vietnam reached as high as 11,000. With the breakdown being something like: 4,500 regular soldiers and sergeants and 6,300 officers and military advisors. Soviet on American action took place mainly in the skies, including “flying aces” dogfights. To this day, the Russian government, as the legal successor state to the Soviet Union, will not formally admit that such adventures took place, as were immortalized in the Russian song “The fighter pilot Li Si Tsyn”, the mysterious hero of many fables.
Variants of this song were performed in the Soviet Union starting in the 1960’s, and probably related to covert Soviet assistance to the North Korean side during the Korean War. And then expanded to cover the Vietnam War. The original author is unknown, and there are many variants. One version of the song goes something like this:
Кто же тот пилот,
что меня сбил?,
Одного вьетнамца я спросил.
Отвечал мне тот раскосый,
Что командовал допросом:
Сбил тебя наш лётчик
Это вы, вьетнамцы, врёте зря!
В шлемофоне чётко слышал я:
Коля, жми, а я накрою!
Ваня бей, а я прикрою! —
Русский ас Иван подбил меня.
Who was that pilot,
who shot me down?
I asked a Vietnamese.
That slant-eyed one replied,
The one who was interrogating me:
You were shot down by our pilot
You Vietnamese are lying!
I clearly heard in my helmet headphones:
Press him, Kolya, I’m alongside…
Get him, Vanya, I’ll cover you!
Russian ace Ivan shot me down.
The joke, of course, is that Li-Si-Tsyn actually spells a valid Russian surname, Lisitsyn. And the origin of this meme goes back even much further than the Korean War, back to the China-Japan War of 1938. Where the Soviet Union was assisting the Chinese against the Japanese. But, due to diplomatic reasons, the assistance had to be covert.
Although it was suppressed in official Soviet press, some of the adventures leaked out in a couple of books. The first book was entitled “The Wings of China: Notes of a Pilot”, and was authored anonymously by a certain Captain Van See. The real author was Yury Alexandrovich Zhukov, based on interviews with a pilot named A. Grisenko.
The second book was “Notes of the Chinese Pilots” authored by a so-called Fin Yuko. The actual author was the journalist Yury Mikhailovich Korolkov.
In both books, the authors played a little joke of “disguising” the names of actual Russian pilots by writing them in Chinese characters: Van-yu-shin (=Vanyushin), Hu-Ben-Kho (=Gubenko), Li-Si-Tsyn (=Lisitsyn), etc.
The Li-Si-Tsyn meme lived on and acquired new life at the time of the Korean War. In one (rambunctiously racist) joke of the early 1950’s: Pilots Li-Si-Tsyn and Si-Ni-Tsyn are answering the questions of reporters. What was the toughest part about fighting in Korea? “Having to fight a dogfight in the air while simultaneously squinting one’s eyes and tugging ones brows up to the forehead!”
The Soviet air force played quite a role in the Korean War, as we come to learn: the entire 64th Fighter Aviation Corps took part! According to Soviet records, it destroyed 1,106 American planes over the skies of Korea. Again, technically, the Soviet Union was not supposed to be involved. A crafty Stalin ordered that Soviet MIG-15 planes be camouflaged and re-painted in the colors of the Korean livery.
And then, 20 years later: Vietnam. Same deal. The same mythical ace pilots, Li-Si-Tsyn, Van-Yu-Shin and the others…
An even more important role was played by Soviet anti-air on the ground, their job was to shoot down the American planes. Another anonymous song from that era:
Сбивает чужой самолёт.
И тихое слово он молвит:
“Ну падай же, ёбаный в рот!”
This is basically untranslatable, requiring the rhyming of “airplane” with a vulgar Russian expression meaning “fucked in the mouth”. The gist is the “Vietnamese” volunteer, operating the anti-air device, shoots down the foreign plane, and then immortalizes the moment with a choice piece of Russian slang: “Go on, fall to the ground, you….”
[to be continued]