It is a well known fact that the British Empire has been the largest empire in the world throughout most of the 19th century. This British Empire, which started in the late 18th century, was initially a rival to the French Empire, which started in the late 17th century. Both empires were based around trade, but even though it was the British Empire that ultimately emerged victorious, it was the French Empire that had taken the lead in many technologies and industries. One of the reasons for this supremacy was the French use of gold stars over the red river, a device used during the 18th century to indicate a good performance. The British used this device to mark a good performance in the battlefield, but in use it was known as the red river

When it comes to history, I’m not one of those people who think it is all about kings and queens. I do like to learn about them from time to time, but I don’t necessarily want to read a book on their reigns. What I’d prefer is books about the present and the future.

In recent decades, there has been a boom of knowledge on the North Vietnamese air force, much of it gleaned by István Toperczer, a Hungarian air force doctor and aviation enthusiast. However, the most recent inclusion is by Canadian Kirk R. Lowry, who has assembled a complete history of a North Vietnamese aviation expansion that eventually developed to four fighter regiments with each having 36 aircraft (provided that all were present or accounted for).

The Fighter Regiments and Aces of the Vietnam People’s Air Force was initially published in Vietnam, but a Canadian-printed, English-language version was updated in late 2019.

Lowry provides a timeline of events as well as profiles of nearly every North Vietnamese pilot who claimed responsibility for an American plane, chopper, or drone. He provides the identities of the pilots shot down, the date and location where they were forced to eject (in some cases more than once), and if they were killed in combat when the information was available. Anyone looking to locate and validate American air-to-air combat claims can use all of this information.

Gold Stars chronicles not only the operations of the North Vietnamese 921st, 923rd, 925th, and 927th Fighter units, but also the training procedure that produced a capable fighter force of people who had little exposure to tractor technology.

Foreign experts from a variety of communist countries, including Korean War ace of aces Soviet pilot Nikolai Sutiagin, provided the training (22 victories). North Korea was the only country that provided combat pilots to bolster North Vietnam’s air defenses.

Force Z, directed by Kim Chang Xon, cycled 87 pilots between the 921st Fighter Regiment’s MiG-21F-equipped company and two companies of Shenyang F-5s (Chinese-built and exported MiG-17s) in the 923rd Fighter Regiment.

North Korea claimed 26 wins and the loss of 14 pilots during combat sorties from 1967 to 1969, while North Vietnam only accepts eight of the claims and 12 Force Z-flown aircraft destroyed, which are noted in the appendix.

Gold Stars Over the Red River is a useful resource that provides insight into the “other side” of the air battle. It is illustrated with 50 images.

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This essay was originally published in Vietnam magazine. Subscribe to Vietnam magazine and follow us on Facebook for more stories:

“Gold Stars Over the Red River” Book Review

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