Retired Pilots Tell Woman of Father She Never Knew in Vietnam

Phan Khoi, a South Vietnamese pilot trained by US Air Force personnel, is shown in this undated photograph from the Vietnam War. (Photo courtesy Erika Colligan)
Phan Khoi, a South Vietnamese pilot trained by US Air Force personnel, is shown in this undated photograph from the Vietnam War. (Photo courtesy Erika Colligan)

Over the fireplace of Billy Mobley's home in Stephenville, Texas, there's a Christmas gift painting that holds memories of Phan Khoi, the man he taught to fly for a country that was then called South Vietnam.

Khoi's daughter, Erika Colligan of San Diego, spent three decades trying to track down the paintings her father had given to the Americans he had befriended in a time of war. Now, thanks to Mobley, a retired Air Force colonel, and others, she is getting to know who her father was.

"I was in search of his paintings but now I learned of him as well, his disposition," said Colligan, whose father died in a plane crash in South Vietnam when she was just 1 year old.

Mobley, 82, said the painting in his home depicts his name in abstract symbols.

"It's always been a treasure to me, and it's occupied a place of honor in my home" since 1962, he said. "Then an email came -- there was a lady looking for her father. Quite a lady, it turns out," he said. "That immediately hit me right in the heart."

The two met at the Mobley's home in early December. He took the painting from the wall and handed it to Colligan.

She caressed the work by the father she never knew. He was killed in the crash of his Douglas A-1 Skyraider during an aerial demonstration at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on Oct. 1, 1966.

Colligan ran her hand lightly over the painting. Mobley turned it over so she could see her father's signature. With a finger, she traced Phan Khoi's name. She was crying and "I'll tell you that my wife and I shed some tears too," Mobley said.

There was also some laughter. Mobley described Phan as "a studious type, a hard worker. Not as outgoing as Erika."

"He kind of adopted me as his daughter," Colligan said of Mobley, and she was surprised to learn that she did not inherit her father's "quiet and reserved" demeanor.

"I'm an A-type personality, I go 100 miles a minute," said Colligan, who runs EMC Consulting, a global software systems firm in California.

Mobley, who joined the Air Force in 1954 out of Texas A&M University, taught Phan Khoi to fly solo in the North American Aviation T-28 Trojan prop aircraft at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Georgia, as part of the 3551st Pilot Training Squadron (PTS) in 1962-63.

Mobley and other instructors, including retired Col. Doyle Ruff, also introduced their students to the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a powerful but hard to handle prop attack aircraft they would fly in close air support missions for the Vietnamese National Air Force.

"It had a lot of torque," Mobley said of the low-and-slow Skyraider. "It was just a lot of airplane, and very difficult to fly right. It was quite a task for those kids to handle," but "a great airplane for killing trucks.

"It was a very rewarding assignment," Mobley said of his time as an instructor. "I didn't realize at the time how much it meant to me."

Mobley flew the T-28 and the A-1 on his 1968 Vietnam tour, mostly out of bases in Thailand. He said "it was all night missions" against the Ho Chi Minh trail during the then-secret war against the North Vietnamese resupply route through Laos and Cambodia.

On one mission, Mobley said he was shot down but was quickly picked up by rescue helicopters. On another mission, he led three T-28s on attack runs for the Marines during the siege of Khe Sanh and even landed at the heavily bombarded dirt airstrip at the outpost to refuel.

Phan had graduated from Moody in August 1963 and returned to South Vietnam to fly the A-1 for the VNAF's 522nd Fighter Squadron.

Colligan said following her father's death during an aerial demonstration at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on Oct. 1, 1966, "we would go every Sunday to the cemetery to see my father's grave and then to my uncle's house for dinner."

Her mother remarried to a South Vietnamese doctor. As a 10-year-old in 1975, she sensed something was wrong. Her mother began holding her back from school as her stepfather desperately sought to arrange the family's flight from South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese closed in on Saigon.

"It was just accepted that it was over and everybody was leaving -- Japan, France, the US, anywhere," she said.

Colligan and her now large family -- three siblings plus three more from her mother's second marriage -- managed to cram aboard a US flight to the Philippines on April 26, 1975, four days before Saigon fell. From there, the family went to Guam, then to a sponsorship with a family in Nebraska, and finally to California.

She began to wonder about her father's paintings in 1985. There was no thought to recovering them -- she just wanted to see them and learn about her father from those who had known him, she said.

At last, Colligan came across a website for Pilot Training Squadrons and that led her to retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Ed Loy. He put her in touch with retired Col. Ruff, who had a portrait of himself drawn by Phan Koi, and Col. Mobley.

In an email, Loy said, "A daughter finally found the American instructor pilots that had known, befriended and taught her father while he was training to be a pilot.

"I was overjoyed that my identification turned out correctly and led her to finding the person who her father had painted," he added. "Hopefully, she can now find satisfactory closure to her long search for her father's existence and the 'what-ifs' that wartime scars leave on family," Loy said. "She finally had real evidence that her father had existed in more than just a wartime story."

Mobley kept going back to Christmas of 1962, when he had Phan Khoi and another South Vietnamese trainee over to his house. Earlier, they had been in a session at squadron headquarters.

Other squadrons had decorated their rooms for Christmas but somehow Mobley hadn't gotten around to it. Khoi asked if Mobley was using the blackboard. Well, no, he replied. Khoi asked if Mobley could get him some colored chalk. Well, yes, he said.

Mobley went off on some other duty and when he returned, the blackboard had been transformed into a Christmas scene with a brightly-colored Santa and tree. "That about bowled me over," Mobley said.

Colligan is now busy arranging a reunion in San Diego on Jan. 12 for the Americans who knew her father and the Vietnamese who trained with him.

"I know my father is doing this," she said. "He's guiding me every day."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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