GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) – He was named Tràn Ùa when he was born sometime in the early ’60s in a hut in a small, remote village in the high mountainous country of Vietnam. In America, his name would have been Ùa Tràn, since the given name is first and the family name comes last.
“First name is last, last name first over there,” he said, also explaining that in Vietnam, he is considered a year older than Americans of the same age. “A baby’s conception until birth is seen as one year and when a baby is born, it is considered one year of age.”
A small valley lay between two mountains. Tràn Ùa said the only way to reach the village was by small trails up the side of the mountain.
“We lived in small straw huts surrounded by dirt and marshes, where there was a lot of water, especially during the monsoon season,” he said. “This marshland was to our benefit since our main staple was rice. By using water buffalo to aid us in planting of the rice, we had food to eat.”
Although it was a primitive existence, it was a peaceful and happy life until the war. Tràn Ùa doesn’t know his exact age at the time the bombing started, probably 5 or 6.
“I remember little about the Vietnam War per se, just how I was affected by it,” he said. “There was bombing all the time and we were just trying to stay alive. One night our village was badly bombed and there was a lot of shrapnel flying all through the air. A large fragment went through my back and lodged in my chest. My mama’s leg was blown off. My sisters and brothers didn’t know how to make the leg stop bleeding, so she bled to death very quickly. I was just a child, with that big wound in my back, watching my mama die. I never knew my father, don’t know if he had been killed or what. So I became an orphan, trying to survive and sleeping under a bridge at night.”
One day some soldiers arrived in the remote village. They carried many of the people, refugees they called them, down to another little village named Chu Lai that lay just a mile or so from the American military base. Tràn Ùa was among them.
Sgt. Mickey Howard, a native of Etowah County, recalls that it was a real rugged place, serving as a refuge for children who were orphaned because of the war.
“The kids had a rough go of it, although they were befriended as much as possible by the villagers,” Howard said. “They still lived anywhere they could put their heads down, which was mostly under bridges.
“Leader of those rag-tagged orphans was a scrappy kid, maybe 7 years old,” he said. “We had stuff from S&P Packs we hadn’t used. We also had some apples we’d gotten from somewhere. The kid with the scar on his back took the gifts. Salvaging a toothbrush and an apple for himself, he passed out the sweets and other things to the other kids. He did this every time we brought them packages, always looking after the others.”
The soldiers would take their clothes to the women in Chu Lai, who washed them, and they always had things for the children.
The young leader of the gang made sure they were distributed equally, and in doing so caught the sergeant’s eye.
Gathering up some shoe polishing materials, Tràn Ùa became what he calls the local “shoe-shine boy.” Whenever the soldiers came into Chu Lai, he would run up to them asking if they wanted their boots shined. He always went to the compassionate Howard first.
“One day Sgt. Howard told me he wanted to adopt me, and took me on base to live with him in the barracks and eat in the mess hall,” he said. “I had the run of the base and didn’t shine any more shoes or do any kind of work. When Sgt. Howard went on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam, the other men in the company looked after me. I had a pass to get on and off base, and when the soldiers gave me a little money, I’d buy candy at the PX and take it to the other kids at Chu Lai. But most of the time I just stayed on base. One day, some of the soldiers dressed me up in the sergeant’s boots, jacket, cap and even his .45 and made my picture.”
The adoption process was grueling, primarily the Vietnamese part. Vietnam wanted to keep all those who would eventually become men and be placed in the military. Also, Howard had been married less than two years, which was a hang-up.
One woman who did laundry in Chu Lai helped Howard a lot with the local authorities. The American part was easy, with the U.S. Embassy helping.
Tràn Ùa named himself Tommy John Howard, and is known today as simply Tom.
“One day when I was on a mission, my commander broke radio silence and told me to get my men back to the base immediately,” Howard said. “He said that Tom had just become an American citizen and I had 24 hours to get him on a plane bound for the United States.”
He barely made it, hitching rides on a Huey, C-123, C-130, etc., to get to the embassy. Once at the airport, a tag was tied on Tom’s wrist. A flight attendant on the Freedom Flight said she would look after him. So did the attendants at Los Angeles, St. Louis and Atlanta. When they led him into the waiting area in Atlanta, he looked around, spied the sergeant’s wife and said, “That’s my mother,” having recognized her from a picture Sgt. Howard had given him before leaving Vietnam.
“You know, only one kid in a million got to come to America from Vietnam at that time,” Tom said, “and I was the lucky one.”
Sgt. Howard’s tour of duty had been extended, so he actually returned home some months after Tom had arrived.
What was the hardest thing for Tom as far as adjusting to America? “It was learning the English language, which has a lot of words spelled alike, but meaning different things,” he said. “Also adjusting to things I had never seen before, such as windows that roll up and down in cars.
“One day, Mama had me make a cheese sandwich, and not knowing I was supposed to take the wrapper off the slice of cheese, I put the whole thing on the sandwich and ate the paper along with the cheese,” he recalled.
He credits his first-grade teacher in Boaz for helping him adjust. He graduated at West End High School and enrolled in air conditioning and refrigeration training courses at Gadsden State Community College. He is employed at the Darden Center on the college campus.
Tom revisited Vietnam years later. Landing in Saigon, he hired a guide to take him to his mountain village about 1,000 miles away. Going by motorcycle within 60 miles of the village, they had to walk up the mountain the rest of the way. Tom was wearing a new pair of tennis shoes, and they were destroyed by the rough terrain.
No one there knew he was coming, but when he walked into the village, an elderly man spotted him, walked up and said, “You are my brother.” Tom had not known if any of his relatives were alive, or if they still lived there. He also has two sisters and a few other relatives still living in the mountainous village. Another sister lives in Chu Lai.
Tom met a Vietnamese woman at a friend’s wedding in Gadsden. She had been in America only two months at the time and was living in Atlanta. He visited her a couple of times and decided it was too far away, so he asked her to marry him. Two months later, Tom flew her family over, asked permission for her hand, settled other engagement arrangements and had a Vietnamese wedding. “I did it all in one shot,” he exclaimed as he smiled broadly.
“I don’t plan on returning to Vietnam,” Tom said. “I have a family here in America,” pointing out that his wife is a manicurist in Gadsden and their son, Doug, is in the 11th grade at Boaz High. He plays football, baseball and basketball, and his dad wears a school jacket and cap. When they have an opportunity, they enjoy fishing in a lake near their home in the Egypt community.
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