In this undated photo provided by Mickey Howard, Tràn Ùa, right, tries out some of Howard's gear in Vietnam. Howard adopted the Vietnamese orphan, who later became known as Tom Howard. (AP/Courtesy Mickey Howard via The Gadsden Times)
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Mickey Howard, left, poses in January with his adopted son, Tom Howard, who he met while serving in Vietnam. (AP)
GADSDEN — , Ala. He was named Tràn Ùa when he was born sometime in the early 1960s in a hut in a small, remote village in Vietnam.
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.
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 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 Howardrecalls that it was a 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 young leader of the gang made sure items 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 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.”