Tom’s Voyage from Vietnam

This is a true story that was shared with me as part of my Sonder Stories series. Names have been changed to protect identities.

It was the mid 1970’s when eight year old Tom saw his three older brothers drafted into the Viet Cong. The war was said to be over, but the Viet Cong were still very prevalent, and the fighting was ongoing between the Southern Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. To escape fighting for the Viet Cong, and to escape the fists of their father, Tom’s brothers boarded a refugee boat headed for Thailand. They left the tiny hut where Tom slept in the middle of the night…and didn’t say goodbye. He would later learn that the refugee boat had been sank by the Viet Cong before it reached international waters. They would do that sometimes…crash into the boats intentionally to drown the refugees. The knowledge of the boat’s sinking was conveyed by a man who had left his brothers’ boat to get some milk for his infant during a stop in Malaysia. The man had stepped off the boat and had looked back to see the boat sinking just off the shore. His baby cried safely in the man’s arms as the boat disappeared.

News of Tom’s brothers’ death made its way back to the small town where Tom lived with his two sisters and ten year old brother. Barefoot children played with a  deflated soccer ball in the trash-filled streets of Bac Lieu. Tom would spend the next four years avoiding his father’s slaps and hits as much as he could. His sisters were never hit; they could do no wrong. But Tom and his remaining older brother? Tom cowered under his father’s repeated punches while his mother placed her body over his sisters protect them from seeing Tom getting beat.

It was 1979 when there came an opportunity for Tom to make his own escape from the turmoil continuing in Vietnam. All he had to do was get to the Philippines…where there were refugee camps ran by the United Nations. Once he reached the camps, he would be given a chance at a new life if he could find sponsorship into the United States…there was news of a Vietnamese gentleman who had already escaped to America and who wanted to “do right” by sponsoring two children into the United States. So twelve year old Tom and one older sister put their trust in this stranger and began their journey.

They left in the middle of the night, just like their brothers did four years prior. They snuck through the village and reached the small boat that would take them from the coast of southern Vietnam to the Philippines by way of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.

Tom climbed onto the crowded boat with his seventeen year old sister and was gathered up by two priests and some nuns who were charged to ensure the children got to the Philippines safely. Thirty-five people were crammed into this wooden boat with no food or water. As they began their journey out of Vietnam’s waters, they were boarded by Thai pirates who poured sand into the boat’s tiny engine, destroying any possibility of the refugees navigating the waters on their own. The sabotaged boat drifted at sea when the pirates left…two days…three days…Tom was so sick. He puked green bile overboard and when he felt the urge to defecate, he had to brace against the edge of the boat, liquid pouring from his body as the wind sprayed everything back onto him. There was no modesty on the tiny boat. Everyone experienced the same horrific experience of their bodies revolting against the sea and the terror. Tom wanted to die with every fiber in his body.

Different Thai pirates boarded the ship again. They threatened the refugees in a language Tom didn’t know, tied the Vietnamese boat to their boat and began to drag them through the waters. One of the priests who was in charge of Tom spoke Chinese and begged the pirates to leave them alone, “Please, please, just don’t take us to Ko Kra Island”. The pirates ignored the priest and continued to take the refugees towards an uninhabited island off of the coast of Thailand…it was known that the pirates would take the women refugees to this island, rape them, and murder the men on the boat. News of this island of horror was known by Vietnamese refugees, and Tom was heading towards the island. His sister sobbed as they approached the island, which was burning from the pirates setting the raped women on fire.

As the boat approached the island, one of the men on the refugee boat jumped into the water and began swimming, swimming far away from Kro Ka. The pirates let him swim away, knowing that he wouldn’t survive anyway.

The priest continued to beg the pirates. Tom doesn’t know what made them change their minds, but the pirates cut the boat loose and left them in the Gulf. Pirates boarded the ship again, and again…coming all times of the day and terrorizing the refugees. The refugees were exhausted and dying. The priest continued to beg the pirates to tow them just a little bit further toward southern Thailand…and nine times different groups of pirates boarded and towed the boat just a little further. The pirates were bribed with….(Tom’s voice trails off).

The tiny boat reached southern Thailand and the refugees are flown to the Philippines by the United Nations. Once they land in the Philippines, they are set up in the militaristic refugee camps (called “processing centers”) to learn English and taught how to be accepted in America. The camps were clean but ran harshly. Tom was given an age that was younger than his real age of twelve on his processing papers. The man who assigned it said it would help with Tom’s lack of English understanding when he was finally in America…and he said Americans want to adopt younger children. A twelve year old wasn’t very appealing in the adoption circles. With an incorrect birth certificate, Tom flew with his sister to Guam and then to Hawaii to meet their mysterious sponsor at last.

When they got off the plane in Hawaii, they were met by a social worker who said their sponsor wasn’t coming…and did they know any other people who could help them?

Tom’s sister knew a man in Michigan, but the middle-aged man wanted to marry her, a traumatized seventeen year old refugee.She declined his proposal and contacted a long lost cousin. The cousin refused to adopt the older sister, but luckily a Caucasian man and his Japanese wife adopted her and moved her to Tennessee. Tom’s sister begged and eventually convinced the cousin to adopt Tom. He moved to Tennessee and began school as the only ethnic child in the school district.

The struggles that Tom experienced as a non-English speaker in an all-white school district were not few. He was treated as extremely stupid by teachers and classmates, bullied by children who were two years younger than him because everyone thought he was ten. But one day in math class, Tom stood up and began doing math on the board…math: the universal language. The teacher realized that this quiet student was not stupid at all, and immediately began spending hours tutoring Tom in the teacher’s lounge. That teacher showed kindness and patience, giving Tom a chance at real education.

Tom grew up and became a brilliant electrical engineer. He is an American citizen and holds many patents in technology. He married and had children of his own, and revisited his parents in Vietnam for the first time in 2019. His sister lives in Virginia Beach with her husband. Tom’s older brother eventually left Vietnam too, and took Tom’s real identity when he left. He lives in Germany and does not speak to Tom.

“Knowing pain and loss and destitution changes your views on necessity. If I had known what was going to happen on that trip, I wouldn’t have gone. I would not do it again. I would die in Vietnam.”- Tom