Grandpa’s Obituary

3 min readDec 12, 2022

To Huu Nguyen has not lived an easy life. To was born in Hà Nam Ninh, amid revolutionary fervor on January 5th, 1934, in the northern region of what was then French Indochina. The third child in a family of six, he would bury his father before his 12th birthday. By his 18th birthday, he joined the Vietnamese air force. Before his 25th birthday, he fled to south Vietnam in the aftermath of the Viet Minh’s victory over the French in 1954. To would never see his family again.

During his military service, To was stationed across the country, seeing action in Bien Hoa, Hue, and Da Nang. His final station saw him working as the chief mechanic at Tân Sơn Nhất airbase, in Saigon. Later, To would be sent to America for six months to study aviation mechanics. Upon his return to Vietnam, To was promoted to the assistant principal the Airforce Mechanic School, where he taught the next generation of Vietnamese mechanics how to maintain and care for helicopters, warplanes, and airplanes. To spent over two decades serving his country.

When Saigon fell in 1975, To and his family burned his uniform, his medals, and his papers in their backyard. The Viet Minh came for him anyway. To spent half a decade in a prisoner of war camp, watching his comrades starve to death or succumb under their captor’s beatings. Of the dozen or so friends To was imprisoned with, less than five survived long enough to be released.

While his wife and children were Catholic, To never subscribed to the faith; he had been raised Buddhist, and said he would “consider becoming Catholic if God got him to America.” In the summer of 1984, his family would immigrate to the United States with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. To got baptized shortly thereafter.

In the early days, they lived with a relative of his, a family of four packed into a single bedroom in an already tiny apartment. To worked himself into the ground for the sake of his family, holding two jobs as a mechanic and a handyman. He kept this up for 5 years without complaint, only stopping when his stomach developed bleeding ulcers from overwork. According to family lore, his son, Tien, heard about his hospitalization during the middle of a math test, famously being told he would fail if he stepped out. Tien never looked back and shortly secured work with the USPS, where he has served as a carrier for almost 30 years. Though he would never openly admit it, the hospitalization would haunt To and his wife for decades, as they watched their children drop out of college to support themselves and their family.

Since that time, he has watched his son get married and buy a house of his own. He has raised two grandchildren, seeing them through high school graduations and into college. With their acceptance, and his grandson’s recent graduation from Virginia Tech alongside his granddaughter’s continued studies at VCU, To finally put nearly 30 years of regret, torment, and prayers to rest.

Nearly 90 years later, To leaves behind a wife, two adult children, two grandchildren, and the unspeakable gratitude of his family. To Huu Nguyen was a husband, a father, a grandparent, and the stoic guardian of his family’s dreams. Words can never truly express our love and gratitude; rest easy, Bố.