July 13, 2008

Photo Connection: Vietnam War Soldier Meets Subject in MB

By Gwen Fowler, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Jul. 13--The old photograph shows a crowd of Vietnamese children, reaching out for the candy two young Marines are passing out at a Catholic school in Da Nang.

Near the right of the frame is a small boy with a wide smile spread across his face.

One of the Marines, Nelson Sperling, took the photo.

On July 3 -- almost 43 years after the picture was taken -- the photographer and the subject learned that both live in Myrtle Beach.

Sperling, now 61, and Huy Lam, who was the 8-year-old boy in the picture and is now 51, met through a curious turn of events that started the day Sperling's wife, Sue Sperling, took a stack of his Vietnam photos to work.

'What are the odds?'

Sue Sperling thought her co-worker at the O'Neil Law Firm, Huong Lam, might enjoy looking at the photograph because she is Vietnamese.

When Huong Lam saw the picture of the children reaching for candy, she went pale, Sue Sperling said.

Huong Lam noticed a familiar face.

"My eyes just went straight to that face. I looked at this picture and I was like, 'That's my dad,'" Huong said. "I knew it was him.

Huong Lam said she was 99 percent sure the boy in the photo was her father, Huy Lam, but she called him and asked him to come down to her office to confirm it.

Yes, Lam said, that was him, standing in front of the school he had attended.

Sue Sperling couldn't wait to call her husband, who thought his wife and her colleague must have been playing a joke on him.

"Who would think that this guy would be right here?" Nelson Sperling asked. "What are the odds?"

'Kids don't deserve war'

Nelson Sperling remembers the day and the photograph well.

"This picture is one of my favorite pictures from Vietnam," he said. "The kid ... had the cutest smile."

He and a friend, Mike Walton, were in Da Nang on a break in December 1965 when they spotted the large group of children outside the school, Thanh Tan, and decided to go buy candy for them.

Passing out candy to children was common among the U.S. military, Nelson Sperling said, but it wasn't something he did that often. He might give candy to the children who came on base, such as the shoeshine boy or the laundry boy.

But on this day, he and Walton decided they could lighten just a little the burden of being children growing up in a war zone.

"Kids are the same all over the world, and kids don't deserve war," Nelson Sperling said.

Contacting old friends

Sue Sperling would never have been carrying her husband's 43-year-old pictures to work with her except for a letter her husband had recently received in the mail.

It was from Willie Flint of Modesto, Calif., who said he was trying to track down a man he had served with in Vietnam named Nelson Sperling.

Nelson Sperling didn't remember the name right away, but he called Flint back. During a long conversation, talk turned to Mike Walton. Sperling got Walton's phone number and called him.

"He asked me to send him some photos, and I put them together for her to make copies," he said.

Sue Sperling planned to take the photos to Kinko's to get copies made during her lunch break but first showed them to Huong Lam.

Leaving Vietnam

Huong Lam spent the first seven years of her life in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Her father spent much of those years trying to get his wife and young daughter out of Vietnam.

After the Tet Offensive in 1968, when North Vietnam and the Vietcong attacked Da Nang and other South Vietnam cities, life changed drastically for the Lams.

Huy Lam would go outside in the morning to see which of his neighbors had not survived the night. Police might walk through every room of their house at any time.

"We live today, but we don't know about tomorrow," he said.

His younger brother escaped by fishing boat to Thailand and later made his way to San Franciso. Huy Lam also tried escaping by boat several times, only to be captured. He once was jailed briefly.

About 10 years after Huy Lam's brother arrived in the United States, he was able to bring Huy Lam and his family to the country.

He was lucky, Huy Lam said.

"Everybody wanted to go," he said, but only about half of the people who wanted to leave escaped.

After spending several weeks in San Franciso, the family settled in Myrtle Beach, where the sister of Huy Lam's wife, Loan Pham, already lived.

The Lams moved into a mobile home, and Huong Lam recalls having the happiest memories of that time.

"No one searched our house," her father said.

'A small world'

Huong returned to Vietnam when she was 16 to visit her grandparents, her mother's parents.

That visit made her realize how fortunate she was, said Huong, who was a Myrtle Beach High School student.

"That was when I realized what I wanted to do," she said. "I knew that I had to do the best I could so I could have a job where I could have a voice to speak up for other people who don't have a voice."

She is doing that as a lawyer. A 2006 graduate of George Mason Law School, Huong joined the O'Neil Law Firm about eight months ago.

Sue Sperling has worked at the O'Neil Law Firm for eight years. She and her husband settled in Myrtle Beach 12 years ago after living in Connecticut and Vermont.

Nelson and Sue first visited Myrtle Beach when their two sons, now 35 and 36, had moved to Myrtle Beach

"We came to visit them and liked the area," she said.

Nelson, a disabled veteran, had a leg amputated in September because of complications from diabetes, which he attributes to Agent Orange exposure. Agent Orange was a herbicide sprayed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War to remove leaves from trees that might provide cover for the enemy. In 2000, the Department of Veterans Affairs added diabetes to the list of diseases associated with the herbicide.

That Huy Lam and Nelson Sperling have discovered each other after their chance meeting years ago in Da Nang still has them and their families shaking their heads in disbelief.

"How could something like this happen?" Huong Lam said. "It's a small world."

Nelson Sperling said he can't explain the meaning of such a coincidence.

"There's got be some kind of karma or energy," he said.

Contact GWEN FOWLER at 626-0293.


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