The Tom Family realized the importance of preserving family legacy and understanding the history and struggles of early Chinese immigrants in the United States. After the passing of our father in February, 2011, we decided to write his story to honor him and to reflect upon the life of one of these immigrants.
Shuck Ngew Tom was born in 1922 in Toisan, Kuangtong, China. He was the only boy among five sisters. Life was not easy during the early years because his father was in the United States struggling to make enough money to give his family in China a better life. He returned to China whenever he could, but that was not often. That left a family to fend for themselves with whatever money sent from the States.
In 1937, Shuck Ngew sailed to the United States to join his father in New York. This was the beginning of a totally different lifestyle for the 15 year old who knew no English. It was very difficult adjusting to the new culture and a new name. Because Shuck Ngew’s father had come into the United States when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect, he had to buy another person’s registration paper thus changing his last name from Tom to Lee in order to be admitted into the country. His son, Shuck Ngew Tom was now beginning a whole new life as Shuck Ngew Lee.
Life was not easy in New York in 1937. Both father and son lived and worked in a rented one room laundry on Broadway and 125th Street. During the day they washed and ironed and at night they slept in two little beds in the back of the laundry. They did the best they could working long hours and saving every penny. Since Shuck Ngew’s father was already in his 60’s and was illiterate in both Chinese and English, he made sure his son attended school. These were extremely difficult times for the young boy especially in a school that was predominantly white and anti-Chinese expressions were constantly expressed. The daily chants of “Chink” and other unkind phrases did not deter Shuck Ngew. Because of the language barrier, he was also put into a school with students much younger. Despite all these challenges, Shuck Ngew prevailed and was a good student. He also attended Sunday School. There he met Minister Yeung who became his mentor giving young Shuck Ngew resources to learn more English and life-long lessons to deal with the obstacles of life.
In 1942, Shuck Ngew volunteered to join the Army. He was very concerned about the war in China and the United States Pacific efforts. He wanted to fight the Japanese aggressors and also serve his adopted homeland. When he heard they were recruiting Chinese-Americans to serve in China, he made the decision to join because he believed it was better to die in China than to die in Europe and he also believed it was better to volunteer than to be drafted. After saying good bye to his father and Minister Yeung, he left to Fort Dix with other volunteers. Basic training was difficult for young Shuck Ngew. His only comforts were the Bible Minister Yeung gave him and the occasional letters from his father that someone else wrote for him.
After Fort Dix, Shuck Ngew went to Patterson Field, Ohio for training. After that he was transferred to Springfield, Illinois where he learned Morse Code and trained to be a radio operator. Shuck Ngew was soon transferred into a mechanic group where he learned how to repair engines. Shuck Ngew’s first assignment overseas was India where he dismantled truck parts and loaded them on airplanes bound for China. His next assignment was China where his unit assembled all the truck parts to be used on missions.
Shuck Ngew was part of the elite 407th Air Service Squadron transport and bomber units flying the Hump. They played a very important role during the China Burma India Theater (forces operating in conjunction with British and Chinese Allied air and land forces in China, Burma, and India during World War II). His unit’s responsibilities were to man and repair the gasoline pumps. Shuck Ngew was on call 24 hours. The job was very important because China had no airplane gasoline. Every drop of gasoline had to be air lifted from India on B-24 bombers converted into air tankers. This was a precision job because the gasoline was then put through a purification device before going into storage. Not one drop of gasoline was wasted. Shuck Ngew’s unit had to keep the 407th Air Service Squadron including the Flying Tigers supplied with gasoline. These were top secret assignments.
Shuck Ngew’s army career took him on a journey through- out Asia, an experience that made an indelible mark on his life. After witnessing the death and destruction of World War II, young Shuck Ngew became a man whose life was forever changed. He was honorably discharged in 1945 and was very proud of his service in the United States Army.
After the army, Shuck Ngew enrolled in college under the GI bill. It was too difficult so Shuck Ngew took another path. He met his future father-in-law at the Chinese Presbyterian Church. He was introduced to his daughter whom he married and brought to the United States as a “GI wife”. Together they settled in Far Rockaway, working in a laundry for sixteen years. They had three children and finally settled in Forest Hills. He was able to save enough money to buy a house and put all his children through college. He finally changed his name back to Shuck Ngew Tom
Through- out his life, Shuck Ngew was very proud of his army service and the country he served. He became very involved in veteran affairs and was a member of the American Legion, Lt Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post 1291. He was also Commander in 1996. From his humble beginnings, Shuck Ngew Tom successfully accomplished his goal of being a devoted husband and father and providing a good life for his family.