(Florida Today) Thomas Griffin carried an old photo and sad memories. As the 70-year-old Palm Bay man approached his 50th wedding anniversary, he felt it was time to share how he met his wife and what happened to their son.
At first, she thought he was a gangster. Thomas was 19 years old with a slick haircut, he often wore sunglasses and carried a whiskey bottle. It was February 1963, Griffin was a U.S. Army corporal on his first tour in South Korea, stationed in a village outside Seoul, a decade after the Korean War.
Many GIs frequented a bar in the village called "The Midnight Club." There was a beauty shop nearby. One day, he walked in and struck up a conversation with a woman named Kim Dong Sin. She was 22 and did hair.
He took her to see a band at an NCO club. Soon, they were talking about how they would live when they got back to the U.S.
"Love at first sight?" Thomas said. "Maybe. I don't know. Well, it took two weeks, I'll put it that way."
For one of their dates, she took him to a movie: "The World of Suzie Wong." They talked about getting married. He told her Kim Dong Sin would be hard for Americans to understand or pronounce, so they decided she would go by "Suzy."
Neither remembers proposing to the other. It was just a conversation — "when we get to the States," they would say.
But he had to leave.
The Army sent him back to the U.S. in April. He left her with a promise. He didn't know how he would get back, but he would come for her.
Suzy didn't expect he would. People said GIs were liars.
He traveled to spend 30 days with his mother in Cleveland. He told her that he wanted to marry a Korean girl. She asked if he loved her, he did, and she approved. But his two older brothers were skeptical, they thought it was a mistake.
"Oh well," Thomas said. He'd stay away from home if needed.
GIs at his new base at Fort Lewis in Washington told him he could pick his destination if he re-enlisted, something he hadn't considered.
But it was the only way back to South Korea.
He got there in August and found Suzy.He doesn't recall what he said, other than: "I told you I'd be back."
Marrying without U.S. government approval meant an automatic court martial, so Thomas submitted the paperwork. It took about seven months. Suzy had to go through background checks, she had to draw maps of every place she lived, papers were translated.
Baby on the way
And now, a baby was coming.
"We didn't know anything about birth control, didn't really care. We were gonna get married and we knew that married people always have families and that's what we wanted anyway. So her being pregnant wasn't a big thing for me or her."
One day in November 1963, Thomas and Suzy went to a zoo in Seoul and posed for a photo together. She's in a smart calf-length coat with a scarf and he's in his winter uniform. But they aren't smiling.
In early May, 1964, they got word that their marriage proposal was approved. They had an appointment to be married at the American Embassy in Seoul on Monday, May 11. Suzy was about six months into her pregnancy.
On Friday, May 8, Thomas went to go visit Suzy. He ran into their housemaid. She spoke little English but said there was a problem. He followed her through winding back alleys. They came to a small room. Inside, there was a midwife and Suzy. In labor prematurely. The baby was breeched.
Thomas didn't know what to do. He sat next to her on a pillow, held her hand, comforted her.
"I told her it would be OK. I didn't know if it was or not."
He stayed until 11 p.m. He didn't have a pass to be out of his Army compound overnight.
He came back to Suzy the next day to find her still in agony.
Thomas brought a military field doctor to look at Suzy. The doctor didn't seem to know much about births, but he could do them a favor — he could declare the situation an emergency so they could go to an Army hospital in Seoul.
Though it was only about 20 miles away, it would be a dusty, two-hour truck ride down dirt roads.
The doctor at the Army hospital asked if they were married. Though they were just two days away, the doctor said he couldn't treat a Korean and dismissed them.
They went to a Korean hospital. In an hour she gave birth to a boy. He weighed less than four pounds. One leg was bruised from hip to toe.
His father saw him, his mother never did.
Again without a pass to stay out overnight, Thomas had to go back to his military base. He returned the next day.
It was Mother's Day.
At about 10 a.m. a nurse came to say their baby died. Almost immediately, Suzy got up and started to get dressed. A doctor said she should stay, but she insisted. They were getting married the next day.
They went back into the city to be married at the American Embassy. Then they had the marriage registered at a Korean government office. Thomas wore his khaki dress uniform. Suzy wore a formal white dress, but not a wedding dress. No relatives joined them.
They went back to the hospital to pick up their son's body. He was in a pine coffin a little bigger than a shoe box, held together with small nails.
They would have to pass two military checkpoints to get back. Because their baby had been born out of wedlock, Suzy said they would have to smuggle him past.
They rented a taxi and put the baby in the trunk. They had the driver decorate the car — "Just married" — in English and Korean, thinking it would help them sneak past scrutiny. And it did.
They went home and in the late afternoon, they enlisted the help of an old farmer. Flat land was a commodity for crops, and it was Korean custom was to bury the dead on mountainsides, facing west.
They put their son in a wheelbarrow and pushed him to the base of a mountain. They found a vacant spot and the farmer dug a grave.
"We just put him in the ground and covered him up," Thomas said. "I don't think we said anything."
As they walked back, Thomas saw the most beautiful sunset of his life. Bright orange and yellow burning up the sky.
"Like the world was aglow," he said.
They got home. They lay in the dark, speaking few words.
Again, Thomas didn't have a pass to stay out overnight and had to go back to his Army compound.
Years later, on a third tour, Thomas went to find his son's grave and placed a marker with his name: Thomas Woodrow Yongho Griffin/ May 9 1964/ May 10 1964/ May he rest in peace.
Thomas went on to serve in the Army for 21 years. He and Suzy came back to the U.S., and his brothers came to love her. Thomas went back to check on the grave in 1979, but couldn't find the marker or the mound. They have no official record of their first son's life.
They call him "First Tommy" because they gave another son the same name.
"My grandfather's name was Thomas. My name was Thomas. My first son's name was Thomas. I just wanted to remember."
They also have a daughter named Tammy. And five grandchildren. And four great-grandchildren. Another is due in September.
Thomas is now 70, Suzy is 75, they live in Palm Bay. They usually celebrate their anniversaries simply.
"It's not the joyous occasion that most people would have," Thomas said.
As the Griffins approach their 50th wedding anniversary, it is with a thought that First Tommy would have turned 50 this year.
"It's not a good sign to start out that way," Thomas said. "All the hassles to get married, maybe we weren't supposed to get married. I don't know. But we did. But in many ways I feel like First Tommy was sacrificed. If he had lived, probably my other kids wouldn't have been born same time, same place. I wouldn't have the same kids I have, same grandchildren, same great-grandchildren. If he did that for us, that's fine."
Very few of Thomas' closest friends know what happened. He told his brothers just a couple months ago.
"I wanted people to know that there was a First Tommy," he said. "I'm not looking for pity. I guess I just wanted, I don't know, people to know that life isn't always easy, and sometimes there is unbearable pain, but if you stay together and love each other, you can work through it."
Their 50th wedding anniversary is this year on May 11.