Joe McMahon remembered the first car he ever bought like some people remember their first kiss. It was a 1934 Ford Coupe, all-black with yellow wheels and white sidewall tires, along with a rumble seat--an ingenious extra bench seat that folded up from the back of the car.
"It was beautiful," McMahon told me in an interview last year, one of the last ones he gave before his death in September 2015, at the age of 90. "I bought it for $250 in 1943 from a friend, because he was going into the service. I wish I had that car today. Six months later, I had to sell it when it was my time to go into the service."
McMahon was born on December 30, 1924, in Columbus, Ohio. His early life was marked by turmoil. His mother died when he was four, and his father was a traveling salesman selling razor blades in south Texas, so McMahon and his sister were cared for by his grandparents and aunts. "In those days the choice was relatives or an orphanage," McMahon said. "My dad would send up money for them to take care of us."
To pass the time, McMahon studied cars. The first car he ever noticed was his father's Franklin roadster. In 1902, the Franklin Automobile Company had developed a line of luxury cars with air-cooled engines (as opposed to standard combustion engines dependent on liquid coolant), the details of which were fascinating to the young boy. By the time he was 12, McMahon's father had remarried and brought his children down to San Antonio to live permanently.
"From that point on, we would drive down the road together and I could tell him the name of every car that passed us," he recalled. "They were all different looking, not like they are today. Cars are all cookie-cutter today."
As soon as he turned 16, McMahon was itching to get behind the wheel. He first learned to drive in his stepmother's 1931 Chrysler Coupe. Only a couple years later, he was able to purchase his own, the 1934 Ford, but he could only enjoy it for a few months before the war came calling. He was 18 in 1943 and about to be drafted. He didn't want the infantry, so he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. “They gave me a physical and threw me in there,” he recalled.
With the war raging across the globe, McMahon was fast-tracked past basic training and sent to the Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, where they put him up in the air as quickly as possible. He had never been within walking distance of an airplane before. "Instead of having 10 weeks to prepare, we had 4 weeks,” he said. “They needed recruits. I was basically cussed at for 45-minute periods endlessly with my trainer in these two-seated open airplanes."
From there, McMahon underwent additional training at Ellington Field in Houston and attended navigation school at the San Marcos, Texas, Army Airfield, and gunnery school in Laredo near the Rio Grande. From there, it was on to Italy, where McMahon flew 30 B-24 missions with the 15th Air Force, bombing military targets in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. His first mission was to a synthetic oil refinery up in Poland, one of several Nazi fuel production centers. "They expected us to lose half the planes just from running out of gas,” he said. “But we had to knock that synthetic oil plant out of there."
He had several close calls and his planes were occasionally hit with anti-aircraft flak. One time, he was on an airdrop supply mission for prisoners of war in the Alps, and his pilot literally scraped the plane's tail on the top of a mountain as they were flying over it. "They were not going to shoot me down," he said emphatically, his voice raising. "And if they did, I was just going to walk from Yugoslavia or wherever back to the base."
He befriended a young boy at a British airfield on the coast of Yugoslavia. "He wanted one of the wings off my uniform, so I gave it to him," McMahon said. The boy gave him a homemade star in return, which McMahon still had 70 years later.
McMahon had already been sent home from Europe after 27 months of service when he got the news the war had ended in Japan.
After the war, McMahon earned a degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin, and went into the traveling sales business with his father, now focusing on selling pencils in bulk. He first marriage produced two children (one now dead, the other still living in Houston), but the marriage lasted only 11 years. After his divorce, he met a woman named Sammie at a country music bar. "She was so sweet and pretty and loved to dance and threw great parties," McMahon recalled. "We just made a good fit. I was married to her for 35 years." Sammie died in 2000.
It was during this marriage that McMahon rekindled his love of cars. He first purchased a 1952 Mercedes black convertible, which McMahon had redone with cream paint and red-leather upholstery. Not long after that, McMahon bought a 1955 lemon-yellow Thunderbird, beginning a lifelong passion for TBirds. He soon added a 1962 Thunderbird Roadster to his collection. He and Sammie lived their lives in those cars, going on road trips, running errands, working on them in the garage.
To find others who shared his passion, McMahon eventually founded the South Texas Vintage Thunderbird Club, which still meets regularly today. The club honored McMahon's World War II service in a special ceremony. A couple years ago, McMahon also joined several other World War II veterans on an "honor flight" from Texas to Washington, D.C., where they visited Arlington National Cemetery and the World War II Memorial, a moving trip that allowed McMahon to pay tribute to his fallen comrades.
Over the years, McMahon sold his older model TBirds at a handsome profit, but he kept two--a 2002 model with 11,000 miles on it, and a light tan '05 50th-anniversary edition Thunderbird with only 6,000 miles on it.
McMahon--decorated World War II veteran, traveling salesman, and lifelong car enthusiast--was still taking his beloved TBirds out for a spin until his very last days.
It’s an odd feeling, being a stranger to your own heritage, but that’s a feeling I’ve had most of my life.
I am the daughter of an American father and a Vietnamese mother. My parents met during the war, when my father was a U.S. Army captain stationed on the base at Okinawa, Japan, where my mother had been hired to teach Vietnamese to U.S. soldiers. After a brief and passionate courtship, they married on Okinawa and moved back to the States. Unfortunately, they divorced in 1977, and my newly single father was awarded custody of my young brother and me.
Thus, I grew up fully immersed in American customs, eating burgers and hot dogs, going to public school, and hanging out at the mall. It didn’t help that I was tall and white-skinned, with medium-brown hair, wholly resembling my Irish-American father. I didn’t look like my Vietnamese mother at all. Even in those times when I was with my mother, when we would cook spring rolls together or visit the Vietnamese shops at Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, I never felt very Vietnamese.
As a child, that didn’t matter that much to me. But as I got older, I began to desire a stronger connection to my Vietnamese heritage. Without that connection, it felt like I was always standing on one leg. I sought to learn more about Vietnam and the experiences of people in the Vietnamese community. When I was in graduate school at Goucher College, studying historic preservation, I began to research and write about the section of Arlington, Virginia, that had been settled by Vietnamese immigrants and refugees after the fall of Saigon and was eventually known informally as “Little Saigon.”
It didn’t take long for this work to lead me to meet Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Bich, whom I interviewed for my graduate school paper, as well as several other members of the local Vietnamese community. We sat in Mr. Bich’s basement, surrounded by his voluminous books, photos, and papers, as he told me about his many experiences in Arlington, working for the School Board and other entities in several capacities that served the local Vietnamese population. He was an author, translator, educator, community spokesperson, lobbyist, and so much more. But most of all, I remember being impressed by his warmth, intelligence, and generosity.
Then, in 2004, Mr. Bich and I came together again to film a segment about Arlington’s Little Saigon for a PBS (WETA) documentary called “Arlington: Heroes, History, and Hamburgers.” Again, Mr. Bich was a sensitive, authoritative figure who offered meaningful insights about this essential time in Virginia history. His warm smile was, to me, the highlight of the segment. When I was with him, he made me feel accepted as a member of this community too. He gave me permission to stand on both legs.
Some time passed, but with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 2015, interest in commemorating Arlington’s unique Vietnamese heritage--particularly recognizing Little Saigon as the first place of refuge for Vietnamese in Virginia after the war--was growing within county government. I was honored to work with representatives from the community as well as Arlington’s historic preservation, cultural affairs, and public art departments, along with gifted students from Virginia Tech, to recognize the beginning of Vietnamese resettlement in this area. It was essential that Mr. Bich be a part of this burgeoning effort. It was a real pleasure to introduce him at a commemorative event that recognized this history through the collection of oral histories and an audio tour of the former Little Saigon, as well as a public art installation. (Mr. Bich himself recorded an oral history interview that has now been transcribed and is available to researchers at the Arlington Public Library’s Center for Local History.)
This year, we were about to start work together yet again on a booklet about Arlington’s Vietnamese heritage, funded with a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Mr. Bich was to be an expert scholar on this project, and I was so pleased when he attended the kick-off meeting for this effort in January 2016. It was a shock to receive the news that Mr. Bich had passed away only about a month later.
Mr. Bich’s passing is a huge loss to the Vietnamese community, as well as to the community of educators, students, historians, activists, and scholars that he has influenced both here in America as well as in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. It is also a huge loss to me personally. Mr. Bich was a generous mentor and friend who showed me what it means to be Vietnamese. Just as he helped so many people to find and hold onto their own history, Mr. Bich helped do the same for me.