REVIEW: On the Frontlines of the Television War by Yasutsune Hirashiki
On The Frontlines of the Television War is the story of Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s ten years in Vietnam—beginning when he arrived in 1966 as a young freelancer with a 16mm camera but without a job or the slightest grasp of English and ending in the hectic fall of Saigon in 1975 when he was literally thrown on one of the last flights out.
His memoir has all the exciting tales of peril, hardship, and close calls as the best of battle memoirs but it is primarily a story of very real and yet remarkable people: the soldiers who fought, bled, and died, and the reporters and photographers who went right to the frontlines to record their stories and memorialize their sacrifice. The great books about Vietnam journalism have been about print reporters, still photographers, and television correspondents but if this was truly the first “television war,” then it is time to hear the story of the cameramen who shot the pictures and the reporters who wrote the stories that the average American witnessed daily in their living rooms.
“The basic essence of war is death.” – David Snell
I grew up watching this war and when, in the forward, it’s described as the Television War, I said “yes, that’s it exactly.” Every night my parents had the 6 pm nightly news with Uncle Walter (Cronkite) on. I remember the video footage and the body counts even though I wasn’t even 7 years old. When the last helicopters lifted off the embassy roof, I wasn’t even a teenager but I recall those images vividly, too. I’ve read plenty of memoirs of the war from military sources but until I saw this book, it hadn’t dawned on me that I’d never read any by the journalists who covered it and produced what I saw on the nightly news. Here is the story of a man behind the camera who gives the journalistic experience told from the POV of a SE Asian photographer.
Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki was one of many drawn to cover this war. With a camera, little English and a letter of recommendation he arrived in Saigon eager to show his stuff. His incomplete grasp of English lead him to believe he had a job but even sent out as a stringer, he soon proved his skill and earned his place at the ABC network. It was physically difficult as cameramen had to lug around all their own equipment and dangerous as the drive to get better and exclusive footage often caused Tony and the others to disregard their own safety as the bullets flew and the artillery pounded the areas from where they reported. The network bosses might have told their correspondents to be careful but out of the other side of their mouths was the scolding to get the scoop and better “bang bang” for the evening news.
With his eye glued to the viewfinder, Tony often didn’t realize just how much danger he was in and his soundman and correspondents could be heard on camera telling him to get his head down. Being behind the camera also detached him at times from the full horror of what was happening in front of him. His talent in framing a scene and elegantly capturing on film what was needed to illustrate the story his reporter wanted to tell allowed him to see and show the beauty of Vietnam and its people as well as the sorrow and agony of a country in civil war.
Part of Tony’s skill was in knowing the style of his correspondents’ reporting and instinctively capturing the right pictures and sequences. The cameraman had to be a journalist and artist as well as a technician. Tony kept meticulous records on the film submitted to NYC as well as a diary. While most of the reporters were North Americans there were lots of SE Asian cameramen and soundmen – Japanese, Koreans, Singaporeans and of course Vietnamese. Tony was highly thought of by his fellow journalists, cameramen, and editors no matter what their job specialty.
One of the cardinal rules from the networks was that reporters were never to stage anything and that all reports should be factual and unbiased. Though the networks wanted “bang bang” (as they cynically called it), many of the reporters Tony worked with focused on other, more humanistic, aspects of the situation. The news crews also began growing more disillusioned with what the military was feeding them. Gradually the opinions of the news teams began to mirror that of the troops – this was a lost cause and no one wanted to be “the last guy to die for a mistake.”
Many of the reporters also covered the civil war raging in Cambodia though with fewer Americans there the odds that the dangerously obtained footage would make the evening news in the US was lower. Several people Tony knew and was very close to did die over the course of the war – losses that still cut deeply even forty years later. Still it was almost as if many reporters and news crews were addicted to Vietnam and unable to leave it, returning time and again over the years of the war.
The end had to come and after the fall of Xuan Loc, ABC began to plan for the evacuation of its personnel. When the arrival of the North Vietnamese in Saigon was imminent, Tony was among the last news crew at Tan Sun Nhut Air Base tasked with covering the evacuation. When he arrived in the Philippines, he was emotionally drained and as exhausted as the refugees.
Packed with photos and reminiscences from many other news crews, “On the Frontlines of the Television War” tells a story I’d not heard before. Reading this book took me back to my childhood, watching the evening news. But now I know the effort and at times the human cost it took to bring those images to American living rooms. B