A Vietnam War Cameraman Reflects on ‘The Television War’

On-the-frontlines-of-the-television-war“Tony Hirashiki was simply one of the best television cameramen to cover the Vietnam War. His soaring video, often acquired only at great personal risk, gave wings to even the most mundane narration. For those of us who worked with him he was also a source of gentleness and joy in a place where both were in terribly short supply.” – Ted Koppel, Former Nightline anchor ABC

We are pleased to announce the release of On the Frontlines of the Television War: A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam. This captivating new book tells the story of Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s ten years in Vietnam—beginning when he arrived in 1966 as a young freelancer and ending in the hectic fall of Saigon in 1975 when he was literally thrown on one of the last flights out.

To learn more about this fascinating story, we asked Tony a few questions about his life, his interest in writing, and why his book reveals a unique insight into the Vietnam War:

Don North films a standup during the First Infantry’s airmobile attack, an early part of Operation Junction City which began on Feb. 27. 1967. Takayuki Senzaki is mixing the audio which is then fed by cable and recorded on Tony Hirashiki’s film. (Courtesy Don North)

Early Life and Childhood

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in 1938 in Naha City on Okinawa to Yasuhiko and Yoshiko Hirashiki. Our family immediately moved to Tokyo and, during the war, my father was drafted so my mother and my three brothers and a sister moved from province to province to avoid the bombing raids.

Once, when we were living in Tokyo, the B29s burned down our house but my mother managed to escape with my youngest brother and joined the rest of us in the country with my grandparents. When the war ended, we lived on Kyûshû Island.

From age seven to fourteen, I lived and went to school in the province of Kumamoto on Kyushu. Nagasaki was in another province on Kyushu and when I was 7-years-old. I heard that there had been a big bomb but not that it was an atomic bomb.

After I’d finished middle school, we moved to Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, and completed high school there. After graduation in 1956, I got a job as a copy boy on the news desk at the first commercial TV station in Osaka, Channel 4 – known as the “Lion Channel.”

Can you tell us a bit about the history of military service in your family?

My father worked in my grandfather’s store until, like virtually every Japanese man, he was drafted and served in Japan as a Private First Class. In 1945, he was discharged from the Army but when he came home, we discovered he had tuberculosis and he passed away less than a year later.

I was too young to know very much about World War 2 and I certainly didn’t have any “military experience” but some of my family didn’t manage to evacuate from Okinawa and suffered through the terrible battle for the island. They left the city and lived in caves but were eventually captured by American troops who questioned and released them.

As a young boy, I was terrified of the American occupation troops because there were rumors that they ate Japanese children.

During and after the war, there was very little food in Japan so most of my memories are of being hungry. As a young boy, I was terrified of the American occupation troops because there were rumors that they ate Japanese children.

One day, a sergeant stopped me and gave me a piece of chewing gum. I had never tasted anything so wonderful and kept it carefully and chewed it a little bit each night until it was gone. I’ve always liked American soldiers ever since. In Vietnam, I found out that the wonderful candy was the cinnamon gum that came in C Rations.

On Writing

What is it about writing that appealed to you?

Television is an odd medium because it’s difficult to write about although, in many ways, it’s the most powerful. Writers and reporters do their books about their experiences, still photographers pick the best of their negatives and create wonderful books filled with dramatic images. They even have their masterpieces in galleries.

Those of us who worked in TV News back can’t show what we’ve done. With newsfilm, which is cut to pieces and recut over and over, their work is gone the day after it appear. What appears on a documentary or on the computer is no longer their work and usually been copied so many times that it doesn’t even resemble the sharp and brilliantly colored pictures that the cameraman worked so hard to create.

So, one day, I was thinking and I wondered if I could write in the same way I filmed: long shots, medium shots, close shots and inserts. In other words, use the big picture and then the history of an event or a correspondent, move on to a close observation of his personality and finally the events that we shared. As I’d been trained, I tried to make sure that I had the When, Where, Who, What, How and Why each event occurred.

So my writing is an extension of my camera work, I didn’t always have the correct grammar or pretty words but I worked hard to tell it the way it was. That was the way I got started.

Writing is limitless, cameras are often unable to catch everything but words can go anywhere and to all times, even inside the heart and the mind.

Tony Hirashiki and JC Malet relax outside the city of Kontum where, in May 1972, North Vietnamese forces had surrounded the city. The two-man team went in to see the real situation. (Courtesy JC Malet)
What fascinates you about revisiting the past and bringing it to life in a book?

After I turned 60, I wanted to tell my stories about the fascinating people that I’d met, worked with, and suffered with in Vietnam. At the same time, those very people were beginning to fade away and they weren’t being remembered for how good they were and how hard they worked to tell their stories to the American people.

Even though most viewers can remember Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel, few remember Roger Peterson, Ken Gale, Don North and the other hard-working and often brilliant reporters. No one even knows about the cameramen; Terry Khoo and Sam Kai Faye who died doing their job and the others who risked their lives to bring the world stories they needed to hear.

..they are the unsung heroes of Vietnam, Americans, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Singaporeans who went to war with pens, typewriters, cameras, and microphones.

So I collected my scripts, letters, and emails and I sent questions to everyone I could find. When it came time to put this together, I was surprised find that these people I thought I knew so well were even more interesting and brave than I ever knew! For me, they are the unsung heroes of Vietnam, Americans, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Singaporeans who went to war with pens, typewriters, cameras, and microphones. I truly believe that their stories are important to pass onto the next generations of young journalists. Good journalism is really the same whether it’s on film, videotape, digital chips, podcasts or something we haven’t even thought of yet.

In Japan, there is a saying, Onkochisin (温故知新). I translated this as “Visit the Past to Learn Something New” and I suppose that’s what I did.

On the Book

How much research did you do for this book?

I began to slowly put this together in the late 70’s after the war ended. It was mostly putting piles and caches of memos, caption sheets, scripts into some sort of order and working out where I’d gone, with who, and on what date. You’d be surprised how quickly that sort of memory vanishes when you’re in a fast-moving situation like a war.

Then I went to those I had worked with to checked my memories against theirs—there were a lot of arguments there—and finally reached out to those we covered to get their accounts. That was difficult because we would drop in and be gone the next day so often.

Terry Irving, my editor, researched exhaustively as he worked on my early translations, checking with new sources, military records, and even North Vietnamese archives. The whole process was a long journey that began when I completed the Japanese version in 2008 and only took off in 2015 when Terry volunteered beat it into shape.

In the end, this is still not military history. It’s an account of what a young Japanese cameraman with lousy and often obscene English saw and heard between those crucial years of 1966 and 1975. There were mistakes we found and fixed but I’m sure there are others we didn’t find. What I wanted to do was to tell the truth from my vantage point and if I’ve made any mistakes, I hope soldiers, journalists, and historians will understand.

Why did you decide to write this book?

In July 1972, I lost two friends and colleagues, ABC News cameramen Terry Khoo and Sam Kai Faye in a North Vietnamese ambush during the battle for Quang Tri. Terry Khoo was far more than a friend, he was my brother and was working on his final day before leaving Vietnam forever. Known as “the dean of Saigon cameramen,” he’d decided the war just wasn’t worth covering anymore and planned to marry and move to work for ABC in Germany and had gotten me to agree to go with him.

His death was a shattering experience and when I brought their bodies back to Singapore for burial, I promised Terry’s mother that I would write the complete story of what great work Terry had done and the excellent professionals who respected him above all other cameramen in Saigon. His mother waited for the book for many years but passed away before I got it finished.

Terry Khoo (l) and Tony Hirashiki (r) sport matching goatees approximately 1967. Staffers at ABC said that if they saw Terry, who was usually referred to as the “dean of the Saigon cameramen,” Tony would show up within minutes. (Courtesy Yasutsune Hirashiki)

When I published the story of Terry, Sam, Howard Tuckner, Craig Spence, and all the other brave and intelligent colleagues who risked their lives to cover the war, it was in Japanese. I was quite surprised that it got such good reviews—so was the publisher who had to go into a second printing—and it was the subject of a Japanese television documentary and even a radio play.  

What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?

I hope that this book will stand as a record of a few of the brave men (and a few exceptional women) who have not really ever been written about. They were young, unknown, and untested. American and Canadian reporters, crews from every nation in the world, and most of them had come to Vietnam to cover the “story of their generation” and to try for that chance to move up in television journalism.

As I’ve said, there was no school for war coverage and our classrooms were at the frontlines and with the soldiers fighting right beside us.

There was no staging, no sneaky cameras, no antiwar editing.

Many military experts and a lot of veterans say, “America lost Vietnam because that’s what the media and especially the TV News shows, wanted.” I hope that those who read this book learn that this simply isn’t true.  We were right there at the front, not sitting back in Saigon sipping cocktails, and we covered the military and human stories “as it is” and told them “as it was.” There was no staging, no sneaky cameras, no antiwar editing. At the same time, we didn’t just take the words of the military at the “Five O’clock Follies” at face value, we went out and checked what they told us for ourselves.

I hope that this will be read by young people for years to come and teach them of the Vietnam War—where crazy young people hopped on helicopters and dropped into battle, tried to see the truth and fought to tell the truth to the American people.

Thank you Tony.

On the Frontlines of the Television War is now available from Casemate and all major book sellers.

$32.95 | hardback | 304 pages | 978-1-61200-4723

Buy On the Frontlines of the Television War here.

One thought on “A Vietnam War Cameraman Reflects on ‘The Television War’

  1. If you have a way to get in touch with Tony Hirashiki could you give him a message for me? I was a correspondent for the Army in Vietnam during 1968. Terry Khoo, Yuki Senzaki, Craig Spence and I became friends and did many stories together because I could escort them to some great action. Dick Rosenbaum, the ABC Bureau Chief in Saigon, had worked with by brother at American Forces Network in Frankfurt Germany a few years earlier.
    I had to go to Saigon every Friday and record a radio show for AFVN. They always took me out to dinner if they were in town and made sure I had a good time. I know Terry and Craig are tragically gone, but I have not been able to find out where Yuki is. Could you ask Tony to contact me with any update? I’m sure I met him also but didn’t work with him as much as I did with the others.

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