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Monthly Archives: March, 2017

Peter Jennings in the Field

This is another of the chapters we had to cut out of 

Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s 

“On the Frontlines of the Television War”

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I suppose that it would be more accurate to refer to Peter Jennings as a colleague rather than one of my bosses but, when I joined the Saigon Bureau, he was the anchor of the Evening News and a strong voice in what made it to air. Since he was always knowledgeable and decisive, I’m going to add him to this chapter as one of the people I worked for. I certainly cared about his opinion and wanted to impress him.

Peter was born in 1938, the same year I was born, and when he took over the anchorman job in 1965, he was only 25 years old. For two and a half years, Peter was ABC’s leader as we went up against Walter Cronkite and the team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

(Peter Jennings, Edward P. Morgan, Lou Cioffi and crew at 

Caravelle Hotel in 1966 ) 

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Peter was the first anchorman to cover the Vietnam war in person. He came over with a team of cameramen and producers in the spring of 1966, just before I arrived. I remember a big black and white photo that used to hang in the newsroom at ABC in New York. It showed Peter and his crews posing on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel. He was the sort of anchor who would wear Lou Cioffi’s famous “correspondent suits” rather than a coat and tie. Peter wasn’t just a “pretty-boy” anchor, he was a good TV correspondent. All of the camera crews knew that he could talk off the top of his head about a story and get everything right. He was natural and comfortable in front of a camera, never stiff or worried.

In 1966, ABC was still only doing 15 minutes of news in black and white. I would watch the program when it would be sent back to us on kinescope with all of our news stories. There were clear differences between our program. Peter was still anchoring a fifteen minute, black and white ABC Evening News Show. Once every week at MACV briefing room, we can watch previous week’s our work that printed on kinescope. When I had the chance, I went to see feed back of all the Network’s reports. There were obvious differences between us and the other two shows: having only 15 minutes made covering a story extremely hard and the quality of the stories wasn’t as good as the competition. I heard that our nickname was the Almost Broadcasting Cooperation. Those of us in the field weren’t all that affected. I think that most of us, young, brash, and hard-working, thought that we could catch up and beat the others—it was just a matter of time. Anyway, what did we have to lose?

(Open and Close of Peter Jennings’ First Script from Vietnam) 

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Former ABC Saigon bureau secretary Mrs. Hien Boase recalled her first impressions of Peter

I met Peter for the first time in 1966 in the ABC Saigon Bureau. He was a very good looking, charming and easy to get to know. Patrick Lett, a sound man, took a photo of a little girl who sold chewing gum in Catinat Street (Tu Do, now called Dong Khoi) . The child was skinny but she had a special pretty face. The first time Peter saw the photo he was so impressed and feeling sorry for the girl and wanted to help her and asked me to help find the girl. I had to enlist the Caravelle doorman and our drivers to look for her. It took me two weeks before Peter was to return to the States I was able to find the girl and take her to see Peter. Later, Peter sent money to help her go to school.

Miss Hien e-mail dated 2008/7/19

Many years later, whenever he covered wars and internal conflicts, Peter continued to get emotionally involved and never forgot the children who suffered the most in war. After Peter had left the anchorman’s seat, he became a foreign correspondent based in Rome and then the Middle East bureau chief based out of Lebanon. That, and his long-term stint as ABC’s anchor in London firmly established his credentials as one of the best broadcast journalists. Back in 1967, he was just another bright young reporter.

In the fall of 1971, the war between East Pakistan and West Pakistan was exploding and would eventually lead to the breakaway nation of Bangladesh. As the story heated up, Ron Miller, J.C. Malet and I were sent in to Calcutta to join Peter and his crew from Rome and Howard Tuckner and the Terry Khoo team. Peter flew in from Dacca, East Pakistan with good material but they were so exhausted that Ron Miller had to help type the scripts and Malet and I filmed Peter’s narration. It was fine on the first day but when we had to do the same thing the next day, it got a bit old. I had come to cover stories, not record sound tracks for some other crew.

(Peter in Vietnam circa 1966)

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The third day, Malet and I were on a plane headed for Dacca with Peter. We’d been told that there would be a military ceremony to mark the end of the war and the formation of the new nation of Bangladesh. The Pakistani army officers and soldiers would have to lay down their arms and officially surrender to the Indian military, who had been supporting the Bangladeshis. It was a strange scene as the Indian general and his Pakistani counterpart had been classmates at the same military academy before Pakistan was partitioned off from India. Now, they’d fought each other. During the ceremony, the victorious Indian general treated the Pakistani with compassion and respect—especially when all his troops had to lay their weapons on the ground.

Peter was nearby and, after the ceremony was over, got the story from the Pakistani officers. I was going to roll on this but the Pakistanis wouldn’t speak on camera despite Peters best efforts. Finally, Peter felt sorry for them and told me to put my camera on the ground. Now that the story was over, he still had something to say to the losing general. “Next time, on a good occasion, please talk to me again. You fought well too. Good luck, sir.”

Peter said this in such a comforting and respectful tone that one of the officer’s tears came floating down his cheeks as a response. I thought it was a great scene, but my camera was on the ground. It was such a classy act of Peter. particularly since it wasn’t done for the camera.

It’s hard to ask questions of people who are suffering in a war or disaster. In Vietnam, I had had to do this on many occasions and the correspondents or reporters always asked the rather cruel question, “How do you feel?”

I knew it was a basic and necessary question, but I was always uncomfortable when I heard it being asked of people who were clearly suffering. It reminded me of how cold-blooded our business could be. However, regardless of how much I hated to hear these questions, I never took my lens out of the faces and made sure I caught the tears as they fell. In many ways, I was much more cruel than the reporters. I often wanted to leave people alone, like Peter had, but I very seldom did.

(Peter in Vietnam circa 1966)

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The next day we were out on the war-torn streets of Dacca where, in the aftermath of a bloody war, ugly things were happening as the victorious militias took revenge on anyone who had supported Pakistan. There were beatings and torture and bodies could be seen everywhere—some with their hands tied behind their backs.

My soundman was a young man named Bill Blakemore who worked for ABC Radio out of Beirut. He had been a student at the American University of Beirut and later came back to teach there. He told me another story about how Peter handled himself in the Bangladesh war. On the street, Peter and the crew came upon a militia ground with a prisoner. The leader said, ”If you want take picture, I can kill him for you now”

Peter was very upset and immediately told his crew, “Put camera down, Don’t take any pictures! Let’s get out of here”

They turned around and left immediately. Peter was well aware of how cameras could provoke people into crazy, ugly, and cruel acts. Bill Blakemore was quite impressed at how Peter reacted and felt that he was not only a good journalist but a decent human being as well. Peter’s morals were high and he wouldn’t back down from them. AP photographers did shoot the carnage in Dacca and won a Pulitzer Prize for it.

(Peter and Tony work on a shot)

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It was while we were in Dacca that Peter first asked me if he could be involved in what I filmed, looking through the viewfinder when the camera was on a tripod. I said that I would actually prefer it because I always shot with one eye closed so I needed many other eyes to let me know what was happening outside of the small picture in my lens. He told me that it was fun to work with me and ever since Bangladesh, it was like I had a Director of Photography when I was assigned to Peter since he would tell me when to zoom and when to get a wide shot. Some cameramen hate this and think it’s interference and micro-management but I enjoyed a team effort.

Of course, he was only allowed to look through the viewfinder. In those days, the union was very strict and no one but a cameraman could operate a camera.

Even though, it was only a two day trip, this young reporter made a huge impression on me. Years later, I was transferred to Europe and worked with Peter in trouble spots like Teheran, Beirut, Belfast, and many others.

Covering the war or conflict was often difficult and delicate and Peter managed to do it well. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Peter and part of the crew stayed at a kibbutz on the Israel side. Every day, we would drive across the border to East Beirut for a few hours while Peter did his reports. I asked him why he didn’t just stay in Beirut like the other correspondents and he told me that he was unpopular in both countries—the Israelis and the Lebanese would complain about his reports.

He asked me my opinion, and I said, “It’s a good sign that you’re reporting from the right position. You’re fair and not leaning towards either side. People are watching your report seriously. That’s why you were criticized by both side. It was a rather good remark that you’re a great journalist, I think.”

(Peter near Bien Hoa circa 1966 – courtesy Don North)

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I was not completely sure he understood what I was trying to say to him.

When Peter was based in London as the chief foreign correspondent and overseas anchorman, he was still a heavy smoker but was always trying to stop or at least cut back. He would do this by not buying any cigarettes but then he usually ended up bumming smokes from other reporters or the crews. He finally did stop smoking but, during the emotional coverage of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, he began again. When he developed lung cancer, it took his life very quickly. I wrote him a “get well” note and said I regretted giving him cigarettes for so many years but he had already passed away before he received it.

I regret that I wasn’t able to get Peter’s thoughts and memories about Vietnam for this book. We were both working in New York so I always thought there would be plenty of time.

Sadly, there wasn’t.

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The Vietnamese

  1. Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s book, 

    “On the Frontlines of the Television War” 

    that had to be cut out at the last minute.)

    One day, I was in a taxi in Saigon and the young driver started to talk to me in what turned out to be quite good English. He explained that he was only driving a cab temporarily while he prepared to go to college. After he learned that I was from Japan, he said, “If there were three people in a competition, an American, a Japanese, and a Vietnamese, the Vietnamese would have an equal chance of winning. Now, if the competition was between teams: three Japanese, three Americans, and three Vietnamese, the Vietnamese wouldn’t have a chance.”

    I asked “Why?”

    He explained that his personal opinion was that the basic nature of the Vietnamese people will always prevent them from success. The country is essentially divided into three parts, inhabited by three very different types of people, and they have never gotten along. Even without the Americans or the Chinese or the French, the Vietnamese would fight among themselves, and it was impossible for them to cooperate.

    Other Vietnamese friends said that it was the French who understood this essential division of the Vietnamese and used it in a “divide and conquer” strategy to keep them a colony. They’d run the nation as three provinces: Tonkin in the North, Annam in the Center, and Cochinchina in the South. There was continuous competition and feuding between the regions, different religions, and different customs. So long as the Vietnamese continued to quarrel among themselves, the French didn’t have to worry about them uniting to throw them out. It worked for about 100 years until Ho Chi Minh created a united front after the Second World War.

    (Dang Van Minh in Front, Tony Hirashiki in back)

    However, the Vietnamese have kept these divisions alive long after the French departed. The people in the North saw the Southerners as lazy and too easy-going and in turn, the people around Saigon thought those ruled by Hanoi were smart but greedy. The people of the Center thought they were clearly the smartest and, if not, the beautiful city of Huế, for a long time the imperial capital of Vietnam, had the most beautiful women. In private—or in anger—they called each other names based on the food they consumed which made sense since the entire nation loved food and were known as the gourmet people. Northerners loved to eat a particular vegetable, a type of spinach named Rau mồng tơi, and so, that’s what they were called. Of course, it was also one of the few things that very poor Vietnamese could buy so it also meant “dirt poor.” People from the Central region cooked with a very hot pepper called “ớt hiếm” which means “dangerous” or “rare” chili so the were known as “ớt,” and in the Southern Delta, people love bean sprouts or “giá đậu” so they are known as “giá.” This can also mean “price” or “haggle.” Most of these names weren’t serious insults, just the sort of thing you’d say in jest like an American might call someone a “city slicker.” In Saigon, there were so many people that all types ended up mixed together.

    No one who has ever been in Vietnam, or at least in Vietnam and not on a frontline, can forget the wonderful rice noodle soup from the North that’s called “Phở Bo” when it’s made with beef and “Phở Ga” when it has chunks of chicken. Interestingly, it’s a street food that was only invented around 1925 but the Vietnamese have now spread it around the world. In the Central region, people make a spicy and yeasty rice vermicelli soup with beef & pork together and named after the old capital “bún bò Huế. ” The Southerner have their own noodle dishes, some with lots of seafood, another called “hủ tiếu” which has different types of meat all mixed on top of flat noodles and has spread to Cambodia, Singapore and even Thailand. Even if they might not like each other all that much, Vietnamese all enjoy food, no matter where it came from originally

    The Vietnamese might all look and sound alike to foreigners but they can easily recognize each other by the way they talk because each area has a different dialect and accents. Oddly, no matter where they are, singers always perform with a Northern accent unless they are doing traditional folk songs. I asked my friends why but they just shrugged and said it had always been that way. I guess the Northern accent just is better for singing and broadcasting much like in America where I’ve noticed that very few reporters or anchors have a strong Southern accent.

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