On the Frontlines of the Television War:
A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam
By Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki; Terry Irving, ed.
Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2017, 365 pp.
Reviewed by Eddith Dashiell Ohio University
Previous histories about the media coverage of the Vietnam War have focused primarily on the print reporters, television correspondents, and still photographers. On the Frontlines of the Television War, however, is the story of Vietnam as seen through the eyes of a non-American, non-English-speaking television cameraman who filmed images that were watched by millions of Americans in the comfort and safety of their living rooms—images that made Vietnam the first “television war.”
Originally published in his native language of Japanese in 2008, “On the Frontlines” is the English version of Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s memoir of the ten years he spent in Vietnam working as a cameraman for ABC News. Editor Terry Irving points out that “On the Frontlines” is not designed to be a definitive record of what Hirashiki witnessed while in Vietnam, but instead an “extraordinarily observant man’s record of a very complicated period and the men and women who tried to present it honestly and truthfully” (Editor’s Note).
Hirashiki arrived in Vietnam from Japan in 1966 with his 16-mm camera, his Japanese-English dictionary, and no job. After working three months as a freelance cameraman, ABC hired him, and “Tony” soon became his battle nickname because it took too long for reporters to say “Yasutsune” during a firefight. Using his collection of reporters’ scripts, caption sheets, telexes, memos, and letters, along with archival photos and recollections from his war-correspondent colleagues, Hirashiki vividly describes the stories he covered as he, along with other photographers and reporters, crouched next to the American soldiers while under heavy machine-gun fire and exploding grenades. Hirashiki also worked with ABC correspondents as they searched for compelling stories that went beyond the “bang-bang” images and showed American soldiers as humans and not just “brave action heroes” (p. 65).
In addition to the obvious challenge of staying safe during enemy attacks, Hirashiki shares other obstacles that he faced as a Vietnam-era cameraman being unable to speak proper English (or Vietnamese); being so short that he had to practically run to keep up with troops on a march; keeping his camera dry when it rained; taking care of himself while out in the field because the soldiers were not there to babysit him, and choosing to put an extra roll of film in his backpack instead of an extra can of food. Hirashiki describes himself as being a one-hundred-percent combat cameraman who did not concern himself with the bigger picture of the Vietnam War:
“Focusing on doing my job well—capturing the images, watching thefocus and the exposure, worrying about how much film I had left, all of thiskept me distanced from the horror that surrounded me” (p. 62).
But that focus did not completely shield Hirashiki from the horrors of the war. His strongest and most compelling chapters recount the deaths of his ABC colleagues Sam Kai Faye and Terry Khoo, who were killed in a North Vietnamese ambush in July 1972, and the chaotic evacuation of the ABC bureau staff and their families during the fall of Saigon in 1975.
On the Frontlines also provides an informal history of ABC TV when its news division was still in its infancy. He writes about his professional relationships and friendships with various ABC news correspondents, such as Ken Gale, Roger Peterson, Drew Pearson, Ron Miller, Ken Kashiwahara, and Ted Koppel.
Because of Hirashiki’s limited English-language skills, it took him eight years to write the English version of On the Frontlines of the Television War. Even with Irving’s editing, certain aspects of Hirashiki’s account of his war experiences still get lost in translation, but those occasional language gaps do not detract from his sensitive, honest, and entertaining story about the soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam and the reporters and photographers who were on the frontlines with them to record their stories.
On the Frontlines would be a good addition to any historian’s bookshelf for research or as a supplemental text in a course. Most American journalists, photographers, and camera crews sent to Vietnam focused primarily on the winners or losers of a particular battle and daily body counts. Hirashiki takes a more humanistic approach to his personal account of the Vietnam War.
According to Ted Koppel, who wrote the foreword: “Tony was an Asian observer of the war and its victims, capable of viewing both with an objectivity and compassion that gave equal weight to the Vietnamese experience”