(When it came to finding a publisher for
we had to cut savagely into
Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s
original 175,000-word manuscript.
Here’s another book segment
the way we originally edited it.)
Date: April 27, 1966
Place: ABC News bureau on the 6th floor of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon.
“How do you do, sir? I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Yasutsune Hirashiki—just arrived from Japan.”
Well, my initial greeting went very well. I shouldn’t have been surprised—after all I’d been practicing it for days.
The man with the mustache gave me a smile and a handshake. His name was Jack O’Grady, the bureau chief for ABC News Saigon. He wasn’t all that tall, just a bit taller than an average Japanese.
“Welcome to Vietnam! New York told me you were coming. They said you were a damn good cameraman.”
He went on to tell me that he’d screened the demo reel of film clips that I’d sent to New York weeks ago and that he was struck by the creativeness of my photography.
That sounded good.
“I’m ready to work, sir. When shall I start?” I said.
“Well, this week is very quiet, so why don’t you check with us next week?” He replied.
What? I hadn’t expected that. Did he just say that I didn’t have a job this week but I might have a job next week. But only if it was busy?
I was sure he was mistaken. I had a letter from Jack Bush, the executive in New York who hired camera crews around the world for ABC. He had very clearly said that I should quit my job at a Japanese local TV station and fly to Vietnam where a job was waiting for me.
This is what I’d wanted for years. I quit the news cameraman job where I’d spent the past ten years, packed up everything I owned, and came to Saigon to join ABC News—one of the mighty American News Networks.
Clearly, this O’Grady fellow hadn’t gotten the message.
I hadn’t practiced this speech but I believe my English was very clear. “Mr. O’ Grady, I was hired by New York as Saigon bureau cameraman. According to New York’s instructions, I quit my job at a Japanese TV station, and come here to work.” I said.
Mr. O’Grady patiently listened to my terrible English and said, “Show me the letter.”
I gave it to him. He read it, smiled, and said, “Look at this line.”
He then ran his finger along the line of incomprehensible English words as he carefully read them to me. “It says that you will have a chance if you go to Saigon but there the word ‘hired’ isn’t in here. We will give you a chance. Come back and check next week. If it’s busy and we need a cameraman, we’ll send you on an assignment and you’ll have a chance to show us your work.”
I was in shock. He was right! Being Japanese, I had translated the letter with a dictionary and only paid attention to what I thought was the important parts of the letter.
Quit. Go to Saigon. Have a chance.
I truly thought that “have a chance” was the same as “you’ll be hired.” What else could it mean? Did New York really think I would leave a good job, say goodbye to everyone I knew, and go off to a war zone with no guarantee of a steady job?
Well, apparently, that was exactly what they’d thought.
Why shouldn’t they? It’s exactly what I did.
I began to berate myself. “Yasutsune, your parents and teachers are right. You are hasty, impetuous, and absentminded and that’s why you always make big mistakes in your life! You don’t take the time to be sure of things! Now you’ve really gone and done it. All you have is $700 and a 16-millimeter film camera. No return ticket. No other job. No place to stay. What are you going to do?”
First, I thanked Jack O’Grady and said I would check in next week. I tried to make sure that he couldn’t tell how much trouble I was in. I walked out of the hotel in a daze and stood on the sidewalk trying to figure out what to do. If I was very careful, I could live in Vietnam for three months without a job. After that, I would have to sell the camera I’d saved so long to buy, and that would give me enough to buy a ticket home.
My boss at the Japanese TV station had told me I could come back if it didn’t work out. What a nice boss I’d had, compared to this mustachioed American guy!
Even so, I couldn’t just go back to my old job. I’d told everyone what a big job I was getting and everyone was jealous of my being able to cover the biggest story there was—the War in Vietnam. They’d even given me a big farewell party! People came to the airport to see me off! I couldn’t just give up and go back. I’d never live it down.
I really didn’t have a choice so I decided to give it a try. I figured that there wasn’t all that much difference between a freelancer and a staffer. If I was really good, I’d get as many assignments as a staff cameraman.
OK, right at that moment, I didn’t feel like it but I had to hold tight to the knowledge that I really was a good shooter. I had done well at the local TV station in Osaka, Japan. My boss there once told me that I would become a good cameraman and, even better, a good journalist in the near future if I kept working as hard as I was.
In the ten years, I worked there, I had learned about “news.” I learned, for example, that when a dog bites a man it’s not “news,” but when a man bites a dog, that’s “news.” I was lucky to start in 1956, right at the dawn of the era of television news, and my teachers were old newsreel cameramen and former newspaper reporters who, from the beginning, drilled into me how to shoot and, more importantly, what to shoot. When I was an assistant and usually only allowed to carry a tripod or a stepladder, not a camera, one of my teachers suggested to me that I should go to the movie theater to watch newsreels like “Movietone News” or “Warner-Pathe News.” So that’s what I did, and American newsreels became my teachers as well. I believed that the Japanese way of covering news was pretty much the same as the American way since Japan was increasingly becoming influenced by American culture and this included keeping tabs on the broadcasting business and technology in the States.
We began using camera gear and film made in the US and we were so excited the first time that my company had bought the US made Ampex video tape machines. I also remember when my former company, the Mainichi Broadcasting company (MBS), had its first test satellite broadcast between the US and Japan, and we anxiously waited for the first test picture to come via satellite between New York and Osaka, from ABC News to our station. The first pictures and news had shocked us—it was the news of President Kennedy’s assassination—No reporter was currently in New York except for our representative, Jiro Maeda, who was based there as a bureau representative. The other Japanese reporters were all either following the President’s campaign or based in Washington D.C. Jiro Maeda had worked as an announcer before so he quickly pounced on the situation and reported the tragedy through the first test satellite broadcasting. It was an exclusive and everyone in Japan watched the biggest news of the century through the first satellite broadcast.
Of course, actually joining one of the American networks was a big jump. I wasn’t completely certain that I would make it but I had to try at the very least. I had the chance and, I told myself, I was good enough to meet the challenge.
All good words but deep inside I felt like my stomach was tied in knots.
It was one of the worst days I’ve ever had but I finally calmed down and got to work. I rented a tiny room from one of the managers of a Japanese company for $50 a month and got something to eat. I was determined to make it.
The next day and every day after that, I dropped by the ABC bureau at least once just to say “Hello” as if I were a sales person. I thought it was important to have people remember my face. I’m sure that many of the people in the bureau were puzzled by the sight of me coming in without any real reason, just bowing, smiling and saying “Hello, here I am!”
Perhaps they did think I was ridiculous, I didn’t really mind because, after five mornings of silly visits and five of the world’s longest afternoons waiting for a phone call, I got my first assignment from ABC News.
I was told to go and cover the 1st Cavalry Division which was based in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I was to go there by myself, learn how things worked, figure out who to talk to, and then wait for a story. When there was a story, I was to film it, write up how it should be used, and send it to ABC News. I wouldn’t have a reporter—it was going to just be me, my camera, and my terrible English.
OK, it was clearly a tough test, not only of how far I could march or how I held my camera but of my creativity, journalism, and mental resilience. Fine, I was going in there and, by the end, they would know that I was one of the best combat cameramen anywhere.
So, it was a very important assignment for me. Besides, I couldn’t say “No.” If a freelancer turned down an assignment, it was a pretty good bet that he wasn’t going to get another.
Early one morning in the beginning of May, I set out for one of the 1st Cavalry’s base camp at An Khe. I was flying in on a military airplane out of Pleiku. To my surprise, Jack O’Grady himself woke up at 4 am to drive me to the Military Air Terminal.
I thought, do I have to change my mind about him? I thought he was just a tough and mean guy who wouldn’t give a kid a chance. Was it possible he was actually a nice guy? I decided to think about that later. After all this was my first assignment.
I had butterflies in my stomach like a baseball player getting his first chance at the Major Leagues.
An Khe, the headquarters of the 1st Air Cavalry, was located about midway between the coastal city of Quy Nhon and the highland city of Pleiku. It was a tiny village, but controlled a strategic portion of Vietnam’s Highway One9, one of the key east-west roads. When I arrived at Camp Radcliff, where the An Khe airfield was located, I was met by the Public Information Officer of the 1st Air Cavalry, Captain First Name? Hitchcock. I had wondered if he was related to the famous movie director, Alfred Hitchcock. Sadly, he was very tall and skinny—totally different in appearance compared to the director—so I guessed (without asking him) that he wasn’t related.
Captain Hitchcock led me into an enormous press tent and told me that, six months ago, the entire tent was packed with journalists during the Battle of Ia Drang—the first time that American forces went head-to-head with North Vietnamese Regular soldiers rather than local Viet Cong militia. The 1st Cavalry was the Army’s first air assault division—using helicopters of all sizes to move directly into contact with an enemy. You might have read the book about the brutal battle of Ia Drang, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, or seen the movie. Most soldiers called their unit the 1st Air Cavalry but their official name was the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile.)
The past few weeks, the 1st Cavalry hadn’t been making a lot of news so there were very few reporters in the press tent. To be precise, counting myself, there were only two. I asked the captain if I could go out on an operation if one was scheduled. He said that there was a small operation going on and I could go along with the other reporter if I liked.
He introduced me to Charles Black, a veteran newspaper reporter working for the Columbus Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia. He had a special interest because Fort Benning, the home base of the 1st Cavalry was in Columbus. Black, who was about 15 years older than I was, had been in the Marine Corps and fought in both World War II and Korea. Now, he was a respected war reporter who, armed with a typewriter, followed the “First Team” wherever they went. He was a well-known and popular reporter among soldiers because his articles were filled with their names, hometowns, details of their lives, and close attention to their time in combat. Back in the States, anxious families of 1st Cavalry soldiers read his reports word by word to be sure that their sons were all right. Some said that Charlie Black was the “Ernie Pyle” of the Vietnam War, referring to the legendary combat reporter who chronicled the ordinary soldiers of World War II until he was killed by enemy fire on Okinawa.
Captain Hitchcock was certainly correct when he said that this was a small operation. More accurately, it was planned to be little more than a jungle patrol. Helicopters would drop troops into the middle of the jungle one day and pick them up the next. It was perfect for a beginner like me.
So, the most-experienced war reporter went into the field side-by-side with the most-inexperienced television news cameraman. We came in on the helicopters and followed this small unit of the 1st Cavalry for two days—two days without a single sign of an enemy soldier.
Even without combat, I managed to learn the tricks of my trade. For one thing, it’s a good idea to bring something waterproof so you—and more importantly, your camera, can stay dry when it rains all night. I was soaking wet and desperately trying to keep my camera dry with a tiny piece of plastic when Black kindly let me sleep underneath his hammock, which was covered by a nice big poncho.
I thought that it was “dry season” in Vietnam. I learned very soon that we were operating in true rain forest with high trees and thick undergrowth. It rained all year around.
The next morning, when we had some spare time, Charles Black began to give me tips on how to cover a war. You could call it, “A Beginner’s Class for the Rookie War Reporter.” First off, I was wearing a bright white polo shirt which might as well have been a sign telling anyone with a rifle, “Shoot Here.” Everything else was green or brown and, not only would I be a perfect target, but I was putting everyone near me in danger as well. The proper clothes were green or khaki in color, and camouflage wasn’t the worst idea. I didn’t have to wear a military uniform but white or any other bright colors were out. The last thing that soldiers needed was some dumb journalist broadcasting their presence to the world.
Second, we were going to be walking through fields, jungle, and rice paddies so my running shoes were out. The soles didn’t have enough traction so I’d be skidding and falling in the mud. In addition, the trails were naturally covered with sharp sticks and branches and that didn’t even count the “punji stick” booby traps where the enemy would sharpen stakes, set them under leaves or other cover, and wait for stupid cameramen to step on them. Black told me that there were very nice sturdy army boots on the black market of any big town or city. As a matter of fact, if I shopped for boots, I’d find canteens, ponchos, blankets, knapsacks, and everything else I really needed.
Unwritten Law Number Three was that I had to take care of myself when I was in the field. The soldiers weren’t there to play nursemaid for a reporter, I was a barely-welcome guest at best and a pain at worst. I shouldn’t ask for food, water, or even a cigarette. The soldiers were carrying their own supplies and so should I.
Finally, one of the crucial aspects of combat reporting, according to Charles Black, was, “The coverage of war is a waiting game. It needs a lot of patience.”
I felt that I was incredibly lucky to have a legendary reporter take the time to teach me the ropes. I found out later from other reporters that Black would often teach newbies the rules and etiquette of war reporting and those newbies were considered very fortunate to get the advice. If you think about it, it’s not just a matter or safety but simple manners to treat soldiers as the professionals they are and not act like some whiney kid who expects to be taken care of. For one thing, the better you treated them, the better they’d treat you and you might get a story that a rude reporter wouldn’t even know about.
This time, there was no story for anyone and we got back to An Khe in the early afternoon of the second day. I had filmed a few scenes but nothing of interest so I didn’t send anything to Saigon.
After returning to the base, I was beat so I went to take a nap on a foldout cot in the press tent. Captain Hitchcock came by and told me about a big operation that was going to kick off the next day. It was called “OPERATION DAVY CROCKETT” and it would take place in the Bong Son Valley in the Binh Dinh province near the ocean in Central Vietnam. The staging area was a long way off, about 112 miles, and he warned me to be careful if I drove there because there had been ambushes along that stretch of road.
I double and triple-checked the spelling of the Operation. I knew that “Davy Crockett” was the name of a hero in Western Movies and, again, this shows how skillful Americans are with nicknames. When I was young, and the Americans were still occupying Japan, I can remember when they began giving the typhoons women’s names like Kitty or Jane.
To my surprise, the captain handed me a pair of tough military boots, a military uniform, and a poncho. Amazingly, they fit me because they were made for Vietnamese soldiers and so were slimmer and smaller than the average American uniform. I was grateful for these but a little confused because I hadn’t asked for anything. I think that Charles Black told the captain that this crazy, green Japanese cameraman needed a hand. However it came about, I was very thankful.
The next morning, May 3, 1966, I hitched a ride in Captain Hitchcock’s jeep and we drove to Bong Son with a convoy of tents, cots, desks, phones, and typewriters, all of which would be used for a press center at the staging area. If I had any doubt that this was going to be a big operation, an entire military convoy of supplies just for the reporters who were going to show up proved it.
We drove to the east coast on Highway One9, turned up to the north on Highway One, and reached the Bong Son valley. The journey took all day, military convoys don’t go all that fast, but fortunately there were no ambushes, in fact, no problems at all.
When we arrived at the assembly area, the captain immediate began to set up all the equipment for the press. He didn’t have anyone to help him so I helped erect the tents and set up the beds and we finished the press center before dark. As a reward, I got the bed nearest to the entrance which was the best place to sleep—if anything happened outside, you were the first out either to start filming or start running depending on what was going on.
It didn’t much matter because there wasn’t any competition for beds since I was the only journalist there. Charles Black had flown in on a helicopter with the 1st Cavalry and then followed them off to the front lines so, I was alone in the large press tent. I went to bed early because the captain had arranged for me to go with one of the units first thing in the morning—and “first thing” meant well before dawn.
I could hear the reverberation of big guns, and sometimes the sound of bombing. When it was so loud and long that I could feel the ground shaking as if we were having small earthquakes, I knew it was an ARC-LIGHT, the military term for a B-52 raid. As I drifted off to sleep, my last thoughts were that this certainly appeared to be one big search and destroy campaign.
The next day, I set off with the soldiers of the second battalion who were to cover the north flank of the tactical zone in Bong Son Valley. The Binh Dinh province had long been known as a stronghold of the National Liberation Front, or, as Westerners called them, the Viet Cong. In fact, Viet Cong was a quick way of saying “Viet Nam Communist” or “Communist Traitor to Vietnam” but most soldiers called any local militia Viet Cong or “VC” and called trained soldiers from North Vietnam either the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) or the PAVN (People’s Army of Viet Nam.)
The soldiers of the 1st Cavalry wore uniforms with an embroidered patch on their sleeve that was yellow with a silhouette of a black horse on with the torso of a black horse. This was to remind them that, when the unit was initially formed in 1923, they rode horses although the horses were history by the time they served in the Pacific during World War II and Korea. By the time they arrived in Vietnam, they were “Airmobile” and used helicopters to carry troops to the battlefield, bring in weapons and artillery, carry out the wounded and attack the enemy from the sky. Just to make things more confusing for someone with as little English as I do, the 1st Air Cavalry Division was also made up of the 5th, 7th, 8th, and 12th Calvary regiments. I hope that veterans will excuse me if my confusion at the time and my memory all these years later brings mistakes—no offense is meant.
Horses or helicopters, the first day they were walking. We crossed rice paddies and footpaths, and climbed up and down hills. The fields were beautiful, with tiny white and yellow flowers looking like stars in the sky. I filmed low angle shots of the soldier’s boots against the flowers.
I was taught a new word that day. “Contact” means to run into the enemy and, almost inevitably, to fight with them. If there was heavy fighting, it was “heavy contact.” If there was only a skirmish, it was “light contact.”
Today, there was “no contact.”
That night, we camped on a high hill. I found a large rock and set up my little camp behind it so it would shelter me if something happened. It was a cool and comfortable night with a clear sky so all the stars shone as if we were in a planetarium and not in the middle of a war. There wasn’t a moon so I went to sleep looking at the stars.
Somewhere around midnight, I was awakened by the crack and nasty zing of small arms fire. The enemy was firing from the bottom of the hill and I could see the red streaks of tracer bullets. I stayed behind my stone as several shots passed so close that I could hear their sound—like a mechanical and very angry bee. The Americans set off parachute flares and it was bright as day all around us. They immediately began to to pour rifle fire towards the bottom of the hill.
I wasn’t a soldier, I was a cameraman and all I could think was that it was like a beautiful movie scene with fireworks. I tried filming when the flares ignited but, even then, I knew it was too dark to capture any detail on the film. Eventually, I lay down behind my rock and watched the sky where the stars had been joined by stray bullets and flares. I began to question why I was here, lying and watching flying bullets. I thought about my friends and family back in Japan, and felt a some regret about leaving all that and coming to Vietnam. I thought and I watched the stars and the fireworks of war and I fell asleep. In the morning, one of the soldiers told me that the fighting had gone on all night but I’d slept right through it. It’s strange but I guess you can get used to anything—even a pitched battle.
The second day was quite a different story. The fighting had begun early in the morning as the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry surrounded a village (I believe it was Binh De) which their intelligence had said was a VC base. I could see as soldiers began to approach the village and heavy weapons fire erupted. The soldiers immediately called in air support, American jets began to bomb Binh De, and soon we could see heavy black smoke and then flames and the village burned.
An agitated and frightened water buffalo came running out of the village very fast and heading right for us. I followed it with my camera, and filmed as the buffalo was shot just before it reached our position. Moments later, refugees came running from the village—old men, women, and children. An old grandmother pointed back at the burning village and angrily berated the American soldiers. I would have liked to know what she was saying but I suppose it was pretty clear. My unit was ordered to move into the village but all the enemy soldiers were gone. In fact, they might well have left before the air strikes began. No one in the unit I was with could tell me.
I had plenty of action footage for the first day’s report on OPERATION DAVY CROCKETT so I got on a helicopter and flew back to the base camp in the early afternoon. The press center at base camp was filled with newsmen who had come in from Saigon. There were not enough beds, but mine was still reserved, even thought there were famous journalists looking to claim it. Captain Hitchcock was an extremely fair guy.
Beds were fine but the primary reason for a press center is telephones. The military telephone circuit was called the “tiger line.” If you were lucky, you could get through to the ABC office in Saigon and, if you were extremely lucky, you’d get through in minutes instead of hours. That day, I was extremely lucky and reached Jack O’Grady in less than ten minutes.
“Where have you been? Why didn’t you contact us?” He was shouting and angry. I could only guess that it was because I hadn’t contacted him for four days. I hadn’t tried to get through because I didn’t think I should bother him when I didn’t have anything to ship and the rest of the time I was in the field.
I tried to explain, “I’m here at Bong Son, sir! I followed a new operation, ‘Davy Crockett’. I filmed some action. Shall we send it, sir?”
O’Grady didn’t seem to believe what I was saying although the possibility is that he just couldn’t understand what I was saying. Finally, Captain Hitchcock took the phone and explain that not only was I unable to call Saigon because I was too busy shooting the operation but that I was the only cameraman out there shooting an extremely big military operation.
When I got back on the phone, Mr. O’Grady’s voice was gentle and his mood seemed to be much improved. Apparently, the Saigon press corps had only been told about OPERATION DAVY CROCKETT at last night’s press briefing and correspondent Roger Peterson had left to cover the story with a camera crew this morning. He told me to give my film to Roger and then head back to Saigon.
While I was waiting for Roger and his crew, I borrowed a typewriter from the Captain and typed up a list in English of all the pictures I’d shot during today’s action. I believe I spelled most things correctly but “Davy Crockett” wasn’t in my Japanese-English dictionary. Roger didn’t seem to mind when he arrived in the mid-afternoon with Ron Headford, an Australian cameraman. He was very happy with my list and said it would really help in his first report on the battles.
It wasn’t an “exclusive” because Charles Black was also reporting but I did have the only camera footage. I hoped to see Black again but I was told that when he was out with the troops, he never came back to the base camp. I regret that I didn’t get the chance to see him again. but I know I was really lucky to meet and learn from this great war correspondent, especially on my first assignment in Vietnam.
When I got back to Saigon, I found that the bureau chief and the New York executives were actually quite happy with how I’d done on my first time out and I got another assignment for the next day.
I was a real war cameraman!
After one day’s rest, I went back to Bong Son to continue covering OPERATION DAVY CROCKETT. This time, I wasn’t alone but working with the bureau chief, Jack O’Grady. As soon as we went out with an Airborne unit, I realized that this was his first time covering the war in the field. He was having a hard time keeping up with the soldiers, so I paid attention to be sure that he didn’t fall behind and, at one point, I even carried his knapsack.
I thought, well, he had already given me a chance and a job, so why not pay him back with a little help in a tough situation? Other journalists on the march, friends of his from the Saigon press corps, were making fun of how weak he was, and saying he’d spent too long behind a desk. That didn’t seem fair, everyone had trouble on their first assignment to a battlefield. Some people might have thought I was just trying to impress the bureau chief but, in fact, I was worried that he would get heat stroke under the blazing sun. I would have helped anyone in that situation and often did.
I’ve noticed over the years that difficult situations often bring people closer. In the afternoon of the second day, during a break at the field, we were all sitting on the ground and Mr. O’Grady turned to me and quite seriously told me not to stop calling him “Mr. O’Grady.” “Jack” would be just fine. This was a bit of problem for me because it’s this is a violation of manners Japanese children are taught all their lives. We don’t call our boss, or any older man, by their first name. I offered to compromise and call him “Jack-san” out of respect. He said he was OK with that and that’s what I did for the rest of our time in Vietnam.
Jack then gave me an assignment, speaking English at all times and all places—even in conversations with Japanese friends. I knew he was trying to make me learn the language, which isn’t easy, and I tried my best from then on. In fact, later on that same story, I met a very brave Japanese war photographer named Bunyo Ishikawa who had been covering the war as a freelancer since 1965 and would become a good friend. That first conversation however, I think that Ishikawa thought I’d been touched by the sun or driven a little crazy by the stress because he would talk to me in Japanese and I would answer in pidgin English. The real reason was that I knew Jack was watching and listening to me nearby.
Later, when Jack had walked away, I quickly explained in Japanese why I could only speak to him in English. He was relieved that I wasn’t crazy and said, in Japanese, that it was a good way to learn English.
During the assignment, Jack and I had a chance to ride in an observer plane—a very small, old propeller airplane, probably a Cessna. It was the same kind that I used to use when I’d be assigned to film aerial scenes back in Japan with my backup camera, the Bell and Howell 16mm. It was a good choice for filming aerial scenes because it had the ability to change the shutter speed to slow motion which would minimize the shakiness of the vibrating airplane. It was a truly excellent camera and I loved using it, I’d even covered the first run of a Japanese bullet train with it long before I came to Vietnam.
The observation plane would fly very low and slow over the jungle, searching for enemy positions, and mark the location for attack jets who would then make a bombing run. Their pilots were brave but not stupid, they’d find the enemy, and then move away and let the big planes come in. This way I got a great platform to film an aerial battle—Phantom jets and propeller-driven Skyraiders diving and bombing their targets with both explosive and napalm bombs. It was vivid and dramatic, but also frightening and very bumpy as the small plane dove in and out to plant smoke bombs on the targets. Jack and I both almost got airsick but managed to keep our food in our stomachs until we were back on the ground.
New York was impressed with our unusual footage, and sent a complimentary telex to Jack O’Grady. The way it worked was that, if you did a good job, got fresh material, and, most importantly, beat the other networks, New York would send a nice telex that was known as a “herogram” or an “attaboy.” Of course, if the film was shaky or out of focus and especially if the other networks had something we didn’t get, the telex was quite nasty. These were known as “rockets” and came out of New York a lot more often than “herograms.” Jack was pleased because he’d gotten praise for his first field assignment. I was very happy that, in less than two weeks on the job, I already had two “herograms” without a single “rocket.” With any luck, it would help move me from freelancer to full-time staff.
Jack left for Saigon that evening but I stayed until the operation was over. When I got back to the press center at An Khe, I called Saigon through the “tiger line.” This time, I got Bob Lukeman who was the assistant bureau chief and assignment manager.
He started out sounding like I was in trouble, “What are you doing there? The operation is over. Come back to Saigon as soon as possible!” and then switched to praise, “By the way, you did a very nice job!”
I was a little confused by this combination of praise and criticism but I soon got used to it. It’s just part of the way desk people always talk.
When I got back to Saigon and reported to the bureau, Jack gave me a firm handshake and showed me the telex he’d gotten from New York. It wasn’t very long but it was nice to read:
O’Grady’s operation report was excellent.
The next day, I received my own “herogram.” It was a bit longer:
“Mr. Hirashiki’s pictures were excellent; had good composition, good close ups, and captured exciting scenes.
ABC Telex May 17 1966
It was from Jack Bush, the same man who had suggested that if I quit my job in Japan and simply went to Vietnam, I would have a “chance” at a job. I was extremely happy at the compliments and then I became depressed as I read the rest of the message because he added that I needed to improve my technical proficiency because some of the picture were over-exposed. Wow, those guys in New York were tough!
Both Jack O’Grady and Bob Lukeman laughed and told me that NY telexes always found something to complain about. On the other hand, they said that the telegram was a good sign for my future, and told me to keep up the good work.
Now my position was firmer than before. I was, at least, consistently getting freelance jobs from ABC News. I’d only been in Saigon for three weeks and I’d already earned over five hundred dollars. I’d almost doubled my tiny savings so, with my frugal lifestyle, this meant that, even without another assignment, I could stay another six months.
I’d passed the first test.