Part II—The End of a War
Second of a two-part series — Part I
Tony Mariano came to Vietnam as a teenager to be with his Father, ABC-TV journalist Frank Mariano. Tony finished high school in Saigon and often worked as a sound technician and field producer with network news crews and, as the war came to a close, he was sent to Manila during the massive air and sea evacuation of South Vietnam where he played a pivotal role in transmitting reports of The Fall of Saigon nation’s collapse to the world.
War correspondents are nothing short of heroic as depicted in "Escape from Saigon - a Novel". This is the story of the price one pays to grow up in a family where journalism, and the story, comes first.
Tony Mariano in his words
We were surrounded by total destruction of the buildings especially at the Citadel City of Quang Tri.
The images of dozens of amputees and burn victims stayed with me as we continued up to Hue, Quang Tri, Quang Ngai, and finally to the DMZ at Dong Ha. There I saw thousands of NVA soldiers across the Dong Ha river in tents, washing clothes, and hanging around as loudspeakers blared their propaganda and music with the same happening on our side of the river as a few ARVN soldiers stood calmly by their .30 and .50 caliber gun mounts in small towers along the snaking waterway.
Along the way north we stopped at the exact spot where ABC News cameraman Terry Khoo had been killed by a sniper from a “spider trap” hiding space while filing a story the year before. Meanwhile, it was becoming abundantly clear that the suits at ABC News in New York felt the Vietnam story was basically over despite my father’s vehement objections to the contrary.
The network executives figured a cease-fire was in place, all the American troops and POW’s had been returned home and peaceful elections were going to be held in the future. New York increasingly rejected ] story suggestions and then finally the word came: Dad was ordered to close ABC’s bureau on July 14th, 1974. He was beyond flabbergasted as CBS and NBC and the wire services among others remained open with the equipment. It was a big blow to him and his staff, which he had come to admire and respect over the years.
Nonetheless, we packed up our things and through the tears and anxiety we said our “So longs! Good luck!” but not goodbye as it was almost too much to bear. We arrived in Hong Kong in mid-August and moved into a 21-story apartment building on Victoria Peak overlooking the harbor and Kai Tak Airport.
Dad continued working for ABC, this time shuttling between the ABC bureau in New Mercury house and Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Jim Bennett and others. But my father had become a pariah with the network. After his eight and half years fighting, working, living, loving and covering the war in South Vietnam he had gotten too close to the story and lost his professional objectivity. He even proposed chartering a helicopter to help former ABC employees get out of the country but the executives in New York, turned him down in no uncertain terms—adding that if he tried it on his own he would be fired and sent back to the states.
Ken Kashiwahara replaced my father in 1974 and Canadian journalist Hillary Brown was assigned to cover the impact of the US Congress starving South Vietnam of the funds it needed to survive. Nixon and Kissinger became my father’s nemeses and dad seethed with anger and clenched fist over how Nixon manipulated President Thieu to delay action so he could win the 1972 election. He was even more disgusted over Watergate.
In 1975, ABC’s Kevin Delany arrived in Saigon and became a savior by helping over 70 members of the ABC News family in escape as the enemy advanced and began its precipitous roll southward. The Central Highlands and Pleiku fell with thousands of refugees flooding the roads while the South Vietnamese army began a retreat which then turned into a full out run for their lives.
During South Vietnam’s final month of April 1975, I was in Hong Kong, Dad was covering events in Phnom Penh and Ann was in Saigon on assignment for Associated Press radio. She arrived right after the Operation Babylift C-5A Galaxy plane crashed with over 300 infants and accompanying adults on board including many from the Defense Attaché Office. The crash killed 138 people including 78 children among whom were friends of both Ann’s and Dad’s. Kashiwahara was already there covering the story when Ann arrived on scene. With in days, Dad was safely evacuated out of Phnom Penh with legendary cameraman Yatsune “Tony” Hirashiki and US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean on April 12th. They boarded the last chopper out of Phnom Penh and headed to an awaiting Marine helicopter carrier in the Gulf of Siam with our US Embassy flag neatly folded on Dean’s lap.
On April 29th the recording of Bing Crosby's White Christmas began playing over Armed Forces Radio which signaled the beginning of Operation Frequent Wind and the end for the remaining Americans, members of the press, staffs and families in Saigon to get to their prearranged pick-up points around the city to be flown off to the Navy's 7th fleet just offshore in the South China Sea. As the exodus was getting started, a call into the Hong Kong bureau's office from ABC News in New York and I was hired as a Field Producer to go to the Philippines with instructions to manage logistics for the network in Manila. My job: arrange and coordinate a satellite feed for ABC after picking up Ken Kashiwahara at the US Navy base in Subic Bay.
I also was told to cover the first evacuee allowed off the USS Blue Ridge. The TV station was ready and I got word the chief enlisted man had left the ship and I was on my way. I scrambled to an awaiting helicopter at the station and I took a quick flight to Subic Bay to meet Ed Bradley of CBS News who had drawn the lucky short straw for this assignment. The first thing he did was to hand me very heavy Navy duffle bag. It was stuffed with every piece of raw film from every news agency covering the evacuation and mass exodus out to the Navy fleet. The recorded history of the end of an era was in my hands and I it was my responsibility to get it back to New York as quickly as possible for distribution, processing and broadcast. By now I had gone for over three days without sleep as New York and Manila were 12 hours apart I had to work around the clock. I finally was able to find a courier to take the film with him from Manila to New York.
Once we were back at the TV station, we processed 200 feet of 16mm film Ken had shot and selected for his fast-approaching satellite broadcast. Although Ken was obviously very tired he thoughtfully penned his script as the film was processed and converted to video tape. Ken did his voice over to narrate the images. All that was left was to wait for either the PanSat or TeleSat communication satellites to pass overhead. We all watched and listened to Ken’s harrowing tale of chaos, tears, anger and relief during the last moments of our involvement in Vietnam. We all feared for those who either decided to stay or were left behind. All Ken wanted to do now was to get back home to Hong Kong, his family and get some sleep. So I drove him to the airport and when we got to customs he was asked why his entry visa stamp was missing from his passport. He told them he didn’t have one because he had just been evacuated from Saigon by helicopter. We then had to run over to the Foreign Minister’s office to get Ken squared away with his papers and get him on the next flight.
While the advancing NVA were shelling Tan Son Nhut on a regular basis during their march toward the city, Ann gathered her
things into a small case, and boarded the bus to be flown out of the airfield on the morning of the 29th before it became too dangerous. I had returned to Hong Kong on May 1st and slept for the next 24 hours. We were soon reunited with my father, Ann and my sisters again.
When ABC asked my father to interview Hillary Brown about the reporting she did during the last days in Saigon, dad refused to do so saying in part that the story which had consumed him over such a long time was his to tell but not hers.
We then left Hong Kong to arrive in Los Angeles. Dad had gone from being a freelance stringer to bureau chief and was now relegated to doing what he called “Mickey Mouse” stories for ABC at KTLA-TV. Of the more than 3,000 accredited members of the press who covered the Vietnam War, many found themselves in similar situations as my Dad’s or unemployed and unable to find work during the post-war recession. My father realized it was time for him to move on again so he left KTLA to become a teaching fellow at Harvard's JFK School of Government the next semester. He focused on the Vietnam War and the media and addressed the important question of the time: Could our nation ever be able to effectively engage in future conflicts with an unfettered, free press recording it for all to read, listen to and watch?
While in Cambridge, he thought he was having a heart attack, which is what killed his father 11 years earlier. But it was pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart sac, so his doctor prescribed aspirin to treat it as it was the only anti-inflammatory medication available at the time.
Following Harvard, Dad went to Washington, DC in June and found he was unemployed for the first time in his life. But a few days after watching the bicentennial July 4th celebration in our nation’s capital he came down with a fever. I drove him to George Washington Hospital to meet with his cardiologist Dr. Michael Halberstam who happened to be David Halberstam’s brother - the author of a seminal book on Vietnam - “The Best and the Brightest.” Dad would go into the ICU after a procedure to relieve the pressure squeezing his heart. 5 weeks later he died from complications at 45 years old August 8th, 1976…41 years ago.
He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery with honors and joined only six years later he was followed by his Vietnamese daughter, our sister, Jane Katherine "Buttons" Mariano. AAnn Bryan Mariano continued her career as a writer and reporter with The Washington Post and remarried in 1995 to Robert E. McKay. She passed away in February 2009 at 76 in Belmont, Massachusetts of complications from Alzheimer’s disease and joined by her widower Robert this year at 91. My dear sister Anna, who now goes by Mai, lives with her husband and teenage daughter in Columbus, Ohio. I work in the culinary and hospitality industry in Pebble Beach, California where I recently married my second wife and have two adult children from my first marriage.