The Collapse of Kabul and Afghanistan Brings Back Haunting Memories for Retired Journalist
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s Note: The content of this article includes Ken Kashiwahara’s personal traumatic accounts of the Vietnam War. There for it may contain language triggers for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, including graphic language and descriptions of graphic situations.
Watching the constant video images that were broadcast continuously on cable news during the five-day collapse of Kabul and Afghanistan in mid-August, and the gut-wrenching scenes of refugees desperately trying to flee, it wasn’t hard to recall the fall of Saigon nearly half century ago.
Despite the rejection by America’s top diplomat on political Sunday TV shows — to any parallels between the scenes of confusion and frustration at the Kabul airport and the humiliating evacuation of Saigon in 1975 — the comparison of the rapid collapse of a regime and the crush of refugees hoping to flee to America persists.
“This is manifestly not Saigon,” said U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to ABC’s This Week. “We went into Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission in mind, and that was to deal with the people who attacked us on 9/11, and that mission has been successful.”
The skies over the Afghan capital were filled with Chinooks and Black Hawks carrying U.S. embassy staff to the Kabul airport. The Taliban had doubled its territorial hold of the country in three months and toppled Afghanistan’s elected government in a day. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country from Kabul’s international airport which was named after his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Instead of Vietnam era Army UH-60 Huey, and Navy CH-53 Sea Stallion and CH 46 Sea Knight helicopters, it was Army CH-47 Chinooks buzzing the skies of Kabul and massive C-17 jet cargo planes with frenzied refugees clinging to its side and wheel as it taxed down the runway and took off.
On April 29, 1975, Dutch photographer Hubert van Es captured the iconic image of South Vietnamese trying to board a CIA Air American UH-60 Huey helicopter from the roof of Saigon’s CIA headquarters.
Among the last journalist to leave Saigon was Kaua‘i native and then- ABC Emmy award winning correspondent Ken Kashiwahara, who was among the first Asian American broadcast journalists to appear on national television.
Kashiwahara was born in Waimea, Kaua‘i, but his family moved to Okinawa when he was 10 and later to Pennsylvania and finally Maryland where he graduated from high school. He returned to Hawai‘i to attend the University of Hawai‘i but transferred to San Francisco College to pursue a degree in broadcasting.
During the Vietnam War, Kashiwahara served as an Air Force public affairs officer at Tan San Nhut Air Base where he remembers during a rocket attack on his base, he made sure he wore his Air Force blue uniform to ensure he wouldn’t be mistaken for the enemy. He returned to Hawai‘i in 1969 and was hired by KHVH owner Bob Berger. He moved to KGMB TV in 1971 to join Bob Sevey covering politics and anchoring the 10 o’clock news.
In 1972, Kashiwahara was hired by KABC in Los Angeles and moved to the ABC news bureau two years later which led to an assignment in Vietnam. That was followed by three years as Hong Kong bureau chief covering stories such as the death of Mao Tse Tung, Chou En Lai, exile of Deng Xio Peng and boatloads of refugees fleeing Vietnam. He has covered the civil war in Beirut and the Filipino parliamentary elections in 1978 where he met his wife, Lupita Aquino.
Haunting Memories of Vietnam
Kashiwahara has described his escape from Saigon “the most terrifying experience that I’ve gone through.”
While Kabul was in the midst of a botched, chaotic evacuation during the week of Aug. 16, Kashiwahara, in an email with several Honolulu journalists whom he had covered the State Capital and island politics within the late 1960s and early-1970s, shared his experiences caught up in the pandemonium of people who were trying desperately to flee Saigon and the North Vietnamese Communist troops. Especially harrowing are his memories of a South Vietnamese father, who was trying to give his baby to someone on the bus but tripped and the child was run over by the vehicle.
Earlier in the month, Kashiwahara covered the crash of a Galaxy C-5 jet which had been carrying Vietnamese baby orphans in “Operation Babylift.” Seventy-eight infants died that day, April 4, 1975, and he ended his report: “And so a journey that began with so much hope for so many ends very tragically.” Eventually, 3,000 orphans were airlifted to safety.
Twenty-five days later on April 29, Kashiwahara was on an U.S. embassy bus of journalists, who spent four hours fighting the traffic and the mobs trying to get to a helicopter evacuation site at Tan Son Nhut Air Base and then to the harbor to find a boat to flee the capital city.
“The plan was to head for a spot near the airport where evacuation helicopters were landing,” Kashiwahara wrote in his email. “But when we got there South Vietnamese troops were so angry that America was abandoning them, they fired at us. So, we went back into the city to see if we could find another way out. The embassy’s evacuation plan had fallen apart.
“We went down to the Saigon port to see if we could get on a boat, but the port was mobbed with Vietnamese trying to get out too,” Kashiwahara wrote of the Saigon waterfront where American helicopters buzzed above, as Vietnamese swam in the water below, trying to reach fleeing vessels.
When the crowd at the waterfront began to approach the journalists, Kashiwahara said: “We decided to get away fast. As I was running toward our bus, an angry Vietnamese man grabbed the straps of my shoulder bags trying to pull me back. I looked at his angry face and decided to let my bags (tape recorder and typewriter) go and jumped on the bus. That’s when the father ran alongside trying to throw his baby onboard so the child would be safe. The man was crying out to driver in Vietnamese, ‘My baby, my baby . . . take my baby.’ He tripped and the baby fell under the wheels, killing it instantly.
“At that point someone on the bus suggested we go to the embassy. When we got there we found the compound ringed with thousands of panicked Vietnamese desperately trying to get in by climbing over the walls and being kicked backdown by US Marines. I squeezed myself between white journalists so the Marines might realize I was one of them and pull me up over the wall.
“When we finally got in, we discovered why the Marines were trying to keep the mob out. The embassy grounds were filled with people trying to get on the helicopters and to the U.S. carriers waiting in the South China Sea. It was sheer pandemonium. In one building someone was burning what looked like millions of U.S. dollars. I rushed into the main embassy building to find a phone to call my network but they were being used by Wapo (Washington Post) and NYT (New York Times) reporters.
“When we finally got on our chopper hours later, it rose about 30 feet in the air before crashing back down. Too many people. On the third attempt, we finally made it. As we flew over the city I fully expected to be shot down, either by the North or by angry South Vietnamese. When I looked out the window, I saw fires burning everywhere, one from an ammunition dump that was exploding. It looked like the entire country was on fire. That was my last image of Vietnam.”
His helicopter landed on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock where from the flight deck Kashiwahara saw another scene of chaos. “The skies were filled with South Vietnamese helicopters heading right for us. There was no way to communicate with them. Armed U.S. Marines were ready to shoot if in fact they were hostile. In fact, they were South Vietnamese pilots flying their families to safety. But there was no room on the flight deck for all the aircraft. So as soon as one landed, it was pushed into the South China Sea to make way for the next one. Some were running out of fuel and ditched in the ocean and were rescued. It was an incredibly dramatic ending to a day of desperation, panic and anarchy.”
Kashiwahara said that when he got to Manila he reported on May 1, 1975, that after a day or so the U.S. abruptly halted the evacuation less than 24 hours after it began, abandoning 420 third country nationals and Vietnamese waiting in the embassy courtyard to board helicopters. He said then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger called him “a liar, but I was right.”
In a 2015 interview with former Hawai‘i Herald editor Karleen Chinen, Kashiwahara — on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon — added, “As we pushed our way through the crowd I saw American Marines on top of the walls, kicking the Vietnamese who were trying to climb over. As I saw the American boots being shoved into Asian faces, I thought looking the way I do had finally caught up with me. I panicked, trying to think of some way letting those Marines up there know I was an American. In my frantic state of mind, I made a snap decision. If, as I reached for the Marine, I saw him giving me a boot instead of helping hand, I would yell as loudly as I could, ‘The Dodgers won the pennant,’” thinking no Vietnamese would know that.
In 2015, Newsweek, in commemorating the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon said the evacuation was “the biggest helicopter lift of its kind in history — an 18-hour operation that carried 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese to safety.”
Losing Sen. Benigno Aquino
On Aug. 21, 1983, Kashiwahara was a witness to another pivotal world event when he was accompanying his brother-in-law Philippine Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino who was returning to the Philippines wearing the same cream-colored safari suit he wore when he left Manila. Aquino was leaving a three-year self-imposed exile to confront dictator Ferdinand Marcos, his former rival for the presidency. After China Airlines flight 811 landed, Marcos’ soldiers shot forcibly took Aquino as they escorted him down the stairs of the jetway.
In a lengthy Oct. 16, 1983 New York Times article, Kashiwahara said Aquino gave him his watch as the jet descended over a Philippine landscape of rice fields and rural villages. “Why are you doing this?” Kashiwahara asked Aquino. His response: “I just want you to have it.” Kashiwahara said he believed the gesture was “a symbol of our adventure together.”
As soon as the jet engines shutdown, three khaki-glad soldiers forcibly escorted Aquino to the tarmac, barring Kashiwahara, photographers, television cameramen and reporters from following them. Unable to see anything, but hearing shots and fearing the worst, Kashiwahara yelled in frustration: “Goddamit! Bastards! Bastards! This wasn’t supposed to happen! It couldn’t have happened!”
On Aug. 27, 2021, four days before the announced U.S. troop withdrawal, the White House reported that from Aug. 14 up to that date, 105,000 Americans and Afghan allies have been evacuated, with 500 Americans still in Kabul. Thirteen service members have been killed during the evacuation-the highest number since Aug. 6, 2011, in which a CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter was shot down in Wardak province killing 30 Americans, including 22 Navy SEALs, seven Afghan soldiers and a civilian interpreter.
Kashiwahara, 81, now lives in San Francisco where he retired from broadcasting 23 years ago, ending a nearly three-decade career that began in 1969 at the former all-news KHVH radio station in Hawai‘i. He had hoped to host a 2020 summer family reunion in his birth-town, Waimea, Kaua‘i. However, the COVID-19 pandemic scrapped those plans.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, congressional reporter for the Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.