Matt Franjola was my best buddy in the press corps in 1972 when I worked for Stars and Stripes. He was tall and thin, athletic and handsome in his shades, handlebar mustache and boonie hat.
We traveled everywhere together. He was a UPI stringer and photographer, but I always thought he was a spook working for U.S. intelligence because he didn’t file a hell of a lot of stories but always seemed to be where the action was. He spoke Vietnamese, which was great for me: We could interview ARVN officers without having to go through the U.S. chain of command in the field.
Matt always carried a canteen, Bowie knife, C-rats. He was never late, always where he said he’d be when he said he’d be there. I used him as a buffer to ask tough questions that an officer might not answer if posed by an enlisted man. Matt was brash and not intimidated by rank.
I lucked out because I was called to the Stars and Stripes home office inTokyo to meet the brass in early April 1972 when the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive began. So I missed some of the most fierce fighting around Quang Tri in I Corps, Kontum in II Corps and Loc Ninh/An Loc in III Corps. When I returned, Matt and I spent most of May 1972 together in the Central Highlands, where provincial senior American advisor John Paul Vann and ARVN Col. Ly Tong Ba orchestrated the blunting of a tank-led NVA assault on Kontum City.
It was during that time that Matt took the photo of me that became the cover shot for my book and appears above. He also took about six other photos of me that appear in “Heroes to the End” and in the photo gallery at left.
We were under fire in two rocket attacks. During one, Franjola was without his camera. I had mine but was scrambling for cover as Matt was urging me to snap photos. After the last round fell, Matt said something in Vietnamese to an ARVN enlisted man who laughed and answered back.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said I should have hit you over the head and taken your camera,” Matt said.
I lucked out again in early June when I went on leave in Bangkok while Matt reported on the NVA assault on Kontum City. When I came back, he showed me places where he’d been pinned down by enemy fire. I had been eating steaks, watching Thai boxing shows, taking a river cruise and enjoying the company of a young lady.
Matt wound up working for The Associated Press eventually and was one of the last American journalists to leave Vietnam when it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. He also covered the fall of Cambodia to the Khymer Rouge.
I just found out Friday that Matt, who was from Franklin Square, N.Y., died at the age of 72 in January in Connecticut after a long illness.
I had not spoken to him since the fall of 2014, when I had called him to ask permission to run his photos in the book. I dialed his phone last week to check his address so I could send him a copy of the book, got no answer, checked the Web and saw a story on his death. I called his ex-wife, expressed my condolences and sent a book to their daughter.
It’s hard for me to accept that Matt’s gone. We were young once…and reporters.
–T’ung, t’ung bo
I am a 1966 graduate of Chaminade High School in Mineola, NY. I graduated from Nassau Community College in 1968 and Hofstra University in 1970. I was a sports reporter at Newsday from 1966-1999, covering 5 Super Bowls and 9 Stanley Cup Finals. I was a features desk copy editor from 2000 to Dec. 31, 2014, when I retired. I am married to Lynn, a social worker, since April 9, 1978, We have one son, Peter, 33, an air traffic controller in Ohio.