HARTFORD, Conn. — Matthew Franjola, a reporter and photographer for The Associated Press who was among the last Americans in Saigon as it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, has died. He was 72.
He died Thursday at Danbury Hospital after a long illness, his ex-wife, Grace Franjola, said Friday.
"He was truly, truly a renaissance man," she said.
Franjola spoke Vietnamese and other southeast Asian languages, was a pilot, tennis player, writer and photographer, she said.
A former UPI colleague, David Hume Kennerly, said Franjola's fluency in Vietnamese saved their lives. Franjola overheard South Vietnamese soldiers speaking among themselves that they would leave the two Americans pinned down as Vietcong fighters approached, he recalled Friday.
"That information led us to get out," said Kennerly, who later became White House photographer for President Gerald Ford.
Franjola trained for the Peace Corps in 1964, but he wasn't selected, Grace Franjola said. Instead, he went to South Vietnam to work for a war supplies company as U.S. military involvement began escalating. He met journalists and soon became a stringer for the AP, she said.
"He was kind of a cowboy. He wasn't going to report to an office, wear a tie and all that," said Grace Franjola, who lives in Washington, Connecticut.
She said her ex-husband also mined for gold in Zimbabwe as it transitioned from white-ruled Rhodesia and worked in South Africa. His return to New York after decades in Asia and Africa was a difficult transition because he was unfamiliar with the culture, she said. She likened it to bringing "King Kong out of the jungle."
Kennerly said Franjola "was a man's man, an adventurer, a really great guy." He added: "I think he found journalism to be the ultimate adventure."
Franjola was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1942 and was raised in Franklin Square, New York, Grace Franjola said. He studied at the state university in Cortland, New York, with the intent of becoming an athletic coach, she said.
In addition to his ex-wife, he is survived by two daughters, three brothers and three sisters, she said.