Journalist who survived a rocket attack in Vietnam and reported from the Jonestown massacre in Guyana
May 28, 2015
Al Webb, who has died aged 79, was a correspondent for the United Press International (UPI) press agency who was decorated for bravery during the Vietnam War and later settled in Britain.
"Frank and Pancho and Kenny are dead, because you have to kill just to go around a corner, cross a street, and enter a room. Or be killed yourself," Webb wrote from the ancient city of Hue at the start of the Tet Offensive in February 1968, when an estimated 80,000 Viet Cong guerrillas launched an attack across South Vietnam. He spent three weeks on the front line as US marines fought to regain control of the city in bitter house-to-house fighting. "What remains engraved in my memory is the sheer cacophony of war -- the sounds of men fighting and dying -- that greeted my arrival in Hue," he recalled later. "Not once in the next three weeks, day following night following day, did the noise ever let up for more than five seconds."
On February 19, defying sniper fire that had just killed a man 20 yards from where he had taken cover, Webb, two reporters from The New York Times and Time magazine and a Marine sergeant dashed to rescue a fallen soldier. They managed to drag the man to relative safety, but their part in the Battle of Hue ended seconds later in a rocket blast that killed the man they had been trying to rescue. "I looked down and my lap was full of blood," Webb recalled. "Most of the blood, alas, was from the poor Marine, when the back of his head just fell apart." Webb suffered shrapnel injuries from head to foot and was evacuated to hospital.
The bravery of the reporters went unrecognised until years later when the then US Marines’ commandant read about it and in 1980 they were awarded the military Bronze Star -- a rare honour for civilians.
Alvin B Webb Jnr, as he styled his byline, was born in South Carolina on March 14 1935. Brought up in Tennessee and educated at Duke University, North Carolina, he began his career at The Knoxville Journal before joining the Raleigh bureau of the UPI in 1956. He witnessed prison executions, covered the early days of the Civil Rights movement and in 1959 was promoted to a new UPI bureau at Cape Canaveral as the race to conquer space got underway. He reported on the Mercury 7 programme and opened the UPI bureau at the new Space Centre in Houston.
After being wounded at Hue, Webb returned to Vietnam, but was prevented from front-line reporting for his own safety and soon requested another foreign posting. He became a senior editor at UPI's European headquarters in London in 1969, and later moved to Brussels. After a stint as the agency's Asia Division news editor in Hong Kong he was recalled to UPI's New York headquarters, as an editor and a "fireman" covering big stories.
One of these was the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978. That year members of a bizarre religious cult living in a jungle commune killed Leo RyanJim Jones to commit mass suicide in the jungle by drinking a cordial laced with cyanide.
As the details began to emerge Webb filed copy and pictures over a single telephone line to New York, keeping the line open around the clock. "We weren't sure at the start just what the death toll would be . . . maybe a few score -- 50 or 60," he recalled. "US authorities started coming out with the real totals, 525 and more, and these were changing every 30 to 45 minutes . . . Then I was told at least 600, maybe more, and I was momentarily stunned . . . I lost my breath about here. I had barely gotten 750 at least out, when I had to tear that sheet out of the typewriter to put yet another number -- this one over 800. Then it became more than 900 . . . The exact number turned out to be 913. It is a number I've never forgotten."
After Guyana he was posted abroad again, heading UPI's bureau in Beirut at a time of civil war. He found solace by befriending stray cats in his room at the Commodore Hotel, something he did throughout his life as a war correspondent. In Vietnam he had claimed his cat Snuffy gave early warning of rocket attacks by madly whirling around . He also used the animals as a mouthpiece for controversial opinions. "My cat Flavius tells me no good will come of it" was a typical reply in a bar room discussion.
With his untidy mop of grey hair, black turtleneck sweater and slow Southern drawl, Webb was an unlikely Englishman. But in later life Britain became his adopted home. He hosted a party in Hammersmith every year to watch the Oxford v Cambridge boat race. He also became a follower of cricket, a member of the MCC and an umpire at village matches. In 1992 he became a British citizen and two years later he married his second wife, Elizabeth. They retired to live in a Northamptonshire village.
Apart from a spell in the 1980s with US News and World Report, Webb spent his entire career with UPI. "UPI was my first, last and only love in journalism. The thrill of that competition, the absolute enjoyment of getting a story, of being accurate. It was the most fun I had in my entire life," he recalled.
His wife survives him.
Al Webb, born March 14 1935, died January 25 2015