Kate Webb - Captured in Cambodia Oct. 16, 2002
By LOU MARANO
WASHINGTON, Oct.16 (UPI) -- Kate Webb is probably unaware of the effect she has on people. Picture a brunette Princess Diana in jungle fatigues with about 40 more points of IQ, and you will begin to get the idea.
This image -- a photo of Webb as a correspondent for United Press International -- precedes her chapter "Highpockets," one of nine that make up the new book "War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam." At a recent book launch in Washington, the soft-spoken New Zealander's natural shyness set her apart in a city full of blowhards and self-promoters. Being in the presence of someone so unaffected, the genuine article, inspired awe -- no other word will do.
"She's very impressive," I said to Webb's former UPI colleague Tracy Wood in a telephone interview.
"She's scary, she's so impressive," Wood said. "She's always been like that. From the day I met her, everybody always said that."
By that time, Webb had been captured by the North Vietnamese in Cambodia, held for 23 days under horrific conditions with her life hanging in the balance, and released.
"That in itself set her so far apart from most of the other war correspondents," Wood continued. "Plus the fact that she truly was a combat correspondent. She didn't just cover combat occasionally. She would go out in the field and REALLY cover combat.
"And she would cover the South Vietnamese troops as well as the Americans. She was just something else. I really admire Kate."
Wood's chapter in "War Torn" is titled "Spies, Lovers, and Prisoners of War." Now in Los Angeles, she is editor in chief of Ms. Magazine.
Webb's knowledge of French helped her operate in the Indochina of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The "old Asia hand" worked for UPI for 10 years. For 13 years, until retiring from journalism in 2001, she was a correspondent for Agence France-Presse based in Southeast Asia.
In the months before her capture, many who were covering Cambodia were killed, wounded or simply disappeared. In "War Torn," Webb writes that she "stepped into a dead man's shoes" -- those of her UPI colleague Frank Frosch, whose body was found face down in a paddy off Highway 2 -- thus becoming bureau chief in the country. After one of her permanent stringers, Francois Bailly, died in what she described as an insignificant battle, she tried to take the risky assignments herself.
In April 1971 she and five others, hiding in roadside scrub, watched as the North Vietnamese ambushed and effectively annihilated a column of U.S.-backed Cambodian troops along a stretch of Highway 4. With her were four Cambodians and a Japanese reporter.
"The last paratroopers who tried to fire back were riddled with AK bullets," Webb wrote. This showed that trying to reach friendly lines by going either up or down the road was impossible. In language that puts the reader at the scene, she described what followed.
"In whispers, we decided we had to belly-crawl sideways out of the scrubby roadside ditch we were huddled in before the North Vietnamese troops emerged from the trees behind us to count the dead.
"For the rest of that day, the night, and the next morning, any bits of white color torn off our clothes, we crept through the trees and their lines, sometimes holding our breath as they walked within inches of us, chattering. Thirst plagued us, insects bit us as we hugged the earth, branches crisscrossed us with scratches. Then the friendly artillery started and the allied bombing ... called in by the Cambodians. ...
"At 11:30 the next morning ... they got us. We simply ran into them, two skinny young soldiers as surprised as we were. ... We kaleidoscoped into one another in the face of the two AKs, caught in a small clearing.
"'Kasset' -- press -- we croaked in Khmer, then 'Nha bao' in Vietnamese, the words pathetic in the face of the rifles, the memories as fresh as echoes of the volleys of shots that had finished off the paratroopers. ... We started croaking for water: 'Nuoc.'
"They gestured for us to squat and stripped us of our belongings. ... Then one ran off and returned not with water, but with bailing wire, vines and tape to tie us up and bundled us squashed into the dark of (a) bunker.
"I thought that was it. I was sure they were simply going to toss a grenade in on top of us. But eventually they gestured us out back into the dappled light of the dry jungle floor and, ensuring that we stayed squatting, handed me a small tin pannikin of water. I passed it around, thinking we all could get a sip, but when it had gone the full circle, it returned to me empty.
That the others hadn't left me anything, and what it meant, shocked me more than the rifles. I said nothing, but there was a huge loneliness in my head that didn't leave me.
"More soldiers in their floppy green fatigues and soft bush hats emerged silently from the foliage, ignoring our cries for more water. Tied in a chain with the bailing wire, which bit deep into our arms, we set off single file -- rifles ahead, alongside and behind -- into the dappled jungle.
"It was the first of many long marches. ... We were a mindless, cattle-like line, shuffling in our wires.
"They hacked branches from the trees and stuck them upright into our bound hands as camouflage against the planes, then directed us into the open and onto a side road.
"Once onto that road, whose surface burned our feet, we ignored their yells and tumbled toward a pool of black, fetid water scummed with jungle debris and insects. Flopped on our bellies like turtles, we stuck our faces in it and sucked at it desperately.
"It impressed the guards. Two of them went off and returned with a poncho, slung between two poles, full of water.
"'This is my blood which I give for you ...' It was like a strange jungle communion, as we knelt one by one to drink from the poncho.
"At one place, still tied in a chain, we had to cross a single log over a small ravine. A slip would have sent us all tumbling. I still dream about that. ...
"The night of the first day, the others were led off one by one, and I lay breathing the earth smell in the dark, heard spaced shots, and believed I was next.
"The same with the first long interrogation ... (which) came as we were lying in the dirt, trying to dig body crabs out of our skin, after waking almost fizzy with life after surviving an overnight march that I, at least, had doubted we would finish.
"The summoned us one by one, at intervals of about 30 or 40 minutes. A single shot would ring out, and as our numbers slowly dwindled, we couldn't meet one another's eyes.
"My turn came."
Webb was questioned by a thin, white-haired Vietnamese of about 60. She thought of him as a professional soldier, which made her stop feeling like a filthy, scared prisoner from the other side and like a professional reporter instead. "He was taking what the war dealt out to him, and I was taking what the war dealt out to me," she wrote.
When the interrogation was over, she was told to stand, almost fainted, and succeeded on the second try. She was led not to her execution but along another narrow jungle path where her Japanese colleague, Toshiishi Suzuki of Nihon Denpa News, sat not dead but alive.
"Silently Suzuki tore out the cotton lining of his trouser pockets and began trying to tie them on my feet, suppurating, cut and oozing pus," she wrote.
Webb knew she would not survive a walk to North Vietnam, but night marches followed one upon the other, during which the prisoners' feet "mushed and re-mushed."
A Cambodian guide got the North Vietnamese guards lost, and U.S. aircraft struck. "When the bombs fell, we ignored their threats to shoot and fell in a heap, protecting one anther's heads.
"Our guards would shoot upward -- both actions, theirs and ours, futile.
"Strange to think you might have drunk a Budweiser with the pilot who killed you. ..."
One night they did not march. Interrogations and "history lessons" filled the following days. The North Vietnamese told their captives how terribly costly the 1968 Tet offensive had been to the communists.
"They had been so sure of victory that money had been printed," Webb wrote. "Westmoreland would have like to hear that."
But the prisoners' health was deteriorating fast. Both Webb and a Cambodian "were shitting blood, trekking time and again to the latrine -- a hole under a distant tree whose lower branches soon ran out of leaves." Their infected feet would not heal. Webb had a fever, chills and was throwing up.
Trapped in a gray twilight between the living and the dead, Webb reached a point inside herself she describes circumspectly as one "you wouldn't reach otherwise."
"I marked three points that braked my descent. One day, after I returned from a daylong interrogation, my head splitting with fever, Suzuki picked up a condensed milk can with a stick handle, sat me down under our tree, and took me through the steps of the Japanese tea ceremony.
"Another time is when I stood on my head. ... It sounds Zen in retrospect, but it cheered me up enormously, as did the perplexed reactions of the guards and my fellow prisoners.
"Then there was the morning I saw the dawn reflected upside down in a dewdrop hanging from a leaf -- an exquisite miniature in rose, peach, and green."
Twenty-three days after their capture, the prisoners were released and "stood alone in the dark on a roadside in no-man's land." Webb had lost 22 pounds, and her feet "were like sacks of jelly." She was afflicted, it turned out, with two strains of malaria.
Straight from the gray and almost silent limbo of her captivity, she came under the glare of TV lights and shouted questions. She found that she had been reported killed. A body had been found and "identified," her family had held a memorial service for her, and she read her own obituaries.
"For the first hour or so, I was okay, just fighting back the tears. The incredulous belief that we had all come out alive." she wrote.
"Then I found I couldn't talk normally. I was measuring every word, as with the interrogators, as if all our lives depended on it."
Webb credits three people for helping her get back to the "so-called real world": French planter Renee Maureau, who had been born and raised in Cambodia; U-2 pilot Francis (Gary) Powers, shot down over Soviet territory on May 1, 1960 and held captive for almost two years; and British journalist Donald Wise, who had been a prisoner on the Burma Road during World War II.
Maureau, Webb wrote, "watched me besieged by fellow journalists on my return to Phnom Penh. He sent his Mercedes and driver with a message that they would take me to an empty apartment with a maid and a bath and that the driver should let him know if I needed a doctor. ...
"I was able to get clean. Bath after bath, until the black, buggy water turned dark gray, light gray, then finally colorless. I tried the soft bed with the clean sheets and the radio, then finally gave up and lay listening to the street noises under the stars on the hard balcony."
("War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam." Random House, 291 pages, $24.95)