Bill Wright's Memories of Earnest Hoberecht

Bill Wright, who offers his recollection of UPI Asia Division chief Earnest Hoberecht here, served as Asia overnight editor and Tokyo-based correspondent in the 60s, and later as Lisbon bureau chief, Madrid-based chief correspondent for Iberia, and London-based special projects writer, providing indepth reporting from Europe, Africa and Northern Ireland.


Ernie was an incongruous sight among the Tokyo foreign press corps, a generally hard-drinking, hard-charging crowd well-removed from any semblance of fastidious dressing. In contrast, Ernie was something of a dandy about town. He sported three-piece, usually striped, well-tailored suits, a silver-tipped mahogany cane, and a natty, wide-brimmed fedora.

His local prominence as a writer of Japanese romance novels widened the gap. While his pals went off to cover war and pestilence, Ernie wrote kitsch narratives about lovelorn, lip-locking Japanese in a culture that frowned on such literary (and real life) displays of passion. His books were just the outlet for young and not-so-young war-repressed and culturally inhibited Japanese women, and they snapped them up.

Ernie's sartorial elegance belied the fact that he worked for a skinflint organization, UPI, and applied its penny pinching ways with great gusto within his own fiefdom, the UPI Asia Division.

I ran into Ernie's miserly manner on various occasions, beginning when I first joined UPI. He balked when UPI editor-in-chief Roger Tatarian arranged to hire me through the Honolulu bureau and then transfer me to Tokyo. That way, I could start work at U.S. wire service union wages rather than the penurious pay Ernie would hire reporters at in Japan.

I had got to know Tatarian when I was a U.N./Eighth Army public affairs officer in Korea and had been assigned to accompany him to the DMZ. He knew I had a wife and kid to support and that I aspired to join UPI in Asia where I had been a Stars and Stripes reporter and editor, and a U.N./Eighth Army spokesperson in Seoul.

But there was a problem: Ernie did not like correspondents being transferred from the states at union salaries when he could hire people locally at much lower rates.

Neil Sheehan, who would make his mark as a premier reporter in Vietnam and later win a Pulitzer as a New York Times reporter, went to work for Ernie for a paltry $75 a week, and he wasn't alone among the younger staff who joined the Asia Division at like wages. Still, for Neil and others it was a unique opportunity to join a scrappy worldwide news agency and forge a career as a globe-trotting (or at least Asia-trotting) foreign correspondent. For that, all of us would have worked for whatever we could get.

In the end, Ernie approved my "transfer" from Honolulu to Tokyo, but in the four years I was in Asia, he held me to trifling pay raises that never kept pace with union rates back in the U.S. That was true of most staffers who had transferred from the U.S. to Asia. It became a bone of contention for formerly U.S.-based UPI reporters and photographers covering the Vietnam war whose salaries did not keep up with what they could be making back in the states.

On another occasion, Ernie refused to pay for my travel to and from Panama when UPI's foreign editor Joe Morgan wanted me there to help cover the 1964 riots against the U.S.-held Canal Zone. Morgan wanted me assigned to the story after I wrote a well published analysis piece on the riots from the vantage point of having grown up in Panama. Morgan's request was unusual. In those days, correspondents usually were not assigned to cover stories outside their divisions, let alone half way around the world.

The unfolding story would be a big break for me and I didn't want to miss out just because Ernie and UPI headquarters in New York were fighting over who should pay my travel expenses. In the end, New York picked up the tab and I was on my way. But there would be one final confrontation with Ernie before I left the Asia Division for good.

On my way back to Tokyo, I stopped off in New York and told Tatarian that my wife's boss, a wealthy Russian-born import-exporter, was transferring his headquarters to London and wanted her to transfer with him. Tatarian said there was an opening in the UPI London office, messaged London asking if they wanted me. London said yes, and Tatarian asked Ernie if he would release me and pay half my travel expenses to London, with London paying the other half (my wife's company was paying her transfer expenses). Ernie said no on both counts. I was then Asia overnight editor, handling much of the copy from the early stages of the war in Vietnam and other stories, and he didn't want Tokyo to have to break in someone else for the job, or worse, hire someone for the slot, even at low pay.

After a lot of back and forth between Ernie and New York, New York and London prevailed and I transferred to London, another unusual foreign division-to-foreign division move for that era. I never knew if Ernie contributed to my travel expenses. He may have been happy to see me leave. He certainly would not miss my Eurasian wife. Raised by Catholic nuns in China and an escapee with her family from Mao's advancing forces, she was no wall flower and would upbraid Ernie in public for his tight-fisted ways. He would squirm a bit, get a bit red-faced, then launch into his mantra of having to "downhold" expenses.