Kate Webb -- Brave/Tenacious War-Time UPI Reporter

(NOTE: This piece about Kate Webb was compiled from many accounts of her 2007 obit, which will all be posted later on this site.)

(Kate Webb, one of the few women who covered the Vietnam war, permanently stamped her mark on journalism at age 28, the year United Press International hired her as a full-time correspondent in Vietnam in 1971 and assigned her as Phnom Penh bureau manager.)

It wasn't necessarily the way a reporter would like to validate themselves to the world, but it wasn't surprising considering the way Webb's career unfolded.

North Vietnamese forces captured her and five others while she was with the Cambodian army, which ambushed the Cambodians in the Kirirom mountains during an April 7, 1971 battle for Highway 4.

It was assumed by her colleagues that she had been taken prisoner by the brutal Khmer Rouge, who invariably killed their prisoners.

After she was missing for more than three weeks, her colleagues assumed she was dead, and the first obituaries began to appear. Time magazine reported that a white woman's body had been found in a shallow grave with a bullet in the head, and another in the chest.

"Webb is the 10th journalist known to have died in Cambodia," the magazine reported. The New York Times famously reported her obituary.


Kate Webb with Vietnamese children in the late 1960s. (UPI Photo)


But after 23 days, the unflappable Webb with a fondness for beer and cigarettes, stumbled out of the jungle to Phnom Penh, having survived thirst, infection and tense interrogations. She later came down with a serious bout of malaria.

At the Viet Cong base, she said the captors promised to treat her and the others humanely, and for the most part they did, offering rice and fatty pork and other staples of the soldiers' diet. She said the soldiers even lit her cigarettes after several days, offered her a "rank fiery rice wine" that helped to provide her first decent night's sleep.

Webb, in a book about her ordeal, "On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong," wrote that she tried to endure the Viet Cong interrogation process with humor and humility. The foot soldiers were all too normal, she later wrote in a dispatch about her captivity, staring with wonder at her "psychedelic-colored Pucci underwear" as she cleaned her jeans. She added that one soldier "motioned with his rifle that I should wash my shirt, too. I grinned at him and shook my head."

The New Zealand-born Webb made her way to Vietnam after training on newspapers in Australia. Webb paid her own way to Vietnam, arriving in 1967 with only a couple of hundred dollars and an old Remington typewriter. At first, she was a freelancer for UPI, covering the war for UPI as a stringer for more than six years.

Webb's knowledge of French helped her operate in the Indochina of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She landed a full-time job with UPI with brave, honest reporting and insightful writing.

When Webb started with the wire service, she mainly covered Vietnamese politics since there were hardly any women on the battlefield, she but found herself filling in when male reporters came back for rest from tough field assignments.

In Saigon Webb spent considerable time "off duty" investigating the involvement of South Vietnamese officials in the black market. These inquiries didn't go unnoticed -- on one occasion she returned to her apartment to find a .45-caliber bullet hole in the door and the slug embedded in the wall above her bed.

Webb proved herself unfazed amid bombing in Saigon and minefields in the demilitarized zone. Once she was accidentally pushed into a minefield by an Army press officer, and she never forgot the kindness of the Marines who helped rescue her.

Armed with notebook and pen she accompanied U.S., Australian and South Vietnamese troops on operational patrols, and was the first wire service reporter to reach the U.S. Embassy on the first morning of the January 1968 Tet Offensive. Later that year Webb survived a friendly fire American rocket attack on a Saigon military building that killed everyone around her.

Asked how she coped with being one of few female journalists in Vietnam, Webb replied "If you don't demand special privileges and don't ask where you plug in your hair dryer, you have no problems."

UPI sent Webb to Cambodia in early 1970. She later took over the bureau chief's job after her predecessor, Frank Frosch, was gunned down and savagely beaten in a Viet Cong ambush. Pulitzer Prize-winning UPI photographer Kyoichi Sawada was killed along with Frosch.

In the months before her capture, many who were covering Cambodia were killed, wounded or simply disappeared. Webb said she "stepped into a dead man's shoes" -- those of 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.


UPI photographer Kyolchi Sawada, who four years later was later beaten and killed by the Viet Cong, receives 1966 Pulitzer Prize for a photo of the Vietnam war. (UPI Photo)


As a full-fledged UPI war correspondent, Webb was a cool, incisive reporter when she put on combat boots, helmet and flak jacket to go on missions with troops. Her bravery in mortar and rocket attacks, in landings in disabled helicopters and in the face of the normal battlefield dangers of bullets and shrapnel has been often recalled by her colleagues of that era. She often rushed back to help the wounded after an explosion knocked her flat, then wrote a moving account of the episode.

"There wasn't a story that she ever covered poorly, but it was her war reporting that drove her and incidentally turned her into an icon of her generation," said Alan Dawson, a colleague of Webb's at UPI during the war years.

Former Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting, recalls Webb as "one of the earliest -- and best -- women correspondents of the Vietnam War. She was fearless as an action reporter, with a talent for the vivid phrase."

Said Richard Pyle, who spent five years covering the war for AP, "Kate was a very good journalist in every way. In the heated competition between UPI and AP during the Vietnam war, she was an especially formidable presence."

In 1975, Webb accepted the correspondent job with UPI in Manila, but returned to Vietnam to cover the U.S. Seventh Fleet evacuation of U.S. troops from Vietnam. From her posting in Manila, she also covered the declaration of emergency rule in India and the four major coups and the murder of Mujbur Ali Rahman in Bangladesh.

In 1977, UPI named Webb regional chief based in Singapore, but she quit the agency later that year. Moving to Indonesia, she worked as a freelancer for Reuters, Business Week, The Economist, McGraw Hill, London Times and London Independent.

She joined Agence France-Presse in 1982, going on to cover some of the region's biggest stories -- from South Korea to Afghanistan and half-dozen other countries, as well as Iraq during the first Gulf War.

Webb roamed Asia, covering coups and the fall of governments from India to the Philippines; the Tamil Tiger uprising in Sri Lanka; Russia's withdrawal from Afghanistan; the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China.

Webb, whose hard-drinking, chain-smoking lifestyle was legendary, at times presented an image of the walking wounded.

A former UPI colleague remembered the time she broke her toe dancing at a farewell party in Jakarta -- and then kept dancing. Then there was a near-fatal motorcycle accident while working in India in which she almost lost an arm.

But her most harrowing moment came in Afghanistan around 1990, when a militia commander assaulted her in the lobby of a Kabul hotel, bashed her head and dragged her up to his room, pulling a large chunk of her hair out along the way. She escaped with the help of two colleagues, and hid on the window ledge while the warlord and his men searched the building for her.

"That rattled me, really spooked me," she later told a newspaper. "It took a while to stop looking over my shoulder. There's something very humiliating about having your head bashed."

Webb told an interviewer from the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong, "People always think I must be so tough to survive all this, but I'm a real softie. But maybe that's what it takes -- you have to be soft to survive. Hard people shatter."

After covering the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998, she retired from journalism in 2001, saying she felt "too old to keep up with front-line reporting, and that was the only kind I liked."

After a brief stint as a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, Webb returned to her family's adopted home of Australia where she lived in relative seclusion on the Hunter River north of Sydney until her death at 64 in 2007.

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