The Washington Post Obit on Kate Webb

(Here is The Washington Post obit on Kate Webb dated May 15, 2007)

Reporter Kate Webb; Covered Vietnam


Kate Webb, 64, a reporter who spent 23 days in enemy captivity during the Vietnam War and was one of a handful of female journalists in combat zones during the conflict, died May 13, 2007, at a hospital in Sydney. She had bowel cancer.

Ms. Webb was United Press International's bureau chief in Cambodia when she was captured by Communist forces. She was presumed dead after another woman's bullet-scarred body was discovered, and she later learned her own obituary had run in The New York Times.

"It was strange and embarrassing to see that," Ms. Webb said toward the end of her career.

Kate Webb, in fatigues with United Press printed on the left side of her shirt, stands in front of a bombed-out building in Vietnam in the early 1970s. (UPI Photo)

An unflappable New Zealander with a fondness for beer and cigarettes, she went on from Cambodia to cover a series of coups, rebellions and independence movements throughout Asia for Agence France-Presse.

While reporting from Afghanistan after the Soviet Union's withdrawal in the late 1980s, Ms. Webb was mauled by a drugged-out Afghan militiaman. He attacked her in the lobby of a Kabul hotel, dragged her by her hair to his room and beat her face.

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

Catherine Webb was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 24, 1943. Her father's career as a political science professor took the family to Canberra, Australia, and to Europe.

At 15, she was briefly charged with first-degree murder after a schoolmate killed herself with a gun Ms. Webb had provided. "She asked me for it, and I thought she was joking," Ms. Webb later told a reporter. A few years later, her parents died in a car crash.

She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1964 with a philosophy degree. She entered journalism in Sydney by necessity. She took a secretarial job at a newspaper to pay for a stained-glass window she had accidentally broken at a church.

"But I couldn't do shorthand, and they said they couldn't hire me as a secretary," she told the Jakarta Post. "So they put me to work as a reporter cadet. You know when you start as a cadet, in the old days' cadet system, the first thing you do is go with the journalists on their assignments. It's horrible. . . . like getting the ashtray for the people who smoke."

After working her way to "foreign-wire copy taster," she embarked for Vietnam in 1967 with no job but a desire to have a "look-see" at the war.

Early on, she proved herself collected amid bombing in Saigon and minefields in the demilitarized zone. 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.

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

Ms. Webb became part of an international story when she was taken hostage April 7, 1971. At the time, she and five Asian reporters were driving on the main artery between the capital city of Phnom Penh and Kompong Som, a deep-water port on the Gulf of Thailand.

Finding themselves surprised by a sudden outburst of air and artillery fire, they abandoned their car and fled to the woods for safety. They ran into the Viet Cong, who stripped them of their shoes and marched them to a camp.

They emerged muddy, leech-ridden and exhausted but otherwise unharmed. Ms. Webb said she most feared the low-level flights of U.S. aircraft, wondering whether they would drop a bomb load on them.

At the Viet Cong base, she said the captors promised to treat them 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 for her and, after several days, offered her a "rank fiery rice wine" that helped to provide her first decent night's sleep.

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."

With a promise to tell their story, Ms. Webb and the other reporters were freed May 1 and picked up by government troops on the highway where they had disappeared.

After being treated for malaria, she wrote a book about her ordeal, "On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong." She told reporters at the time that her experience added to her understanding of the enemy in a crucial way.

"It added faces to what has only been shadows in the past," she said. "The Viet Cong are human beings. They are soldiers and not much different from soldiers on this side. They have homes, and they have grouches and they have sore feet."

She later worked for UPI from Manila during the evacuation of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1975. She did freelance work for British publications before joining Agence France-Presse in 1982. She retired in 2001, telling an interviewer that she felt "too old to keep up with front-line reporting, and that was the only kind I liked."

She lived quietly north of Sydney and contributed a chapter to "War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam," published in 2002.

Survivors include a brother and a sister.