Monday, May 14, 2007
By ROHAN SULLIVAN
Webb, who once made the news instead of writing it in 1971 when she was captured in Cambodia and held prisoner by North Vietnamese troops, succumbed to bowel cancer in Sydney, her brother Jeremy Webb said Monday.
"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 United Press International during the war years.
New Zealand-born, Sydney-trained Webb first went to Vietnam in 1967 and spent more than six years covering the war for UPI, building a reputation for brave, honest reporting and insightful writing.
After the war's end, she worked throughout Asia for UPI and later Agence-France Presse, covering 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.
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."
Webb, who lived the hard-drinking, chain-smoking lifestyle of her journalistic generation to the hilt, returned to her family's adopted home of Australia, where she lived in relative seclusion on the Hunter River north of Sydney.
"Kate was a very good journalist in every way," said Richard Pyle, who spent five years covering the war for The Associated Press. "In the heated competition between UPI and AP during the Vietnam war, she was an especially formidable presence."
Webb was born in 1943 in New Zealand and moved with her family to Australia's national capital, Canberra, as a child. She graduated from Melbourne University with a philosophy-related degree, but ended up as a cub reporter at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid Daily Mirror in Sydney.
She quit the paper at age 23 and went to Vietnam, ending up with UPI. She became one of the few women to cover the war full-time. Colleagues said she was courageous, empathetic, and dedicated.
"She never sought to be a role model or a trailblazer, but the duties were thrust upon her," Dawson wrote for the Bangkok Post this week. "She was only in it for the news."
In April 1971, she was among six people captured while covering a battle in Cambodia. Webb was given up for dead after officials said a body had they found and cremated was probably hers, prompting front page news reports and an obituary in The New York Times.
But after more than three weeks, she emerged from the jungle and phoned the UPI office in Phnom Penh, writing later about days spent crammed into stifling bunkers and all-night marches, with almost no food.
She struggled with the attention that came from the ordeal -- preferring to be in the field reporting or among her drinking buddies rather than in the limelight.
"She had a raspy whisper of a voice that drew you in," said another Vietnam-era UPI colleague, Paul Wedel. "But she never worked at being interesting or being a character. Almost the reverse. She seemed to want to be ordinary and matter-of-fact; just get on with the job."
She survived a near-fatal bout of malaria after her release, and faced death other times, too. She was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in India, and later badly beaten by a militia member in Kabul who whacked her head against a floor and tore a clump of hair out by the roots.
"People always think I must be so tough to survive all this," Webb told an interviewer from the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong in 2002. "But I'm a real softie. But maybe that's what it takes -- you have to be soft to survive. Hard people shatter."
She moved to Hong Kong with UPI in 1973, then Indonesia the following year before returning to Vietnam to cover the evacuation of U.S. personnel in 1975 that marked the end of the war.
After the war, she 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, who never married, was to be cremated in Australia before being scattered over the harbor in Wellington, New Zealand, in accordance with her wishes, her brother said.