David Lamb, longtime L.A. Times correspondent who covered Vietnam War, dies at 76

David Lamb was the consummate newspaperman in the glory days of the profession.

Especially for young reporters dispatched to the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, a chance to work with the veteran journalist and writer was like being teamed with a hero.

Yet the gravel-voiced correspondent treated newbies like he did everyone else – with warmth, deference and a boyish grin that regularly erupted in hearty laughter. 

Lamb, a foreign and national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times for more than three decades, and a prolific author, died Sunday at a hospital in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington.

He was 76, and the cause of death was cancer, according to his wife, Sandy Northrop.

As a reporter, Lamb enjoyed the nomadic life, absorbed what he witnessed, made “friends not sources,” as one editor put it, and wrote masterfully – even poetically – about people and events in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia.

“You could send him to a country in turmoil and get great copy,” recalled his former boss, Alvin Shuster, foreign editor of The Times from 1983 to 1995. “And then you could send him to Australia, where nothing was happening, and get great copy.”

As a reporter for United Press International, Lamb followed U.S. combat troops into battle in Vietnam in the late 1960s, when fighting was especially fierce. 

Lamb proudly, and probably accurately, claimed credit for dubbing an otherwise anonymous killing ground “Hamburger Hill,” a name that U.S. troops adored and the Pentagon hated when it hit the headlines in 1969.

Lamb later explained that he had asked a soldier from the 101st Airborne Division if troops had a name for the heavily fortified mountain they were assaulting other than what the Army called it – Hill 937.

“I was hoping he would come up with a punchy, descriptive label that I could use in that day’s dispatch,” Lamb wrote. “Something like Pork Chop Hill from the Korean War.

“‘I don’t know what anyone else is calling it,’ [the soldier] said, ‘but with all this chopped up red meat, it reminds me of a hamburger.’

“That night I took journalistic liberty and wrote ‘The battle that GIs are calling Hamburger Hill…’” Lamb admitted.

In all, Lamb spent six years as a battlefield correspondent, returning in 1975 to help cover the calamitous collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Saigon.

"What was on people's minds and on their lips was the word ‘bloodbath,’” he later told PBS about the final days of the war. 

In 1997, he became the first American newspaper correspondent to live in post-war Vietnam when he was appointed The Times’ Hanoi bureau chief.

In all, Lamb reported from more than 100 countries, including later conflicts in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor, Rwanda and other war zones.

He wrote several seminal books on regions he covered, including “The Arabs,” “The Africans” and “Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns,“ which compared wartime Vietnam with the bustling country he found two decades later. Publication in 2001 coincided with a TV documentary shot by Lamb's wife and narrated by the author.

His diverse interests could be seen in “Stolen Season,” his 1991 tribute to minor league baseball, and five years later, in “Over the Hills: a Midlife Escape by Bicycle Across America,” which was all the more remarkable because he continued to smoke as he pedaled. 

Reporters sent to the first Gulf War read his 1987 book, “The Arabs,” like a bible. He inspired many, but few wrote as elegantly, using vivid details to capture a magical and mysterious world for readers back home.

“Generations of us grew up wanting to write like David Lamb,” recalled Kim Murphy, the Times’ assistant managing editor for national and international news. Even now, she added, “I’ve yet to meet his match.”

Tributes poured in Monday from his former colleagues, diplomats and others who had crossed his path – and never forgot it.

“When I was a correspondent  in Africa, several years after Dave left the continent,  I would constantly run in to people he had met in his travels who would ask about how he was,” said Scott Kraft, a former foreign correspondent who now is deputy managing editor of the Times.

“He was the most genuinely decent, honest and fun-loving person I've ever known,” said Tyler Marshall, a former foreign and national correspondent at The Times.

“Professionally, he taught me you don't have to be a hard-nosed, overbearing personality to be a good reporter and come up with engaging stories. For him, simple kindness was the real currency of life,” Marshall wrote in an email. “That said, he had a healthy skepticism when dealing with those who wielded power.”

David Sherman Lamb was born March 5, 1940, in Boston, Mass., to Pauline Ayers Lamb and Ernest Lamb, an investment banker.

In 1954, after his beloved Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee, he wrote a letter to the Milwaukee Journal offering tips on how to cover the team. The paper wound up running a summer’s worth of columns entitled “Dave Lamb Says – a 15 year old Boston boy’s opinions about baseball.”

He majored in journalism at the University of Maine, and worked for several smaller newspapers, including one in Okinawa, Japan, and for United Press International, before he joined the Los Angeles Times in 1970.

He met Northrop on a blind date after he returned home from Vietnam. They moved in together within two weeks, recalled Doyle McManus, Times columnist and former Washington bureau chief when Lamb was posted there.

They became the first unmarried couple The Times sent abroad, requiring special dispensation from the paper’s editor to approve Northrop’s airplane ticket. They married in Nairobi in 1977.

He is survived by his wife.


UPDATES:

4:43 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and comments.

This article was originally published at 8 a.m.

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