Kate Webb, a courageous foreign correspondent who forged a path for other female journalists in a four-decade career spent largely in turbulent Asian outposts, including a harrowing period in Cambodia during the Vietnam War when she was captured and presumed dead, has died. She was 64.
The pioneering reporter had bowel cancer and died Sunday in Sydney, Australia, her brother, Jeremy Webb, told the Associated Press.
Webb was the first woman to head a bureau in a war zone for United Press International, according to Tracy Wood, a former UPI correspondent and investigative reporter for The Times who was assigned to Vietnam a year after Webb’s release by her North Vietnamese captors.
“She was a reporter’s reporter,” Wood said Monday, “truly one of the finest war correspondents, and not just in Vietnam.”
Assigned to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, Webb was one of six journalists captured by North Vietnamese troops while covering a battle in April 1971. Subjected to forced marches with little to eat or drink, malarial fevers and repeated interrogations, she emerged from the jungle after 24 days, astonishing colleagues who had already published her obituary.
Over the next decades she scored exclusives on Cambodian Premier Lon Nol’s incapacitating stroke and the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. She also reported on revolution in the Philippines, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in India and the Persian Gulf War.
She covered the collapse of the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan, where soldiers smashed her head on the floor and tore out part of her scalp. When she retired from journalism in 2001 after 13 years as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, she said the Kabul incident was the most frightening in a career filled with close encounters with death.
A shy, waif-like woman who spoke in a near whisper, Webb undermined the stereotype of the hard-bitten war correspondent. She was slender and pretty, with large eyes framed by a bubble of wavy brown hair. “Picture a brunet Princess Diana in jungle fatigues with about 40 more points of IQ,” a UPI colleague once described her. Men fell over themselves trying to protect her, not knowing that “that was the last thing Kate needed,” Wood said.
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1943 and raised in Canberra, Australia, Webb grew up in an academic family. Her father taught political science, and her mother was a historian. Both were killed in a car accident when Webb was a teenager. She is survived by a brother and a sister.
She graduated from Melbourne University with a philosophy degree before going to work at the Daily Mirror newspaper in Sydney in 1964.
In 1967, when she was 23, she left the paper and bought a ticket to Saigon, determined to find a job covering “simply the biggest story going.” With an old Remington typewriter and a few hundred dollars, she nearly exhausted her funds before she landed a job as a freelancer for a GI newspaper. Eventually she was hired by UPI, where her talents were viewed with great skepticism and not a little sexism.
“What the hell would I want a girl for?” she recalled the bureau chief remarking before he agreed to give her a chance to work.
She quickly proved her mettle, becoming the first wire service reporter at the U.S. Embassy on the morning the Tet offensive was launched in January 1968. That spring she survived an American rocket attack on a Saigon military building that killed everyone around her, including the South Vietnamese police chief. She brushed herself off, ran back into the rubble to aid the wounded, then wrote a stirring account of the incident.
She worked in the United States briefly before returning to Southeast Asia in early 1971. Because she could speak French, she was assigned to Cambodia, formerly a French protectorate. In “War Torn,” a 2002 book about women who covered the Vietnam War, she wrote that she “stepped into a dead man’s shoes” as the replacement for bureau chief Frank Frosch, whose bullet-riddled body was found face down in a rice paddy in southern Cambodia after a Viet Cong ambush in late 1970.
Frosch was the ninth journalist killed in Cambodia after the war expanded across its borders. Within two months of her arrival, Webb was feared to be the 10th.
On April 7, 1971, she was plodding down a main coastal highway in southern Cambodia with her UPI driver when “without warning the world exploded into the crack and whistle of small-arms fire, the crash of mortars and the sudden screams of wounded.”
She and the driver plunged into the jungle, behind Viet Cong lines, where they met up with four other journalists huddled together for protection. They crept and ran through the dense forest, sometimes only yards from enemy soldiers, with artillery shells falling around them. Tired, thirsty, their clothes shredded by thorns, they pressed on until the next morning, when they ran smack into two North Vietnamese soldiers bearing AK47s.
Bound individually with wire and roped together in a line, they marched day and night until their feet turned to pulp. After a week, they reached a camp, where they underwent interrogations Webb later described as “exhausting but civilized.”
While she was in the camp, a body believed to be hers was found in the area where she disappeared. The body was cremated in accordance with Cambodian military procedure, and it was identified as Webb’s by a member of the burial detail. On April 21, the New York Times ran her obituary under the headline “A Masked Toughness.”
Webb later said that one of the reasons she survived the ordeal of her capture and imprisonment was the attitude of one of her North Vietnamese interrogators. He was an older man of about 60 who seemed very tired and possibly sick, yet he kept questioning her in a diligent fashion. At some point, Webb recalled thinking, “ ‘He’s a professional.’ And I suddenly remembered that I was a professional, too, and I stopped feeling like a victim.”
She did not say in the accounts she later wrote whether her capture changed her or altered her view of the war. She offered only her finely etched observations: how her captors’ floppy hats were more practical than pith helmets because they protected them from the unsparing sun; how a war-scarred Viet Cong translator who had spent half his life in the resistance reacted when she asked him who was the more formidable foe -- the French colonialists or the Americans?
The translator told her, unequivocally, that fighting the French had been far tougher, that they were better soldiers and knew more about the country than the Americans.
When she was released May 1, she was 22 pounds lighter and sick with two strains of malaria.
“People always think I must be so tough to survive all this,” she said several years ago. “But I’m a real softie. But maybe that’s what it takes -- you have to be soft to survive. Hard people shatter.”