Note: In my last piece, I wrote about Mellissa Fung, the Canadian TV reporter kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2008. It got me thinking about another colleague who was captured during another war in another time.
On April 7, 1971, the news hit home on the UPI wire – Kate Webb was missing.
Webb, a New Zealander, was 28, the UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh, a much admired war correspondent in Southeast Asia.
“She was short, thin to the point of frailty, and she never talked above a whisper,” Perry Deane Young wrote in his 1975 book Two of the Missing: A Reminiscence of Some Friends in the War.
“But I was to learn that she – like me – was never more happy than when she was standing in filthy men’s fatigues, drinking beer and talking dirty with the fellows.”
Webb had been among a group of six journalists captured in Cambodia, the wild west of the Vietnam War, where reporters and photographers were fair game for the Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong.
The previous year, 25 had been captured in Cambodia and never seen again. They included the two celebrated in Young’s book: Sean Flynn, son of Errol, on assignment for Time magazine, and Dana Stone, of CBS, a couple of easy riders who hopped on motorcycles, headed down Highway One, and vanished.
I was a young reporter/editor at UPI-New York when Kate disappeared. The word in the newsroom was that she and the five others – a Japanese and four Cambodians – were probably dead.
The one hope was that they’d been taken by North Vietnamese soldiers, who treated most journalists as prisoners of war.
But all was lost when Cambodian soldiers found a woman’s body — and cremated the remains — in the area where Kate was last seen.
Her family in Australia held a memorial service. Her obituary was published in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Her colleagues in New York planned a wake.
Catherine Merrial Webb was born in Christchurch and moved to Australia with her family when she was a child.
She was in her late teens when her parents were killed in a car crash. She went on to university, and took a job on a Sydney newspaper.
In 1967, with a couple of hundred bucks in her pocket, she flew into Saigon and soon got on with UPI.
There were more than a few women reporters covering the war, though they remained a curiosity to the troops. “If you don’t make a thing out of being a female, if you don’t demand special privileges and don’t ask where you plug in your hairdryer, you have no problems,” she once said.
Reporters in Vietnam routinely left the safety of Saigon and followed the soldiers into battle. Kate experienced her share of action – rocket and mortar fire, bullets flying, a crash landing in a chopper.
More than 60 journalists were killed covering that awful war.
Twenty-three days after she was captured, Kate and the others walked out of the jungle, freed by the Vietnamese soldiers who held them prisoner.
Shouts of “she’s alive, she’s alive” echoed through the UPI newsroom in New York.
Suffering from malaria, Kate nonetheless flew to New York to attend her wake.
It had been planned as an informal affair, an open house at a local dive near the UPI office on East 42nd Street.
But some mucky muck changed the venue to a private dining room in the chichi Sign of the Dove. Invitation only. (I was not on the list.)
Kate, unimpressed, gleefully joined a food fight that trashed the joint.
She stayed stateside for a while, wrote a book, before returning to Asia, to more war zones and other dangerous places.
She left UPI in 1985, hired on with AFP, covered the Soviets fighting the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, a crazed Afghan attacked her in the lobby of a hotel, dragged her by her hair to his room and punched her in the face.
“That rattled me, really spooked me. It took a while to stop looking over my shoulder. There’s something very humiliating about having your head bashed.”
Still, she went on to cover the first Gulf War and other skirmishes.
Kate Webb quit the business in 2001, saying she was “too old to keep up with front-line reporting, and that was the only kind I liked.”
Her second obit in the Times was published on May 15, 2007. She died of cancer, at her home in Australia, at the age of 64.