Twenty-Three Days With the NVA
By LtCol Mike Christy
When New Zealand-born war correspondent Kate Webb reported from the battlefields of Cambodia, she kept her chestnut hair cropped G.I.-short and wore jeans and loose shirts to obscure her breasts. This was 1971. Only a handful of women were full-time correspondents in Vietnam, and even fewer women roughed the front lines next door in Cambodia, where military officers believed foreign women were, at best, a distraction. At worst, they were bad luck.
Bad luck was a virus among foreign correspondents in Cambodia. Unlike in Vietnam – where Webb arrived four years earlier at age 23 with a philosophy degree, a one-way ticket from Australia, a Remington typewriter, $200 in cash and a whiskey-and-cigarette voice so soft people leaned in to hear her – there were no reliable phone lines in Cambodia to call your editor in an emergency. There were no American military hospitals to sew up your bullet wounds; no helicopters to evacuate you when things got bloody. By April 1971, several years before the Killing Fields, at least 16 foreign correspondents were missing and 9 were dead.
On April 7th, it was Webb’s turn. A 28-year-old Bureau Chief for United Press International (UPI), Webb was covering a clash on Highway 4, south of Phnom Penh. As bullets flew from every direction between North Vietnamese and United States-backed Cambodian troops, Webb and her Cambodian interpreter plunged into a ditch. By the time they eventually belly-crawled their way out, four other refugees from the attack had joined them: a Japanese photojournalist and his Cambodian interpreter along with a Cambodian newspaper cartoonist and a Cambodian photographer.
Throughout that afternoon and night, the six of them crept through the wooded foothills of Cambodia’s Elephant Mountains, holding their breath as they stood within inches of chatting North Vietnamese soldiers. At 11:30 the next morning, tired, thirsty, their clothes and skin shredded by branches, they were crouching in the underbrush when they looked up to see two skinny North Vietnamese soldiers with AK-47’s. The soldiers bound Webb’s arms behind her back with wire, vine, and tape and roped all of the captives together in a single line. They confiscated their notebooks, their ID cards, their cameras, their watches. Then they took one thing that Webb held dear: a gold Chinese charm that she wore around her neck. She had clung to that charm in foxholes and always came out alive. Now without it, she felt naked.
Kate was interrogated by an older man, who said, “Do you realize you are a prisoner of war, and that one shot through the head could finish you, just like that?” “That’s up to you now,” Kate told him. “I can do nothing about it. Besides, I don’t consider myself a prisoner of war, I’m not a soldier.” “Then consider yourself an invited guest,” said her interrogator, and they all laughed.
After a soldier tossed her and other prisoners’ shoes into the trees, laughing, Webb was forced to walk barefoot on the hot asphalt and through woods littered with bamboo splinters and stones, until another soldier brought Webb a pair of thongs. She winced, knowing they had been stripped from a dead Cambodian paratrooper.
Following a week of night marches, they arrived at a military camp where Webb slept in a hammock and alternated between stretches of numbing boredom and piercing fear. Why she wondered, hadn’t they shot her? Did they believe her during the interrogations when she said she wasn’t an American, wasn’t with the CIA, wasn’t a soldier? Maybe they would turn her over to the Khmer Rouge, where death – perhaps preceded by starvation – was almost certain. Maybe they planned to march her to the Hanoi Hilton, where United States pilots were being brutally tortured. There are worse things than a single bullet to the head.
As Webb would later write in her memoirs, “On the Other Side: 23 Days With the Viet Cong,” there wasn’t all that much that separated soldier from prisoner. Both subsisted on two meals a day of rice and pork fat in a salted broth and wrestled with hunger, malaria, homesickness. Webb and a soldier she nicknamed Li’l Abner compared their scarred feet (his were worse) and, in French, discussed the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Napoleonic Wars. Three weeks into captivity, Webb had lost 25 pounds – down to 105, on her 5-foot-7-inch frame – and shook with fever from two strains of malaria. She longed to take a bath, to shave her legs, to eat an orange.
She was not, however, dead. On April 21, 1971 – while Webb was suffering in the jungles of Cambodia – the first obituaries began to appear. Time magazine reported that near Highway 4, two Cambodian officers had found a white woman they believed was Webb with a bullet in the head and another in the chest. In accordance with Cambodian military procedures, they cremated the body. “Webb is the 10th journalists known to have died in Cambodia,” the magazine reported. The Times remembered her both as a soft-voiced young “waif” in a striped dress and sandals on the streets of Saigon, and as a cool, incisive reporter when she put on combat boots, helmet, and flak jacket to go on missions with troops.
Around that same time, the North Vietnamese were telling Webb about their plans to free her. They figured out a drop-off spot where Cambodian forces might rescue them. And on April 30th – following what Webb would call a “Mad Hatter’s” farewell party with tea, cigarettes, candy and bananas – Webb and the other captives made their final night march, this time with their possessions returned, save for their notebooks and cameras. In the predawn darkness, the soldiers and their former prisoners said fast farewells and Webb and the others walked onto Highway 4 waving a small piece of white cloth. “Miss Webb,” said a Cambodian officer who spotted her on the roadside, “you are supposed to be dead!”
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, and given the first name Catherine, which she detested. She was the daughter of academics who moved the family to Australia in 1951, settling in the federal capital Canberra, where her father was chairman of the political science department at the Australian National University.
At age 15, she was charged with the murder of Victoria Fenner, the adopted daughter of Frank Fenner in Canberra. She supplied a rifle and bullets to Fenner and was present when Fenner committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. After a Children’s Court hearing the charge was dropped.
After her parents were killed in a car crash when she was eighteen, Webb paid her own way through university. She graduated with an honors degree in symbolic logic from Melbourne University and began working as an artist, making stained glass windows and painting.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that she stumbled into journalism when she was forced to pay for a stained glass window she shattered while working on it. She got a job as a secretary at The Sydney Daily Mirror, then became a reporter.
Later in 1967, she resigned from the Sydney Daily Mirror and went to Saigon on her own and became a part-time correspondent for UPI, which hired her as a full-time staff member within several months. She was soon on the battlefield earning a reputation as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking war correspondent.
Armed with notebook and pen she accompanied United States, Australian and South Vietnamese troops on operational patrols, and was the first wire correspondent to reach the United States Embassy on the first morning of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Later that year Webb survived an American rocket attack on a Saigon military building that killed everyone around her.
She also spent considerable nonworking time investigating the involvement of South Vietnamese officials in the black market, a subject that had not been fully explored. Once, after writing late at her office, she came home to find a .45-caliber bullet hole in her apartment door and the slug embedded in the wall just above her bed.
She worked in Vietnam for more than six years, in those days when reporters in Indochina lived lives straight out of a Graham Greene novel, becoming UPI’s bureau chief in Cambodia in 1971. The foreign correspondent Jon Swain recalled that the only time he ever saw Kate out of her usual baggy pants was in Chantal’s, the famous Phnom Penh opium den, where clients always changed into sarongs. Kate was such a famous customer that a group photograph of her, Swain and the photographer Kent Potter, shot down and killed in February 1971, was the parlor’s sole decoration.
By 1973, following the Paris peace accords, the U.S. was pulling out of Vietnam, during what was called the “Vietnamization” of the war. Kate moved on to Hong Kong. But in April 1975 she was back, as South Vietnam collapsed and the last U.S. personnel were evacuated.
After Vietnam, she continued to work across Asia for UPI until 1977 and later spent 17 years with Agence France Press (AFP). She reported on the Tamil Tiger uprising in Sri Lanka and covered Pakistan, the Philippines, East Timor and Nepal. Later while working in India, she nearly lost an arm in a motorcycle accident.
In 1990-91 her work included the first Iraq war and the Soviet withdrawal from that country and was there for the fall of communist the fall Mohammad Najibullah in 1992. She covered Bangladesh’s President Ershad and the assassination in India of Rajiv Gandhi. In 1994 she had an exclusive on the death of North Korea’s dictator Kim Il-Sung. In 1997 she was there for the end of British rule in Hong Kong. Her last big story came in 1998; reporting on the collapse of President Suharto’s regime in Indonesia. She also reported from Afghanistan and later described an incident in Kabul as the most frightening in her career. Following the collapse of Mohammad Najibullah’s communist regime, she was captured by a local warlord and brought to a hotel, where she was brutally beaten and dragged up a flight of stairs by her hair. She finally escaped with the help of two fellow journalists, and hid out on a window ledge in the freezing Afghan winter, while the warlord and his men searched the building for her.
Kate was a good writer, but her value for future historians will be that all her best stories were written from the heart of the struggle, in the heat of the battle, in conversation with the major players – whether generals, grunts in foxholes, peasants in their fields, rulers in their palaces or guerrillas in their caves. Those historians will pass over the prognostications and predictions of desk-bound pundits to read Kate – knowing she was really there when it all happened.
In 2001, at the age of 58, Kate quit front-line reporting and returned to Australia and settled north of Sydney, on the Hunter River. For her, the only kind of journalism she liked was frontline reporting, and she was too old for it. She tended her garden and sketched nature scenes. And on some nights, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, and a rapt audience of friends and family, she told stories about a few of the places she had seen.
In 2002, Kate Webb wrote about her experiences as a combat reported. An excerpt from her book “War Torn: Stories from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam” follows:
“Out in the field, you were all in the same predicament, with nothing between you and a piece of metal with your name on it except the whim of the Great Classifier in the Sky.
“But back in Saigon, it was different. You got back more than not stinking, sweat-caked, mosquito-bitten, and badly in need of a shower; the images of the last week or the days – the loss, the nerves, the bitterness, the adrenaline, the heart – to lights, booze, laughter, and martinis on the terrace of the Caravelle or the Continental.
“I would find myself mesmerized by the little pads of butter, the fresh French bread, the clink of ice, the feel of silk underclothes, and the whiteness of the tablecloths. I reveled in it, and I felt guilty and a sham. The people I had been with were still out there.
“It was weird. It was Alice through the looking glass.
“Often only hours before you took that first sip of Ricard or your martini, the ice cold on your tongue, you had been watching a medic give up on a kid of 18 or 19 and flip a cold poncho over this face. Often you could hear the artillery of a battle across the Saigon River.”
Diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006 she passed away on May 13, 2007, aged sixty-four. Despite her reputation for hard-drinking, chain-smoking, and after-hours bravado, Webb described herself as “a real softie,” explaining: “Hard people shatter.”
Agence France-Presse (AFP) established the Kate Webb Journalism Award with a 3,000 to 5,000 euro prize, awarded annually to a correspondent or agency that best exemplified the spirit of Kate Webb