1943 - 2007 | NSW, SE Asia | War correspondent
Kate Webb broke through the khaki ceiling and showed the world that women could be just as effective as men as frontline war reporters. As a 24-year-old reporter in Sydney, she bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam in 1967 to cover the biggest story of the times. By 1970, she had become bureau chief for United Press International’s Phnom Penh bureau. In 1971, she was taken prisoner by North Vietnamese soldiers and presumed killed. Her obituaries were written. She stumbled out of the jungle after 23 days. After Vietnam, she reported from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Kate Webb has become the most famous female war correspondent of the modern era. But you need to use that “has become” because fame took some time to catch up with her.
Webb never promoted herself, never chased by-lines, never sought glory and had to be pushed to talk about her astonishing achievements in her field. She was an almost silent presence in what is a pushy and aggressive trade and so softly spoken – she whispered - you literally had to press your face close to hers to hear what she had to say. Hers was a miraculous career, miraculous of course, in the sense she survived it.
Her life would make a great movie and even now Hollywood is on that case, the film On the Other Side takes its title from her autobiography. But a lot of people would look at the script and say, “Great story - but a bit on the exaggerated side. No real person could have lived a life like that”.
But Webb did of course, most memorably when she was taken prisoner in Cambodia and, when she was finally released, had the pleasure of reading her own obituaries written by fellow hacks who all assumed she was dead. As Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post, told an interviewer: “That was the beginning of the Kate Webb legend. And no-one was better fitted to be legendary than Kate Webb”.
Catherine Merrial Webb was born in Christchurch, New Zealand on 24 March 1943 and moved to Canberra with her family at age eight. Her parents were academics at the Australian National University who died in a car crash when she was 18. Webb studied philosophy at Melbourne University then did some art studies which included, rather improbably, making stained glass windows. She managed to smash a valuable product of this work and, to earn the repayment cost, started working part time in journalism, where she made her muted entrance into the trade on the Daily Mirror in Sydney.
It didn’t take Webb long to realise she had to be where the best story was, and that was in Vietnam and not on Australian papers’ women’s pages. She got to South Vietnam in late 1967, just in time to report the biggest story of the whole Vietnam War.
Webb had hardly settled in as a junior reporter with United Press International when the combined Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched the 1968 Tet offensive, the country wide attempt to overthrow the ruling South Vietnam government. Because it was a huge New Year holiday, Saigon was very quiet and Webb was one of very few correspondents in the city.
When the heavy firing and mortaring began, Webb headed to the American embassy. Under fire, she reached the walled compound to find it was under attack, with dead soldiers from both sides littering the grounds and the buildings. As she memorably wrote at the time: “It looked like a butcher’s shop in Eden, beautiful but ghastly.”
In 1971, Webb became the UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh, where the murderous Khmer Rouge communist guerrillas were gradually winning the battle for the country. She was captured after a highway firefight and disappeared. The Khmer Rouge at that time were murdering all foreign journalists they captured, and so after two weeks, and after the burned unidentified corpse of a white woman had been found, her friends in the press corps started publishing their obituaries. Webb had become the story.
She and five other journalists had been reporting outside Phnom Penh when they were captured by a North Vietnamese unit operating in the area. Webb and her group of five were marched through the jungles for 23 days. At one point an interrogator said, “Do you realise you are a prisoner of war, and that one shot through the head could finish you, just like that?” To which she replied, “I don’t consider myself a prisoner of war, I’m not a soldier.” And the tension broke when her captor said, “Then consider yourself an invited guest.” And they all laughed.
That episode would have been enough excitement for most reporters but, of course, there were other high and low lights. Once in Kabul, a crazed Uzbek bandit chieftain grabbed her by the hair and was dragging her upstairs in the Kabul Hotel for an Uzbek night of passion. Webb was rescued by two fellow reporters and the bandit was sentenced by the Afghan Foreign Ministry to attend an “Apology Dinner” for her the next night. She decided not to appear. Said one of her rescuers: “She missed seeing him apologise - with a big glass of vodka in front of him and his heroin syringe beside the glass.”
Webb spent most of her career living in and reporting all over her beloved Asia, covering most of that fractious region’s wars, revolutions and political upheavals, and interviewing the heroes and villains of the day. She wasn’t the most elegant of writers - and didn’t need to be. Like all reporters who gravitated to wire services, she loved the competition and speed of the work. You had to be first on the scene, first to get the news out - and you had to get the facts right.
Webb’s contribution to her trade was to be an outstanding member of a small group of female reporters who established that women reporters and photographers could do any rotten job on a battlefield that men could do. A few women came before her, now they are on scene at all the world’s bloodiest battles.
She liked a drink or 12, and seemed to stay slim on 60 cigarettes a day. But once when she was congratulated on her steely toughness, she replied: “No I’m a real softie. Hard people shatter”. Kate Webb never shattered.
Tony Clifton began his career in journalism on the Benalla Standard in 1956. He spent 10 years in and around Fleet Street, mainly at The Sunday Times. He spent the next 30 years with Newsweek magazine, covering wars in the Middle East and Asia, starting with Vietnam and ending in the high Himalayas on the Pakistan side in their border war with India - the first war between nuclear-armed powers.
Webb stamp, issued in 2017 for Remembrance Day
Courtesy of Fairfax
Kate Webb in 2001. Courtesy of Fairfax
'The women who covered Vietnam', Elizabeth Becker, The New Yorker, 17 November 2017
On the other side: 21 days with the Viet Cong, Kate Webb, Quadrangle Books, New York, 1972
On Their Own: Women journalists and the American experience in Vietnam, Joyce Hoffman, Da Capo Press, 2006
Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia, John McBeth, Talisman Publishing, Singapore, 2011