In Manila, my parents entertained a lot. Our house would sparkle with candlelight, polished brass and silver. The maids had special starched “party” uniforms. White linens covered the table, and hors d’oeuvres were passed on elegant trays. The “bar” was a small table in the corner, stocked with every liquor known to man (and some unknown!) Sometimes the parties would get raucous; one time I was stunned to find a bunch of naked adults in the pool. My dad, to his credit, wasn’t happy … I could hear him outside yelling, “Okay, you’ve gone too far this time!” before hauling everyone out of the water. A friend of my mother’s once went into the bathroom where my father’s pajamas were hanging on the door. She came out wearing them, much to the delight of the party guests. My dad, not to be outdone, went into the bathroom and reappeared wearing this lady’s evening gown. Once my mother took a mango pie, topped with whipped cream, and teasingly threatened to put it in the face of one of her guests. The guest (intentionally or not) put her hand under the pie and it ended up in my mother’s face. Oh, the joviality! The decadence! It was crazy stuff to witness.
One time I noticed a lady sitting in a dark corner of the living room, not really participating in the festivities. She was somewhat rumpled, a little unsteady, a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She was a guest of Aunt Caro & Uncle Leon’s … one of Leon’s UPI colleagues. She had short dark hair. It seemed to me that she was there, but she wasn’t there. I don’t even know why I took notice of her, or why the memory of her stayed with me.
And I don’t know, either, why years later I realized who she was. Her name was Kate Webb. Not a Barbara Walters, or a Diane Sawyer. But in my mind, she was a far better journalist than they were.
Born in New Zealand, Kate moved to Australia at a young age. Tragically, she lost both of her parents in a car accident when she was 18. She put herself through college, studying philosophy. She accidentally fell into journalism when she took a job at a newspaper as a typist to pay for a broken window. In 1967 she ended up in Saigon with no job. She had an old typewriter, courage and persistence, and before long she started submitting freelance articles to UPI. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and had several close encounters with danger, including once being accidently pushed into a minefield by an Army press officer.
Before long, she proved her mettle and became the Cambodian Bureau Chief for UPI in Phnom Penh when her predecessor was killed in a Viet Cong ambush. In April of 1970, she and five other Asian journalists were taken hostage by the communist forces and marched for 23 days through the jungle. They tied the six together and took their shoes away. When the dead body of a young woman was found, it was reported by the New York Times that Kate was dead. She wrote a book about her experiences called “On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong.” The book is terse and factual, almost as if she is telling the story in the third person. The fear is ever present; at times she seems convinced that her death is a foregone conclusion.
It is harrowing and difficult to read. Surviving something like this is inconceivable for a mortal like me.
And if Kate’s being kidnapped by the Vietcong wasn’t enough, she went on to cover the Gulf War, the unrest in East Timor, a civil war in Afghanistan (where she was kidnapped by an Afghan warlord, beaten and dragged by her hair through a hotel) and was the first journalist to announce the death of North Korea’s Kim Il Song. Kate finally retired in 2001, and she died in 2006. Her obituary and a story about her in the New York Times can be found here and here.
Kate wasn’t the only one: women named Tad Bartimus, Denby Fawcett, Jurate Kazickas, Edith Lederer, Ann Bryan Mariano, Anne Morrisesy Merick, Laura Palmer and Tracy Wood also covered the war in Southeast Asia. Each one of these women was an extraordinary person whom history has overlooked. A book called “War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam” is a gripping read. What shaped these women? I feel a mixture of admiration, envy, and amazement. I can’t imagine.
The word “hero” creates a picture in everyone's minds. But my picture is a little out of the ordinary. It is a picture of a quiet, dark haired woman who sat quietly in my parents’ living room. She wasn't participating in the festivities of the party, but quietly observing, much like she did in her professional life. She lived and worked so that the world would know the truth about war, and would know that our enemies are not really that different from us. She risked her life, looking death in the eye, but never claimed the limelight. All so we would know. In my own little way, I’m trying to do the same for her.