Kate Webb, a pioneering journalist whose powerful reputation was forged on the front lines of the Vietnam war and endured almost 35 years of reporting strife throughout Asia, has died, her family said. She was 64.
Webb, who once made the news instead of writing it in 1971 when she was captured in Cambodia and held prisoner by North Vietnamese troops, succumbed to bowel cancer in Sydney, Australia, on Sunday, her brother, Jeremy Webb, told The Associated Press on Monday.
“There wasn’t a story that she ever covered poorly, but it was her war reporting that drove her and incidentally turned her into an icon of her generation,” said Alan Dawson, a colleague of Webb’s at news agency United Press International during the war years.
The New Zealand-born, Sydney-trained Webb first went to Vietnam in 1967 and spent more than six years covering the war for UPI, building a reputation for brave and honest reporting and insightful writing.
After the war’s end, she worked throughout Asia for UPI and later Agence France Presse, following the news and covering some of the region’s biggest stories from South Korea to Afghanistan and a half-dozen other countries, as well as Iraq during the first Gulf War.
After covering the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998, she retired from journalism in 2001, saying she felt “too old to keep up with front line reporting, and that was the only kind I liked.”
Webb, who lived the hard-drinking, chain-smoking lifestyle of her journalistic generation to the hilt, returned to her family’s adopted home of Australia, where she lived in relative seclusion on the Hunter River north of Sydney.
Webb was born in 1943 in New Zealand and moved with her family to Australia’s national capital, Canberra, as a child. She graduated from Melbourne University with a philosophy-related degree, but ended up as a cub reporter at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid Daily Mirror in Sydney.
She quit the paper, age 23, and went to Vietnam, ending up with UPI. She became one of the few women to cover the war full-time. Colleagues remembered her as courageous but not foolhardy, empathetic, dedicated and a perfectionist.
“She never sought to be a role model or a trailblazer, but the duties were thrust upon her,” Dawson wrote for the Bangkok Post this week. “She was only in it for the news.”
In April 1971, she was among six people captured while covering a battle in Cambodia. Webb was given up for dead after officials said a body had they found and cremated was probably hers, prompting front page news reports and an obituary in the New York Times.
But after more than three weeks, she phoned the UPI office in Phnom Penh and emerged from the jungle, writing later about days spent crammed in stifling bunkers followed by all-night marches, with almost no food.
She suffered a near-fatal bout of malaria after the ordeal, and faced death other times too. She was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in India, and later badly beaten by a militia member in Kabul who whacked her head against a floor and tore a clump of hair out by the roots.
“People always think I must be so tough to survive all this,” Webb told an interviewer from the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong in 2002. “But I’m a real softie. But maybe that’s what it takes ? you have to be soft to survive. Hard people shatter.”
She moved to Hong Kong in 1973, then Indonesia the following year before returning to Vietnam to cover the evacuation of U.S. personnel in 1975 that marked the end of the war.
After the war, she roamed Asia, covering coups and the fall of governments from India to the Philippines; the Tamil Tiger uprising in Sri Lanka; Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan; the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China.
Webb, who never married, will be cremated in Australia before being scattered over the harbor in Wellington, New Zealand, in accordance with her wishes, her brother said.