Kate Webb: UPI's Woman in Vietnam
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
War correspondent Kate Webb died this week at the age of 64. Ms. Webb had a pioneering, harrowing and colorful career. She was one of only a handful of women who covered the Vietnam War. In 1971 when she was the Phnom Penh bureau chief for United Press International, she was one of six reporters taken captive by the North Vietnamese and held for 23 days.
Journalist and Asia specialist Elizabeth Becker met Kate Webb in Cambodia and saw her in action there. Elizabeth Becker joins us in the studio where she should be comfortable. She's a former NPR foreign editor.
Welcome back, Elizabeth.
Ms. ELIZABETH BECKER (Journalist, Author, "When the War Was Over: A Modern History of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge"): Oh, it's wonderful to be back, John.
YDSTIE: Give us a sense of how Kate Webb approached her job as a war correspondent.
Ms. BECKER: She was from another era. She was meticulous. She was honest. You barely noticed Kate was there. She taught me a lot of the rudiments of war corresponding like how to measure a bomb crater with your feet so you can tell whether it was dropped by a B-52 or not, how to judge whether or not you should go down a highway. And, always, it was - you can never be a cowboy but you had to take every risk that was necessary for a story.
YDSTIE: Did she make any concessions to being a woman in that situation?
Ms. BECKER: She was extremely feminine. And if you heard her voice, it had this well-earned soft, whisky, smoky voice.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Ms. KATE WEBB (War Correspondent): Physically, it was very tough, walking all night on bare feet. And that's 12 hours a night. Next to no food, you have to keep, sort of, urging yourself on as if you're a small child. You talk to yourself and say keep going.
Ms. BECKER: She had a gorgeous figure. But in that situation, consciously, she kept her hair extremely short. She wore, most often, white men shirts and jeans so that from a distance, you could imagine that that was a young man with the other reporters coming to war. A big reason for this was the superstition of Cambodians. If a Cambodian general knew that a woman was around covering the war, they'd send her away because women are bad luck, who knows they might be having their menstrual period, which would mean complete defeat immediately. Kate avoided that.
YDSTIE: Most major newspapers have run obituaries on Ms. Webb during the past couple of days. For at least one newspaper, The New York Times, it was the second obituary on Kate Webb they had run. Tell us about how that happened.
Ms. BECKER: She was captured by the North Vietnamese inside Cambodia in '71, and the war hadn't been going on more than a year or so - the war in Cambodia. She got caught. After she had been captured, I think a Khmer Republic group of soldiers found a…
YDSTIE: A body of a woman had been killed.
Ms. BECKER: A woman. Right. And so they said, oh, it's Kate Webb. And she had an obit on The New York Times. But that's the beginning of the Kate Web legend. And no one was better fitted to be legendary than Kate.
YDSTIE: What made her that way, do you think? Why…
Ms. BECKER: Well, she's an extremely private person and I would - I have such respect for that privacy and the depth of her personality, but she gave me a couple of clues. When Phnom Penh, during the war, was being bombarded and she came up to my hotel and said, let's have a drink. She was scared and Kate is never scared. So I said, sure. I'll just finish this up. And I was - well, she said what are you doing? I said, I'm writing a letter to my mother. And she said, at least you have a mother. And then she told me about losing her parents at the age of 17 or 18 in a single-car accident. That's the closest she came to giving me a clue of just this deep sadness she had.
YDSTIE: Do you get the sense that these tragedies may have, sort of, sent her away?
Ms. BECKER: You have no idea how seductive it is to be a war correspondent. And at that time, Kate was just in her element. I mean, there was that - certainly, that's tragedy, but I don't want to leave the impression that Kate was anything but full of life and just - she was at the right place at the right time and she knew it.
YDSTIE: Elizabeth Becker covered Asia for The Washington Post and The New York Times. She is author of "When the War Was Over: A Modern History of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge."
Ms. BECKER: Thank you.
YDSTIE: It's WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.