Kate Webb was the war reporter who came back from the dead.
Sent to cover the Vietnam War, she disappeared, believed to have been captured by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, who were known to ruthlessly execute prisoners and journalists. Her colleagues feared the worst.
When the burned body of a white woman, killed by bullet wounds, surfaced, the corpse was believed to belong to Webb. Her family hosted a memorial service and The New York Times, among other papers, published Webb’s obituary.
The 1971 article painted a sensitive portrait of a dedicated but unlikely war correspondent. Webb was, according to the paper,
soft -voiced, friendly and gentle, qualities that masked her reporter’s toughness. To those who did not know her, she appeared as a waif, plodding the Saigon streets in a striped dress and sandals, her feet almost as dirty as the sidewalks.
The waif manner never disappeared even when she donned green fatigues and awkward combat boots for trips to the field. Her helmet usually slipped off at inopportune moments and, in a heavy flak jacket, she was almost hidden from view.
She was not fearless, but she was brave. She went through mortar and rocket attacks, landings in disabled helicopters, and the common battlefield dangers of bullets and shrapnel, and would emerge shaken yet determined.
How great must have been the writer’s surprise when, a few weeks later, Webb emerged from the Cambodian jungle – malariastricken and ten pounds lighter – but very much alive. Luckily for her, she had not been captured by the Khmer Rouge, but by a unit of the North Vietnamese Army.
The Unit had marched her through the jungle for 23 days. Webb recalled that, during her captivity, she was interrogated by an older man, who said, ‘Do you realise 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,’ Webb responded. ‘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. Everyone laughed, and the tension was broken.
This was not Webb’s first near-death encounter, nor would it be her last. In fact, clues as to why she was so drawn to the danger of the battlefield may lie in Webb’s early life experience: she had a troubled childhood, specked with violence and tragedy.
Webb was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1943, but her family soon moved to Australia. Her mother was a feminist activist and her father was a professor of political science at the Australian National University. She was christened ‘Catherine’, but preferred ‘Kate’.
At the age of 15, Webb was charged with the murder of her friend Victoria Fenner. She had supplied a rifle and bullets to Victoria, who proceeded to shoot herself.
At a children’s court hearing, Webb stated that she had thought her friend was joking when she asked for the gun and bullets, and the charges were dropped.
This traumatic episode must have been hard enough for a teenage girl, but three years later she would lose both her parents in a car crash. Webb was aged just 18. These experiences surely forced Webb to grow a thick skin, furnishing her with the resilience to survive the horrors of the battlefield during her journalistic career.
Initially working as an artist, Webb accidentally broke an expensive pane of stained glass she had been commissioned to paint, and had to get a job as a secretary at the Sydney Daily Mirror to pay back the damage.
‘Butcher’s shop in Eden’
At the Mirror, Webb developed a taste for reporting, and started working on the women’s pages. But the adventure-seeking journalist quickly grew bored of civilian topics, quit her job, and made for Vietnam to report on the war – with only a typewriter and a few hundred dollars to her name.
There, she was hired as a junior reporter for United Press International, covering Vietnamese politics in Saigon, South Vietnam. Webb was in the city when the combined Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched the 1968 Tet Offensive. As the offensive took place during the New Year’s holiday period, Webb was one of the only correspondents left in the city and one of the first to report back from it.
With mortar shells exploding and heavy fire all around, Webb made her way to the American Embassy, the scene of bitter fighting. The ground was littered with the bodies of dead soldiers from both sides of the conflict.
Describing what she had witnessed, Webb wrote vividly that ‘it looked like a butcher’s shop in Eden, beautiful but ghastly.’ Webb continued reporting on the war, and, when her boss was killed, was promoted to UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh. That was when Webb was captured.
After covering the Vietnam War, Webb continued to seek out the world’s deadliest conflicts. She reported on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where she was almost scalped by a militiaman who tried to drag her up a flight of hotel stairs by her hair. Before things escalated, she was rescued by a few other reporters in the building.
The militiaman in question was made to attend an apology dinner with her the next evening, to which he turned up with a heroin syringe. Webb did not show up. Webb also reported on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in India, the conflict in East Timor, the 1968 revolution in the Philippines, and the Gulf War.
Rather than writing polished prose, Webb’s focus was on getting scoops quickly and accurately. While she enjoyed the speed of communication brought about by the wire service, she hated the real-time, relentless nature of mobile phones.
‘It’s like we’re all mosquitoes dancing on the surface of a pond. We have to move so fast that reporting has suffered,’ she complained. ‘It’s nowhere as meticulous as it was.’
Eventually, Webb grew too old to serve on the front-line, but reporting from the scenes of the action was the only kind of work she enjoyed. So, in 2001, aged 58, she quit reporting once and for all. She returned to her native Australia, settling just north of Sydney on the Hunter River, and found occasional work as a visiting professor of journalism at Ohio University.
Webb died of cancer in 2007. Her final obituaries were as commendatory as the first.
IN CONTEXT: Kate Webb
Webb worked as a correspondent in the second half of the 20th century, when female war reporters were still a rarity. Though women reporting from the front-line did not have to contend with the same official barriers as they had during and before the Second World War, many cultural barriers remained.
Webb, for instance, got most of her opportunities to report from the scene of battle by filling in for male correspondents who were on holiday.
In her personal life, Webb never married, nor did she have children. However, she was very philanthropic, often giving her support to people in straitened circumstances. For instance, she put up a family of Afghan refugees in her own house, and paid for their children to go to college.
Interestingly, she attributed her resilience as a war reporter to her soft-heartedness. On being called tough, she once responded, ‘No, I’m a real softie. Hard people shatter.’
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.