By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text. All rights reserved.
On April 21, 1971, The New York Times ran a seven-paragraph article that said Catherine M. Webb, the bureau chief for wire service United Press International in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was presumed dead.
Webb, then 28 years old, disappeared on April 7, when she and her translator and four others were ambushed on Highway 4, about 56 kilometers (about 35 miles) southwest of Phnom Penh, the capital. They were checking out reports of fighting in the area.
On April 16, a Caucasian body, with one bullet in the chest, was identified by two Cambodian Army officers as Webb’s. It was cremated where it was found, near the site of the disappearance. The body’s remains were transported to a hospital in Phnom Penh.
Her obituary appeared in other media worldwide, and her family was readying a memorial service for the New Zealand native, who was reared in Australia from the age of 8.
But Webb, one of the few women reporting on the Vietnam War and the spillover into neighboring Cambodia, was very much alive.
She was being held prisoner by the Viet Cong deep in the Cambodian countryside.
At the time of her disappearance, nine correspondents had been killed in Cambodia since 1970, and 17 were missing.
Perhaps Webb knew the story of Dickey Chapelle, a ground-breaking photojournalist, who was the first American female reporter killed in Vietnam, while on a patrol with a unit of Marines in 1965. See my post of July 16, 2016, for a discussion of “Fire in the Wind,” a thorough biography of Chapelle by Roberta Ostroff.
Webb, who went by “Kate,” first arrived in Saigon, South Vietnam, less than two years after Chapelle’s death. She was hired as a part-timer by UPI, and caught on full time about six months later.
And there’s no doubt Webb was aware of the story of the capture of Elizabeth Pond, 33, of the Christian Science Monitor; St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Richard Dudman, 52; and Mike Morrow, 24, of Dispatch News Service International.
In May 7, 1970, the three had inadvertently broached territory claimed by forces loyal to Cambodia’s deposed leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
They were held for more than five weeks before being released. Dudman wrote a book called “Forty Days with the Enemy,” which was published in 1971.
In “On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong” (Quadrangle Books, 1972), Webb describes how she and the others survived, detailing their movements, their treatment and the interrogations by the Viet Cong, who called themselves the Liberation Armed Forces.
Written within months of their release, and based on clandestine notes Webb was able to make while captive, this small volume is a no-frills, in-the-moment retelling of their experience (she never calls it an “ordeal”) and thought processes.
Neither an indictment nor a sympathetic treatise, “On the Other Side” showcases Webb for what she was: a keen, even-keeled reporter, whose quest for the truth behind the story never wavered.
On the day that Webb went out to investigate the fighting, she wasn’t anticipating being gone long from the office. She took no food, water or emergency equipment. Just her camera and a purse.
She was not wearing her usual green drab multipocketed top (United Press International was printed above the left breast pocket on some shirts) and slacks, but was clad instead in white jeans, a blue short-sleeved sweater and sandals.
Another questionable decision: Webb and her Cambodian interpreter, Chhimmy Sarath, left their Datsun and walked to the front lines. With shooting all around, they resorted to crouching in ditches and creeping parallel to the road trying to get to safety.
That lasted about a day before they were seized in terrain controlled by the Viet Cong.
The other four swept up with Webb were Japanese newsreel photographer Toshiichi Suzuki (fluent in Vietnamese); Vorn, Suzuki’s translator; Tea Kim Heang, a freelance photographer; and Eang Charoon, a newspaper cartoonist. The last three men were Cambodian.
All six were forced to give up their shoes, cameras and personal belongings. Their arms were tied behind their backs and they were roped together.
Then, under guard, they began walking, and thinking about survival. Of utmost importance: Convincing the guards and their superiors that all six were journalists. Not spies, especially not American CIA.
Webb says that fear was a constant companion. The six knew they could be shot at any time, but she also realized this was an opportunity to form unvarnished opinions in close-up observation of the VC, and that first and foremost, her reportorial instincts should be utilized.
She says there was no physical abuse, and that the soldiers were well-disciplined and on task. Food, clothing (black, custom-made pajama-like garments) and rudimentary shelter and medical care were provided.
Of note is Webb’s description of repeatedly trying to get across to her interrogators the responsibility of a free press. She was never certain that they understood that as a reporter for an independent business entity, she didn’t work for a government, particularly not the American government.
“ ‘You must be very brave to go down the highway for no reason other than to get the truth. This is hard to believe,’” one interrogator says.
Webb answers: “ ‘I went down the highway because it is the only way to find out what was really happening. How else can I find out?’ ”
“ ‘You can listen to what the government says,’ ” the interrogator replies.
Webb counters: “ ‘The government gives its version, you give yours, so we must find out what is really happening. That’s our job; that’s what we are paid to do. If I did not feel I could do it, I would resign.’ ”
Then, suddenly, on April 30, Webb and the other five were released. Webb, who had contracted two strains of malaria, writes that she never certain why they were let go, other than as “non-military” prisoners, they had no value to the communists.
Webb continued to work for UPI off and on until 1985. She covered, among other stories, the fall of Saigon, and the Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia, both in 1975.
She later joined Agence France-Presse, where she reported on the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the transfer of power from the British in Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997.
She died of bowel cancer on May 13, 2007 in Sydney, Australia. She was 64. In 2008, the Agence France-Presse Foundation created an annual award in her name, given for “courageous reporting” under unstable conditions in Asia.
This fall, 10 years after her death, her career was honored by the Australian Post, which put a likeness of her on a stamp for the “Women in War” series. The $1 stamp is based on a photo from her days in Vietnam and Cambodia, and in fact is the one used for the cover of “On the Other Side.”
In the original photo, Webb, facing the camera, is looking intently at her interview subject — nearly out of the frame — and holding a pen in her right hand and an open notebook spanning both hands. Dangling from the chain-smoker’s left index and third fingers is a cigarette. In the stamp’s image, the cigarette has been airbrushed out.
Red Cross worker Rosemary Griggs is also honored, appearing on the stamp’s rear right. The stamps were issued October 6, in time to commemorate Remembrance Day, November 11, in Australia.
Further, Webb will be the subject of a film based on “On the Other Side.” British actress Carey Mulligan (“Mudbound,” “An Education,” “Never Let Me Go”) will portray Webb, and also be a producer on the film. Production is set for spring 2018.
At the end of “On the Other Side,” Webb concludes that in different, post-war circumstances, she’d welcome the chance to meet some of her captors again “over beer, not rifles.”