Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox. Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
The story of Kate Webb, a Vietnam War correspondent who was captured for 23 days, is being made into a movie called “On the Other Side.”
Carey Mulligan is starring as Webb, the iconic journalist who made a name for herself during a time when female reporters weren’t often acknowledged.
In her book called “War Torn,” New Zealand-born Webb wrote that three editors laughed when she proposed covering the war.
Unwilling to wait for a yes, she quit her newsroom job in her 20s, left Australia and found her own way.
“There was no political motivation,” she explained. “It was simply the biggest story going, it was affecting the lives (and the arguments in the pubs) of everyone around me, and I didn’t understand it.”
She freelanced for months, living off meals from cheap “pavement food stalls,” before she earned more steady assignments from United Press International (despite an editor from the wire service once asking her, “What the hell would I want a girl for?”).
Webb was the first journalist from a wire service to reach a scene of destruction at the American embassy in Saigon on Jan. 31, 1968. Her brief first-person account, soon published in newspapers across America, was among the most memorable pieces of writing that emerged from the war in that historic year.
What she witnessed was chaos, and her writing has been quoted in decades since.
Viet Cong guerrillas carried out a violent raid on the newly constructed building, perhaps the most visible symbol of the U.S. presence in South Vietnam. The audacious attack was part of the Tet offensive, a massive military campaign orchestrated by the North Vietnamese that, though it failed, would cripple the American public’s already waning support for the war.
For Webb, though, the embassy assault was a seminal moment in what would become a legendary career. War correspondence posed a huge challenge for almost anyone working in Vietnam, but that was especially true for the few women reporting from the front lines. Michael Herr, author of the much-celebrated book “Dispatches," captured the dismissive attitude toward them when he once referred to his female colleagues as “girl reporters.”
“Being a female reporter was hard,” wrote journalist Elizabeth Becker, “in part because our work often went unacknowledged.”
In May 1968, Webb wrote, she was hunkered down one night with the Vietnamese police during a battle that seemed to be turning in the South’s favor when, around sunrise, they were struck with a barrage of rockets.
“I screamed for the medic, but he too was dead,” recalled Webb, who then described running for several miles, back to her office. “I babbled out my story, but they all just stared at me. I was covered with white plaster and bits of people’s brains and bone.”
She wrote again and again about the relentless carnage, and it affected it her. Backfiring cars made her flinch. On her first trip outside Vietnam, she wouldn’t run over grass for fear of land mines. She couldn’t even eat boiled eggs, because it reminded her of how thin people’s skulls are.
Three years later, while reporting from Cambodia, she and five others were captured by the North Vietnamese.
She was repeatedly interrogated and, just as often, certain she was seconds from execution. The captives were forced to march for miles and narrowly avoided being blown up by American bombers.
“Strange to think,” Webb wrote, “you might have drunk a Budweiser with the pilot who killed you.”
As a prisoner, she wrote, “you are not among the living or the dead of the war, but trapped in a gray twilight with no links to the living world.”
At last, after 23 days, Webb was released, but not before the New York Times reported she hadn’t survived: “Straight from the gray, almost silent limbo into, in my case, the glare of TV lights and a bizarre mixture of fan and hate mail, it was doubly bizarre for me, as I found that I had been reported killed, a body had been found and ‘identified,’ my family had held a memorial service for me, and I read my own obits.”
Before she died at 64 in 2007, she reported on violence from India, where she nearly lost an arm in a motorcycle accident, to Afghanistan, where she nearly lost her scalp after someone dragged her by the hair up a set of stairs, according to a Times obituary that got her death right the second time.
Webb was a famously hard drinker who, undeniably, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but amid the internal turmoil, she never lost her deep sense of humanity.
Becker, the fellow female war correspondent, recalled Webb once buying a 10-pound bag of rice she passed to her driver, with instructions that he give it anonymously to refugees in Cambodia she’d interviewed earlier that day.
In his obituary, Times reporter Douglas Martin wrote of Webb welcoming Afghan refugees into her own home and later paying for the children to attend college.
After her death, a Straits Times reporter who had met Webb in 1970 recalled a speech she had given years later, looking back on her life.