Kate Webb was twenty-three when she came to Saigon in 1967 as a journalist. By the time she was twenty-eight, Webb was the UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh, taking the position after the former chief had been found lying dead in a paddy field.
Cambodia was “a different war” from the one Webb had reported in Vietnam. Reporters drove down highways to the front lines of battle and returned to a graceful colonial city when the day was over. When Webb made that trip in April 1971, going only thirty miles down the road from Phnom Penh, it was three weeks before she came back.
She and her Khmer colleague were walking near the front lines when they and four other journalists took shelter in a ditch as bullets whizzed past them. Running on all fours, they found a safe spot in the jungle where they spent the night. In the morning, they were captured by enemy rifles. Two Vietnamese soldiers removed their shoes, tied their arms behind their backs, and gave them tree branches to carry as camouflage from passing aircraft. “You will be taken to a pleasant place for food and drink,” a soldier told them.
At first the journalists felt “like cattle,” sticking their faces into jungle waterholes and gulping down black water. Their feet became infected and a soldier closed the cuts on the soles of one of his captives by stitching them shut with a needle and thread. Within a few days they were given flip-flops, “from Highway Four,” they were told. Walking in the shoes of dead men, hiding from U.S. bombers, they marched slowly toward an undisclosed destination, accompanied by a group of Vietnamese soldiers.
Slowly a weird camaraderie developed between captors and prisoners. During interrogation sessions, Webb assessed the different personalities of her questioners and gave them private nicknames. “We were always hungry,” Webb says, but they were given the same Spartan nourishment as the Vietnamese ate themselves. Webb began to have vivid fantasies of eating oranges while she marched, and savored every cigarette she was given.
After their first week, the journalists were given new clothes, the men green fatigues and Webb the black pajamas worn by Vietnamese women. She felt a stab of terror when she put them on; now from the air she would be just another black figure running through the jungle, another target.
“We combed our hair, did not cry, joked…”
Webb found a silent rapport with a man she called the Carpenter and another soldier teased her for being unmarried at her advanced age. A field doctor treated the prisoners’ infected feet with Mercurochrome and crumbled bits of penicillin pills, “like a very serious Boy Scout.”
Webb’s biggest fear was that the statements she was told to write would be taken out of context and read over Radio Hanoi as support for North Vietnam. During her interrogations, she struggled to clarify the role of journalists as impartial reporters, a concept her questioners found hard to believe.
And yet, after twenty-three days, all six prisoners were released, unharmed, and were guided to a place where they were found by government troops. “Miss Webb,” she was told, “You’re supposed to be dead, “ and Webb discovered her obituary had appeared in the New York Times.
“We will miss so much your soft voice,” Webb was told as captors and prisoners said goodbye. That night in a Phnom Penh apartment, after three hot baths and “fifteen or sixteen” glasses of iced orange juice, while lying in a chilled air-conditioned bedroom Webb missed her hammock. Thinking of her captors, she wondered if there would ever be a time when they would meet again, “sitting down and talking--over beer, not rifles.”~Janet Brown