Raymond A. Cromley, 96, the oldest member of the Pentagon press corps until he retired four years ago, died of congestive heart failure Feb. 23 at Virginia Hospital Center. He lived in Alexandria.

Mr. Cromley, a syndicated columnist on military affairs whose work at one point appeared in more than 200 newspapers, stopped filing columns in 1996 but continued to appear every day at the Pentagon, covering briefings, making notes on 3-by-5-inch index cards and considering his next article.

The Wall Street Journal, for whom he worked from 1938 to 1955, published an affectionate front-page article about him May 30, 2002. It had been years since he asked a question of the military brass, and rumors circulated about him: Was he a spy? A multimillionaire? A hack?

He was none of the above, and his astounding life story topped all the rumors.

Born a rancher's son in the Central Valley town of Tulare, Calif., he studied physics at the California Institute of Technology and graduated in 1933. He became friendly with a frequent campus visitor, Albert Einstein, who played stringed instruments at student gatherings. "He was the lousiest viola player you ever heard," Mr. Cromley told the Journal.

After graduation, he hopped a ship to see the world. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Honolulu for a year and then headed to Japan, where he signed on with an English-language newspaper, the Japan Advertiser. On a train in Tokyo one day, he saw a beautiful young Japanese woman and, fumbling with a phrase book, introduced himself. They fell in love, married and had a son.

Mr. Cromley moved on to other employers and signed up with the Journal in 1938.

Tensions were escalating in imperial Japan, and a few days before Dec. 7, 1941, the young U.S. newspaperman was arrested, accused of being a spy and put in solitary confinement. When Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle's Raiders flew over Tokyo in April 1942, their bombs dropped near his prison.

Two months later, Mr. Cromley was released, along with other Americans, in a swap for Japanese diplomats being held in Washington. His 3-year-old son accompanied him on the Swedish ship Gripsholm, but the Japanese refused to let his physician wife leave.

Once back in the United States, Mr. Cromley joined the Army. With his Japanese and Chinese language skills, he was assigned to an intelligence unit and sent on the top-secret Dixie Mission to establish the first relations with the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong. The Americans joined the young party leaders, who were living in caves near Yenan, China. Mr. Cromley told the Journal that he met sources at the noisy Chinese operas in Yenan and befriended Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, even dancing with her during a New Year's celebration.

Mao asked Mr. Cromley in January 1945 to send a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to the cable Mr. Cromley sent to U.S. military headquarters in China, Mao wanted to go to Washington, accompanied by Chou En-Lai, on what was essentially a trade mission. The cable was intercepted and held by Ambassador Patrick J. Hurley, who didn't like the idea of Mao meeting Roosevelt.

Mr. Cromley, who left the military at the rank of colonel with a Bronze Star and a Legion of Merit, returned to Japan after the war for his wife. But Masuyo Suto had contracted tuberculosis and, with her husband at her bedside, died in 1946.

Mr. Cromley returned to the United States and rejoined the Journal, covering the Pentagon and the State Department and living in Alexandria. Along the way, he earned the Raymond Clapper Award for Excellence in Washington Reporting and was a past president of the State Department Correspondents Association.

He left the newspaper in 1955, spent several years as a financial commentator on CBS and NBC radio and in 1958 became a syndicated columnist with the Newspaper Enterprise Association, where he worked until 1975.

Mr. Cromley then started a news service, writing and mailing columns to about 200 newspapers twice a week. After a leg injury in 1996, which took him away from writing for several months, Mr. Cromley returned to the Pentagon to find that his clients were not interested in his column anymore. But he continued to show up for work, reading the papers, attending briefings and taking notes.

He had given up his desk in the Pentagon pressroom by 2003, but first, he told National Public Radio's Bob Garfield, even though he hadn't written a column for six years, "I have been very active in gathering information. So when I get ready to write, I will know what I will write about. . . . I've got stories sitting here which I'm not going to mention now because I don't want somebody to beat me at my own thing of what I'm going to write about."

A brief marriage to Erica Carr ended in divorce. His third wife, Helen Sue Holcomb Cromley, died in 1967.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, David Cromley of New York; a daughter from his second marriage, Jessica Green of New York; a stepdaughter, Sue Walker of Richmond; and four children from his third marriage, Linda Tahmassebi of Alexandria, William Cromley of Alexandria, Mary Ann Duffy of Walla Walla, Wash., and John Cromley of New York; 16 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.