What Webb found when she arrived at the American Embassy in those early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968, was chaos — a violent raid by Viet Cong guerrillas 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.”
Webb, however, was the first journalist from a wire service to reach the embassy that day, and 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.
“Keep back against the walls,” she recalled a military policeman yelling as he warned of nearby snipers.
“Behind each tree lay an MP each with his M16,” she wrote. “The rifles were pointed in all directions. The snipers were firing from the tall apartment buildings.”
She watched a young policeman with a grenade run toward the embassy, then return, staggering.
“He went behind a jeep — not to dodge — but to cry,” she observed.
“He lost three in his platoon,” another officer told her. “And that’s a fragment in his leg making him limp.”
This is how she described what happened next:
I moved behind a Marine closer to the embassy gates. I wanted to get the Marine’s name, and home town. It seemed ridiculous to ask for it at this time.They called out, “There’s a Marine dead on the roof up there,” . . . “Get help over to that jeep,” . . . “It’s no good I tell you, they’re dead,” . . . “There’s one guy sitting there, he’s alive.” . . . Or the wracking, “He was my buddy.”It was like a butcher shop in Eden. At the white walled embassy, the green lawns and white ornamental fountains were strewn with bodies. The teak door was blasted. The weary defenders were pickaxing their way warily among the dead and around live rockets.
The U.S. military secured the building about six hours after the fighting began, and though five Americans died, each of the 19 Viet Cong attackers had been either killed or captured. None of that blunted the wave of negative publicity that followed — due, at least in part, to the rapid spread of misinformation.
An ABC News reporter described the incident as “the capture of the U.S. Embassy,” and the Associated Press reported the Viet Cong had occupied a portion of the building, even though they had only blasted through an outer wall. On its front page, The Washington Post, citing “news dispatches,” reported 10 Americans had been killed, which also was not true.
Amid those failures in reporting, though, stood Webb’s haunting description of the scene, and her most poetic turn of phrase — “like a butcher shop in Eden” — has often been quoted in the decades since.
Such a journalistic achievement did not seem likely a year earlier, when three editors, she wrote in the book “War Torn,” had laughed at her after she proposed covering the war. Unwilling to wait for a yes, she quit her newsroom job, 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?”).
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.”
None of the trauma, though, stopped Webb — whose account of her time as a prisoner is being made into a movie — from continuing to work in the most dangerous places on Earth.
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 what she’d told another foreign correspondent, Vaudine England, at the end her career.
“People always think I must be so tough to survive
all this,” Webb said. “But I’m a real softy. But maybe that’s what it
takes — you have to be soft to survive. Hard people
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
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