Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Al Webb Recalling the Tet Offensive

Feature: Tet Offensive remembered

By United Press International   |  Jan. 31, 2003 at 2:40 PM
Feature: Marine who took too long to die

(Editor's Note:  Al Webb died last week at the age of 79.  He was one of three reporters awarded the Bronze Star, with the Combat "V", for attempting to save a Marine's life during the 1968 Tet Offtensive in Vietnam.  This recollection was published in 2003 on United Press International's website.)

By Al Webb

It is the noise that haunts across the decades -- the whine of a sniper's bullet that narrowly misses you and the thud of a rocket that doesn't, the eerie keening of a Marine dying with a third of his brain blown away, the thump of a mortar sending another death-dealing round on its way.

And memories that stick like photographs in your mind, unwanted yet unfaded after so many years. A young woman crumpled in death alongside a twisted bicycle, her long, white ao dai dress spattered by blood and mud. Nearby another body, a tiny boy -- perhaps her son, certainly just one more victim of a horror he could not have understood.

In a cage, the sad, emaciated body of a little yellow kitten. I sat in the rubble of the city's wall, exhausted, and wept weary tears of grief for the lost life of another innocent.

After 35 years, the recollections of those murderous days of January and February, 1968, of running and crawling past rotting bodies, through the mounting rubble of Vietnam's ancient, once-glorious imperial capital of Hue may be blurring a bit. But they remain sharp enough to hurt.

What remains engraved in my memory is the sheer cacophony of war -- the sounds of men fighting and dying that greeted my arrival in Hue as a United Press International combat correspondent aboard a truck loaded with U.S. Marines up Vietnam Highway 1 on Jan. 31. Not once in the next three weeks, day following night following day did the noise ever let up for more than five seconds.

In the predawn darkness of that day, an estimated 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops struck at 36 of 44 provincial capitals, plus 64 district towns, across the length and breadth of what was then South Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive.

Not terribly fresh from weeks of diving for cover amid artillery, mortar and rifle fire the North Vietnamese rained down on a Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, a few miles south of North Vietnam, I grabbed my backpack, notepad, pens, canteen and cigarettes and hitched a ride with the Marines into the fury that had now engulfed Hue.

Hue straddled the ill-named Perfume River in the northern quarter of South Vietnam, and somehow it had remained a haven of sanity well into the war, a city of Oriental beauty, culture and education, of history and old tombs of old emperors centered in its walled Citadel.

Hue city had largely escaped the bullets and bombs. Many Westerners, including American correspondents, would call time out from the war to rest and relax at its pleasant little restaurants and bistros, or book a night of rest aboard one of the scores of small boats on the Perfume River, watching the flashes of combat in the distance.

But then was then, and now was now. By the time I arrived in a muddy dive for protection behind a low, gray wall across from the besieged U.S. military compound south of the river, 20th-century warfare had horrifically transformed the city of the Nguyen emperors and their Palace of Perfect Peace. Perhaps forever, I thought.

The emblem was plain enough -- the yellow-starred flag of the National Liberation Front, guerrilla Viet Cong, that waved over the fortress gate of the Citadel, on the north side of the Perfume River. It would flutter there for the next 25 days as the longest and bloodiest single ground action of the Tet Offensive waxed and waned in its shadow.

The battle for Hue was a two-part affair for American forces. They first concentrated their power on the south side of the river, with its broad boulevards flanking its respected university, the mansions of the wealthy and the Cercle Sportif that was their tennis and billiards and barroom playground.

For the next 10 days, Frank and Pancho and Kenny and the scores of other Marines who became my mates in combat battled door to door, in fighting the likes of which Corps veterans had not experienced since Seoul, South Korea, in another war more than 15 years earlier.

I watched helplessly as one by one, Pancho and Frank and Kenny were killed, as the Marines fought to recapture what was left of the city's south. First the university, with its classrooms of bullet-riddled blackboards, smashed test tubes and incinerated books.

Then it was down the wide street to the provincial government buildings and the Cercle Sportif, where in another time I had enjoyed quiet whiskies and sweet coffee by its swimming pool. Now its pool tables were makeshift morgue slabs, drenched with the blackened blood of Marine bodies.

Col. Ernest Cheatham's troops finally raised the Stars and Stripes over the Thua Thien province headquarters -- itself a risky job as North Vietnamese soldiers popped from human mole holes to open fire, until exasperated Marines silenced them with grenades dropped into their crude lairs.

But the job was only half-done. Across the river, inside the Citadel itself, other Marines were battling their way down the walls, capturing perhaps 100 yards in a day only to have to fall back 50 yards after nightfall, when the North Vietnamese struck back.

At one point along the northeast wall, the Marines hoisted an American flag on a slender tree they had uprooted, and supported it with a wooden kitchen chair. They had to take it down that night, but they put it back up again the next day, and the day after, until one day it stayed. To the Americans, it was one small sign that they were, at last, winning.

But horror, sadness and death permeated Hue. The body of the pretty girl in the bao dai, and the child, the tiny yellow kitten, the elderly Vietnamese we found curled, dead, beneath his bed. On a table was a photograph of himself, a smiling woman and three children. It had been taken at Disneyland, in California.

And there was a Marine I had struck up a friendship with, on the truck ride along Highway 1 into Hue south. He had just returned from a week's leave with his wife and two children in Hawaii. Eight days later he lay a few feet from me, his stomach ripped out by two bullets.

On Feb. 19, a sniper's deadly fire had pinned me and a Marine sergeant, Steve Berntson, beneath a wall behind a house. Across a street about 20 yards to our left, one of the sniper's bullets tore off a third of the skull of another Marine. His screams lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed an hour before he, too, became another of the American dead in Vietnam.

Minutes later, about five feet from me, a Marine sergeant took a bullet through his throat -- a Kennedy-assassination style wound that ripped off the back of his head. Berntson and I dragged him out of the line of fire, back to what we thought was relative safety, as we looked for something to use as a stretcher.

My part in the Battle of Hue ended a few seconds after that, in the blast of a B-40 anti-tank rocket that effectively was the death blow for the sergeant we were trying to rescue, crippling Berntson for life, wounding fellow journalist David Greenway and sending me to a hospital with shrapnel injuries.

The battle for Hue lasted another five days, until combined Marine and Vietnam Republic troops finally pulled down the Viet Cong flag from atop the fortress gate.

Military history books record the Battle of Hue as a U.S. military victory, but some critics see it as the turning point in what became the first war the United States has ever lost.

Years later, it is neither victory nor defeat that stirs my memory. What I do remember is a blond Marine who took too long to die, an old man who lay dead a few feet from his own memories of an American vacation, a sad-eyed little Vietnamese girl cradled in a Marine's arms. A tiny kitten.

Thirty-five years later, the land of dreams is sometimes an unpleasant place.

(This story, originally published Jan. 24, has been re-released on the anniversary date upon request. Al Webb, a United Press International writer who covered the Vietnam War, recalls the Tet Offensive, a turning point in the conflict, 35 years later. Webb was one of four civilians to be awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious action in Vietnam after being wounded while dragging the wounded Marine mentioned in the story). 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Al Webb: RIP

The first time I laid eyes on him was in 1973, when we lived in Hong Kong, where my dad ran UPI's Asia/Pacific division.  My dad, mom, younger brother and I greeted Al just outside of the Hilton, where he was staying after being transferred from Brussels.

Al replaced Danny Gilmore as UPI's Asia/Pacific editor, overseeing the company's Vietnam War coverage and, of course, whatever news it could pull out of China, which was just beginning to re-open to the world.

My parents had Al over a number of times during our Hong Kong days.  He later visited us in Connecticut, where we lived while dad was UPI's vice president and general manager.

Al was a trip.  He lived out loud, never hesitating to express his opinions.  In 1983, when I was a college student in Strasbourg, France, I called him at his apartment in London, asking about joining him for Christmas.  Absolutely, he said.  Come on over.

It was supposed to be a three-day visit but Al kept insisting I stick around.  I finally left on New Year's Day, so hungover that a police officer at Heathrow patted me down thoroughly before allowing me to proceed to the ticket counter.

Al and I spent Christmas Day at a neighborhood pub.  As I recall, the manager and his wife lived upstairs; and they invited a few close friends to the pub for Christmas.

We spent a lot of time at that pub or back at his place, always drinking.

It's hard to say why Al kept insisting I stick around but some of it, I think, had to do with what happened to him earlier that year.  In April 1983, Al was U.S. News & World Report's correspondent in Beirut when the U.S. Embassy was hit by a suicide bomber.  Had Al's penchant for the drink at the Intercontinental Hotel's bar not been around, he would have been killed.

Not one to get too wrapped up in what could have been, Al, instead, made a lot of money that day, filing news reports -- from the bar, of course -- to every English-language radio station that called.

The last time I saw him was in September 1984, in Annapolis, Md., at Harry's Bar, no less.  He was with his daughter (her name escapes me); and joining me that day was David Mould, who worked on UPI's Cables Desk.

We talked by phone a few times afterwards.  I called him from Dallas from time to time and Philadelphia, too, when I was working in those cities for UPI.

Al was a great guy.  Not only was he an incredible reporter he was also one of the best writers I ever read.  Al could cover anything, from a battle to a bridge tournament.  He was that talented.

May he rest in peace.

Here's his obit as it ran on the "Downhold wire."

Al Webb, a jack-of-all-trades American reporter awarded the rare military Bronze Star for battlefield heroism as a Vietnam War correspondent, died Jan. 25 in Banbury, England. He was 79.

The cause of death was listed as complications of pneumonia and diabetes, said his widow Elizabeth. 

In a half-century of distinguished reporting, Webb's bylined stories spanned the globe from the civil rights battlefields of the American South to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to Cape Canaveral and the Houston Space Center for man's first tentative steps to the moon and beyond. 

He spent most of his career with United Press International, 28 years, separated by a few years in the 1980's with U.S. News and World Report. He was a quick-witted, fast-talking and engaging reporter with a built-in knack for news agency work, which placed a premium on fast reporting and transmission, often with difficult pre-Internet communications from far-flung locations. He thrived on UPI's fierce competition with its arch-rival, the Associated Press. 

Like many of his agency's contemporaries, Webb, although trained primarily as a print reporter, was also an early example of today's multimedia journalist, taking photographs of soldiers in battle and filing radio reports as well.   

He  was one of three civilian journalists awarded Bronze Stars, with Combat Distinguishing "V" Devices, for evacuating a wounded Marine in the Vietnam War's bloody Tet Offensive in 1968. The others were Charles Mohr of The New York Times and David Greenway of Time magazine. (Another UPI reporter, Joseph Galloway, received a U.S. Army medal for valor for rescuing soldiers in combat in Vietnam).
Recounting the incident later, Webb said he became more combat corpsman than journalist when a Marine near him was shot in his throat during the battle for Hue. Webb said he and a Marine sergeant quickly "got the wounded guy under each arm and hauled him about 50 yards through some thick foliage."  Mohr and  Greenway arrived on the scene, and the "lot of us managed to find a blown-out door to use as a makeshift stretcher and were loading the Marine onto it" when the group was hit by an enemy rocket.

"I looked down, and my lap was full of blood," Webb said. "Most of the blood, alas, was from the poor Marine, when the back of his head just fell apart in my lap."  Still, Webb had sustained shrapnel wounds in the head, arm, butt, leg, ankle and foot.

Webb, the gravely wounded Marine and Greenway, who was also hit, were loaded onto a truck and hauled to the rear for medical attention. The Marine died there as he lay next to Webb.  As the helicopter was lifting off, enemy fire hit it, but caused little damage. He was later evacuated to Saigon and then to Bronxville, NY, for more surgery.   

Years later, then-Marine commandant Gen. Robert Barrow read about the incident and invited the three journalists to a ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington in 1980 and awarded each the Bronze Star, with Combat "V." 

Alvin B. Webb Jr. was born March 14 1935 in South Carolina, raised in North Carolina and Tennessee and educated at Duke University. His career in news  began at The Knoxville Journal, but in 1956, he joined the Raleigh bureau of then-United Press. Over the next three decades, he would be assigned to a dozen UP and UPI  bureaus on three continents and would report from even more parts of the world.   

His earliest assignments kept him in his native South, including coverage of the emerging civil rights movement there. 

With the U.S. gearing up its infant space program in 1959, Webb was assigned to open a new bureau at Cape Canaveral to cover it. Its internal UPI "bureau code" designation was "BW," standing for "Bird Watch." From there, he reported on the early unmanned rocket launches, followed by the Mercury 7 program of manned U.S. space flight. 

Webb later opened another UPI space reporting bureau at what is now the Johnson Space Center and continued his coverage of the accelerating U.S. effort to fulfill John F. Kennedy's promise to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. But with a war rapidly escalating in Vietnam in 1966, Webb requested and got a transfer to Saigon.   

Once there, Webb, a cat fancier, insisted to fellow UPI staffers that he got regular early warnings of danger from his Siamese cat Snuffy that was "able to hear rockets coming in" and alert him by furiously spinning around.

He later said he considered the Tet offensive to be "the single most important story" he covered.  

After recovering from the wounds sustained in covering it, Webb briefly returned to Vietnam, but when he was deliberately deprived of field assignments for his safety, he asked UPI for another foreign posting. He became the second-ranking editor at UPI's European headquarters in London and later Brussels, then moved to Hong Kong as the agency's Asia Division news editor. 

In the mid 1970's, Webb was recalled to UPI's New York headquarters, where he edited major breaking stories, including the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.'s killer, James Earl Ray, and the 1976 Israeli commando rescue of 92 countrymen held by hijack terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda.
But he also remained a leading UPI "fireman," covering big stories, including the 1978 Peoples Temple massacre in the South American nation of Guyana, where an unusual  Northern California cult, which mixed fundamentalist religion and Marxism, had set up a jungle commune to get away from mounting legal troubles back in the U.S. At a remote airstrip near the Jonestown compound, named for leader Jim Jones, armed members of the group killed California Congressman Leo Ryan, who had come to investigate reports of abuse and mistreatment from relatives of group members, and four members of his party: three journalists and a would-be cult defector. Several others were badly wounded, including Ryan aide Jackie Speier, who now represents much of Ryan's old district in Congress. Jones then ordered his followers to kill themselves with a cyanide-laced drink, which Webb always pointed out was NOT the Kool Aid of erroneous legend and current jargon, but rather, Flavor-Aid. Jones' armed guards enforced his orders on those reluctant to follow.  

Webb, sent to head UPI's coverage and clad in a black turtleneck sweater in searing tropical heat, overcame communications difficulties to get out the bizarre story to a disbelieving world. He wrote and dictated stories over a single phone line to UPI's New York headquarters, shouting at editors there to keep the phone line open around the clock for days to send stories, photograph and radio transmissions.       
Webb later recalled, "We weren't sure at all at the start as to just what the death toll would be, but I seem to recall we believed it would run maybe a few score - 50 or 60, say."  Then the reported number of dead escalated, jumping up and up, prompting Webb to send new updates around the clock.  It became a grisly task.  

"U.S. authorities started coming out with the real totals, 525 and more, and these were starting to change at the rate of once every 30 to 45 minutes," Webb said. "Then I was told at least 600, maybe more, and I was momentarily stunned, or shocked, or something...I lost my breath about here. 
"It was all turning surreal, and numbers were just grotesque symbols that I really couldn't relate to people. I kept on writing and dictating.  I had barely gotten 750 at least out, when I had to tear that sheet out of the typewriter to put yet another number--this one over 800. Then it became more than 900  and rather quickly - and remarkably, I think, considering the circumstances--911.  The exact number turned out to be 913. It is a number I've never forgotten."

Not long after returning to New York from Guyana, Webb was assigned as UPI manager in increasingly chaotic Beirut, Lebanon. The city once known as the "Paris of the Middle East"  had become the center of a decades-long sectarian civil war. Even in the middle of it, Webb's kindness to homeless felines was again on display. He gathered up a number of stray cats and housed them in his room at the Commodore Hotel -- home also to the foreign press corps.

In the early 80's, Webb moved to U.S. News and World Report and also returned to London, to which he had become increasingly attached since his posting there in the early 70's. In 1986, he returned for a second London turn with a now rapidly shrinking UPI. He later switched to financial journalism for Bridge Information Systems, which was subsequently acquired by Reuters. 

In 1992, Webb became a British citizen and lived in England the rest of his life, occasionally spotted wearing bowler hat and tie that would have shocked colleagues and friends elsewhere in the world and become the rare American to embrace the game of cricket. He was a long-time member of the Surrey County Cricket Club and even became qualified to be an umpire at minor local matches.
 He also liked to host an annual home party for guests to watch the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race as well as his annual "Christmas Party,"  held in July because Webb believed "it's a much better time for Christmas." 

He remained active professionally, with part-time journalistic work for the Voice of America, Religion News Service, The Washington Times  and even a still-smaller UPI.  
On UPI's centennial anniversary in 2007, he told colleagues at The Washington Times: “UPI was my first, last and only love in journalism. The thrill of that competition, the absolute enjoyment of getting a story, of being accurate. It was the most fun I had in my entire life. Our mission was to get the facts down in an interesting order and let the reader make the conclusions. There was real integrity in that.” 

He is survived by his widow Elizabeth and an undetermined number of cats. 


written by Tom Foty with editing by Ron Cohen, Richard C. Gross, Michael Keats and William Wright.