HONOLULU (AP) – One night in 1969, as a salvo of Viet Cong rockets exploded in the streets of Saigon, Edwin Q. White paused after typing a dateline on his typewriter to light his pipe and reflect on his belief that as an American journalist, he belonged in Vietnam.
To his Associated Press colleagues, it was typical of the reporter-philosopher known as “unflappable Ed,” the calmest person in any crisis.
White, who served as AP’s Saigon bureau chief as the U.S. deployed massive numbers of combat troops to Vietnam, died before dawn Thursday at his home at age 90, his daughter Rachel White Watanabe said.
White said the biggest regret of his career was leaving Saigon when South Vietnam fell to Hanoi’s communist forces on April 30, 1975, a moment he thought about almost every day. He left on one of the last evacuation helicopters from the roof of the U.S. embassy.
“Going off of the roof of the embassy wasn’t the greatest happening of my life,” he said.
Known among colleagues by his middle name, Quigley, he was part of a fabled crew of journalists who covered the war for the AP from Saigon, a thinning group that has seen five deaths this year.
“They were such a great bunch of people. I sometimes just stood around in awe of them,” White said in August, after the death of Malcolm Browne, a reporter and former Saigon AP bureau chief who became best known for his 1963 photograph of a Buddhist monk who committed suicide by fire.
Other Saigon staffers who died this year were White’s close friend Roy Essoyan, a writer who became his neighbor in Hawaii, along with correspondent George Esper and legendary photographer Horst Faas.
Former AP Tokyo photo editor Hal Buell said White tightly bonded with colleagues in Asia and kept in touch long after they left the region to share a mutual affection for covering international news for AP.
“We never lost that feeling,” said Buell, who worked with White in Tokyo before White went to Saigon. “It was a brotherhood, simply put.”
Watanabe said White died in his sleep in Honolulu, where he moved after retiring in 1987. His had congestive heart failure and his health was deteriorating, she said.
“Ed White led an extraordinary AP bureau that covered the American involvement in Vietnam from its start through the fall of Saigon in 1975,” said John Daniszewski, AP’s senior managing editor for international news. “He embodied accuracy, dispassion and objectivity in his reporting, and his contribution to the telling of that history will never be forgotten by his colleagues.”
Born in Tipton, Mo., on Aug. 29, 1922, White was a reporter’s reporter _ skeptical, careful, a stickler for accuracy, with an acerbic wit and a no-frills writing style that stressed facts over drama.
In a 1997 oral history interview for AP, White said his love of journalism began in boyhood, when he “got kind of interested” in how Tipton’s weekly paper was printed.
He graduated from the University of Missouri’s prestigious journalism school and saw Army service in WWII. In the Philippines when the war ended in 1945, his unit was sent to Korea to help handle the repatriation of defeated Japanese troops.
Volunteering for postwar duty in Japan, White joined Pacific Stars and Stripes, a new Asian edition of the military newspaper. “I figured I’d never see Asia again, so I did that,” he said.
Back in civilian life, White spent five years at newspapers in Kansas and Missouri.
But he talked of returning abroad, and a boss told him to consider the AP. In 1949, White joined the news service in Kansas City, moved after five years to New York and in 1960 to Tokyo, as news editor in the flagship bureau of AP’s Asian operations.
The growing conflict in Vietnam led international news agencies to expand their staffs, and White soon found himself commuting between Japan and Vietnam, spending weeks at a time in the war zone.
As the U.S. shifted from an advisory to a full combat role in 1965, White was named chief of AP’s Saigon bureau.
In 1979, White left Tokyo for Hawaii. A year later, however, he returned to Asia in Seoul, where AP’s all-Korean staff had come under severe government pressure.
He retired in 1987 and returned to Hawaii with his wife, a native of Vietnam, and daughter.
In four decades with AP, White saw his craft evolve from typewriters to computers, but he felt strongly that the digital revolution should not be the doom of traditional journalism.
“If you learn the facts, report them accurately and get people to put it in the newspapers, or television or radio, that’s the mission,” he said in the oral history interview. “The means of doing it may have changed, but not the basic principle.”
White said in remarks read by a colleague at an AP reception in August that he talked extensively with Faas about Vietnam.
In their last conversation, White said they recounted a “magical” moment after an uneventful military operation in which troops and reporters, including Faas and White, spontaneously began singing Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” while trekking home.
“Over the years, references to the moon became a kind of shorthand between us. In that last call, Horst asked, `Well . are you ready for the moon?'” White recalled.
Both said they were working on it.
White is survived by his wife, Kim, daughter Rachel White Watanabe, and Rachel’s husband, Michael Watanabe.
Richard Pyle, who covered Asia for 13 years as a field reporter, including five years in Vietnam and three as Saigon bureau chief, contributed to this story from New York. He worked with White during the war. Associated Press Writer Mary Pemberton in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed to this report.
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