Thursday, January 23, 2003

Living a Rich life

Published in the Current

John Rich of Cape Elizabeth now makes his home in a combination of a summer cottage and former South Portland store building near Two Lights, next door to the sea captain’s house where he spent summers growing up.

“They say you can’t go home again, but I did,” said Rich, who returned to Cape after a successful career as an international newsman and war correspondent.

Before he managed to make it back to Maine, he spent a lifetime exploring the world. It began after he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1939. He had majored in French and had wanted to become a French teacher. His work on the college newspaper, though, led him to take a job with the Kennebec Journal newspaper, moving on a year later to the Portland Press Herald.

When World War II began, Rich was in Maine, not knowing much about the enemy. “I’d never seen a Japanese at the beginning of World War II,” Rich remembered.

The U.S. Navy was no different. They discovered they had very few people who spoke Japanese, “so they started these language schools,” Rich said. He
joined up, training as a future translator and interrogator, learning the basics of Japanese reading, writing and conversation.

He transferred to the Marines and was soon involved in several invasions of Japanese-held Pacific islands, setting the stage for the atomic-bomb attacks on Japan itself.

After the war, Rich landed a job with International News Service, a wire news service owned by the Hearst Corporation. In February 1946, he went back to Japan.

It was a very competitive environment, with three big wire services each working hard to beat the others. After a couple of years, though, it was time for a change. When the Korean War started, he went to work for NBC radio and headed to the war-torn peninsula.

Combat reporting
The medium of radio was new, and he had unfamiliar equipment.

“I carried the first tape recorder in combat,” he said.

Others had carried recording devices, but none of those recordings could be cut and edited into a news broadcast. “They sent me one out from Hollywood,” he said.

Not only rare, the tape equipment was delicate, too. “It was always breaking down,” he said.

When the U.S. Army blew the pontoon bridge across the Han River in Seoul to prevent the Chinese from taking the city, he looked down and found the tape recorder wasn’t running.

“It had 24 tiny batteries that had to be fitted in,” Rich said. He kept the spares warm by holding them under his coat in an inside pocket. As the blast went off, he was still putting in fresh batteries.

“A story I missed,” he said with a wry grin.

As television began, NBC also began broadcasting video, but it took three days for the film to get from Korea to New York, on a propeller plane.

When the film arrived, video editors would cut it and call Rich. His job was to write the most up-to-date news possible, organized as “something that would kind of fit what they had to show,” he said.

In 1962 the Telstar satellite allowed people to see live television from continent to continent.

“I remember the incredible possibility,” Rich said.

TV went color, too. “The technology just took off,” he said. But journalism’s principles remained the same. “You still need reporters, you still need to get the story,” he said.

Looking back
He loved his job. “It was always exciting,” he said. Korea was his first taste of what would become a long career as a war correspondent.

“Everywhere I went, there seemed to be a war,” he said. He was in Asia for the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War, in Berlin during the Congo uprising, in Paris during the Algerian War, and back in Asia for the Vietnam War.

From 1964 to 1974 he was in Vietnam almost all the time.

“Every morning was a new challenge,” he said. “It was kind of overwhelming.”

He loved it, though, and said if he had his life to do over, “I think I’d do it again.”

It is sinking in now, though, that there is a lot of detail he can’t always remember. “It’s amazing how much you forget,” he said.

But in a storage area near his house is a treasure trove of most of the news briefs he wrote for radio, and a large number of photos too.

In his retirement, though, he didn’t forget how much he liked covering war.

“After I retired, the Gulf war came up,” Rich said. He asked his friend Harry Foote, then the owner of the American Journal, for press credentials to go cover the war.

He then headed to Saudi Arabia. He filed a few stories and got to look around the battlefield of a modern war.

“I saw those fires, my God. And that mile of death” – his voice stopped, as he remembered the oil fields aflame and a road destroyed at both ends to stop
Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait. The trapped tanks and vehicles were then destroyed by U.S. warplanes.

It seemed like a quick fight to a man who had reported on years-long conflicts in Asia.

“I remember feeling, ‘100 hours and we’re not in Baghdad yet,’” Rich said. “I think that we should probably go and finish up in Baghdad.”

Saddam, he said, did a lot of things he should not have done, including inflicting huge atrocities on his own people. But Rich does not lay that entirely at Saddam’s door. “We let him get away with it,” he said.