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Ex-AP writer McArthur, who covered Vietnam, dies

Sunday - 4/14/2013, 10:04am  ET

This April 28, 1972 file photo shows once-and-future bureau chiefs at The Associated Press' Saigon bureau, from left, George Esper (1973-75), Malcolm Browne (1961-64), George McArthur (1968-69), Edwin Q. White (1965-67), and Richard Pyle (1970-73). McArthur, a former AP foreign correspondent who reported all over the world and spent years in Saigon covering the Vietnam war, has died. He was 88. His wife, Eva Kim McArthur said he died Friday night, April 12, 2013 in a hospice in Fairfax County, Va., of complications from a stroke. (AP Photo)

Associated Press

Born in the Deep South and caught up in the romance of journalism at an early age, George McArthur was not one to let social taboos or politics interfere with a good story.

As a campus reporter for the local newspaper, covering civil rights and racial tensions at the University of Georgia, he was called a "communist" by the state's segregationist governor, Herman Talmadge. McArthur replied, with typical sarcasm, that he felt honored.

Later, while reporting for The Associated Press from Seoul during the Korean War, and from the Arab world and Indochina, McArthur cultivated Soviet and other communist-state reporters as friends, and the trust paid off with exclusive bits of inside information from the ongoing peace talks at Panmunjom.

In one case, McArthur recalled recently, his source made the deal in exchange for a box of condoms from the PX.

For nearly three decades, McArthur was the quintessential foreign correspondent as he reported from the boulevards of Paris to the sands of the Middle East and jungles of Vietnam, for the AP and later the Los Angeles Times. He died Friday night at age 88 in a hospice in Fairfax County, Va., of complications from a stroke 17 days earlier, his wife, Eva Kim McArthur, said.

When Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, an avowed communist, hosted American anti-war advocate Tom Hayden at his home in Cambodia, his friend McArthur was the only western reporter invited to their news conference.

"As I left," McArthur recalled years later, other reporters were standing outside, asking: "'What did he say? What did he say?' I went past them and headed for the phone."

Born July 15, 1924, in Valdosta, Ga., George A. McArthur III said he was first inspired to become a foreign correspondent at age 9, when he read a book by Richard Harding Davis, a famous globe-trotting reporter in the early 20th century.

At age 20 in October 1944, McArthur served aboard the Navy hospital ship USS Bountiful, witnessing from a distance the World War II Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.

While the Japanese military was notorious during World War II for mistreatment of enemy prisoners and otherwise ignoring the rules of war, he said the mercy ship -- operating alone, and painted white with large red crosses illuminated at night to mark its noncombat status -- was never attacked or threatened by the Imperial Navy.

"In our case, the Japanese respected the laws of war and left us alone," he said.

After the war, McArthur attended the University of Georgia while working for a local newspaper. He was hired by the AP in Atlanta in 1949 to cover sports and write radio news copy -- a typical start for a wire service career path that could lead anywhere.

In his case, that was Korea. In 1951, McArthur was one of several youthful AP staffers who volunteered to replace the aging ex-World War II retreads first dispatched to Seoul after communist North Korea's invasion of South Korea in July, 1950.

It was a new experience for McArthur and his colleagues, who were dubbed the "boy correspondents." But he recalled the remark of a veteran United Press reporter, Bob Vermillion, that "if you can't cover war, you can't cover anything."

Rewarded after Korea with a choice of AP assignments, McArthur opted for Paris, where he spent six years, then moved to Cairo as AP's bureau chief, living in a houseboat on the Nile. In 1963, he moved from there to Manila, Philippines, again as bureau chief.

McArthur polished an elegant writing style in those years that he said was patterned after that of his boyhood hero Davis, and lived the life of a foreign correspondent and bon vivant, a heady, Hemingway-esque mix of glamor, drama and danger.

Sent to cover a Paris news conference by visiting U.S. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, McArthur took along a comely French girlfriend named Domino. "LBJ immediately spotted her, pumped her hand and rattled on for about 60 seconds before realizing she didn't speak a word of English," McArthur recalled in a 2005 interview. "Afterward, Domino asked, 'Who was that man?'"

He later survived a tense moment in Sudan when a street demonstration flared out of control. McArthur said he fled to the U.S. embassy, scrambling under the front security gate seconds before it slammed down.

In 1964, McArthur began making reporting trips from Manila to Vietnam and a year later joined the AP Saigon staff full-time. He was named bureau chief in 1968, and in late 1969 he left the AP to join the Los Angeles Times, continuing to cover the Vietnam war.

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