Al Kaff on Being a Foreign Correspondent

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Al Kaff and his wife, Diana.

Al Kaff and his wife, Diana.

Albert E. Kaff, 91, died of a heart attack at St. Vincent's Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25. This article was written on August 17, 2009.


Aimee Vitrak, editor of the OPC Bulletin, asked me to write about my thoughts and feelings from my 29 years as a foreign correspondent for United Press and United Press International.  What can  I say?

I worked for the wire service as a correspondent, news editor, bureau manager and Asia-Pacific vice president in Seoul, Tokyo, Saigon, Taipei, Manila and Hong Kong.  I covered the last year of the Korean War, conflicts in Indochina in the late 1950s that led to the Vietnam War, the Communist-Nationalist Chinese artillery battles at Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait, Japan's development into a world economic power, and Summer and Winter Olympic Games in Japan.

Based in Asia from 1952-1963, I interviewed President Syngman Rhee of South Korea (written questions submitted in advance, written answers received when Rhee deemed to see me and a brief chat), President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, President Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam (by cable), President Chiang Kai-shek of Nationalist China (with bold strokes of his brush, Chiang autographed my copy of  his 1958 book Soviet Russia in China), President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan and President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan.  We were a few minutes late for the Macapagal interview, because UPI President Mims Thomason used a restroom in the Presidential Palace, flushed the toilet, it overflowed and Mims got his hands and arms wet trying to fix it.

In Asia, I met everyone from Princess Margaret to Queen Elizabeth II (no cameras allowed) to Imelda Marcos, from Van Heflin to Helen Hayes, from Mark Clark to Maxwell D. Taylor, from Billy Graham to Maggie Higgins to William Lederer to James Michener. I even shared a room with Michener in the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents' Club.

I interviewed Marlon Brando in a Tokyo taxicab that was taking him to the airport, and I even danced with Imelda Marcos.  But I did not ask her how many pairs of shoes she owned.  Years later at a dinner given by a UPI vice president in a New York City hotel, Imelda asked to be seated next to me.  Wow!

I will never forget four tragic weeks in 1966. An Ail Nippon Airways Boeing 727-81 passenger plane approaching Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in February crashed into Tokyo Bay 6.5 miles from the airport and sank to the bottom of the bay with the loss of all 133 passengers and crew.  One month later a Canadian Pacific DC-8 passenger plane landed short of the Haneda runway. Its landing gear struck the approach lights and a seawall retaining wall. The crash killed 64 passengers. On a clear day the next afternoon, a BOAC Boeing 707 passenger jet taxied by the still smoldering Canadian wreckage, and the pilot promised the passengers a view of Mount Fuji after takeoff. Over Fuji, the plane broke into pieces, battered by winds from the mountain, killing all 124 people aboard, several of them survivors of the Canadian Pacific crash the night before.  A movie camera found in the wreckage was filming Mount Fuji when the camera started shaking a little, then more and more until it became blank as the plane disintegrated.

Gladys Aylward was an English maid whose experiences as a missionary in China during the 1930s are described in the book Inn of the Sixth Happiness. In an interview in Taipei, Aylward told me she was greatly displeased that Ingrid Bergman portrayed her in the 1958 movie adaptation of the book because “she is a wicked woman.”

I missed a big one, Ping Pong diplomacy.  When the U.S. National Table Tennis Team was invited to China, John Roderick of AP and John Rich of NBC News received Chinese visas to cover the team’s activities in the Forbidden Kingdom.  In those days, American newsmen were barred from China despite many requests for visas.  Frantically, I telephoned the Chinese Foreign Ministry and asked why I did not receive a visa.  “Because you did not apply,” came the answer.  But Beijing asked Julian Schuman, a left-leaning American journalist who lived in China, to cover for UPI.  Schuman did an excellent job, never mixing politics into his dispatches.  Time magazine reported my Ping-Pong problem.

From Seoul one night I wrote an article while drunk, and the New York desk filed it on UP’s national wire. On another night I telephoned our Seoul bureau manager in his office-bedroom with a rocket from New York headquarters: AP reports exclusively, where you? The Seoul honcho grumbled at being interrupted at an inappropriate moment.  Seems he was busy with a Korean lady friend. We had a staffer who consumed one bottle of brandy every night during the Tokyo desk overnight shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., while writing beautiful copy.

I joined the Overseas Press Club in 1960 while based in Taipei. 

Why?  I thought when friends asked where I would be staying in New York City while on home leave, it would be sophisticated to say, “I will be stopping at my club.”  Sometimes I thought I did not make my mark as a foreign correspondent, because the CIA never once asked me for information.

Pretty heady stuff for a kid who grew up in the Missouri River town of Atchison, Kansas, population then about 12,000 and now around 10,000.  A trumpet player, I marched in our high school band when Amelia Earhart visited Atchison, her hometown.  For reasons I do not remember, I became interested in Asia and particularly China while in high school. I clipped newspaper articles about the fighting between Chinese and Japanese troops in the 1930s and pasted them in a scrapbook. Wish I had that scrapbook today. In the Dust Bowl and Great Depression days, I never suspected that I would spend much of my adult life in Asia, first as a lowly U.S. Army clerk typist in the Southwest Pacific during World War II and later in Japan and Korea as editor of the weekly 45th Division News during the Korean War. I met and married Lee-chuan in Taipei, and our two sons were born in Tokyo.

What can I say? Well, I decided, “Lucky to have been a foreign correspondent.”


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