John Rich, Jr., 96 CAPE ELIZABETH - John Hubbard Rich, Jr., veteran NBC News war correspondent and Maine native, died on Wednesday, five weeks after the death of his wife, Doris Lee, of 60 years. He was 96. Born August 5, 1917, in the summer camp that was built by his father and still stands today on Hannaford Cove in Cape Elizabeth, he grew up in Portland just behind the present-day Ballpark and attended Deering High School ('35) and Bowdoin College ('39). At Bowdoin, he was editor-in-chief of the school paper, president of his fraternity, and captain of the tennis team. He started his career as a reporter with the Kennebec Journal in...
John Rich, Jr., 96
CAPE ELIZABETH - John Hubbard Rich, Jr., veteran NBC News war correspondent and Maine native, died on Wednesday, five weeks after the death of his wife, Doris Lee, of 60 years. He was 96. Born August 5, 1917, in the summer camp that was built by his father and still stands today on Hannaford Cove in Cape Elizabeth, he grew up in Portland just behind the present-day Ballpark and attended Deering High School ('35) and Bowdoin College ('39). At Bowdoin, he was editor-in-chief of the school paper, president of his fraternity, and captain of the tennis team.
He started his career as a reporter with the Kennebec Journal in Augusta after college and joined the Portland Press Herald about a year later. He got his start as a war correspondent even before the war began when, as a reporter for the Press Herald, he interviewed the survivors of the destroyer USS Reuben James, the first U.S. warship sunk in World War II, five weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
With the outbreak of the war, he parlayed his college French major into a commission with the U.S. Marine Corps, exchanging French for Japanese, which he learned at the Navy Language School in Boulder, Colorado. As a Second Lieutenant with the Fourth Marine Division, he participated in four battle landings in the Pacific, in the bloody amphibious landings at Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. His bravery earned him the Bronze Star. He remained in the Marine Corps Reserve, attaining the rank of Major.
Immediately upon the close of the war in the Pacific, he returned to Japan as a correspondent for the International News Service. He contacted the families of some of his former prisoners of war, traveling on his own to one family, who became lifelong friends, to tell them that the son and husband whom they had buried was alive, in U.S. custody, and would be returning home soon. He covered the International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, interviewed "Tokyo Rose," and was once called upon to serve as impromptu interpreter for wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo and his American lawyer.
Under the occupation rule of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Emperor of Japan, historically considered divine, was "encouraged" to go out among his people. More than 40 years later, John wrote for the Boston Globe: "It was mid-February 1946. The Tokyo cold penetrated our war correspondents' uniforms as we waited in the jeeps we had driven from the Foreign Correspondents Club a few blocks away. At precisely 9 a.m. the imperial motorcade snaked slowly out of the trees shrouding the entrance to the inner palace and wound back around itself as it crossed the stone arches of the famous double bridge spanning the moat. First came serious-faced security guards in elaborate uniforms and visor caps riding antique motorcycles with sidecars. Black limousines followed carrying palace officials, and then came Emperor Hirohito in a vehicle with the 16-petal chrysanthemum imperial crest. He looked small, frail and very lonely. Could this be the man Japanese soldiers screamed out as they hurled themselves into our rifle and machine-gun fire on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima? … I stood 3 feet from this thin-faced monarch with his small mustache and rimless eyeglasses. I could hear him breathing heavily. He was extremely nervous. This was new and precedent-shattering for him."
From Japan, he covered the Chinese civil war, narrowly escaping Shanghai down the Whangpoo River on a U.S. gunboat as it fell to the communists in 1949. "I've spent 11 years in the Far East altogether. From Saipan to Dien Bien Phu," he later wrote in an NBC ad in Time. "The Communists nearly caught me when Shanghai fell, but I hitched a ride out with the Navy." Quipped the ad, "John Rich, you're a pretty lucky fellow."
Within a week of the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, he sailed from Japan to Pusan with the 24th Division Artillery and covered the Korean War for the next three years, broadcasting the signing of the armistice at Pan Mun Jom in 1953 for NBC, which he joined six months into the war. In the midst of that arduous war that claimed more than 36,000 American lives, he wrote on Christmas Eve 1952: "The deadly business goes on. Across the front, it's a clear cold night. The light of a half-moon glimmers across the barren frozen hills [and] in damp frontline foxholes, lonesome men [peer] northward, waiting for the enemy."
Although not a professional photographer, he took almost 1,000 photographs of the Korean War in color, a medium not yet used by mainstream war photographers. This unique, color record of the war will this year become part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul.
In Seoul, on a tennis court, he met his self-described "Seoul mate," Doris Lee, then a secretary with the State Department. They became engaged at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and were married, twice in 10 days, first in a religious ceremony in southern France and then in a civil ceremony in Tangier, Morocco. While starting a family, he covered the French war in Indochina, the 1955 Argentine revolution, making the first radio broadcast from revolutionary headquarters in Mendoza, the violent uprising of the forces of Patrice Lumumba in the Belgium Congo, and the raising of the Iron Curtain in Berlin, where his family of four children, two born in Germany, lived 200 yards from the barbed wire.
A reassignment to Paris proved hardship duty after the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution and the subsequent inhospitality of his miffed French host who temporarily refused to renew his press credentials after a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in January 1961 where he dared to say that France faced the "very real possibility" of civil war over the Algerian crisis. January 1961 was not lost altogether, however, as that month he bought, for $6,000, Bates Island in Casco Bay, his refuge and great love for the rest of his life.
From France, the family moved to Tokyo where, as NBC's Senior Correspondent in Asia, for more than a decade he covered the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and saw all four children graduate from high school. In 1971, he, his NBC colleague Jack Reynolds, and friend and fellow Mainer John Roderick of the Associated Press were allowed into China with the "Ping Pong Delegation." He broadcast from Shanghai 22 years after his hasty retreat. A year later, he accompanied Nixon's trip to China. Following that historic visit, in 1974, he was awarded the Peabody Award, the Overseas Press Club Award for "Best reporting from Asia in any medium," and an honorary degree from Bowdoin College at the age of 56.
At his Bowdoin 50th Reunion address in 1989, he said: "My job as a reporter gave me a chance to live in many parts of the world. It made me a realist, but please don't think it made me cynical. All the news is not bad. One simple lesson was driven home to me time after time. When one gets to know people, whatever their background, nationality or racial origin, they are basically alike. Penetrate the surface differences and you learn that they all want about the same things that we do. Freedom from want, from fear; freedom to be independent; to have opportunity; to live lives without excessive government interference; a chance to give their children good educations. I'm reminded of Hong Kong. My wife was riding in a taxicab. "Where are you from?" the driver asked in halting English. "America," she said. He paused a moment, thought, and then said, "Lucky."
John and D. Lee lived in the moment. "One of my favorite Japanese haiku has to do with time. The haiku is that unusual form of poetry of only 17 syllables, 5-7-5. It goes like this: 'Oh, so this is all – and she and I had counted on a thousand years.' "
John is survived by his daughter, Barbarine Rich, and her husband, Toshio Okumura, of Boston, Massachusetts; by his son, John H. Rich III, and his wife Joanne Rich, of Falmouth, Maine; by his son, Whitney Rich, and his wife Kumiko Umemoto of Tokyo, Japan; by his son, Nathaniel Rich, and his wife Ming Hsu of Hong Kong, China; by his brother-in-law, Ralph Halstead, and his wife Alice Halstead of Hemet, California; and by grandchildren Dylan, Madelaine, Malcolm, Johnny, and Helene.
Visitation hours in honor of both John and Doris Lee will be held at Lindquist Funeral Home, One Mayberry Lane, Yarmouth, Maine, from 4-7 p.m. on Friday, April 25, 2014. A private burial for both will follow later at Seaside Cemetery in Cape Elizabeth. Please visit www.lindquistfuneralhome.com
to view a video collage of John's life and to share condolences, memories and tributes with his family.
In lieu of flowers, a contribution may be made to the John Hubbard Rich, Jr. Family Scholarship Fund at Bowdoin College.