John H. Rich Jr. ’39, H’74, veteran NBC News war correspondent, died on April 9, 2014, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, five weeks after the death of Doris Lee, his wife of sixty years.
He was born on August 5, 1917, in the summer camp his father built on Hannaford Cove in Cape Elizabeth, and he graduated from Deering High School in Portland. At Bowdoin, he was editor-in-chief of The Bowdoin Orient, president of Theta Delta Chi fraternity, and captain of the tennis team.He started his career as a reporter with the Kennebec Journal in Augusta 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 Press Herald reporter, 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 Marine Corps, exchanging French for Japanese, which he learned at the Navy Language School in Boulder, Colo. As a second lieutenant with the Fourth Marine Division, he participated in the bloody amphibious landings at Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima, earning a Bronze Star for his bravery. 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 and became best friends with a POW he’d captured on Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, in 1944. He traveled on his own to tell the man’s family that the son and husband they had buried was in fact 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. 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. 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. 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 become part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul. It was on a tennis court in Seoul that 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, first in a religious ceremony in southern France and then ten days later 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 Belgian 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, when he dared to say that France faced the “very real possibility” of civil war over the Algerian crisis. From France, the family moved to Tokyo, where, for more than a decade, he covered the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as NBC’s senior correspondent in Asia. 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 twenty-two 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. He is survived by daughter Barbarine Rich; sons John H. Rich III ’78, Whitney Rich ’80 and Nathaniel Rich; and five grandchildren.