FCA loses its founder, distinguished Correspondent and friend, Peter O’Loughlin
By Carl Robinson
The Foreign Correspondents Association (FCA) owes its very existence to the inspiration of The Associated Press’ long-time Bureau Chief Peter O’Loughlin who sadly passed away last Saturday (12/5/18) from liver cancer. He was 78. Born in the then-steel town of Wollongong on 15 January 1940, he grew up in Adelaide and then Sydney’s Bondi Beach and a boarding school before enrolling at the Point Cook Naval College in Victoria at the age of 11. Deciding against a career as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Peter was one of that generation of young Aussies who headed overseas, mostly to London, in the early 60’s to escape a then-stiflingly boring Australia to lives of fun & adventure – and many into journalism. But he never lost his love of the sea.
After a stint as a hack tabloid journo in London, Peter ventured back to Asia where he landed a job with the AP’s Manila Bureau and graduated to Bangkok Bureau Chief in the mid-60’s as the Vietnam War was cranking up. And that’s where I first met Peter on R&R and the odd assignment from Saigon after hiring on with its AP bureau after Tet ’68. Not at the office? Well, try Mizu’s in Patpong Road. As you could imagine, Bangkok was a fantastically-relaxing place after war-torn Vietnam and Peter was always great company.
Endlessly and unfailingly entertaining. A great raconteur and lunch companion. And he even banged out the odd story or two, one of the easiest and most relaxed wire service writers I ever knew making it all look entirely too easy. (I always regretted he didn’t write more.) From Bangkok, Peter covered events in Thailand, including those endless military coups, and the Thai side of the Vietnam War including Laos which he also knew well. He and his Australian-born wife Millie, a registered nurse, had three daughters, the oldest in the Philippines and other two in Bangkok.
After a brief stint in Singapore, Peter returned to Australia in 1974 as Sydney Bureau Chief for The Associated Press, a position he held through the 2000 Sydney Olympics and his retirement the following year. The island colonies of the South Pacific, including Papua New Guinea were just gaining their independence and his extensive travels earned him the title of the doyen of the small band of journalists – the South Pacific Press Corps – who covered the region. He never missed a South Pacific Forum meeting and knew the islands like the back of his hand, including their leaders. His long tenure also saw the expansion of the bureau with a news editor, AP-Dow Jones correspondent and photographer, in this case the award-winning Russell McPhedran who passed away just last week, and transition into the digital age.
While never a regular of Vietnam War coverage, Peter’s most gut-wrenching assignment was as a “fireman” out of Sydney covering the Fall of South Vietnam in March and April 1975, most dramatically from a chartered merchant ship off the northern port city of Danang as the country’s second largest city fell to columns of invading North Vietnamese tanks. Fighting their way aboard from crowded barges and pushing civilians out of the way, South Vietnamese army deserters then settled scores with guns and grenades in the holds below as Peter and the crew locked themselves in the bridge above. Years later, he always choked up recalling that dreadful story. He returned to Saigon and, along with fellow Aussie and Newsweek correspondent Tony Clifton, covered the dreadful crash of that huge USAF C-5 Galaxy carrying a couple hundred orphaned babies in the infamous Operation Babylift. He was on hand at Clark Airbase as those of us who escaped on those last choppers out of Saigon finally arrived in the Philippines.
After two years in NY following the Fall of Saigon, I was assigned as News & Photo Editor in Sydney in June 1977. But after all my years in Vietnam and my wife distressed over the loss of her family, it was hardly an easy time personally, even professionally. In AP parlance, I just wasn’t ‘performing’ and the onerous task of terminating my 10 years-long employment – after not even one year in Sydney – fell to Peter who chose, most appropriately, the top bar in the Criterion Hotel across from the AP office, our all-too-regular watering hole. (He always said firing me was one of the toughest assignments he ever had to do.) Offered a First Class return airfare to US for me and my family, I opted instead to stay and begin my life anew in Australia where I soon landed a position with Newsweek magazine.
No longer work colleagues, our friendship grew as we covered stories together in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. Slowly, we gathered the small band of other foreign correspondents together for long & boozy monthly lunches at Chinatown’s Old Tai Yuen Restaurant where the idea of creating a formal association grew. Organising journalists to do anything together is a daunting challenge, of course, but Peter persisted and using the resources of the AP and the indomitable Maggie Scully, we finally incorporated and got our organisation off the ground with Peter as founding president and myself as vice president in 1985. Among others present at the FCA’s creation were Trevor Watson, Joelle Andreoli Dietrich and the late Red Harrison and Geoffrey Lee Martin, a NZ’er with whom we cranked out our first printed newsletters. As ever, finding suitable guest speakers was a constant challenge, especially high-ranking government officials who regrettably saw little value in speaking to the foreign press. But we scored an early victory with then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke and then Foreign Ministers Bill Haydon and Gareth Evans. We were finally established !
Peter continued his involvement with the FCA up until his retirement from the AP in 2001 and moved up to the Hunter Valley to run his own winery with his wife Millie for a few years. I left Newsweek and journalism in 1990 and too busy running our Old Saigon restaurant in Darlinghurst and then Newtown to devote any time to the FCA, but its members were regulars at our establishment. We later moved to Berry on the South Coast and then up to Brisbane before returning to Sydney in 2014.
Distance and retirement kept us apart but contact resumed with regular lunches of former foreign correspondents in Sydney and the eventual founding with ex-ABC’s Trevor Watson of the William Boot Society, named after the bumbling hack journo in Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel ‘Scoop’. But never into social media, Peter mysteriously disappeared on us about 18 months ago – totally out of contact by phone or email – but finally re-emerged with a harrowing tale of surviving kidney cancer. Now more frail and slower, Peter remained as sharp, witty and companionable as ever and we were looking forward to many more thinking his absence in hospital from last week’s lunch at Chinatown’s Golden Harbour just a passing moment. Sadly, not to be.