Steven Slosberg: Journalist down: A witness’ account

Steven Slosberg: Journalist down: A witness’ account



If it weren’t for the latest monthly newsletter emailed by Lori Robishaw, director of the La Grua Center in Stonington Borough, I never would have made the connection.

In it, she mentioned an upcoming performance by Diana Higbee, an American-French soprano, as part of the center’s Music Matters Concert Series. “And how did we manage to snag this fine young artist?” she wrote. “Easy — she’s coming to visit her father, longtime foreign correspondent Arthur Higbee, who lives in Stonington!”

I wasn’t aware of Arthur Higbee, though I should have been. Curious about the foreign correspondent tag, I looked him up. And there it was.

Some perspective. The late Clare Morris Peckham, a dear friend and colleague at The Day who lived in Stonington, was the sister of Joe Alex Morris Jr., also a journalist. At the time of his death he was regarded as the dean of Amerian correspondents in the Mideast.

In February 1979, while covering the turmoil in Tehran for the L.A. Times, Morris was killed when he stood up in a third-story room near the airport to see what had followed a gunbattle. He was 51. This was a time when journalists were seldom targeted while on a story.

I had met him once, when he was visiting at his father’s home in Guilford, and I still have, stowed away in a box of papers and clippings, a now-brittle copy of the Norwich Bulletin’s front page, from Sunday, Feb. 11, 1979, with Joe’s photo and the UPI story about what happened to him.

That story was written by Arthur Higbee.

Coverage of the uprising against the Shah of Iran, and Morris’ death, as Higbee wrote it, was a reliable example of dispassionate journalism. It was all the more remarkable because Arthur Higbee, in fact, was in that room when Morris was killed by a bullet from below.

I called Higbee the other day after making this connection. He is 93 and lives during the summer on Main Street in the village, in the same house once occupied by the poet Stephen Vincent Benet and George Washington Whistler, father of the painter James Whistler. Born in Chicago and raised in Detroit, Higbee studied history at the University of Michigan. He spent most of his career in foreign capitals such as London, Paris, Beirut, Saigon, Tokyo and Cairo, writing for the wire service and for Newsweek.

Higbee graciously sent along the section of his memoir, “Recollections,” that dealt with the death of Joe Alex Morris Jr. Dated Saturday, Feb. 10, 1979, it begins: “Rumors reached our hotel that fighting had broken out late the previous night at the vast Iranian air force base. Four of us — myself and Joe Alex Morris Jr. of the Los Angeles Times, Ray Moseley of the Chicago Tribune and Bill Branigan of the Washington Post, had taken an early morning taxi to one of the air base gates, where cadet mechanics had broken into the gun room and seized dozens of rifles…

“Crowds had been demonstrating for months against the Shah, and their protests had been put down by force of arms, with hundreds killed. Now, for the first time, the protestors were armed.

“(Joe, Ray and Bill were all former Unipressers and longtime friends of mine. Joe and I had been housemates in London back in the early 1950s, and I was a close friend of his father’s.)”

Joe Alex Morris Sr. was foreign editor of United Press, later United Press International, and the New York Herald-Tribune.

Higbee described soldiers advancing on foot toward the air base gate “where armed cadets were shouting ‘Allah akhbar’ (God is greatest). We four correspondents had found a third-floor room in a commercial photographer’s studio …overlooking the airport gate …. Shots rang out, and the guardsmen backed away, one of them limping with a leg wound.

“The Venetian blinds were closed in the room, and the lights were off, as we stood at the window peering through the slats of the blinds. A burst of submachinegun fire rattled near the window and we all hit the deck. Joe, a veteran of innumerable Middle East wars, was the first to get up off the floor and take another look at what was going on.

“There was an ear-splitting crack, shattering the window. Joe turned, and, just as in the movies, with the silly smile on his face of people who have just been shot, and trickles of blood just starting at the corners of his mouth, sank to his knees and then rolled over onto his back like a sack of coal. Blood was pouring out of his mouth as from a garden hose without a nozzle. A bullet—stray? sniper? – had hit him full in the chest, about an inch below the collar bone.”

Morris, who was likely dead on impact, was carried to the street. Fighting had ceased. The cadets carried his body on an improvised stretcher high into the air. “I shall never forget them moving through the throng to an ambulance,” Higbee wrote, “Joe’s arms dangling over the edge of the stretcher, as the crowd began to shout ‘Morg! Morg! (Dead! Dead!).’”

At the military hospital, Higbee demanded that a doctor examine the body. “He’s dead,” the doctor pronounced. “I felt the wound, Thomas-like,” writes Higbee. “It seemed a bit high for the heart, but the loss of blood indicated either the heart or the aorta, and either would have been instantly fatal.”

Heartsick, Higbee did what journalists do. He wrote the story. “The day had started out wintry but now, with bright sunshine, it was turning almost warm,” he wrote. “I noticed that some of Joe’s blood on my charcoal gray overcoat. It took me a while to find a taxi back to the bureau, where I typed up the full story … I put down one word after another, as if in a trance.”          

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: maayan72@aol.co


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