BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Peter O’Loughlin, who helped cover the closing days of the Vietnam War for The Associated Press and was founding president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Australia, has died after a long illness. He was 78.
O’Loughlin was an experienced foreign correspondent who worked across Southeast Asia before going on to document the historic days when South Vietnam’s cities fell to communist forces. In his home country of Australia, he commanded respect for his push to give the world press greater access to government leaders.
On April 1, 1975, as South Vietnam’s Da Nang was falling to the North Vietnamese, O’Loughlin was aboard a chartered merchant ship off the coast and reported and photographed the desperate scenes as 6,000 refugees boarded in eight hours
“Years later, he never failed to choke up recalling that dreadful story,” former AP and Newsweek correspondent Carl Robinson said.
Just days later in Saigon, later renamed Ho Chi Minh City, O’Loughlin covered the crash of a flight carrying orphaned babies as part of “Operation Babylift,” the name given to the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam in the final days of the war.
When Saigon finally fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, O’Loughlin was at the U.S. air base in the Philippines, where the last helicopters out of the city landed, Robinson said.
O’Loughlin studied at the Royal Australian Naval College before embarking on his career in journalism and had worked in London before joining the AP bureau in Manila in 1965. He moved to AP’s Bangkok bureau in 1967 and had a stint in Singapore before returning in 1974 to Sydney, from where he was sent on assignment to Vietnam.
O’Loughlin and his wife, Millie, had three daughters — Siobhan, Clare and Kate — while posted in Southeast Asia.
“Our first Christmas back in Australia, Dad went up to cover Cyclone Tracy,” his daughter Siobhan O’Loughlin said of the damaging cyclone that devastated the far northern city of Darwin on Dec. 25, 1974, leaving at least 65 people dead or missing. “He always liked to cover the big stories.”
O’Loughlin returned to Vietnam for a reporting trip in 1977 and wrote about his 1,000-mile trip from Hanoi to Saigon but he mainly covered Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific until he retired on Dec. 31, 2000, months after his hometown hosted the Olympics.
He was a regular at Pacific Forums across the region and, in 1985, was among the founding members of the FCA of Australia and the South Pacific.
A history of the organization said correspondents had become “exasperated by the inability of Australian politicians to look over the horizon” and quoted O’Loughlin as saying: “Ministers and their minders truly believed that if they put their handouts in a box in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, then the world would be instantly informed.”
O’Loughlin helped establish monthly “newsmaker” lunches and eventually convinced Prime Minister Bob Hawke to attend one, which resulted in a surge in membership and profile for the FCA.
He also successfully lobbied the then foreign minister to establish a headquarters for the International Media Centre, which Senator Gareth Evans opened in 1995 and described as “a new and very valuable window for Australia on the world.”
Joelle Dietrich, a former president of the FCA and correspondent with Le Figaro and Radio France Info, wrote that O’Loughlin’s retirement from the AP in 2000 marked an end of an era for the correspondents’ association “as we missed his clout.”
O’Loughlin moved to the Hunter Valley, northwest of Sydney, to open a vineyard and later went into growing olives before he developed liver cancer. He died Saturday, a week after he was admitted to a Sydney hospital with deteriorating health.
His death came the same week as his long-time AP Sydney colleague Russell McPhedran, an award-winning photographer who died five days earlier, at age 82, of a heart-related illness.
O’Loughlin was known for his spirit of adventure and entrepreneurism, his sharp and irreverent sense of humor and for his storytelling skills — on and off the record.
“Endlessly and unfailingly entertaining. A great raconteur and lunch companion,” Robinson said. “One of the easiest and most relaxed wire service writers I ever knew, making it all look entirely too easy.”
Robinson added: “I regarded him as a great colleague but always a challenge to match in the sheer banter and stories.”
Asia-Pacific Sports Editor John Pye worked with O’Loughlin in Sydney from late 1999.