Richard M. Blystone, a longtime Associated Press correspondent who covered the Vietnam War and went on to become one of the first journalists at the CNN network even before it went on air, died Tuesday in London. He was 81.
His sister, Louise Reilly, said her brother died in a hospital of cardiac failure, following a stroke.
Blystone began his career with AP in Atlanta in 1965, covering the civil rights struggle, and later worked at the news cooperative’s New York headquarters before moving to the AP’s Saigon bureau in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. He covered major combat action and, in 1973, became AP’s Chief of Bureau in Bangkok, Thailand.
Michael Putzel, a former Saigon colleague of Blystone, recalls that “his dry humor and running cartoon strip about AP life kept the Saigon bureau entertained.”
While in Bangkok, Blystone uncovered and reported the story of 54 barefoot, ragged children held as slave laborers in a garment factory. A police raid followed, freeing the children.
Blystone remained involved in coverage of strife in Indochina, and in a story from Phnom Penh before the takeover by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, he described how the wives and children of Cambodian soldiers missing in action “live in squalor and desperation . high in Phnom Penh’s sports stadium.”
After the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, he flew in a small chartered plane to the bomb-cratered Phnom Penh airport to pluck a Cambodian AP newsman — Chaay-Born Lay — and his wife and two children to safety. They were pulled into the aircraft as it rolled along the runway for takeoff.
AP’s Chief U.N. Correspondent Edith M. Lederer called him “one of the smartest, sharpest war correspondents I met and worked with at AP in Vietnam — a veteran who knew the U.S. military.”
“He had a wonderful irreverent streak and didn’t suffer fools, but he cared deeply about the victims of war and telling their stories to the world. He was a stickler for accuracy, a master wordsmith, a wonderful friend and an original member of the Chinese Eating Club I started when we both lived in London,” Lederer added.
In 1977 and 1978, he was an Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and then moved to the AP’s London bureau until he joined CNN in June 1980, three weeks before the then-fledgling news network went on the air. He went on to cover many wars and conflicts for CNN from its earliest day and became a senior correspondent for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
At CNN, Blystone covered some of the world’s biggest hotspots. He reported on the Iran-Iraq war, civil war in Lebanon, the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and its satellite nations, famine in Africa, U.S. interventions in Somalia and Haiti, the Gulf conflict, Northern Ireland and NATO’s bombing of Kosovo.
But as a change of pace from politics, war, violence and famine, Blystone also produced wry and droll reports on quirky events such as the traditional gathering of the Royal Swans near London.
His 1999 CNN series “An Iron Curtain Odyssey”, chronicling a 3,000-mile (4,800-kilometer) trip down the political fault line that once divided the world, followed a decade after his first report of the same title was filmed as the Iron Curtain was coming down.
Journalist Steve Hurst, who worked with Blystone at both AP and CNN, said “Blystone was the best writer I ever worked with. He was an even better man, and I and all who knew him have suffered a great loss.”
Blystone retired from CNN in 2001, returning briefly for assignments in Kuwait and Iraq in 2003. In retirement he freelanced, produced documentaries and taught journalism for a semester in Botswana. He lived part of the year in London and part in Maine.
A native of Elmira, New York, Blystone was a graduate of Amherst College who served a stint in the U.S. Navy as an officer assigned to an anti-submarine patrol squadron flying out of Brunswick, Maine. He began his journalism career with brief stints at the Elmira Star-Gazette and the Scandinavian Times, in Copenhagen.
He was the son of the late Eugene Blystone and the former Bernice Mary Robinson. Besides his sister, he is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Helle Pechter, three children and one grandchild.
Claude Erbsen, a former AP vice president and director of world services, reported from New York.