Travel News

Seymour Topping, former Times reporter with enviable take on history, dies at 98

He was born Seymour Topolsky in Manhattan on December 11, 1921, to Russian immigrants, Joseph and Anna Seidman Topolsky. Her mother had seen her mother kill in a Cossack pogrom in a Jewish village in Ukraine. His father, who left behind relatives killed in the Holocaust, anglicized the family name.

As a teenager, Seymour read Edgar Snow’s epic “Red Star Over China” and dreamed of being a foreign correspondent. After graduating from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx in 1939, he attended the University of Missouri, whose journalism school was the oldest in the country and had good contacts in China.

He graduated in 1943, and as a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps was called in the war army and became an infantry officer in the Philippines, where he was demobilized in 1946. Through contacts in Manila, he was hired by the International News Service and, although lacking experience, eagerly accepted a posting to northern China, spanning a decade. – the old civil war which had resumed with fury after the Second World War.

In 1949, after covering Chiang’s defeat in Manchuria and joining the PA, Mr. Topping was in Nanjing as Communist forces advanced on the nationalist capital. He went to the front, crossed a no man’s land, and was taken prisoner by Communist guerrillas. He thus became the only Western journalist with Mao’s forces as the decisive battle looms.

The captive walked for miles to a field headquarters on a battlefield dug by shellfire and strewn with the bodies and wreckage of American-made Nationalist vehicles. At gunpoint, he was put in a hut, where he stayed all night listening to the artillery.

In the morning, after the guns fell silent, an “assistant commissioner” calling himself Wu came to the hut and returned the confiscated typewriter and camera from Mr. Topping. A military escort and horses were waiting to bring him back, Wu told him.

“You know, I came here to tell your side of the story,” Mr. Topping said.

“You can’t help us,” Wu said quietly.

Nationalist forces on the ground had surrendered. Nanking would soon be taken. The war was over.

Mr. Topping, in his memoir, recalled the separation, “As I was riding, Wu came up beside me, put his hand on the saddle, and said quietly, speaking to me in English for the first time. , ‘Hope to see you next time. Peaceful journey. Goodbye.'”