Gene Kramer, who covered many of the Cold War's hot spots during almost a half-century with The Associated Press, died Wednesday at age 83. He had been in deteriorating health.
During his long career, Kramer faced interrogation in a Polish police station, dodged incoming Chinese shells on the disputed island of Quemoy and braved the turbulent streets of Seoul when a student-led revolt ended Syngman Rhee's 12 years as South Korea's first president.
He immersed himself in his assignments and spoke passably at least three languages besides English: Japanese, German and Polish.
Professionally, Kramer's colleagues considered him a consummate newsman, described by Tyler Marshall, the Los Angeles Times correspondent in New Delhi, India, during Kramer's seven-year tenure there, as "the quintessential AP monk, who had few interests that didn't connect with the news business."
Kramer was an accomplished and fearless reporter and writer who used plain English to convey the news.
This was the first paragraph of his story when Rhee resigned in Seoul on April 17, 1960: "Stubborn old Syngman Rhee, founder of the Republic of Korea, resigned today after six weeks of violent public demonstrations against his autocratic rule."
The Cold War was never far from Kramer's beats, whether in Europe or Asia, and he thrived on it. As Warsaw correspondent in 1966, Kramer went to Gdansk, Poland, with Tom Barthelemy, a U.S. Embassy friend, to cover a Roman Catholic celebration that was to feature a speech by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, a diehard foe of Poland's communist rulers.
Barthelemy recalls that men in the crowd looked askance at the unknown foreigner taking pictures. Kramer's Polish was too limited to set the record straight that he was not a police informant, so Barthelemy, who spoke the language fluently, explained that his friend was an American journalist. "They loved it," Barthelemy said. "They put him on their shoulders, and Gene thought it was great."
Almost immediately, however, plainclothes and uniformed security men showed up and arrested Kramer.
In Kramer's AP coverage of the incident, he reported that riot police dispersed the crowd and arrested three foreign correspondents. He was the last released, after five hours of questioning, he wrote. Barthelemy said the U.S. ambassador had intervened. Kramer filed an official protest about the camera, which had been confiscated.
Eugene Kramer was born in Nebraska on Dec. 4, 1927, but moved as a child to Montana. After attending classes at the University of Montana, he spent two years in the post-World War II U.S. Navy, then graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. He joined The Associated Press' San Francisco bureau in 1950.
He wrote extensively about the Korean War in San Francisco and in 1953 covered the Korean prisoner exchanges from San Francisco.
After moving to the company's foreign service in Tokyo the next year, Kramer traveled extensively through the area from his Tokyo base. A 1958 trip took him to Taiwan, the refuge of Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Chinese movement after his forces were driven from the mainland by Mao Zedong's communist-led fighters in 1949.
Kramer arrived in Taiwan, then known as Formosa, at one of the Cold War's most perilous moments: Mao's forces were shelling the nationalist-held island of Quemoy, five miles off the Chinese mainland, and nearby Matsu. Chiang had thousands of troops on the islands, and he was said to have asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to use small nuclear devices against the Red Chinese gun positions.
Kramer made his way to Quemoy in late September 1958. His reporting of the incessant shelling made clear that the Red Army was capable of taking the island even without an invasion. Two weeks later, the emergency cooled with an offer from Mao's Communists to negotiate a settlement.
Throughout Kramer's career, he nurtured a love of skiing that he continued until well into his 70s. He skied all over the world as a member of the Ski Club of International Journalists. "He wasn't fast, but he was graceful, and I would wager he was the oldest guy on the hill," said Scott Lindlaw, a former colleague in Washington, where Kramer spent his last 13 years before he retired in 1997.
Kramer also had an obsession with trains. He was said to have memorized train schedules in cities wherever he worked and many where he only visited.
Kramer had narcolepsy, a condition that causes excessive drowsiness and sometimes induces sleep at inappropriate times. It made him the brunt of stories, mostly true, by colleagues around the world.
Carol Honsa, a colleague who met Kramer in New Delhi, his final overseas posting from 1977 to 1984, described an unofficial news conference called by the incoming U.S. ambassador, Harry Barnes, in 1981 to meet American correspondents in the press attache's home. "Barnes was standing, going strong, and visibly enjoying himself," Honsa recalled. "Then he caught a glimpse of Gene, head down, sleeping soundly in the front row. Barnes didn't stop talking, but his face fell. I'd guess the new ambassador hadn't been briefed about Gene's well-known narcolepsy."