“I only possess a passion for the truth. And if we tell the truth about the past, we can tell the truth about the present.”
- Bernard Diederich
Bernard Diederich typing his copy on a Remington-Rand portable at his newspaper, the Haiti Sun, in the early 1950s.
On a set of stone steps in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the late summer of 1994, three ace foreign correspondents sat side-by-side. They were covering what one would later describe as the “convulsive confrontation between the military junta and the Clinton administration”.
The one in the middle was the senior man, a former TIME-LIFE correspondent with 45 years’ experience in covering Haitian, Latin American and Caribbean affairs. On his right was a younger but much-travelled NBC journalist and news producer. On his left was a much-vaunted Pulitzer Prize-winning CNN correspondent who, like the other veteran, had previously worked for the Associated Press.
All three men were born in the South Island of New Zealand, two of them the sons of Christchurch publicans, the other the son of a Southland plasterer. The two born in Christchurch grew up in tiny hamlets just outside Wellington, one at Makara and the other at Paekakariki, where his dad Denny ran the local pub.
Two are still alive, aged 89 and 81. The NBC’s Thomas Francis Aspell, who was born in Christchurch on December 7, 1950, and raised in Paekakariki, died in Cyprus on February 11, 2013, aged 62. Both he and Peter Arnett had covered the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Aspell, who joined Visnews in London 1970, had been sent to Vietnam by the British news film agency in 1972. CNN’s Peter Gregg Arnett was born in Riverton on November 13, 1934, grew up in Bluff and started his journalism career with The Southland Times in Invercargill, in January 1951. He later worked for a labour weekly, The Standard, in Wellington.
Exiled: Bernard Diederich photographed at the Evening Post in Wellington in 1957. This image appeared in his New Zealand Journalists' Association press card.
The older Diederich still treasures his Māori walking stick.
The man in the middle has had perhaps the most remarkable journalistic career of them all. Put quite simply, he is a legend in journalism. Some profiles suggest he was born at Makara, but Bernard Diederich was actually born at 9 Suffolk Street, Linwood, between Cashel and Tuam streets in Christchurch, on July 18, 1926. At the time, his father, also Bernard, was a barman at the Empire Hotel. Young Bernard moved with his parents and older sisters to Makara when he was two. Eleven years later, electricity first reached this seaside village.
Bernard's father, also Bernard Diederich.
Makara, where Bernard Diederich spent 14 of the first 16 years of his eventful life.
At the height of their work as foreign correspondents, Arnett and Diederich were sometimes confused by American news outlets as Australians. Arnett did work briefly in Australia, in 1956, and some of Diederich’s siblings lived in this country, but Diederich himself never did. Indeed, he was only ever briefly a member of the New Zealand Journalists’ Association, after being exiled from Haiti in 1957 and again, more permanently, in December 1963.
Of course, a major difference between what Arnett and Diederich were able to achieve as foreign correspondents is that Diederich never had access to the type of state-of-the-art technology that helped, for example, Arnett to file from Iraq. Nor, as a young man, did Diederich have the chance to grasp the fundamentals of his trade by serving a cadetship on a country New Zealand daily newspaper, under a crusty, unforgiving chief reporter, like Arnett’s mentor-tormentor Albert Victor Ernest Manley Keast. In that regard, Diederich was like Aspell. According to many a good judge, the sort of background Arnett had had was essential for a journalistic passport, one that would open doors and offer job opportunities anywhere in the world, English-speaking or otherwise. A New Zealand-trained reporter was universally well regarded, as Arnett pointed out in Live From The Battlefield: “Australian editors favoured young New Zealanders who had survived the demanding Albie Keast-style school of journalism”. History shows the same attitude often applied in Britain and sometimes in the United States as well (see my blog post on Allan George Sleeman here).
Even without this apprenticeship in his native country, Diederich, entering the newspaper business for the first time as an owner-editor in Haiti in September 1950, found himself well equipped for journalism. He had that most precious of all attributes: an enquiring mind, one that won’t be fobbed off or take “No” for an answer. He had also been well-read from childhood, so he had the ability to express himself in writing.
Bananas 'n Pyjamas? Below, Castro and Diederich.
These skills were to serve Diederich well. On January 8, 1959, Diederich faced a ridiculous yet demanded task, one few journalists will ever get to experience. He needed to know the colour of the pyjamas Fidèl Castro wore on his first night in Havana during the Cuban Revolution. Diederich followed Castro into Havana, riding on a tank with female fighters from the 26th of July Movement. “My Santiago-issued laissez-passer did wonders … I was introduced to bearded rebel Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos, to whom I explained my challenging assignment. TIME would want a full description of Fidèl’s first night in Havana. Would the 26th of July leader choose to dance, date or dive into bed after his arduous trip up the island from the Sierra Maestra to Havana? Camilo smiled broadly when I also told him that I needed to know the colour of Fidèl’s pyjamas - if he wore them!”
Five hours in a leaky boat. Diederich heads for Grenada.
In Grenada with Hunter S. Thompson, right
Did Hunter S get his famous "look" here? Bernard Diederich at the 150th anniversary of Haiti's independence in 1954, in the city of Gonaives.
Having earned his stripes in Havana, Diederich went on to cover Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua (where he helped lead the media coup against dictator Anastasio Somoza when Somoza’s military murdered ABC cameraman Bill Stewart in 1979), El Salvador, Colombia, Suriname and Panama, amassing many more scoops along the way. He was one of three correspondents to reach Grenada after the US invasion in late October 1983. The group hired a smuggler in St Vincent and the Grenadines to slip them in on a wooden speedboat. After five hours at sea, and making its final run to shore through bombing and artillery fire, the boat capsized. Reaching shore, in a surreal landscape of bombed damage strewn with corpses and a chorus of barking madmen who had escaped from a nearby asylum when it was mistakenly bombed, they were put under house arrest by a left-wing children’s militia and then rounded up by the US military, which, “for their own safety”, held them incommunicado on the USS Guam, unable to file their stories. And here are most of us thinking it’s exciting to cover a football match!
Diederich, Arnett and Aspell, like myself, grew up with fathers who hammered home the point that New Zealanders, in almost any endeavour they tackled in the international ring, boxed way above their weight. In Diederich’s case, his Irish-German family was littered with quite achievers. His uncle Brian McCleary, a member of the 1924-25 Invincible All Blacks rugby team, had been a heavyweight boxing champion who fought Tom Heeney, a challenger to Gene Tunney’s world title.
Brian McCleary the All Black, above, and the boxer, below
Bernard Diederich, second from left, aged six in 1932, hunting with his father.
Jim McCleary, McCleary’s father, Bernard Diederich’s grandfather, had played rugby for Otago, Wellington and, while on his honeymoon in Australia in 1888-89, for the first Victorian rugby team, which took on New South Wales. On Diederich’s father’s side, another uncle, Roy Diederich, had represented Wellington and New Zealand Universities in rugby, touring Australia with the latter. Killed in action in World War II, Roy Diederich was described as “one of the most outstanding men of Victoria University College of the late 20s and early 30s … He had everything – ability, charm and thoughtfulness, and he was a great fellow.” He was the young Bernard Diederich’s role model. Diederich’s father played rugby for Manawatu and for Canterbury alongside Brian McCleary, after which the two ran the Culverden pub. As a child, Diederich went hunting and fishing with his dad, while McCleary taught him to defend himself. At St Patrick’s College in Wellington in 1941-42, Diederich played for the 1st XV and was heavyweight boxing champion. He also went close to representing New Zealand in soccer.
Bernard Diederich in the St Pat's 1st XV
Diederich was educated at Makara Primary School from 1932 until he went to the Marist Brothers’ School at Thorndon in Wellington in 1938. He was at St Patrick’s College on Cambridge Terrace in the city for two years from 1940, until he left to become a shipping clerk in preparation for joining the crew of the seized Finnish sailing ship the Pamir. The barque left Wellington for San Francisco in early 1943. Diederich was one of 12 boys in a crew of 40, on a pay of £8, two shillings and sixpence a month.
Nonetheless, Diederich, at an eager 16, was on his way into the wider world. The boy who had grown up devouring Conrad and Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Richard Henry Dana and Charles Dickens, Jack London and Zane Gray, was about to experience some of what those writers had known.
The Pamir in full sail.
The Pamir was 375-foot four-masted barque, one of the famous Flying P-Liner sailing ships of the German shipping company Laeisz. She was built at the Blohm & Voss shipyards in Hamburg and launched in 1905. She carried 40,900 ft² of canvas. In 1920 she was handed over to Italy as war reparation, but the Italians could not find a suitable crew, so in 1924 she was sold back to Laeisz, which in turn sold her in 1931 to the Finnish shipping company of Gustaf Erikson for the Australian wheat trade. Pamir was seized as a prize of war by the New Zealand Government on August 3, 1941, while in Wellington. She was returned to the Erikson Line in 1948. In 1957 she was caught in Hurricane Carrie and sank off the Azores.
The Pamir in Wellington,above; Diederich, left, with an albatross on board, below:
Diederich sailed with the Pamir between Wellington and San Francisco twice, a total of 272 days at sea in all. Having cut his ties with New Zealand, he then signed up with the US merchant marine and served on two armed US T2 class oil tankers (“Kaiser’s Coffins”), the Camas Meadows and the Port Republic. He was discharged in Houston, Texas, in June 1946, and headed back to San Francisco and then on to Vancouver. Diederich’s plan was to “further” his education in England, but he travelled on to the Continent, getting his first impressions of a people oppressed in Franco’s Spain. In 1949 he returned to Canada, his mind made up to return to a life at sea. It didn’t quite turn out that way …
Diederich in Christchurch, December 1963
Five telling events shaped Diederich’s 65-year career in journalism:
1. In 1934, aged eight, cold, wet and miserable while gathering Manuka firewood in a hailstorm with the lass he first fancied, Daphne Herlihy, Diederich ditched ambitions to become a “cow cockie” (cattle farmer) and boldly declared he instead wanted to travel. He was to remain true to his word.
Bernard Diederich, standing far left, St Pat's cadet training 1942.
2. At the outbreak of World War II, a 13-year-old Diederich immediately tried to enlist. He was big for his age, but didn’t fool the recruiting officer. So Diederich set his heart on military officer training at Duntroon in Canberra, but his application was knocked back because his paternal grandfather was German-born.
3. Later in 1939, he bought a Kodak Brownie box camera and raised the money for film by selling copies of the Evening Post on the Plimmer Steps and in the pubs of Wellington. “I loved the smell of newsprint,” he recalled in October 2013. An additional source of income came from working at a petrol station, where the manager, a former wireless operator on a merchant ship, taught him Morse code.
4. At Easter 1942 Diederich found a package containing more than £200 on the sidewalk outside the Wellington Post Office. The owner, influential barrister Oswald Chettle Mazengarb, was tracked down and a grateful Mazengarb promised to “put in a good word” for Diederich when he next needed it. That need soon arose when Diederich determined he would get to the head of a queue of hundreds of young New Zealanders desperately keen to sail aboard the Pamir. At sea, Diederich and some his young New Zealand shipmates started to produce the Pamir Press.
Arriving in Canada, 1946.
5. In August 1949, Diederich left England on the Aquitania, headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, to join two wartime friends, Peter and Alex Bolton, on a sailing expedition. Diederich had a tentative arrangement with LIFE magazine to put together a photo essay on the state of US World War II military bases left behind in the South Pacific. The Boltons had found the ideal transport and the three young men completed the restoration of a 95-foot two-masted ketch-rigged clipper and sailed south. In Miami they found a paying job, taking cargo to Haiti - windows for the El Rancho Hotel. In December they reached Port-au-Prince. On their second day there, thieves went aboard and stole Diederich’s Zeiss Ikon camera. Diederich decided to let the Boltons go on ahead of him, while he stayed and looked for the camera. He never found it. Nor did he make his planned return to Europe. Instead, Haiti became his home for much of the next 66 years.
Masthead of the first edition.
Bernard Diederich outside the Haiti Sun.
After a short time working in a casino and (as the “donkey’) for the Port-au-Prince Times, which contained mostly foreign news, Diederich set up his own English language Sunday newspaper, the Haiti Sun, in Room 6 of the Royal Dry Cleaning Building, Port-au-Prince. He bought a Linotype, a Kelly press and paper-cutting guillotine, purchased from the Catholic newspaper La Phalange. The first edition of the Haiti Sun came out on September 17, 1950. What started out as no more than a bid to provide Haitians with Haitian news would grow during the next 12 ½ years into something of a crusade on behalf of the Haitian nation.
Bernard Diederich typing on a Royal standard in later life.
Diederich did the reporting on a Remington-Rand Quiet-Riter portable typewriter, took the photos with a new Roliflex and made up the pages. Later Diederich used an Olympia Sure-Shot, an inexpensive camera with which in November 1985 he took one of TIME magazine's pictures of the year, of devastation from a landslide in Armero, Colombia (see image below).
Examples of Diederich's credited (above) and
uncredited work (below), from LIFE, September 22, 1961.
As his sphere of reporting extended beyond Haiti, to civil wars, coups, revolutions, invasions, trouble zones and disasters throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, Diederich began to build an impressive legacy, one now based mainly on his many books and his photography. Almost all of what can be found today of his by-lined newspaper stories from the region are confined to the period between 1957-63, when he worked for the International News Service, then Associated Press. Diederich pointed out that most of his pieces for TIME-LIFE in subsequent years were merged in New York into overall news wraps which did not carry individual by-lines. Between 1957-81 Diederich also wrote regularly for The New York Times and London's Daily Telegraph.
Bernard Diederich's Associated Press record on file.
On May 19, 1957, Pierre Joseph Louis Déjoie (1896-1969), a wealthy Haitian sugar planter, industrialist, agricultural engineer, landowner and senator, orchestrated the brief ouster of Diederich from the country. A descendant of former Haitian President Fabre Geffrard, who overthrew the Faustin empire, Déjoie controlled the interior ministry which issued Diederich’s expulsion order. He was running for the presidency against François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and felt a story Diederich had filed for TIME was unfavourable to his candidacy. Diederich flew into New York the next day, saying he was “only reporting the facts”, and the so-called “undesirable” was back in Port-au-Prince on June 5, when Pierre-Eustache Daniel Fignolé (1913–1986) was briefly provisional head of state. After nine months of turmoil and two aborted attempts to hold an election, on September 22, 1957, Duvalier was voted in as president. The horror soon followed.
Often it seemed Bernard Diederich was as much in the news as he was writing it. But it’s probably fair to say that world opinion of “Papa Doc” and his regime was largely - and permanently - formed by Diederich’s courageous reporting of conditions in the region in the period after the journalist’s return to Haiti. Describing Duvalier as voodoo-preaching, Diederich’s coverage of the expulsion of Monsignor François Poirier, Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, in November 1960 came at a time when four major Haitian newspapers had been bombed and staff tortured. It was also a time when the US was gaining its first Catholic president. In late January 1961 Diederich was arrested and had his film confiscated for photographing militia after a street shooting in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Widely syndicated columnist Drew Pearson visited Haiti
and wrote this on March 24, 1959.
Tensions mounted and violence again erupted on the streets of Prince-au-Prince in April 1963. Inevitably, on April 27, Diederich was arrested by the Tontons Macoutes and taken to the Penitentiary National. His Haitian wife Ginette Dreyfuss Diederich cabled New York to let the outside world know he was behind bars. On the 29th Diederich flew into New York in his shirtsleeves and with no baggage. Worse still, he had lost his office and his print shop - this time there would be no immediate return. TIME offered him a role in Brazil, but Diederich managed to get Ginette and their Haiti-born son out of Port-au-Prince to join him in Santo Domingo.
Bernard Diederich and his wife Ginette at a book launching in Miami.
This despite the fact that Diederich had had a scare in Santa Domingo on December 4, 1961, when he and other reporters got caught in police cross fire and the NBC’s John Hlavacek (see my blog post on Pegge Parker here) was clubbed. Even while he was in exile, “Papa Doc” Duvalier remained paranoid about Diederich, who in July 1964 was accused in the United Nations by Haiti’s Foreign Minister René Chalmers of aiding a Dominican plot to invade Haiti. This time Diederich was said to be on Louis Déjoie’s side.
Above, Mexico 1972. Below, Salvador 1981.
After he covered the 1965 Dominican Civil War and the US invasion, Time & Life News Service moved Diederich to Mexico City in 1966, and he remained there as bureau chief for Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean until 1981, when the Caribbean bureau was reopened in Miami. Diederich retired from TIME Magazine in 1989.
Bernard Diederich with author friends, Graham Green, above, about whom he wrote the memoir The Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene's Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954–1983, and below Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Marques. Below that, Diederich's photo of Mexican poet-writer Octavio Paz.
Historian Henry Louis Gates talks with Bernard Diederich at Haiti's Fort Dimanche.
Above, beating "The Man With No Name" to the draw in Durango; below, with the Mighty Quinn; below that, Bernard Diederich's ironic shot of Candice Bergen during the filming of Solider Blue in 1970.
Bernard Diederich won the 1976 Maria Moors Cabot Gold Medal, conferred by Columbia University in New York; the 1983 Overseas Press Club's Mary Hemingway Citation for the best reporting from abroad; the 2003 James Nelson Goodsell Award conferred by Florida International University; and the Caonabo de Oro, conferred by the Dominican Journalists' Association in 2003.
His books include:
Trujillo: Death of the Goat, 1978
Somoza and the Legacy of U.S. Involvement in Central America, 1981
The Ghost of Makara: Growing Up Down-Under in a Lost World of Yesteryears, 2002
Papa Doc & The Tontons Macoutes, (Al Burt, co-author) 2006
Bon Papa, 2007
The Prize: Haiti's National Palace, 2007
1959: The Year that Changed Our World, 2007
Bon Papa's Golden Years, 2008
The Price of Blood: History of Repression and Rebellion in Haiti Under Dr François Duvalier, 1957–1962, 2011
The Murderers Among Us: History of Repression and Rebellion in Haiti Under Dr François Duvalier, 1962–1971, 2011
Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene's Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954–1983, 2012