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Seymour Topping, Former Times Journalist With an Enviable View of History, Dies at 98


He was born Seymour Topolsky in Manhattan on Dec. 11, 1921, to Russian immigrants, Joseph and Anna Seidman Topolsky. His mother had seen her mother slain in a Cossack pogrom in a Jewish village in Ukraine. His father, who left behind relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, Anglicized the surname.

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 nation’s oldest and had good contacts in China.

He earned a degree in 1943, and as a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps was called into the wartime Army and became an infantry officer in the Philippines, where he was discharged in 1946. Through contacts in Manila, he was hired by the International News Service and, while lacking experience, eagerly accepted an assignment to northern China, covering a decades-old civil war that had resumed with full fury after World War II.

By 1949, after covering Chiang’s defeat in Manchuria and joining The A.P., Mr. Topping was in Nanking 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 reporter with Mao’s forces as the decisive battle loomed.

The captive was marched for miles to a field headquarters on a battleground cratered by shell fire and strewn with bodies and the wreckage of American-made Nationalist vehicles. At gunpoint, he was put into a hut, where he lay all night listening to the artillery.

In the morning, after the guns fell silent, a “deputy commissar” calling himself Wu came to the hut and returned Mr. Topping’s confiscated typewriter and camera. A military escort and horses were waiting to take him back, Wu told him.

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

“You cannot help us,” Wu said softly.

Nationalist forces in the field had surrendered. Nanking would soon be taken. The war was over.

Mr. Topping, in his memoir, recalled the parting: “As I mounted my horse, Wu came up beside me, put his hand on the saddle, and said gently, speaking in English to me for the first time, ‘I hope to see you again. Peaceful journey. Goodbye.’”

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