Ac­claimed writer gave glimpses of the world

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY BART BARNES new­so­bits@wash­post.com

Peter T. White was a Na­tional Geo­graphic writer and ed­i­tor who slogged through trop­i­cal rain forests, hiked the Ty­rolean Alps, ex­am­ined the ad­dic­tive and ther­a­peu­tic uses of the opium poppy and wrote about can­ni­bal­is­tic tribes in the Brazil­ian jun­gle who ate their dead as a ges­ture of re­spect.

Mr. White died May 22 at his home in Wash­ing­ton. He was 92. The cause was res­pi­ra­tory fail­ure and chronic ob­struc­tive pul­monary dis­ease, said a son, Nor­bert White.

Mr. White’s 38 years with Na­tional Geo­graphic in­cluded lengthy vis­its to South­east Asia, which he de­scribed as a place “of hope and ter­ror,” known for blood­shed and the beauty of its tem­ples.

From Laos in 1961, Mr. White wrote, “The first rat­tle of ma­chine guns, at 7:10 in the even­ing, roused around me the var­ied voices and faces of fear.” Vi­en­tiane, the ad­min­is­tra­tive cap­i­tal, be­came known as the “city of bul­let holes,” he wrote.

He was among the early corps of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists to re­port on the re­gion’s pro­tracted con­flicts that mor­phed into a Viet­namese war that would en­gulf the mil­i­tary might of the United States and rend the fab­ric of the Amer­i­can soul.

For three decades, Mr. White was in and out of the re­gion. In 1989, 14 years af­ter Viet­nam had been re­united un­der Com­mu­nist rule, he re­turned for the Na­tional Geo­graphic story, “Viet­nam: Hard Road to Peace,” find­ing that the Hanoi-based gov­ern­ment was mak­ing over­tures to a cap­i­tal­ist world and grop­ing for ways to in­vig­o­rate a slug­gish econ­omy. Saigon, the for­mer cap­i­tal of South Viet­nam, had of­fi­cially be­come Ho Chi Minh City. But to the man in the street, it was still Saigon.

In 1986, Mr. White wrote about the painstak­ing search for clues and in­for­ma­tion from the de­bris at the Lao­tian site of a U.S. Air Force plane crash in 1972, with the loss of a 14-man crew. For nine days, in­ves­ti­ga­tors combed the newly dis­cov­ered wreck­age, find­ing “some 5,000 bone frag­ments, many of them no larger than a rice ker­nel,” Mr. White wrote.

Not all of his sto­ries were ex­otic. In April 1983, he wrote “The Fas­ci­nat­ing World of Trash,” stor­ing his notes in boxes piled from floor to ceil­ing in his of­fice. He care­fully la­beled each box “trash.”

Peter Theodor Fut­ter­weit was born May 11, 1925, in Vi­enna. His fa­ther was a Jewish World War I vet­eran of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian army who had been dec­o­rated for brav­ery. In civil­ian life, he ran a jew­elry shop. The fam­ily lived in an up­scale neigh­bor­hood of Vi­enna and took reg­u­lar va­ca­tions in Italy and the Aus­trian Alps.

In June 1933, when Peter was 8, his fa­ther was killed by a bomb tossed into his shop dur­ing an anti-Semitic out­burst of vi­o­lence that fol­lowed Adolf Hitler’s as­cent to power in neigh­bor­ing Ger­many.

In Septem­ber 1937, Peter and all other Jewish stu­dents were ex­pelled from his public school. Six months later, the Ger­man army marched into Vi­enna, and Aus­tria was ab­sorbed into Ger­many.

Within days, his fam­ily’s jew­elry shop — run by his mother af­ter his fa­ther’s mur­der — was plun­dered by Nazi sol­diers. What re­mained was con­fis­cated by the pup­pet Aus­trian gov­ern­ment.

Peter Fut­ter­weit, 13 at the time, left Aus­tria via what came to be known as the “kinder­trans­port,” an or­ga­nized pre-World War II evac­u­a­tion of chil­dren from ar­eas un­der threat by Hitler’s regime. He went first to Eng­land and then, on his 15th birth­day, ar­rived in New York, where he met his mother who also had fled their home­land.

He be­came a copy­boy at what then was In­ter­na­tional News Ser­vice and went to high school at night. When he turned 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence in Eng­land, France and Ger­many dur­ing World War II.

He grad­u­ated from Columbia Univer­sity in 1948, then be­came New York cor­re­spon­dent for news­pa­pers in Aus­tralia and New Zealand and con­trib­uted free­lance ar­ti­cles to the New York Times Sun­day mag­a­zine. In 1956, he joined the staff of Na­tional Geo­graphic in Wash­ing­ton.

For a 1985 story on the opium poppy, Mr. White and pho­tog­ra­pher Steve Raymer vis­ited 30 coun­tries over 18 months. They in­ter­viewed and pho­tographed drug ad­dicts and deal­ers, doc­tors, sci­en­tists, po­lice of­fi­cers and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials for a story that ex­am­ined the medic­i­nal value and de­struc­tive power of the poppy plant.

Mr. White re­tired from Na­tional Geo­graphic in 1994.

His wife of 52 years, the for­mer Carol Hen­der­son, died in 2014.

Sur­vivors in­clude their son, Nor­bert White of New York, and two grand­chil­dren.

While serv­ing in the Army dur­ing World War II, Mr. White be­came a U.S. ci­ti­zen. At that time he changed his sur­name to White.

Col­leagues said he re­tained his Old World court­li­ness and was al­most fran­ti­cally metic­u­lous in his re­port­ing and re­search — and never seemed to throw any­thing away.

Mr. White was ques­tioned once by an ed­i­to­rial re­searcher about the ac­cu­racy of a state­ment in one of his sto­ries that a re­mote stream deep in a jun­gle had be­come heav­ily pol­luted. Back to his of­fice he went, rum­mag­ing about un­til he pro­duced the proof — a bot­tle of dark, thick liq­uid from the of­fend­ing stream, which he’d brought back from the jun­gle.

COUR­TESY OF KEN­NETH GAR­RETT

Peter T. White, right, and his Na­tional Geo­graphic col­league Bill Gar­rett, worked many years to­gether in South­east Asia in the 1960s.

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