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Richard Dudman, reporter held during Vietnam War, dies at 99

Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Elizabeth Pond of the Christian Science Monitor are pictured in Saigon after their release by the Viet Cong in Cambodia, June 16, 1970. Credit: AP / Hugh Van Es

"If we get out of here alive," Richard Dudman said to two other journalists as they were being marched into the Cambodian jungle at gunpoint, "we're going to have one hell of a good story."

It was May 7, 1970, days after President Richard M. Nixon announced that U.S. forces would enter Cambodia as an outgrowth of the war in neighboring Vietnam. Dudman, on assignment for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, left the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon for the Cambodian border, less than 40 miles away.

He was accompanied by Elizabeth Pond of the Christian Science Monitor and Michael Morrow of Dispatch News Service International.

Dudman, who died Aug. 3 in Blue Hill, Maine, at age 99, was the Washington bureau chief of the Post-Dispatch and had made several previous trips to Vietnam.

After the three reporters crossed into the Parrot's Beak region of Cambodia, they reached a bridge that had been destroyed. As they attempted to turn around, armed Viet Cong-aligned guerrillas emerged from the forest and ordered the reporters out of their Jeep. They were forced to surrender their press credentials and were put into the back of a truck.

"The soldier with the automatic rifle kept it pointed at my chest," Dudman later wrote. "When I motioned politely to him to point it to one side, he waved it angrily at me and put the gun to my head. He kept it there all the while the truck bounced along jungle roads."

Bald and bespectacled and rarely seen in Washington without a bow tie, Dudman was then a 52-year-old father of two girls. He may not have had the image of the intrepid international reporter, but he had already covered wars and revolutions from Cuba to Burma to the Middle East for the Post-Dispatch, which then had a national reputation for ambitious journalism. He knew how to remain calm under pressure.

"In 1954, when he was covering a Guatemala revolution," his wife, Helen, told The Washington Post in 1970, "his editor told him, 'A dead correspondent is no use to us - and an injured one is worse.' He's used that as his guide."

He and the two other journalists were accused by their captors of being CIA agents and were taunted as prisoners of war. Dudman and Morrow, then 24, were tied by a rope to motorbike and forced to run behind it through a gantlet of angry villagers. They linked hands to keep each other upright.

"Blindfolded, stumbling, fearful of breaking an ankle, we ran as fast as we could to keep up with the bike," Dudman late wrote in an account for the Post-Dispatch. "Fists and hands hit and shoved us from both sides."

The motorbike stopped after half a mile. Dudman and Morrow, still blindfolded, were taken to a darkened building.

"I heard a muttered conversation," Dudman wrote, "then a sharp crack and a moan. I felt Mike slump to the floor. I thought he had been shot.

"Someone struck me on the back of the head with a club and I dropped to the floor."

Pond fended off an attempted rape.

As the reporters feared for their lives, a higher-ranking guerrilla officer came to their rescue. The officer, known to the reporters as Anh Ba, assured them that they would be safe. They were shuttled from one place to another in the Cambodian countryside, eating rice, wild oranges and, on at least one occasion, roast dog.

They were sometimes at risk from U.S. bombing missions and helicopter attacks. One time, the Americans were in a house camouflaged by tree boughs while a U.S. helicopter hovered overhead.

During the six weeks of their captivity, a kind of rapport developed between the journalists and their captors.

"Before we were released," Dudman wrote, "they were describing us as 'not prisoners of war but travelers who lost their way.' "

In Washington, Dudman's wife, a onetime Washington Post editor, enlisted help from high-ranking political and diplomatic figures.

Late on the night of June 15, 1970, the three reporters were released on a highway in Cambodia. They hitched a ride with a South Vietnamese military convoy and turned up in Saigon the next day, thinner but otherwise in good condition.

His wife was awakened by a 4 a.m. phone call, with an operator saying, "This is Richard Dudman, calling from Saigon."

Dudman published a well-received book about his experiences, "Forty Days With the Enemy," in 1971.

After several years in Washington, Dudman returned to Cambodia in December 1978 as one of three Western writers granted an audience with Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, a totalitarian Communist regime that ravaged Cambodia and murdered a quarter of the population.

The night after the meeting with Pol Pot, a gunman entered the guesthouse where Dudman, Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Becker and British scholar Malcolm Caldwell were staying.

Becker confronted the intruder, then escaped into her room.

"Over my head on the stairwell," she wrote in The Post, "I heard rubber sandals running up to the second floor."

The gunman shot at Dudman in a hallway.

"I rushed into my room and slammed the door," Dudman wrote in the Post-Dispatch in 2015. "It was good luck that I dodged to one side, because two bullets ripped through the door."

As Dudman crouched behind his bed, more shots were fired. He and Becker later learned that Caldwell had been killed and had to identify his body. The Cambodian gunman had also been shot dead by unknown assailants.

Becker, the author of a book about Cambodia, "When the War Was Over," described Dudman in an email as a "rock solid colleague during those two weeks when we were kept under constant armed guard and especially during our final night when we were attacked by Khmer Rouge assassins."

Richard Beebe Dudman was born May 3, 1918, in Centerville, Iowa, and moved as a child to Portland, Oregon. His father was a gynecologist.

Dudman majored in journalism and economics at Stanford University and graduated in 1940. He then served in the merchant marine before becoming a Navy officer during World War II.

After working at the Denver Post, Dudman joined the Post-Dispatch in 1949. He came to the paper's Washington bureau in 1954.

He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, then two days later witnessed the killing of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

In 1971, Dudman obtained copies of the secret Pentagon Papers, detailing the background of the Vietnam War, and published portions in the Post-Dispatch. The New York Times and Washington Post had previously run excerpts, only to be temporarily blocked by a court order. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the newspapers' favor in a landmark decision supporting freedom of the press.

Dudman's final day in the Post-Dispatch Washington bureau came on March 30, 1981. Instead of attending a retirement party, he rushed out of the office to cover the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan and the arrest of assailant John Hinckley Jr.

Dudman then moved to Ellsworth, Maine, where his wife owned a group of radio stations. He contributed to the Post-Dispatch and other papers and wrote editorials for the Bangor Daily News until 2012.

His death, from congestive heart failure, was confirmed by a daughter, Iris Dudman, formerly known as Janet, of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Other survivors include his wife of 69 years, Helen Sloane Dudman of Blue Hill; another daughter, Martha Tod Dudman of Northeast Harbor, Maine; and four grandchildren.

Among other honors, Dudman received a George Polk journalism award for career achievement. In the 1990s, he returned to Southeast Asia to meet Anh Ba, the Viet Cong officer who saved his life in 1970.

After his visit to Cambodia in 1978, when he met Pol Pot, Dudman noted that the capital city of Phnom Penh seemed deserted, with "the eerie quiet of a dead place - a Hiroshima without the destruction, a Pompeii without the ashes."

Departing from the reporting of Becker and others, he wrote that, under the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people were "clearly not being worked to death and starved to death."

The "killing fields" of Cambodia, he concluded in a 1990 New York Times essay, "certainly do not prove genocide."

In 2015, two senior Khmer Rouge officials were put on trial in Phnom Penh for crimes against humanity. Testifying from Maine, the 97-year-old Dudman revised his earlier views and admitted he had failed to grasp the full horror of the Khmer Rouge.

"From everything that I have read since then," he said, "I think there was genocide under the Pol Pot regime."

The members of the Khmer Rouge were found guilty.


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