Maine newspaper man who was kidnapped, shot at, blacklisted and praised dies at age 99

Richard Dudman, pictured at his Maine Press Association Hall of Fame induction in Auburn in 2014.

Richard Dudman, a newspaper reporter and writer whose 70-plus year career included being taken hostage by the Viet Cong in Cambodia, died Thursday, Aug. 3, at Parker Ridge retirement community in Blue Hill, according to the Ellsworth American. He was 99 years old.

Richard was a close family friend — closer to my parents than to me — whose journalistic exploits and fortitude I have learned about piecemeal over the past 20 years, since I got my start as a newspaper reporter here in Maine. The scope of stories and world events Richard chronicled over his career, most of which he spent at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is remarkable.

In addition to being held captive in Cambodia for 40 days in 1970 by the Viet Cong, he was on hand and reported on the shootings of two presidents — John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 and Ronald Reagan in Washington in 1981. For his last assignment before retiring as D.C. bureau chief for the Post-Dispatch, he ran up Connecticut Avenue to cover the failed assassination attempt on Reagan.

He covered Fidel Castro’s revolution and the Bay of Pigs crisis in Cuba, the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra scandal and, in addition to reporting on wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, filed dispatches on conflicts in Latin America and the Middle East. He was blacklisted by the Nixon Administration, with his name included on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” for his reporting on Vietnam and his efforts to get copies of the Pentagon Papers.

His most dangerous assignment came in 1978. He was one of three westerners granted visas to travel to Cambodia to interview Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge and chief architect of the regime’s genocide of millions Cambodians.

Hours after interviewing Pol Pot, Dudman and his companions — Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Becker and Scottish academic Malcolm Caldwell — were attacked by a gunman at the guest house in Phnom Penh where they were staying. Woken by gunshots, Richard encountered the gunman in a hallway and dashed back into his room, dodging two bullets that burst through the door after he slammed it shut. Becker also escaped injury but Caldwell was shot in the chest and killed.

After ‘retiring,’ Richard moved to Maine with his wife Helen but continued to take on special assignments for the St. Louis newspaper. In 1986 the Chinese government allowed him to write an exclusive account of a 1976 earthquake that rocked Beijing and destroyed the city of Tangshan, killing 242,000 people. The government had kept reporters out until the city of Tangshan was rebuilt.

More recently he also wrote for the Bangor Daily News, including pieces about the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, his decision to give up driving, and features on MDI-area boatbuilders Chummy Spurling and Ralph Stanley, to name a few. Between 2000 and 2012, Richard wrote more than 1,000 editorials for the BDN.

Equally impressive, if not more so, was Richard’s willingness in his later years to publicly scrutinize his own work with the same critical eye that he directed toward presidents and despots.

In 2013, he re-examined his coverage of the Kennedy assassination and how his reporting at the time unintentionally helped to fuel conspiracy theories that someone else besides Lee Harvey Oswald was involved in the killing – something, he added, that he never believed.

In 2015 he revisited his reporting again, this time about his 1978 visit to Cambodia. A war crimes tribunal in Cambodia was conducting an inquiry into the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge and took remote testimony from Richard about what he had seen and reported on 37 years prior.

At the time of his closely chaperoned and choreographed visit in 1978, Richard had written that he saw no signs of what many claimed and was in fact the case — that millions of Cambodians were dying due to forced starvation. In an opinion piece published by the Post-Dispatch in 2015, he wrote that his judgment at the time was that he “should write what I saw,” but he acknowledged that his normal reporter’s skepticism and willingness to see and hear both sides of any story may have been misplaced. Over time, he had come to the conclusion that the Khmer Rouge had committed genocide against their own people.

Richard received accolades for much of his work. He received the 1993 George Polk career award, the New York Press Club’s award for best reporting from Asia, the Edward Weintal award for diplomatic reporting, and two fellowships in 1994 and 1996 as a media advisers under the Knight International Press Fellowship Program. In 2014, I had the pleasure of inducting Richard into the Maine Press Association Hall of Fame.

Richard was more than a newspaper man, of course, despite the ink that coursed through his veins. He and his wife Helen, longtime Ellsworth residents, owned the local radio station WDEA for many years. He was a loving husband, father and grandfather, an avid day sailor, a merchant mariner during World War II, and an ardent enthusiast of dry wit and dry martinis.

What will stick with me most about Richard, however, is not his sharp mind, ample generosity or his considerable accomplishments. It is his devotion to pursuit of the truth and holding leaders accountable to the people they represent that truly stands out.

Still, he was not fearless. He told a BDN reporter in 2006 that he was “scared stiff” when he and two other reporters were ambushed and taken hostage by the Vietcong in 1970. Since then, he added, the stakes have gotten even higher for reporters working abroad.

“It’s dangerous and it’s getting more dangerous,” Dudman told the BDN. “But there’s a reason for that. I think, increasingly, information control is becoming part of war strategy, and in many cases a reporter is looked upon as an enemy.”

In 2013, on the occasion of Richard’s 95th birthday, his former Post-Dispatch colleague William Freivogel wrote for the Gateway Journalism Review that he considered Richard a hero for the example he set, for journalists and others.

“So many reporters and editors get tired, burned out or cynical,” Freivogel wrote. “Not Dudman. He never has lost his love for a big story or his intrepid pursuit of the truth in the face of danger.

“When the surveys show that the job of newspaper reporter ranks dead last — after maid, garbage man and lumberjack — people might find the antidote in the elixir that Richard Dudman brings to the joyful pursuit of adventure and the truth.”

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.