Publisher’s note: Richard Dudman wrote this third-person autobiography about his career in 2004
by Richard Dudman
When Richard Dudman was captured in Cambodia in 1970 by Viet Cong guerrillas when covering the Vietnam war for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he whispered to his two fellow journalists, “If we get out of here alive, we’ll have one hell of a good story.”
The remark was partly in fun, intended to bolster the spirits of the younger reporters, as the three of them were marched off into the jungle with their hands in the air and AK-47s pointed at their backs.
But, at the same time that Dudman sensed the danger, he saw the capture as a rare opportunity to observe the other side in a war that he had been covering off and on for a decade as a correspondent for the Post-Dispatch.
When the three were released nearly six weeks later, Dudman told the story in a syndicated series of articles and later in a book, “40 Days with the Enemy.” The personal experience enabled him to explain how the guerrilla soldiers’ survival skills and high morale had been able to withstand heavy U.S. bombing and how the American war seemed increasingly unwinnable.
Almost flunking out
The quest for a “good story” shaped Dudman’s entire career as a reporter over a span of 67 years. As a college freshman, he started as a reporter and photographer for the Stanford Daily in 1936, with a summer job the following year on his uncle’s daily newspaper, the Oroville (Calif.) Mercury-Register. He almost flunked out of Stanford through his devotion to journalism.
Dudman’s first job on a major paper was as a reporter on the Denver Post. One of his best stories was an account of a Hispanic war veteran’s effort to buy a house in a restricted neighborhood. The would-be buyer happened to have lost both legs as a U.S. Marine in the World War II battle of Guadalcanal. The man had a good job managing the laundry at a veterans hospital and was clearly well qualified to buy the house – except that he was a “Mexican,” as the head of a Denver real estate company said.
The realtor tried to explain that the buyer would be happier in a neighborhood of his own kind. He was startled to learn that the reporter intended to write a story about the case and rushed to the newspaper office to try to prevent it. He went into the composing room and made the mistake of touching the lead type. Outraged union typographers stopped him, and the story was printed. The man got the house.
While on the Denver Post, Dudman was sent to Europe to check on the strength of the Zionist movement among Jewish displaced persons. He found his way into one of the semi-secret convoys arranged by the Haganah, the Jewish army, slipping out of Germany and heading for Palestine. He joined the group and obtained a false passport identifying him as a Polish Jew named Yehashua Reiss. He covered the group until it was halted in Marseilles when the British intercepted an earlier group on the ship Exodus and returned the emigrants to a displaced-persons camp near Hamburg. Dudman switched to the Exodus story and covered it to the end.
Three decades at Post-Dispatch
In 31 years at the Post-Dispatch, he started as a reporter and rewrite man in St. Louis and wound up as chief Washington correspondent and head of the newspaper’s seven-member Washington bureau. His last story in Washington was the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. His leg was in a cast. He had been hit by a taxicab on an earlier assignment. Unable to get a cab, Dudman stumped from his office up to the Washington Hilton Hotel, scene of the attack.
While Dudman’s writing style emphasized clarity rather than clever writing, he always strove for forceful expression of the truth. When he organized a special section on the end of the Vietnam War, timed for publication when Saigon fell to the communists, he started the lead article by calling the end of the war a national “defeat and humiliation.” Those words made the headline. Most other papers’ wrap-ups on the war used the more acceptable but less accurate description as a “tragedy” or “a noble effort.”
He wrote the lead story when President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impending impeachment and boarded a plane to leave Washington. Dudman wrote that Nixon resigned “in disgrace.” But an editor deleted that phrase.
Dudman had the satisfaction of seeing his name on the “enemies list” compiled by Nixon’s staff, together with three other members of the paper’s Washington bureau.
He broke into national and international reporting by accident. A heavy snowstorm tied up traffic in St. Louis shortly after he had joined the paper as a rewrite man. He was able to drive the managing editor, Raymond Crowley, to work in his war-surplus Jeep, bumping over curbs and taking to the sidewalk to avoid drifts and stalled cars. Later, when other reporters were out to lunch, Crowley sent him to cover a riot in the city workhouse.
Dudman hailed a cab and ordered the driver to fall in behind a police motorcycle and sidecar racing to the scene. Dudman followed the officers into the workhouse courtyard, where prisoners were hurling rocks and bottles. His eyewitness story helped create a reputation for resourcefulness and courage.
Fairground pool desegregation
Racial segregation was widely accepted in St. Louis in the early 1950s. When the the city desegregated the swimming pool at Fairground Park, Dudman went there on his day off to see how things went. Hostile whites lined the path as a black father and his children walked from a dressing room to the pool. Several of the whites complained that the blacks didn’t really want to go swimming but were just trying to assert their rights.
Dudman volunteered a piece for the paper’s “dignity page’ – where it printed news analysis – making the point that the only way to protect civil rights was to exert them, even at personal hazard.
Crowley, by then managing editor, assigned Dudman to the Washington bureau in 1954, when he was completing a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
One of his first assignments as a member of the Washington staff was to cover the 1954 Guatemalan revolution that overthrew the elected leftist government. Dudman hired a horse and rode for two days to catch up with the invading forces led by Colonel Castillo Armas. He covered the fighting and the victorious march into Guatemala City but missed the fact that the CIA was backing what looked like a makeshift revolution. From then on, he kept his bag packed and his passport up to date and watched more carefully for possible C.I.A. covert interventions.
Four years later, checking reports that the C.I.A. was preparing an invasion of Cuba, Dudman took a cab from Guatemala to Retalhuleu and found a Cuban emigres’ training camp, being prepared as a jump-off point for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Dudman covered the growth of American right-wing organizations. In his 1962 paperback book “Men of the Far Right,” he speculated – accurately as it turned out – that the conservative movement might pull itself together, take over the Republican Party, and nominate Barry Goldwater for president.
One of his early scoops was obtaining a copy of the Dixon-Yates contract, a top-secret key document in an Eisenhower Administration plot to privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Post-Dispatch published the entire text and expressed copies of the newspaper to Washington, where members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy consulted it during public hearings on the matter.
Obtaining the Pentagon Papers
Much later, through his left-wing contacts, he was able to obtain parts of the Pentagon Papers shortly after The New York Times and The Washington Post had begun publishing the documents and had been enjoined by the Justice Department.
Dudman undertook several assignments in Latin America, covering the overthrow of Juan Peron in Argentina and a C.I.A.-supported revolution in the Dominican Republic.
He covered the Arab-Israeli war of 1956 and was on assignment in Lebanon when American troops landed in the Suez crisis. Entry into Iraq was blocked after the assassination of Nuri Said, so Dudman first flew to Kuwait and tried to charter a dhow to go up the Tigris River to Baghdad. When that effort failed, he flew to Turkey and hired a taxicab with two other reporters to take a desert track through Kurdish country to Baghdad.
His first venture in the Far East, in 1961, was an assignment, accompanied by Post-Dispatch photographer Paul Berg, to travel the rim of China and find out what he could about Mao Tse-tung’s regime. Americans were prohibited from visiting China at the time. Most sources were predicting economic and political collapse, but Dudman got a different story by flying to Stockholm for talks with an old friend, Kjell Oberg, who had just completed a year as Sweden’s first ambassador to communist China. With the help of Oberg’s insights, he was able to describe Mao’s China as likely to survive despite the blunders of the Great Leap Forward.
Questions about Vietnam War
On the same trip, Dudman paid his first visit to Vietnam. Although he had no fixed view of the growing U.S. intervention, he soon found reasons for skepticism. He reported that U.S. warplanes were already firing on suspected Viet Cong forces, although the U. S. forces were officially only advisers. On his arrival at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, he observed a row of spigots along the wing of a U.S. warplane and reported on the American practice of crop destruction as a counterinsurgency measure. He raised questions about the “strategic hamlets” program, in which Vietnamese villagers were screened and moved into supposedly secure communities surrounded by stockades and moats.
On a conducted tour of one such hamlet, he spotted a break in the moat and a building inside that was up against the stockade. He asked for an explanation. His guide, a U.S. military adviser, explained that the building, a rice storehouse, had been placed there deliberately, so that Viet Cong raiders could enter it in night and would not have to disturb the hamlet by breaking in.
In 1970, on one of his periodic trips to Vietnam, he arrived in Saigon just as President Richard Nixon was announcing a brief “incursion” into officially neutral Cambodia by U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.
Like other reporters, Dudman spent several days flying with troops in helicopters to outposts established in the jungle in the search for a supposed Vietcong “Pentagon” in what the Nixon administration called a “privileged sanctuary.”
When the search proved fruitless, Dudman and two other reporters, Elizabeth Pond of The Christian Science Monitor and Michael Morrow of Dispath News Service, borrowed a Jeep and set out from Saigon to Phnom Penh to see how the invading South Vietnamese were treating their traditional enemies the Cambodians. They saw the South Vietnamese looting Cambodian rice warehouses and private homes, stuffing the sacks or rice and furniture into their military trucks.
Death or a good story
The Cambodia venture took a bad turn when the three reporters came to a blown-up bridge and a tree felled across the road. Realizing that they were probably being ambushed, they began turning around. Three Asian men carrying AK-47s stepped from behind trees and motioned them out of the car. After a quick body search, they marched the three reporters off into the jungle. On bicycles and later in an open truck, they were taken deep into Viet Cong territory, then blindfolded, beaten over the head, and eventually taken before a senior Viet Cong officer. He let them clean up, gave them some rice, and told them they would be freed if his investigation showed that they truly were reporters and not CIA spies.
Thus began several weeks of travel by night–first in a Land Rover and later on bicycles or on foot–and sleeping and resting by day in peasant huts on stilts, with five guerrilla escorts. The idea was to keep out of sight of American planes, which probably would shoot anything moving on the ground, and avoid the U.S. and South Vietnamese tanks that they could often hear clanking though the jungle.
They soon began eating with their escorts, mainly rice, sometimes with a bit of vegetable or chicken. Twice, on Vietnamese holidays, they ate roast dog, followed the next day by dog soup. They recognized afterward that the Stockholm syndrome soon set in. All eight of them–the three reporters and five guerrilla escorts–faced the same hazards and developed a friendship. They sang songs–the guerrillas kept asking for “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”—and playing chess together, using squares marked off on a reed mat and men carved from branches of trees.
Michael Morrow spoke some Vietnamese and was able to pass along to the other two what the guerrillas learned from BBC broadcasts, including the demonstration at Kent State University when national guardsmen shot and killed four student demonstrators.
After five weeks, the captives were told one morning to expect a visitor. It turned out to be the same senior officer who had interrogated them the first day. He said they would be freed and asked where they would like to be released. They suggested being taken up the Ho Chi Minh trail, the mysterious North Vietnamese supply route from Hanoi.
Too dangerous, he said. Then how about sneaking them into Saigon through those secret underground passages? Not practical, he said. Finally he did what he had planned all along: Took them on motorbikes to the main highway, near where they had been captured, and let them hitchhike their way to Saigon in a returning South Vietnamese military truck convoy.
Dudman returned to Washington and immediately flew on to St. Louis to write a series of articles syndicated by The New York Times. He dictated most of the stories from a sickbed, since he had come down with an obscure East Asian bacterial disease, melioidosis.
Why had he been released? Probably because Hanoi had been deluged by assurances arranged by Dudman¹s wife, Helen, that he was simply a reporter and in no way a part of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Some U.S. Senators, several Communist ambassadors to Washington, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk all interceded. The Hanoi authorities must also have hoped that Dudman’s reports would do them some good. The articles and his later book, “40 Days with the Enemy,” did, indeed, portray the Vietnamese guerrillas as human beings with high morale and a determination to win a war of survival.
Twenty-three years later, long after Dudman’s retirement from the newspaper, he learned by chance the identity of the officer who interrogated and later released the captives. He arranged with the Post-Dispatch to go back to work temporarily and went with a photographer to interview the officer, a retired general, at his home in the Mekong delta. They compared maps and experiences. The general said the Land Rover the captives and their guards had used briefly was his own command car; he had had to ride a bicycle for a few days. His parting words were: “Brother Dudman, I won’t try to persuade you to accept one-party democracy, but you must not try to persuade me on multi-party democracy.”
Pol Pot hospitality
Dudman had another close call in Cambodia in 1978. After many applications, he finally got a visa to enter Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot. He went on what amounted to a conducted tour, along with Elizabeth Becker, then a reporter for The Washington Post and Malcolm Caldwell, a radical economist at the University of Edinburgh.
After an interviews with the mysterious dictator, the guest house where they were staying was invaded by gunmen. When Dudman heard shots and saw one of the gunmen outside his second-floor room, he thought at first it was one of Pol Pot’s guards investigating a prowler.
The gunman fired one shot at Dudman, who ducked inside his bedroom and stepped to one side just before two more shots ripped through the door. There followed a couple of hours of occasional shots, breaking glass and sounds of footsteps. Finally, the Cambodian diplomat in charge of the visit appeared at the door and said that Becker was all right but Caldwell had been killed. The economist’s body lay next to his bed with a gaping wound in the chest, while the gunman lay dead at the doorway in a pool of blood.
Various explanations were given for the incident. Dudman suspected that Pol Pot’s enemies wanted to frustrate his belated attempt to make contact with the rest of the world by permitting non-Communists to visit the country.
Dudman’s account of the visit seemed to demonstrate a contrarian streak in his makeup. He described other Pol Pot efforts to improve his reputation in the world, some successful housing projects, and the beginnings of rice export, as well as the sight of many healthy Cambodians in contrast to expectations that the entire population was being worked and starved to death. That was before the mass burial grounds had been exposed. Dudman ventured the controversial suggestion that, for all his misdeeds, Pol Pot had something of a bad press.
A similar contrariness may have figured in Dudman’s early doubts about the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and in his continuing skepticism about claims that mankind was responsible for global warming.
Another example came in his initial suspicion that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the result of a conspiracy rather than simply the work of Lee Harvey Oswald. Dudman was covering the president’s Texas visit and reported the assassination and Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald.
Dudman reported seeing what appeared to be a bullet hole in the windshield of the presidential limousine and suggested that this contradicted the official finding that the president had been shot from behind.
Dudman eventually concluded that the conspiracy theories were far-fetched, but conspiracy buffs kept citing his reports and writing and telephoning him for many years.
As Post-Dispatch bureau chief, he urged speed, accuracy, and fairness – not necessarily in that order – and added, “Don’t be too responsible.” Too often he had heard public officials trying to talk him out of writing a story on the ground that it might endanger national security. The true reason for their objection usually was political convenience.
Retiring to Maine
Dudman retired from the Post-Dispatch in 1981. He and his wife decided to move to coastal Maine, where they had spent summer vacations for more than 20 years. Helen Dudman, who had worked for The Washington Post, Post-Newsweek Stations, and public broadcasting, had been wanting to run something on her own. They bought a local commercial radio station in Ellsworth, Maine, and Helen gradually expanded it into a three-station business.
Richard helped with the news side but never could get used to writing the news in such short bursts. His principal interests for a time were sailing his Friendship sloop, maintaining it in the winter, and building a small wooden boat. He also built a workshop addition on their summer house on Islesford, in the Cranberry Isles, and later a deck and a nearby bunkhouse for their grandchildren.
One day in 1986, when he was working at a boatyard, he got a telephone call from the Chinese embassy in Ottawa with the word that his application for a visa to China was ready to be issued. It was a long-delayed response to his many demands to cover a devastating earthquake that had rocked Beijing and destroyed the city of Tangshan in 1976. Chinese authorities had kept putting him off. Now that the city had been rebuilt, they were ready to let the foreign press visit the site and tell the story. Dudman went back to work for a month.
Accompanied by a Post-Dispatch photographer, he interviewed scores of survivors as well as Chinese earthquake specialists and told the 10-year-old story in a special section titled “China’s Mystery Quake.”
Chinese authorities had been secretive about the quake, partly because of a Chinese suspicion that such natural events can herald a regime change. For years, they would venture no total of the dead, and Taiwan obliged by putting out the world that 800,000 people had died, mostly in that city of 1 million. By extrapolating from death tolls at several factories and a university, Dudman was able to confirm that the eventual Chinese official figure for the death toll – 242,000 – was probably correct.
Another journalistic opportunity arose when Peter Bird Martin, a Time magazine veteran and an old friend from their early years on the Post-Dispatch, started the South-North News Service with headquarters in Hanover, New Hampshire. He assembled a corps of correspondents in developing countries and, with the help of rotating managing editors, produced news stories that mainstream editors found a relief from the usual war-and-disaster stories from the Third World.
Dudman volunteered as one of the managing editors and worked there for nine winters. Their best break came when a Wall Street Journal reporter, Gerald Seib, was detained in Tehran and the little news service was the only western news organization with a correspondent there. The result was three world scoops on three consecutive days: when Iranian authorities thought Seib was Jewish and accused him of spying for Israel, when they realized their mistake and planned to release him, and when he arrived at the Swiss embassy in Tehran and was on his way home.
Dudman learned that the Bangor (Maine) Daily News needed a part-time freelance writer to produce two editorials a week to help fill out the column. He took the job and now (2004) is in his fourth year, never having missed a week, writing about war and politics and public health and consumer issues and such nature subjects as why birds fly in Vs and how they know which direction to go.
Richard Beebe Dudman was born May 3, 1918, in Centerville, Iowa. His father, Virgil Ernest Dudman, was an obstetrician and gynecologist. His mother, the former Wilma Esther Beebe, had been a school teacher in English and mathematics. The family moved to Portland, Oregon in 1920. Dudman attended Washington High School there and then studied journalism and economics at Stanford University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1940.
He worked for a year in a local public opinion polling business and then spent a year in the merchant marine, making his way up from cabin boy to chief cook on a series of tramp steamers in the North Atlantic, dodging their submarines in the early period of World War II. In 1942, he volunteered for the U.S. Naval Reserve and served four years as a deck officer, mostly on an armed refrigerated supply ship, the USS Tarazed.
After the war, he worked as a reporter and rewrite man at the Denver Post. He and Helen met there and were married March 14, 1948. they have two daughters, Iris Dudman, a television producer and Martha Tod Dudman, a writer and professional fund raiser. They have four grandchildren.