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Rollicking Life Of Reporter Ends, Richard Dudman Dead At 99

August 6, 2017

Interesting obituaries are the only ones worth reading.  (Readers know I love a well-crafted one!)

Richard Dudman, a much-traveled reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch who spent more than a month in captivity in Cambodia after being ambushed by Vietcong fighters and later survived an assassination attempt after meeting the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, died on Thursday in Blue Hill, Me. He was 99.

The death was confirmed by his daughter, Iris Dudman.

Mr. Dudman’s career in journalism lasted more than three quarters of a century. He was in Dallas when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and, after oversleeping and missing a flight back to Washington, dropped by the police station where Lee Harvey Oswald was being held and watched as he was gunned down by Jack Ruby.

He covered the 1956 Arab-Israeli War, filed stories from Havana when Fidel Castro toppled the Batista government and covered wars and revolutions in Guatemala, Argentina, Burma (now Myanmar), Ireland, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Algeria, Laos and China.

He made his first reporting trip to South Vietnam in 1962 and, concluding early on that the war was a doomed enterprise, became one of the first American reporters to question the official narrative dispensed by military and government officials. In 1965, while preparing a series of pessimistic reports, he wrote to his colleague Marquis W. Childs, “The war is being lost, and in a hurry.”

His taste for adventure occasionally led him down dangerous roads. In 1970, he and two colleagues, Elizabeth Pond of The Christian Science Monitor and Michael Morrow of Dispatch News Service International, tried to drive from Saigon to Phnom Penh to report on the developing covert war in Cambodia.

At a roadblock halfway between the border and Phnom Penh, three Vietcong fighters, brandishing assault rifles, emerged from the trees along the road and took the reporters captive, convinced that they were C.I.A. spies. Mr. Dudman turned to his colleagues and said, “If we get out of this alive, we’ll have a hell of a good story.”

A coolheaded Vietnamese general, Bay Cao, eventually intervened and ensured better treatment of the three prisoners — on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, they enjoyed a feast of roast dog. After six weeks, Mr. Dudman and his colleagues were taken to a road and left to hitchhike back to Saigon. Mr. Dudman described his ordeal in “Forty Days With the Enemy,” published in 1971.

Cambodia had not finished with him. In 1978, he and Elizabeth Becker of The Washington Post and Malcolm Caldwell, a leftist Scottish economist, secured a meeting with Pol Pot, becoming the first Western writers to travel through Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1974.

The hoped-for interview never materialized. After a handshake that Mr. Dudman found unnerving — Pol Pot had delicate, tapering fingers and soft skin — the dictator held court.

“He spoke in a quiet monotone as we sweltered in tropical sunshine that flooded the room and brushed away the flies that buzzed around the orange juice,” Mr. Dudman wrote in The Post-Dispatch in 2015. “He spoke in Cambodian, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary put the Cambodian into French, and another official translated into English. Before getting to our questions, Pol Pot launched into a diatribe against the Vietnamese.”

He added, “We tried to break in with questions, but he ignored them and rolled right on.”

Mr. Dudman did manage to take one of the few known photographs of Pol Pot.

The following night, Mr. Dudman heard gunshots in the guesthouse where he and his colleagues were staying. Stepping out into the hallway, he faced an attacker, who began shooting at him with a pistol. Mr. Dudman dashed back into his room, dodging bullets, and hid behind his bed.

Two hours later, a Cambodian escort officer appeared. “He told me that Becker was safe but that Caldwell had been killed and I should view his body,” Mr. Dudman wrote in The Post-Dispatch in 1997. “The young terrorist was sprawled dead in the doorway. And Caldwell’s body lay on his bed with a gaping wound in his chest.”

The motivation for the attack, and the identity of the gunman and two accomplices, remained unknown.

Mr. Dudman’s last day on the job at The Post-Dispatch was eventful. Word came in that a gunman had shot Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton, not far away from the newspaper’s offices. Like a racehorse hearing the bugle, Mr. Dudman ran out the door and up Connecticut Avenue, pen and notebook in hand. His story ran the next day.

He had a motto: “Reporter who sits on hot story gets ass burned.”

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