Journalist recalls “a crazy yet wonderful era”

Posted Nov. 15, 2008, at 5:22 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:58 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Journalist Richard Dudman truly did remember 1968 “like it was yesterday” — just as he said he did when he was first contacted to give a presentation about that year at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

Before a crowd of close to 60 people Friday evening, Dudman, who served for 31 years as the chief Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and covered some of the most important stories from the 1950s to the 1980s, talked to UMPI students, faculty and community members about 1968 and the years before and after it, capping off a weeklong retrospective that UMPI has been doing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that year.

Last week, UMPI offered music, movies, discussions, papers, slide shows and an art exhibit that illustrated the year in politics, education, science and culture.

Flanked by his daughter, author Martha Tod Dudman, Dudman spoke fondly and with candor and humor about a time period that he called “a crazy yet wonderful era.”

He talked about demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the “general revolt against authority of all kinds,” long hair, hippies, peace and flowers.

He also talked in depth about his career as a journalist, particularly about the 40 days he spent in captivity in 1970.

That year, he was captured by Vietcong guerrillas in Cambodia while covering the Vietnam War, but was released about five weeks later when he convinced his captors he was a newspaperman and not a CIA spy. He later wrote a book about his experiences, “40 Days with the Enemy.”

Dudman recalled the incidents that led up to his captivity in detail, saying that he and the two other journalists he was with were riding in a jeep in Cambodia when they came across a felled tree in the road. They turned around to find another route when “little guys with AK 47s stepped out and motioned for us to get out of the car.”

“We knew then that we were captured,” Dudman told the crowd.

The two journalists with him were younger than he, Dudman recalled.

“So, I felt it was my job to keep their spirits up,” he added. “And as we were being led into the jungle I said to them, ‘If we get out of here, we’re going to have a hell of a good story.’”

The three were held for 40 days while U.S. officials worked to convince their captors that they were not spies.

Dudman acknowledged to one audience member that he felt he developed a “touch of Stockholm syndrome” during his 40 days in captivity, as everyone in the party was trying to avoid being killed by the gunfire and the bombs dropping overhead.

“There was a sense that we were all in this together,” he said. “The war was going on all around us … After about five weeks they decided to let us go.”

Dudman returned to Cambodia again in 1978 with two other writers: Elizabeth Becker of The Washington Post and British Marxist writer Malcolm Caldwell.

The trio received a tour of the country, seeing what Dudman called “a highly regimented society.” The three were given a private audience with Pol Pot, leader of the community movement known as the “Khmer Rouge.” One night during the visit, an armed gunman came to the guesthouse where the three were staying. Dudman was shot at; Caldwell was killed.

“My own suspicion is that some of Pol Pot’s enemies killed Caldwell because they wanted to prove that his government could not protect foreign visitors,” Dudman said.

He never returned to Cambodia.

Caribou resident Beth Lewis came to the lecture with a friend and said she was “inspired” by some of Dudman’s memories.

“I’ve never read his book, but now I am going to go out and buy it,” she said. “What he had to say was fascinating.”

“I had a good time listening to him,” added Mark Martin of Presque Isle. “I grew up in that era, and I remembered all that he spoke of.”

UMPI President Don Zillman presented Dudman, who now lives in Ellsworth, with a clock from the university and lauded him for his presentation.

“His memories are a tribute to a marvelous reporter,” he said Friday evening

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