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The Mysterious Disappearance of Sean Flynn and Dana StoneTim King Salem-News.com
Forty years have passed since two war photographers dropped off the radar; what we know, what we don't know, and what we may soon learn.
(SALEM, Ore.) - Forty years after the disappearance of Vietnam War photographers Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, we stand on the verge of possibly learning their ultimate fate. Flynn's name made the news a little over a week ago, when it was announced that remains recovered in Cambodia could be his.
The son of legendary actor Errol Flynn, went missing in Cambodia on 6 April 1970, along with Stone. For 40 years, the world has wondered what happened to remove these vivacious, talented men permanently from the world. Books, a song and a play have been written; a movie by their friend and colleague Tim Page called "Frankie's House" was loosely based on real events surrounding the lives of these journalists who didn't just live at the edge, but managed to go past it
One person who has never forgotten about Sean Flynn, is his half-sister, Rory Flynn. She organized the recent excavation of the gravesite that could contain the remains of her long lost brother.
Initial reports on the recovery of the remains in Cambodia were apparently skewed, and the group working with Rory Flynn says the truth of what happened was not conveyed in a proper context by a number of media outlets.
Investigator Dave MacMillan, told Salem-News.com that his team acted with the consent of the Cambodian military, local police, local community leaders and landowners, and with the full knowledge of JPAC, (Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command) in Hawaii.
MacMillan said, "We are not amateur bone hunters, we volunteered to help Rory on her mission and worked as her field agents and did not receive payment for what we have done and are still doing, both Mr.Scott Brantley who is a registered private investigator from Nashville Tennessee and myself have combined 35 years of investigation experience between us."
Mike Luehring, a representative of the Flynn family, contacted Salem-News.com after our first report, to confirm the statements of Dave MacMillan, and the importance of informational accuracy.
Citing the "crazy press coverage of the event", Luehring wrote, "I've followed your coverage and appreciate your accuracy on the story." We always appreciate the verification; stories of this magnitude should never be sensationalized, yet they are, and this was no exception.
I have been in contact with a number of people who knew Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, and the list is growing. One person highly significant to the story, is T. Jeff Williams, who was in Phom Pehn on 6 April 1970.
He says our description of the last sight of Sean Flynn is not complete accurate, based on his memory, and he is indeed someone who would know. Jeff Williams was the only American AP correspondent in Cambodia when the 18 March 1970 coup occurred. He is among the last to see Sean and Dana.
Snapshot: Vietnam War 1970
To fully understand this point in the Vietnam War, and the complex, politically sensitive decision to invade Cambodia in 1970, you must consider that communists had been using Cambodia for a long time, unofficially, to fight a war against South Vietnam and the United States.
I wasn't there, I was growing up during these years; but in working with the people who were there, in this years-long quest for information, I am reminded of how quickly stories can change, and the extreme importance of first-hand accounts.
The War in Vietnam officially began after the November 1964 attack on the U.S.S. Maddox, a Navy destroyer operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. The shots reportedly fired by the North Vietnamese vessel were a matter of contention for years in the U.S. People believed the story was contrived as a reason for war. Interestingly, since the 1990's, the Vietnamese have displayed artifacts from a vessel in a museum that they claim was involved in the attack on the Maddox.
In the beginning there was a great deal of public support, not that most people had the slightest idea where Vietnam was.
But support and enthusiasm began to wane as the years passed, falling as the death toll kept rising. Americans were not used to seeing a bloody war being fought every night on the evening news, but that quickly became part of the American indoor landscape.
Then came the Tet Offensive in 1968, and with it a high price for all. The highly orchestrated series of communist attacks staged by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong on the Chinese holiday, was costly for the communists who lost many of their fighters all over South Vietnam. The cost for Americans, in addition to the military casualties, was that the attack came to represent a turning point in the war. It was Walter Cronkite, who would later be integral in search efforts for Sean and Dana, who proclaimed to the nation that the war in Vietnam could no longer be won.
Cambodia had officially been neutral during the Vietnam War, but it was no secret that communist forces used Cambodia frequently to travel and stage operations. Cambodia's royal leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was losing popular support over the growing presence of communists in his country. Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighters were growing and becoming increasingly organized.
While Sihanouk was in Moscow, on 18 March 1970, General Lon Nol took control of the government of Cambodia. With little patience for the communist insurgency, Lon Nol decided to go after tens of thousands of Vietnamese communists in eastern Cambodia, where a number of bases were maintained to support operations against the Americans and South Vietnamese.
According to historical accounts, Lon Nol tried to block the communists from using Sihanoukville, a main supply route, while demanding that their troops leave his country.
Answers.com states, "With their supply system threatened, the Vietnamese communist forces in Cambodia launched an offensive against Lon Nol's government. As the Cambodian forces faltered, the United States decided to mount a limited incursion to save Lon Nol's government. Destroying the communist base areas on the Cambodian border would also inhibit enemy operations in South Vietnam."
I read an article this week that compared these teenagers of the Khmer Rouge, with those who came to comprise what we now know as the Taliban.
The press crews in Cambodia in early April 1970 were in many respects, on their own. This was the situation for Sean Flynn, Dana Stone and so many others.
Twenty days after the two disappeared, on 26 April 1970, President Richard Nixon's approval was given for a multi division offensive into Cambodia.
'Operation Rover' assigned the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division's Bravo Troop as one of the units to take part in the operation. While there was clearly a measured degree of success in Cambodia, this marked, or confirmed in some cases, the beginning of the end to the conflict, as stated on the Website for the Air Cav's Bravo Troop:
"The campaign had severe political repercussions in the United States for the Nixon Administration. Pressure was mounting to remove America's fighting men from the Vietnam War. Although there would be further assault operations, the war was beginning to wind down for many troopers."
No Witnesses to Disappearance
Jeff Williams' distinction of being the only American AP correspondent in Cambodia when the 18 March 18 1970 coup occurred, was part of a six-month assignment. During those approximately 180 days, 25 foreign journalists were killed--murdered--or disappeared. Jeff was around Sean and Dana in Cambodia, and he know them from working in Vietnam.
He says that in spite of the widely reported information about the two combat photographers electing to turn themselves into communist guerrillas, there is no definitive proof that Flynn and Stone rode up to a checkpoint at all.
He said, "No one was in sight behind that car that blocked the road. No 'guards' or Khmer Rouge. Sean and Dana rode up close to it, checked it out and came back to where the group of other journalists were hanging around, said they saw nothing and then decided to look on the other side. That's when they disappeared."
The car that Jeff refers to was photographed by Zalin Grant. It was a white sedan, parked sideways in the road to prevent traffic from passing. It is reported that communist guerrillas were in the woods adjacent to the car, with an ambush waiting for anyone who came close.
200 Armed Cambodian Tour Guides
The press tour that Zalin Grant was part of that day, arrived at Chi Pou around noon. American reporters in Phnom Penh had talked the government information office into providing eight French armored cars, along with 200 Cambodian soldiers, to escort the newsmen into the combat zone.
This is where things begin to become unclear. The story about Dana Stone and Sean Flynn deciding to be captured, if it is true, is almost certainly based on what happened to a former Cover Girl model, Michèle Ray, who had been taken captive by Khmer Rouge, and was released unharmed within a week. This happened shortly before Flynn and Stone disappeared.
Of this notion, Zalin Grant wrote, "Sean Flynn had talked to me admiringly many times about how Michèle had gotten away with it."
But that still isn't proof.
One person who knew something about this was Roxanna Brown, the youngest credentialed photographer in Vietnam at one point. She reportedly stayed overnight with Sean Flynn, the night before we went missing. She died in 2008 in federal custody at Seattle's Sea Tac Airport, because she was refused medical attention. Her family was paid close to a million dollars over the associated negligence.
Jeff Williams has a different take on Dana Stone and Sean Flynn's last day of freedom.
"Did they want to get captured? They never said anything like that to me or to others then working in Cambodia that I know of. They pushed the envelope, but knew the risks were extreme. Stone was very level headed, but Sean played high stakes."
Zalin explains that most of the news people were staying around a village that had recently been destroyed. Many were thinking about three friends; two Japanese TV reporters and a French photographer, whose car appeared to be the one blocking the road ahead of them.
Zalin Grant wrote, "When Sean and Dana saw the car from a distance, they stopped and sat a few minutes on their Hondas, trying to make up their minds what to do. When word came of trouble at the checkpoint, the Cambodian troop commander ordered the entire escort force to return to the safety of the nearest provincial capital. Sean and Dana were alone."
More time passed, and then a French TV crew headed back in the direction of Sean and Dana. What happened only adds to the mystery.
According to Zalin Grant, "One of them turned on his camera as Flynn cycled toward them, warning, 'Pathet Lao! Pathet Lao!' It was a measure of his excitement that he confused the guerrillas of Cambodia with those of Laos."
Strangely, Dana Stone was nowhere to be seen at this point. Sean Flynn had convinced the French TV crew to turn around, but Sean Flynn stayed in the area. That is from what we can tell, the very last time that a western person saw either Sean Flynn or Dana Stone.
A couple of days later, more journalists were taken at a checkpoint, and the number of missing news people kept rising. Soon eleven newsmen were missing, along with two French teachers who had been captured. It was shocking for the local press corps.
Another key person in all of this, is Sean Flynn's old friend Tim Page, who has never given up his interest in locating his old friend.
The CIA's Electronic Reading Room publishes many documents that are now declassified. A search of their records for 'Sean Flynn' and 'Dana Stone' reveals some interesting information, some of which I was not particularly familiar with.
12 Oct 71
DIRECTOR INFO SAIGON Info Saigon (illegible)
(word removed), SOURCE OF (word removed) WAS SHOWN PHOTOS OF MISSING JOURNALISTS INCLUDING THOSE OF SEAN FLYNN AND DANA STONE. HE (was) UNABLE TO MAKE ANY POSITIVE IDENTIFICATION BUT SAID ETIENNE MICHED, FRENCH TEACHER WHO DISAPPEARED KAMPOI 16 March 71 LOOKED FAMILIAR. (word removed) READILY ADMITTED DIFFICULTY IN TELLING EUROPEANS APART AND SAID HE COULD NOT REALLY BE SURE OF ANY OF THE PHOTOS SHOWN HIM.
(word removed) SAID TWO JOURNALISTS WERE MOVED ALONG FOLLOWING CIRCUIT: PHUM CHEUNG CHRANG (VU 7238390) TO TA PAO (VU 762330) TO SANGKE KAUNG (VU 756345) TP PHUM CHRAK POUN (VU 685182), THEN BACK ALONG THE REVERSE ROUTE. THE JOURNALISTS WERE HELD AT EACH LOCATION FOR FROM FOUR TO SEVEN DAYS. THEY WERE MOVED AT NIGHT BY LAND ROVER CREW INCLUDES A DRIVER, A COOK AND TWO YOUNG LADIES. THE MILITARY ESCORT TRAVELS BY SEPARATE VEHICLE (word removed) CLAIMED TO HAVE SEEN THE JOURNALISTS IN EACH OF THE CITED VILLAGES OVER THE PERIOD MAY - AUGUST 71.
(After this an entire block of text is removed or covered with black marker.)
The final entry reads:
RE PARA THREE REF: MACCAY WAS ABOUT SIX (word illegible) BUT NOT AS OLD AS SOURCE ESTIMATED. (word removed) EVER SAW (word not legible, appears to possibly be Humphrey) If HQS HAS OR CAN OBTAIN PHOTOS, WE WILL TRY THEM ON SOURCE.
This document demonstrates that according to U.S. information at the time, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone lived well into the following year. Both were healthy, but Dana Stone had stomach problems. His tolerance for extremely poor conditions might have been lower than Sean's.
If the remains recovered in Cambodia under the direction of Rory Flynn turn out to be those of her brother, the discovery will roughly coincide with the 40-year observance of their disappearance. It would be amazing, and there is no doubt that everyone hopes this could materialize for Rory and all the people who loved Sean. In theory, this would very likely also lead to the identification of Dana Stone.
There is information out there, it is likely that they have the very best data possible. It was a long time ago, but not so long that living witnesses could not still exist.
It would be fascinating to discover the truth about whether or not Dana Stone and Sean Flynn voluntarily rode up to a checkpoint and allowed themselves to be captured.
The POW Network states:
"DETAINED AT BORDER According to CIA reports, they were detained at the border of Cam- bodia by North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces. According to Page, the Red Vietnamese forces held Flynn and Stone for the first six months of their captivity.
"They were turned over to the brutal Cambodian Khmer Rouge in the autumn of 1970.
"It is believed that the Khmer Rouge suspected Flynn and Stone of being CIA agents. They were reportedly executed by the Cambodian communists in early 1971."
This is an account widely distributed and generally accepted by those who know a few things about Sean Flynn and Dana Stone.
It is a report submitted to Washington D.C. on 20 February 2001 by Zalin Grant in Paris, France, titled, "Journalists Missing in Cambodia", that likely established the most recent developments in the Sean Flynn story.
Zalin Grant's endless work on this four-decade old saga has opened new doors. He was not available for comment, but Jan Terry, whose late husband was Zalin's partner in Vietnam for many years, wrote and said: "I, too, think Zalin's work has been incredible--and so did my late husband, Wallace Terry, who was his colleague in Vietnam." "However, Zalin has left standing instructions that he doesn't wish to comment on the current case of remains recovery in Cambodia. He believes his work stands for itself and he really has nothing to add," Terry said.
In the report submitted just over nine years ago to the federal government, Grant said, "From January 19 to February 13, 2001, my colleague Sos Kem and I conducted an investigation in Cambodia concerning the approximately 17 international journalists who disappeared in 1970, including three American citizens--Sean Flynn for Time magazine, Dana Stone for CBS-TV News, and Terry Reynolds for UPI.
(Two years after Dana Stone and Sean Flynn disappeared, UPI reporter Terry Reynolds and Alan Hirons an Australian UPI reporter-photographer were taken from their automobile on 26 April l972, southwest of Phnom Penh. This is the same route taken b Flynn and Stone. Reports indicated that Reynolds and Hirons were alive in captivity.)
Zalin Grant explained in the report, that they had established with reasonable certainty, that the journalists were held at a Khmer Rouge camp near Kratie City. Grant believes that the journalists lived in the camp for many years, from mid-1970 until early 1975, and were executed when the the Khmer Rouge closed the camp was closed down and destroyed it. Grant says they determined the probable gravesite of the journalists. He says the location is several hundred meters from where they were held.
The camp was located at Grid Coordinates XU 154815, four kilometers east of Kratie City on Route 13, in the northwest corner of an abandoned airstrip. Zalin Grant's research continued, and eventually, in 2001, he visited the site that by multiple accounts, is the place the journalists were held, and eventually killed.
Grant's trip to Kratie and the XU Camp came on 2 February 2001. His suspicions were in full swing, as he had to pay off both a police commissioner and two rice farmers before they would say a word.
"We had already visited the airstrip. I thought my 1973 source said the XU camp was in the northeast corner of the airstrip--and, indeed, we had found the remains of a camp there."
But the two sources told Grant that there was no Khmer camp in the northeast corner of the airstrip, he recalls arguing with them and getting ready to give up.
"In the spirit of proving me wrong, they said, no, that was the remains of an old Japanese-built camp I had seen. The real Khmer Rouge XU camp, they said, was in the northwest corner of the airstrip. It turned out that I was confused. My 1973 source hadn't specified the location of the XU camp other than to say it was at the edge of the airstrip. What he actually said was that the journalists were held in a long narrow building in the 'northeast corner of the compound.' Although only foundation remains are left, the camp was obviously as my 1973 source described it, and the building had been where he said it was."
An 80-year old village elder confirmed the information, adding that 27 U.S. military POWs who were repatriated at Loc Ninh, Vietnam, in 1973 after the cease-fire, were grouped and held in the Kratie area. The preponderance of information Grant collected, placed the journalists in the Kratie area.
Grant says that after interviewing the village elder, Sos Kem stopped to chat informally with a group of men gathered in the social area under the stilted house.
"During the conversation, one of the men, Ban Peov, 39, volunteered the information that he had seen the bodies of ten or more people who were held and then executed at the XU camp during the period between 1973 and 1975. He could not pin down the date any closer. Ban Peov saw the bodies when they floated to the surface during the rainy season (March-November). He was in the company of two Khmer Rouge, one of whom later died in action, the other of natural causes. He was between the age of 11 and 13 when he made the reported sighting. The Khmer Rouge had come to put branches over the de-submerged remains, but didn't try to rebury them."
He says at first, Ban Peov told said these were "foreigners" executed by the Khmer Rouge. But more questions caused Ban Peov to change his statement. He claimed that it was a Khmer Rouge cadre, who identified them as "intellectuals, important people from Phnom Penh." That he told Grant, was the information he used to reason that they were foreigners.
"Whatever the case, the observation of the bodies obviously made an indelible impression upon Ban Peov, for he led us without hesitation by motorbike to the alleged site, which turned out to be approximately 200 meters north and across Route 13 from the XU camp. Ban Peov is a pleasant-natured rice farmer with seven years of schooling and six children. Whether his information is correct or not, his sincerity was unquestionable. He says he will be glad to cooperate with JTF-FA is any excavations are carried out."
Grant described the gravesite as undisturbed in the intervening years. He says the land doesn't belongs to anyone, and there are no mines or other dangers in the area.
So if Flynn and Stone were held in this place, why did it take so long to figure it out?
First, nothing has been figured out in terms of identification of remains. The word could come soon, as the remains have been shipped to the government JPAC laboratories in Hawaii where the testing will take place. The Flynn Family has their own documentation of the remains as well. Second, there is not room to print all of the efforts that have been funded and launched to locate these journalists, as well as others in SE Asia from this time period.
One reason it has taken so long to get to the bottom of this story, beyond the obvious loss of so many witnesses, is the same thing that often throws investigators off; bad information.
Grant cites how reports surfaced of two "journalists" being held and executed in the area were Flynn and Stone disappeared. The belief that these two were Flynn and Stone would ultimately throw researchers off the track.
Larry Humphreys, a U.S. Army deserter in Thailand who made his way to Cambodia, and Clyde McKay, one of two hijackers of a civilian freighter which he directed to Sihanoukville, were both arrested after the Lon Nol coup in 1970.
"They were first kept on a boat in the Mekong, but several American anti-war activists passing through Phnom Penh from Hanoi protested their treatment, and the government put them on loose house arrest," Grant said.
"Louise Stone--Dana Stone's wife--exchanged visits with them in Phnom Penh several times. They told her they wanted to join the Khmer Rouge as 'freedom fighters.' She told them about Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, and advised them to pretend to be journalists if they decided to escape their guards and leave for Khmer Rouge territory--which they did, in late 1970."
Larry Humphreys and Clyde McKay were executed after an escape attempt in February 1971.
It was assumed they were Flynn and Stone.
The people mentioned in this article are among those who have worked long and hard to bring things to where they are. Others have been mentioned in previous reports. Cambodia is the place where millions were murdered by the communists in the late 1970's; that raises the stakes considerably when it comes to finding long buried remains.
But I have to say that based on the information above, it seems like Zalin Grant probably nailed it. Now we wait to see if the remains are those of Sean Flynn, or one of the many other missing journalists.
After almost 40 years, it is extremely important to eventually learn the fate and final resting place of Sean Flynn and others.
If you know have any information on Flynn and Stone, or any other missing journalists, please contact me, Tim King at Salem-News.com, email below, or contact the Flynn family, which I can help you do.
(Editor's note: This is a link to our most current article on Sean Flynn's possible recovery: Clearing the Air for Missing Photojournalist Sean Flynn's Family - Tim King Salem-News.com)
You can get more details here:
Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. You can send Tim an email at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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