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Remembering Sean Flynn: a Photojournalist Who Died at War (VIDEO)Tim King Salem-News.com
The son of the actor Errol Flynn was a combat photojournalist in Vietnam who believed getting the truth was worth a high price.
(SALEM, Ore.) - Most people who remember the album "Combat Rock" by The Clash might remember a song called Sean Flynn, but they probably don't know exactly who the early punkers were talking about.
The son of Hollywood movie actor Errol Flynn, he could have lived his life a thousand different ways.
Sean Flynn had a semi-successful acting career and all the money, looks, fame and fortune that any man of his day could have wanted, but instead he spent years covering the war in Vietnam.
During that time period, war photographers were a rare and important type of person, and their lives were imperiled as a result of their chosen profession. A risk that war reporters continue to face today.
I have always been captivated by the story of Sean Flynn and totally impressed with the things he was willing to do. In fact, I thought of him often while covering the war in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. He and fellow photojournalist Dana Stone were captured by Communist forces in 1970 and nobody who knew them ever saw the two Americans again.
The story isn't that simple though; research reveals that Sean Flynn and Dana Stone probably survived a year in captivity in Cambodia before finally being killed.
It is not likely that anyone will ever verify what happened, but one friend of Sean Flynn's, a photojournalist named Tim Page, may have a more clear idea of what took place. After the war, Page was portrayed in the movie Apocalypse Now as a somewhat frazzled international war photographer, a memorable character. In reality, Page took it upon himself to investigate the disappearance of Flynn and Stone, and his findings are some of the best information on the subject.
Another friend of Sean Flynn's who survived the Vietnam War was John Steinbeck IV, the son of the famous California author of Cannery Row, East of Eden, the Grapes of Wrath, and many other American classics. Unfortunately, John Steinbeck IV unexpectedly died during routine surgery in 1991. Nobody in his family was ready for that.
Our intention was, and still is, to produce a documentary about Steinbeck and Flynn to demonstrate the heroism and intrigue they lived by. Their captivating story is multi-faceted, and there is more to what these guys did than could ever be conveyed in one Internet story.
They both had ties to "The Coconut Monk" of the Mekong River who believed that Christianity and Buddhism existed hand in hand. The monk built a Disneyland-like facility on the island with hundreds of feet of brightly colored walkways and displays including a life size replica of Apollo 11.
The list goes on, and the people and places that these renegade journalists of Vietnam knew and frequented are among the most intriguing and intoxicating variety.
Nancy Steinbeck told myself and co-producer Bonnie King that her late husband and Sean Flynn were very much alike, "Johnny and Sean were close; their work was very important when compared to the other journalists because they were major risk takers, and they spoke street Vietnamese."
These guys were hard partying men of their day, and they were exposed to things that most people never are. Both took disturbing pictures during the war, including images of U.S. allies using terrorist and torture methods on suspected Vietcong guerrillas.
Flynn and Steinbeck were Americans through and through, and as independent and forthright as can be. They smoked a lot of dope and they also carried guns.
On at least one occasion, Sean Flynn reportedly busted out his pistol and started blasting enemy forces that were converging on the group of Americans he was attached to.
Primarily because of their time in country and their willingness to take risks, Sean Flynn, Johnny Steinbeck and Dana Stone and a long list of others were respected by the soldiers and Marines in Vietnam, and many talk about it to this day.
"They looked at the government press conferences as entertainment and referred to them as the five o'clock follies," Nancy Steinbeck said.
"They also are some of the only Americans who ever participated in anti-Vietnam War protests in Vietnam, during the war."
This in itself certainly places these two in a unique category worthy of conversation from so many perspectives, that they rallied against the war from the war. I remember telling Nancy at the time that I never saw that one coming.
Many Americans remember Stephen Bell as the host of the ABC morning show "Good Morning America" in the 1970's. Before that role he too was a war reporter in Vietnam. Bell is of the same generation as one of his oldest and dearest friends; Ted Koppel, the Godfather of his children. Men like Bell say they feel fortunate to have returned to the opportunities of this country after Vietnam, unlike Sean Flynn and Dana Stone.
"We were in a limo heading out to get photos from the war and report the story of the day, and I looked out the back of the window and here were these two: Flynn and Stone, riding these Honda motorcycles looking like they were straight out of the movie Easyrider," Bell said. "We snapped that picture of them, it was the last one ever shot."
The war meant great destruction for Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese from both sides were killed, over 58,000 Americans were killed, but the death that rampantly swept through Cambodia at the hand of Pol Pot and the Kmer Rouge in the coming years, was far outreached what any person or nation could have imagined.
"What you have to appreciate, is that at the start of the Cambodian invasion, we were living in Phnom Penh in five-star hotels and going to the war every day in Mercedes Benz limousines. Nobody really anticipated what was going to happen or the scale of it."
Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, believe it or not, were captured by their own volition. They assumed that like a pair of reporters the week before, if captured, they would be released and have the perspective of what it was like to be a prisoner.
They were wrong.
It was probably the tension of the Cambodian invasion. There were Americans, there were Cambodian Communists, and there were North Vietnamese Communists, and that is whose checkpoint the two rode their motorcycles up to.
The Mysterious End of Sean Flynn
Wikipedia reports that information obtained from indigenous sources indicated that Stone and Flynn were executed in mid-1971 in Kampong Cham Province, Cambodia. Various sources, including an intercepted radio message from COSUN, the Viet Cong high command, indicated that Flynn and Stone survived.
One source reported that he had seen a group of very long haired, bearded, tall prisoners near Memot, Cambodia who were identified as 'imperialist journalists'.
Over the following years, occasional reports emerged from isolated Cambodian villages of a "movie star" who was being held prisoner by the Khmer Rouge. In reality, his mother Lili Damita spent large amounts of money searching for him, but he was never found.
Wikipedia also reports that in the 1980s, a vagrant claimed to have been recently in Mexico having been drinking buddies with a man who claimed to be the son of Errol Flynn. This was never verified or substantiated. In 1984, Sean Flynn was declared legally dead, and one of 22 international journalists missing in Southeast Asia, most known to have been captured.
Evidence concerning Sean Flynn's fate was uncovered in 1991 by his former photojournalist colleague Tim Page. According to a report published in the UK Sunday Times on March 24th 1991, Page returned to Cambodia in November 1990, determined to resolve the mystery.
"He began his search at Sangke Kaong, the first village where Flynn and Stone were known to have been held captive for several months according to documents released by the CIA. Page tracked down one former villager who identified Flynn from a contemporary photograph, and recalled that the American had told her that both his parents were movie actors."
Investigations by Page and a TV documentary producer led them to a village known as Bei Met, and to an empty grave that had allegedly been the final resting place of two foreigners. Forensic examination of the few remains left in the grave suggested they belonged to a tall man and a short man, and that both had met a violent end.
Even more recent information has been provided by author Jeffrey Meyers in his 2002 dual biography, "Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Viet Nam".
His research now provides a different ending to the mystery of "Whatever Happened to Sean Flynn?" Meyer says his research shows that in June of 1971, being a captive for over a year, Flynn had contracted a "severe case of malaria".
He says that because of the poor medical facilities in Cambodia, the medical treatment given to him by his captors "went horribly wrong". When nothing else could be done for him; he was given a lethal injection.
It is alleged that he may also have been buried alive, before the effects of the injection took its final toll. His remains were then buried in an unknown spot never to be found again.
We should not forget that today there is a young named Sean Flynn of the same family, who continues to enlarge his fan base on television. I am happy for him, but a little alarmed that so little is available on the Sean Flynn that I have always been fascinated by.
Combat Rock and our Conscience over the Vietnam War
The Clash played an interesting role in American culture during the post Vietnam years with songs like "Sean Flynn." Americans have more of a tendency to forget our heroes than the British do, perhaps that is part of it.
The band also wrote "Straight to Hell" which is about the plight of thousands of Amer-Asian children fathered by American G.I.'s and more often than not, left behind to a dismal life as a Vietnamese who will not be accepted like others over racial prejudice.
There is no Vietnam War story like the Sean Flynn/John Steinbeck saga, as two Americans fathered by men of wealth and opportunity, who chose a far more difficult path than they needed to.
Their connections with the Coconut Monk and other significant people in the war, their relationships with the local people of Vietnam, and the utter confidence and bravery that they had to constantly provide to work in the combat zones with American Marines and soldiers, is a largely untold part of this recent war.
If any individuals or groups are interested in supporting the documentary on Flynn and Steinbeck, please send an email to the address below. We already have traveled many miles and gained substantial interviews from people who knew Steinbeck and Flynn. Perhaps their full story will eventually be told.
(Editor's note 28 May 2010: 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)
Here is the video we produced with the song "Sean Flynn" by the Clash Combat Rock album from 1982. Images in the video are to be credited to various sources, special thanks to YouTube:
And since it was referenced above, here is the video for the Clash song "Straight to Hell" which is about the reality faced by thousands of Amer-Asian children in Vietnam after the United States withdrew its troops and returned home:
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. Today, in addition to his role as a war correspondent in Afghanistan where he spent the winter of 2006/07, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website, affiliated only with Google News. Tim's coverage from Iraq that was set to begin in April has been delayed and may not take place until August, 2008. You can send Tim an email at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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