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The Swashbuckling 'Bone Hunters' of CambodiaIvan T. Brecelic for Salem-News.com
Forty years on since Sean Flynn's abduction -- the son of the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn -- Ivan T. Brecelic reports the 'bone hunters' of Cambodia who are intent on finding the remains of the famous war photographer.
(BANGKOK) - In March, 2010, sensational headlines broke around the world: "Son of Swashbuckling Errol Flynn's remains found." An Australian and New Zealander, MacMillan and Rotheram had dug up the remains thought to be two photographers who had disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. But DNA testing suggested otherwise.
In Like Flynn
Sean Flynn, the son of swashbuckling Errol Flynn, was keen to break out of the shadow of his larger than life father. He tried his hand at acting, but war photography would be his calling. In Vietnam, where he would meet other photographers, including Brit Tim Page, American Dana Stone, and forge lifetime friendships. While the Vietnam war was winding down, the Americans focused on the side theatre in Cambodia where Sean Flynn and Dana Stone were last seen.
Flynn, 28, was photographing for TIME, and Dana Stone, a camera man for CBS, were apprehended on the outskirts of Phnom Pen, on the front lines, in 1970. Flynn was last seen on red Honda with Stone, pushing each other, to get the biggest scoop in Cambodia; to prove that the US were involved in a secret war. They were most likely arrested by North Vietnamese soldiers and handed over to the Khmer Rouge. Researchers suggest that the pair were alive for a good year after capture.
Australian born MacMillan, 29, who has been living in Vietnam for 8 years says steadfastly that he won't stop until he finds Flynn's remains. "I have been given this Indiana Jones tag because I do things differently." He sure does, beginning each day at 5 am, riding up to 120km through rubber plantations and bandit country looking for leads. And while on a dig, he doesn't mind using his North Queensland gruff to get the team motivated. "I call my workers slack bastards if they cant keep up with me and dig all day long."
He says he has always been fascinated by Sean's disappearance since he was a child, adding that he was a cult-fan of Errol Flynn and a founder of the Flynn Society of Indochina on Facebook. "Most of the other members are just in it for the hell of it but my interest is far beyond that," he says. "I came to Asia because I want to solve this mystery."
The Page -- MacMillan Partnership
In the early days it looked like Tim Page, a war photographer and good friend of Sean Flynn, and Dave MacMillan, would solve the mystery together. MacMillan, the Indiana Jones of the team partnered up with Page, the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. "He really is a unique character", says MacMillan even to this day, "We had some wild times together!"
MacMillan met Page through a close friend. "We clicked very quickly." MacMillan said that Page thought he was the protege of Sean Flynn. "On many occasions, he'd call me Sean," says MacMillan, who found that quite strange. But the moustache and beatnik appearance of MacMillan, as seen in a photo on his recent dig, does bare a strong a resemblance to Sean Flynn. However, MacMillan is quick to say, when they fell out, Page started claiming that he thought he was the protege of Flynn, which he totally refutes.
The friendship between MacMillan and Page ended in Saigon, when apparently the war photographer harangued him in the company of Ian White. MacMillan believed the fall out could have been triggered by differing opinions on the possible exhumation in 2007. Page suggested Kampong Cham, where he believed Flynn was given a lethal injection in a field hospital. While MacMillan favored another site, Phka Dong, a village 90 kilometers away, where it was believed many foreign journalists were executed.
But it is well documented in the press, that Page didn't pay MacMillan for his investigative work on following up leads on Sean Flynn in Vietnam, where he is based. Page asked for the documentation, but MacMillan refused to hand it over. And then Page accused him of stealing documents, but MacMillan says how could he steal something that he was not paid for, an outstanding bill of US $5000.
Ian White's Page
Ian White, a documentary maker, has been following the search for Flynn very closely. He has two posts on Youtube, mostly focusing on Tim Page and a great collection of Sean Flynn's original movies "Yes, Ian and I are very good mates, he was kind of caught in the middle of split between Page and myself," says MacMillan, who used one of his video cameras to document the 2010 dig for Flynn. Ian White was making a documentary on Page and MacMillan, beginning in Saigon, and covering their time together in Cambodia. "We were thick as thieves," he says.
MacMillan goes it alone
After the split up with Page, MacMillan communicated with Rory Flynn, the half sister of Sean, and sent supporting documentation about the possible whereabouts of Sean's grave. He had no further intentions of doing anything else but to supply the family(s) with information. JPAC and the US army as a formality were also updated, but it seemed they were still reluctant to investigate the site. And Page wasn't doing anything about the Flynn case, as he was on assignment in Afghanistan, says MaMillan.
Rory Flynn upped the ante. The daughter of Errol Flynn increased the partial funding and asked MacMillan to go into the jungle. MacMillan was jubilant deciding that the rest of the funding would came out of MacMillan's team's supportive pocket. He says he thought about it for a month at his Zen Buddhist monastery in Vung Tau, Vietnam, "then I crossed the border into Cambodia."
In Tim Page's documentary, Danger on the Edge of Town (1991), hearing his appeal on Voice of America, Cambodian villagers near Bei Met began "to explore the massive graves of the local killing fields," recalls Page, and dug up bones of men "they thought --or said --were Americans". The villagers had hoped to sell the remains to the US government or on the "bone market" to get rich or to get a US passport, according to MacMillan. Khmer believed in the 1980's and some believe this today that this is a guarantee of freedom and an insurance of a green card.
But the bones had disappeared, and Page was only able to get the teeth from the recent dig. Page, optimistic he was close to discovering his friends, surmised, that one tooth belonged to tall, and the other, a smaller man, but as MacMillan states: "This is somewhat impossible as height cannot be determine by teeth alone!"
Page then sent the teeth to the British Forensic Dental School in Cardiff. "The scientists gave the approximate date of the victim's violent death, said one of them had malaria," according to Jeffrey Meyers in his biography on Sean Flynn, Inherited Risk.
One theory discussed by Meyers is that Sean Flynn was dying of an incurable bout of malaria, and was humanely put down with a lethal injection, in a hospital in Kampong Cham, where Page was doing a dig in 2008, which is documented by Ian White.
MacMillan adds that it wasn't until 2003 when JPAC (Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command) investigation teams entered the same area a local woman came forward and supplied them with a bone fragment which has since been tested and has now been identified as the remains of the U.S.S Columbia Eagle mutineers. Conclusive evidence that it wasn't Flynn or Stone.
"The two adventurers Humpries and McKay, one a deserter and one a mutineer, had been contacted by Dana Stone's wife Smizer whilst they were in prison in Cambodia." MacMillan goes on further to say that Stone's wife had contacted them, and proposed a plan to find Sean and Dana, to which they agreed. She helped them successfully break out of prison. One can only surmise that it could have possibly meant bribing the corrupt guards with cash. The search for the missing two was financed by Flynn's mother, Lili Damita, a former French actress. She supplied them with cameras and also concocted an alibi for them, "if you are captured, tell the Khmer Rouge that you are journalists". Hoping that this would spare their lives if the inevitable happened. What they had not anticipated was that the Khmer Rouge knew that they were responsible for the mutiny of U.S.S Columbia Eagle, a ship sailing under the Department of Defense supply charter. The Khmer Rouge knew the ship was carrying napalm to an Air Force base in Thailand for use during the Vietnam War. The mutineers had turned the ship over to Prince Norodom Sihanouk's ruling party, declaring themselves anti-war revolutionaries.They were granted political asylum by the Khmer Rouge. After the coup, backed by the US, the Lon Nol government handed ammunition back to U.S friendly forces that were used against the Khmer Rouge.
Norodom Sihanouk's ruling party accused Richard Nixon's CIA of stage managing the coup and as a result the mutineers were branded as spies in pro-communist circles. Their claims of being journalists made it even more obvious to the Khmer Rouge that they were indeed spies. What unfortunately sealed their fate, explains MacMillan, was their intention to meet the Khmer Rouge in the jungle. "Insane!" states MacMillan. The two men were captured and then executed around June, 1971.
Page says Dig Unethical
"The way they went about it is astonishing," he told the press. "Here you're looking at a crime scene. How were these people killed? How many people died here? You put a machine like that across an archaeological site, and it's a no-brainer you're going to destroy the area. Usually this is done by digging and sifting.
But McMillan refutes this. He observes that Choueng Ek and Toul Sleng's Killing Fields were excavated with a mechanical excavator as were the graves in former Yugoslavia, digs that the United Nations conducted and oversaw.
He adds that mechanical excavators are used regularly, as is suggest by the US Mortuary Affairs Operations field manual, when the soil is too hard. MacMillan's team did this in Kampong Cham where they had hoped to find the remains of Sean Flynn.
Furthermore he added, he saw a video of a subsequent mission that JPAC launched on the site that he excavated. They used the exact same excavation methods he used. MacMillian is obviously annoyed concerning the reports that have appeared in consideration of his digging methods. "Those goody two shoe journalists have harped on about this, and have missed the hard facts!"
MacMillan Fights Back
MacMillan and his team spent 4 months in stifling heat digging holes in hard soil at Phka Dong, 90 kilometers from Kampong Cham City, flanked by rubber plantations. He says it was a Promethean task that the main stream media had little idea about. "They don't know how difficult it is. We were there to get a result. After forty years in the ground there isn't going to be an open casket!" In fact there will be hardly anything at all left of the person. DNA can be tested on any piece of bone marrow and after that any remains will be cremated before internment.
"I go with the theory that it is better to bring them home by which ever means then to never find them at all." He says the Khmer Rouge went to great lengths to ensure that these unfortunate men would never be found and even going as far as weighing the bodies down with rocks which MacMillan had prior knowledge of. "Soon as we hit rocks in a field that there was no rocks we knew immediately what we had uncovered". When the mechanical excavation finished, the rest was tirelessly dug by hand.
"You see", MacMillan adds. "We could not conduct a prior tentative ID of Flynn. Our eyewitness who had brought us to the clandestine grave site said the person was 6'3, 100kg with blond hair. We could confirm from our prior knowledge that this body was heavier than Flynn but what seemed the right height." British media sensationalized the claim that MacMillan stated without authority that the findings from the recent dig was indeed Flynn. MacMillan's findings were far from conclusive, he says, and waited many weeks, while taking taking dental x-rays, DNA samples, measuring bones and collecting independent data. But his reasons for contacting the press, were more to do with other events unfolding, than about the actual dig.
Return to Vietnam
MacMillan's reason for contacting the press, were more to do with events unfolding, than about the dig. While MacMillan's team were collating information, his team ran into serious problems.
The Cambodian Military and a corrupt element of the US mission in Cambodia organized arrest warrants that were used to track down their indigenous guides. Death threats were harshly suggested to the locals and the paramilitary police led by the Cambodian JPAC liaison officer, followed up by saying that "when he got me (MacMillan) I was a dead man".
Those threats made matters worse. Not only was MacMillan saddled with a dead man's remains in his hotel room, he also had to personally conduct and collate the collection of data. "We had to go to the media to save our necks," he says, adding that the media fueled the dog fight with Page, who "almost successfully used the information as a way of character assassination against me."
After the announcement to the press, his team quickly returned to the safety of Vietnam.
He says Page's derogatory comments was partly induced by jealousy and his ability of getting results. "I'm a tenacious,tough and intelligent motherf*cker who can hold his own if needed both in writing, conversation and every other way". MacMillan continues, "He (Page) needed to try to discredit me and our find because the week we made our discovery he was about to get a big chunk of money to finance his search."
Flynn in Waiting
This is MacMillan's fascinating account of the search for Sean Flynn, which has a curse embedded in the mystery. But the intrepid Australian has many supporters, who want to see this mystery resolved.
"I'm really intrigued by MacMillan," explains Tim King, a veteran war reporter, who has been covering the Flynn case for Salem-News.com, an Oregon based online newspaper. "Dave McMillan's dedication is exactly what is required to get to the bottom of a mystery like this. I applaud their efforts and I do believe that eventually, Rory Flynn will see that her brother is recovered and returned home."
Though the remarkable "MacMillan & Page" partnership has ended, the search still continues and nothing can be ruled out in finding the remains of Sean Flynn and Dana Stone. There are bound to be new headlines soon, coming from either Page or MacMillan, saying they have found the famous photographer's remains. Only then can Sean Flynn's restless soul rest in peace.
King, T. (2010) Clearing the Air for Missing Photojournalist Sean Flynn's Family.
This recent story by Tim King, from Salem-News.com, goes into the dig with lots of background information and an extensive interview with David MacMillan. King covers many aspects of this intriguing story, while also exploring MacMillan's side of the story, which tended to be eclipsed by Tim Page's rebuke of the dig as being unprofessional.
For all of the Salem-News.com reports on Sean Flynn, visit This Link.
Ivan Thomas Brecelic has been writing about South East Asia for the past 2 decades. "I am attracted to the extreme side of life where humanity functions at its best. My features have ran in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Courier Mail, Ralph, and publications in Europe, syndicated by Planet Syndication."
Learn more about Thomas Brecelic's work, visit: http://tripatlas.com/stories.
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