CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Forty years have passed since my close friends, Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, rode bright red motorcycles into Communist-held territory in Cambodia on April 6, 1970, and were never seen again. Dana was a cameraman on assignment with CBS; Flynn was freelancing for Time magazine.
Now, suddenly, almost out of the oblivion of time, their names are back in the news with reports almost daily from Cambodia that Flynn's remains may have been found.
I emphasize that word "may" because there's no evidence whatsoever that the remains are Flynn's. He would have hated this kind of sensationalism. The son and spitting image of actor Errol Flynn, Sean loathed the superficial celebrity that went with a name that was only partly his own.
Stone, the merry prankster among the press corps in Vietnam, would be delighted to see his name in the papers and would have a wickedly funny remark about it all that cut right through the hype.
An international group of journalists has been outraged in recent days, not with the finding, but with the manner in which the search was conducted. Two "bounty hunters," as the London tabloids described them, took a backhoe to a site where as many as 12 Westerners were thought to have been buried. Neither of them had any credentials as archeologists or forensic researchers. One is an Australian adventurer; the other is a British born bar-owner in Cambodia.
Their "finding" came days before the "first and last reunion" of the aging correspondents who covered the dreadful wars of the 1970s in Cambodia. The sponsors billed it as the last because they said most of us were so old that we'd never be able to get there again.
Vietnam war correspondents Flynn, Stone, Stone's wife Louise and I had been part of the lively young group of friends celebrated in Michael Herr's "Dispatches" and in my own book, "Two of the Missing," which I initially wrote as a magazine article to help publicize their plight as civilian POWs.
On that fateful day, April 6, 1970, other reporters overheard Flynn and Stone arguing just before they left the little village of Chi Pou.
"I've got a wife in the hotel back in Phnom Penh, and I haven't spent all this time here to get myself captured," Stone said.
"I know it's dangerous," Flynn said. "That's what makes it a good story."
Flynn grabbed Stone's keys and tossed them into a mud puddle. Stone retrieved his keys and quickly joined him.
"Flynn's trying to scoop me," he muttered as he sped off.
In a stunning picture taken as they headed out, Flynn is dressed in a floppy hat, T-shirt, cut-off jeans, flip-flops and, of course, the latest shades from Paris. Right to that last adventure, he remained ever the casual one about the reckless daring he was known for as a photographer in Vietnam.
Lacking Flynn's glamorous looks, Stone was if anything an even more memorable character. He could never sit still long enough for college, but he was an intellectual in that he was always trying to figure out what he was witnessing and what his pictures really meant. He could recite A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad" from memory.
If you were his friend, you knew to expect a lightning quick thumb in your perfectly cooked over-easy eggs or mashed potatoes, or a lighted trail of lighter fluid up to your nose as you lay sleeping.
That morning 40 years ago, I got a call from my former colleague, Tom Cheatham, at UPI. "Just wanted you to know they think Flynn and Stone have been captured, but don't worry . . . ."
"Don't worry? I wish to hell I were with them."
Even I was shocked by my response. In truth, I knew at the time that nothing would ever measure up to the very special camaraderie we'd shared in Vietnam . . . and nothing ever has. I remember coming back to the world, standing with a friend in a Greenwich Village jazz club and saying: "I feel like my life is all in the past."
I was 29 years old.
The search for Flynn and Stone began almost immediately after they were captured. Dana's wife, Louise, may have seemed like a mousy little thing to some, but she instantly became a tiger determined to find her "Danie."
In 1970, she went to the site where these bones were just found after she interviewed a captured Khmer Rouge soldier who reported seeing Westerners who looked like Flynn and Stone.
She hired a Dutch adventurer to cross into communist lines to look for them; she talked two young men who'd hijacked an American munitions ship into escaping house arrest in Phnom Penh and going over to the communists.
She knew that her Dana would come back; he always had. Many years later, she would die a terrible wasting death from multiple sclerosis, still clinging to that hope.
Walter Cronkite headed up an international group of journalists to negotiate with the communists and try to convince them that the Westerners were journalists, not combatants.
The group hired Zalin Grant, a former Army intelligence officer and Time reporter, to interview captured communist soldiers. The consensus was that Flynn and Stone might have lived for as long as six months, but probably no longer. They probably were executed out of expediency.
In recent years, Flynn's closest friend, legendary war photographer Tim Page, has picked up the search for the remains of Flynn and others. In a British documentary, "Danger on the Edge of Town," Tim found some remains that he thought were Flynn's. They turned out to belong to one of the mutineers.
At the time, I was appalled by Page's digging in the dirt and coming out with what may have been pieces of our old Saigon roommate. Page may need that kind of closure, but I don't.
I want to remember Flynn and Stone as they're preserved in that last picture, alive and young and setting off on one more adventure. Like Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young," they won't live to wear out their laurels, and their names won't die before they do.
Still, at least Page did what he did with great respect, even reverence. I shared his outrage over the desecration caused by these recent headline seekers, and I must say, I was delighted to hear the report back from a trip Page took to the burial site on April 4 with New York Times reporter Seth Mydans.
"Good news and bad news," Mydans e-mailed me. They made the trip, all right, he said, but they were denied access. At last, the site has been sealed off by JPAC, the Joint POW, MIA Accounting Command.
Maybe now my friends' remains will be properly found and identified, and they'll be safe from scavengers. I have no interest in seeing their remains, however. I'll hold onto to that last picture.
(Perry Deane Young is the author of three plays and nine books, including "Two of the Missing, Remembering Sean Flynn and Dana Stone," a new edition of which was published by Press 53 in 2009. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Movie rights on "Two of the Missing" are currently optioned by Mythic Studios and Ralph Hemecker, a director in the "X-Files," "Millennium" and "Numb3rs" TV series.)
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