Photo by: Michael Hayes
Bones and medical vials found in December 2008 at the former Khmer Rouge hospital site near Pkhar Doung village. Turned over to JPAC, the bones were identified as non-human.
Photo by: Michael Hayes
Ung Nit (right) interviews Hau Sou and her husband Ou Yoeun at their home in Phum Krek. Both said they had worked at the Khmer Rouge hospital where Sean Flynn and Dana Stone may have stayed in the 1970s.
The first time I heard about Sean Flynn and Dana Stone was back in 1992 when I first met Tim Page, who had obviously been carrying around their unknown fates in his mind like a nagging headache for several decades.
A mutual friend, Nate Thayer, who was then writing for The Phnom Penh Post and the Far Eastern Economic Review, said to me: “Hey Mike, let’s go to the Samaki [now Raffles Hotel Le Royale]. You got to meet this guy Tim Page. He’s totally insane, you’ll like him.”
Page was bivouacked in one of the old, now torn down, bungalows behind the hotel. He, like many other old Indochina hacks who had covered the war in the ’60s and ’70s, was back in town for UNTAC. The frenzy, uncertainty and excitement of the time was like an elixir for guys reared on it during their adrenaline-filled youths.
Thayer and I walked into Page’s bungalow, greeted there by the distinct aroma of opium in the air. A bevy of commando-like Vietnamese hookers, referred to as the “A-Team”, added a cacophonous spice to the pungent mix.
Page, then as now, was holding court and delivering authoritatively an endless river of tales, some of which have gotten taller over the years.
One recurring saga was the story of how his friends, American photographers Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, had gone missing in Cambodia on April 6, 1970, never to be heard from again.
In the late 1980s bits of intelligence from interviews done with defectors and others started to surface that gave vague clues as to what had happened to Flynn and Stone, and many others who had gone missing during the 1970-75 civil war.
In late 1990, Page, armed with some of this information, headed off to Kampong Cham to poke around obscure villages and see what he could find out. One source led him to the village of Bei Met, opposite Kampong Cham city, farther north and inland from the Mekong. He tracked down a family that said two foreigners had been held captive under their house for seven months in the early ’70s. Remains were uncovered, and Page was initially optimistic that he had found his friends. Only later did it become clear that these were the teeth of Clyde McKay, who along with Larry Humphrey was one of two Americans who had mistakenly sought refuge with the Khmer Rouge after escaping from a Lon Nol prison in 1970 and were eventually executed.
During the ’90s, Page became a regular resident houseguest at the Post’s old headquarters, where he camped out on the top floor. It was usually a sound bet that his presence in town meant some bizarre adventure was afoot.
The Flynn-Stone trail went cold for some years, and then two reports surfaced that indicated foreigners had been held at a KR hospital several kilometres east of a village named Pkhar Doung in Kampong Cham.
One report came from a 1974 interview conducted by AP journalist Matt Franjola with a Khmer Rouge defector in Saigon. The turncoat, Heng Peng, was a doctor, and he gave indications that some foreigners had been killed by lethal injection at a base in Kampong Cham. A second report from an intelligence source was an interview with a woman called Hau Sou, who was allegedly a nurse at the same base. She was assumed to be still living in a village south of Kampong Cham city.
Armed with only these sketchy details, Page decided to go back to the area in 2008 and see what he could find out. He invited me to tag along.
We hired a van and a fixer and headed north on December 24. Arriving in the provincial capital, we stopped for lunch at the well-appointed Hao An restaurant. Our fixer, Ung Nit, just happened to ask a moto driver outside if he had heard of Hau Sou. To our amazement, he said he knew her personally and even had her telephone number.A call was made, and then the next morning we trundled over many miles of dirt roads to find her house south in the village of Phum Krek.
Hau Sou welcomed us into her spartan one-room abode. Page explained the reasons for his search, and Hau Sou shared with us her story – how she had been an administrator at the hospital in question from 1972 on.
We asked her if she knew of anyone who had been there before that time. She replied: “Yes, my husband. I met him there.”
Ou Yoeun was sitting quietly next to her, wearing his age badly, with one eye lost and still weeping from an errant bamboo splinter many years ago.
Photo by: Associated Press
After sharing with us stories of their years at the hospital, we asked the couple if they could come with us the next day and show us the site, as we had no idea where it was. They agreed.
The next morning we were off early. At Chup on Route 7, we turned north and zigzagged our way through miles of rubber plantations before finally heading east past scrubby fields of cassava towards the village of Pkhar Doung.
We parked our van near the edge of town, and then, accompanied by some locals, started walking farther east into the jungle. About 5 kilometres on, plodding through the draining heat on dirt tracks, we reached the site.
The cement well used by the hospital was still in place, though it was half-filled with silt. Surrounding it were numerous overgrown trenches that Hau Sou said were the various wards and offices of the field clinic. She told us that at any one time it held about 150 patients.
She and her husband said that they hadn’t seen any foreigners at the time. They also said that they hadn’t seen any Vietnamese either, a comment that was contradicted by others we interviewed subsequently.
The general picture, gleaned from several sources, was that this was possibly also a major depot and transport hub of the regime’s Zone 203, headed at the time by Sao Phim. It’s likely the area was an extremely busy place in the early ’70s, with NVA and KR troops and supplies coming and going all the time. Maps showing US B-52 bombing sorties in Kampong Cham during those years indicate the place was practically carpeted red.
We poked around a bit and then headed home. Back in Phnom Penh, as we digested what we had learned, Nit told us that our driver had found some bones at the site. Predictably spooked, he had decided to throw them out.
Page’s jaw dropped. He looked at me and said, “We’re going back.”
On New Year’s Day, we were once again at the hospital site, scuffing around the bush. We found some bones and some medical vials, too, the ones used to fill syringes for injections. We could only speculate as to whether we had found the site where Flynn and Stone were killed. At one point, Page suggested we buy some shovels and hire villagers to start digging. I told him I would walk if he did so. The idea was quickly abandoned.
In Pkhar Doung we lingered, looking for old people to stop and question. We noticed one guy walking on the street and came to an abrupt halt. It turned out that he had two foreigners spend a night under his house in 1970, held captive in shackles by the KR and tied to a pillar. He even showed us the site, but said his family was too afraid to talk to the captives.
Another old man said that as a young cow herder in the ’70s he saw a white man killed behind the village wat. He showed us the place, and we could see that others had also been buried there more recently.
We packed the bones and vials and took GPS readings for the hospital and cemetery. All of this was shortly turned over to the defense attaché’s office at the US Embassy, where it was in turn forwarded to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) office in Hawaii for examination.
Months later, Page was informed that the bones were not human. No word yet on the vials, some of which still contained liquid when we found them.
Page made two more trips to the east side of the Mekong in Kampong Cham in February and March. On one, he and I bumped all over the province, tracking down a JPAC dig site near Memot, where, it was reported, the US defector McKinley Nolan had been killed. We drove many miles to see a memorial for KR victims, and all along the way picked old people’s brains for clues that could help us piece together what was obviously the massively complex but rapidly fading jigsaw puzzle of what exactly went on 40 years ago.
Then, late last month, out of the blue, I got a panicked phone call from Page in Brisbane. He related how Dave MacMillan and Keith Rotheram, two Australians he’d met in Ho Chi Minh City last year, had organised a dig on their own in Pkhar Doung, found teeth and bones and were claiming that they’d found Flynn.
They’d taken the remains and were holed up in Sihanoukville, refusing to deliver them to the US Embassy and threatening to sneak them across the border back to Vietnam for who knows what purpose.
Page was almost apoplectic. Photos of a jawbone and teeth with what looked like Western-style crowns were circulated among old hacks all over the planet by email – including a picture of a backhoe used for the dig. Page said he would try to jump-start his return to Phnom Penh for the old hacks’ reunion beginning April 20 to help sort out the snafu.
I tracked down MacMillan by phone and encouraged him to just give the remains to the Americans. He said he felt a bit spooky carrying around a suitcase filled with bones. He had been in direct contact with the Yanks as well and eventually showed up at the embassy for the handover a few days later.
Page was back in town on April 3, and we quickly headed off to Kampong Cham to see what was up. We assumed that MacMillan had dug at the cemetery, but on arrival discovered the site had been untouched. A cop showed up quickly and prevented us from going to the hospital site or anywhere else. He said the MacMillan dig was bout 500 metres away and was being guarded by police.
Back in Phnom Penh, I met with MacMillan, who said he had undertaken the operation after being nagged by Rory Stone, Flynn’s half sister, for “about a month”.
MacMillan said he was in Pkhar Doung for five months and had dug “about 40 or 50 holes, slit trenches”.
“We dug up about a football field,” Macmillan told me.
He said his motivation stemmed in part from reverence of Errol Flynn, who he referred to as “a great icon for Australians”.
He also said he kept one tooth and sent it by express mail to Rory Flynn. It’s unclear if he kept any other remains, and JPAC and others remain concerned that he might have.
As to the propriety of his methods – in particular, the use of a massive backhoe to dig at an alleged grave site – MacMillan said, “I’ve had support the whole time from JPAC,” something that JPAC flatly denies.
MacMillan now denies that he ever claimed he found Flynn, although earlier postings on his Facebook site and phone calls with Page indicate otherwise.
“We know 100 percent we found one of the Caucasian journalists,” said MacMillan. “It could be anybody. It was a secret operation that we pulled off over there, and that was it.”
The old man who showed him the place to dig has since passed away from dysentery, but MacMillan says he has seven hours of film footage in which the old man describes in detail how the person found at the site was killed.
At the very least, MacMillian’s dig-and-run operation set off alarm bells back at JPAC headquarters in Hawaii.
Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Perry, JPAC’s director of public affairs, said that when the first story about the MacMillan dig appeared in the Daily Mail, his phone stared ringing off the hook.
JPAC quickly pulled staff members from other ongoing recoveries and sent a team to Cambodia to run damage control and initiate “a pop-up operation”.
The JPAC team arrived in Pkhar Doung on April 8, and they let Page and I visit the site on April 12.
A crew of 21 Cambodians and six Americans were toiling away in the heat at a site down a dirt road behind the cemetery, pulling buckets of soil from a pit and then sifting through it, a labour-intensive process that lasted five days.
Hugh Tuller, the on-site forensic anthropologist, said they had found 20 to 30 skull parts, showing us a bag with one piece about 4 inches square.
He said he was obliged to go through all the dirt dug up by MacMillan and then some.
“We were backed into a corner to come here and do this operation,” said Tuller.
Bits of clothing had been found, but Tuller said that because of MacMillan’s digging methods the evidence was now useless.
“What they did was totally inappropriate,” said Tuller. “It’s lost its context, it’s lost its provenience; it’s now garbage,” said Tuller.
However, Perry said he thought the remains turned in by MacMillan were those of a foreigner. “We believe it was a Caucasian. That’s all they’d tell us back in Hawaii,” he said.
So the plot thickens, a bit.
Page says there are no known existing dental records for Flynn. He tried to track some down years ago and learned that two sets – one in Singapore and another in Miami – had been destroyed.
Out of respect for surviving family members, JPAC doesn’t comment on ongoing tests being conducted on remains. And in many cases, nobody is ever finally identified. Johnie Webb, JPAC’s deputy commander, said JPAC has about 900 case files of remains that cannot be confirmed to match any of the known soldiers or civilians missing in action.
There’s a final quirky wrinkle to the latest chapter of this story.
In combing through various intelligence reports and interviews of the era, two names kept popping up connected to the Khmer Rouge’s security apparatus, the one that would most likely be involved in “smashing enemies”. One was Ta Sabun, the Zone 203 security chief, and the other his deputy, Chan Seng.
Sabun was interviewed by Page in the early ’90s and denied knowing about any foreigners held captive. He has since died.
The name Chan Seng sounded familiar to me, and then I remembered that my landlady’s deceased husband was named Chan Seng. I also remembered that my landlady hailed from the village of Trapaeng Russei in Kampong Cham, which is not so far from Pkhar Doung.
I emailed Khmer Rouge expert Steve Heder last year and asked him if my landlady’s Chan Seng, who came back with the invading Vietnamese in 1979 as a member of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea Central Committee, was the same Chan Seng mentioned in reports of the Zone 203 security bosses.
Heder replied: “Yup, that’s the guy.”
So the question lingers: Is Tim Page, one of my most frequent and currently ensconced house guests, sleeping in the bed of the guy who may have been involved in the death of his mates Sean Flynn and Dana Stone?
Spooky, that one.
I just haven’t figured out how to approach my landlady with the issue in a manner that doesn’t convince her I’m an unwanted tenant.
Page, for his part, has been sleeping soundly of late, if at times with the help of a bit of Xanax, no doubt judiciously prescribed by his doctor.