Cruel Hoax? Another Vietnam War POW/MIA Mystery set in Laos.
Above Photo: Real or Fake? A photograph surfaced in 1990 purporting to show three American POWs being held in Laos, long after the Vietnam War had ended.
I’ll be honest, as soon as I saw the above POW photo, known as the Robertson-Lundy-Stevens photo, I immediately thought it was a fake for five reasons:
1. The sign looks like it has been cut around and plonked into the photo, especially at the top and left.
2. It looks old, and not a photo from 1990, which is what the date on the sign seems to say.
3. Nor do the clothes look like modern-day clothes.
4. More bad doctoring – it looks like something has been cropped out from the dark area below the sign.
5. Who is supposed to be holding that sign, and how is it being held? It’s not clear.
So, to me this looks like a badly doctored photo.
Yet this image, when it surfaced in the early 1990s, caused an enormous controversy in the POW community and in government departments in Washington, who were tasked with finding unaccounted-for POWs in Laos and Vietnam.
Just because it may be a fake photograph doesn’t mean that the people alleged to be in it weren’t being held at the time the photograph was taken, somewhere in Laos, or had been held long after the war had ended.
Where it came from
You’ll forgive me for glossing over the reams of ‘he said she said’s’ involved in these always-murky tales, by simply saying this photograph was given to an aid worker in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1990.
Who it’s Supposed to Show
At the time, it was widely believed that the man in the middle looked like air Force Maj. Albro Lynn Lundy Jr., who’d been missing over Laos since Dec. 24, 1970.
The man on the left seemed to be U.S. Air Force Col. John Leighton Robertson, missing over North Vietnam since Sept. 16, 1966, and the man on the right resembled U.S. Navy Lt. Larry James Stevens, missing over Laos since Feb. 14, 1969.
Because of this photograph, the families of the three men were convinced that Robertson, Lundy and Stevens were alive and in captivity somewhere in Southeast Asia in 1990.
At the time, it was a strongly held belief in the US that many American POWs were still being held by the Laotians or the Vietnamese in the jungles of Laos or Northern Vietnam.
The tragedy of these fake POW photo stories is that the people featured in the photographs are (or were) somebody’s father, husband or son. And when this photo came out, Colonel Robertson’s wife and daughter said they had never accepted that he was dead. “We are always aware of his birthday, anniversary and shoot-down date,” said Shelby Robertson. “He never died in this household.”
At the time the photograph was made public, all the families of the missing men accepted that the men in the photograph were their missing loved ones.
Johanna Lundy, who owned her own law practice, said the eyes, the mouth and the hairline “absolutely” meant it had to be her husband Al Lundy.
The Robertson-Stevens-Lundy photo caused major in-fighting in Washington, pitting those who strongly believed there were still maybe hundreds of POWs being held in Laos or Vietnam against others, who believed all evidence supporting that view was circumstantial or flawed.
The problem was that no one could absolutely guarantee there were no Americans being held in Southeast Asia at that time.
Speculation within the POW/MIA movement had long tended to focus on Laos, and some believers, like former POW Eugene (Red) McDaniel, maintained that hundreds of Americans were being held in five separate POW camps by the Pathet Lao.
It was McDaniel who gave the Robertson-Stevens-Lundy photograph to the press in an attempt to force the POW/MIA cause back onto the national agenda, in the face of what detractors claimed was a lack of hard proof that even a single MIA was still being held alive in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s.
Most most government experts were deeply skeptical of uncorroborated photos from unknown sources in Asia, like this one.
“I’m looking at a picture of three fat, happy campers with trimmed mustaches and nice haircuts,” says Sedgwick Tourison, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency. “I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of POWs, and I’m not looking at a picture of three ‘prisoners’ here. I don’t know what I’m looking at.”
The DIA received copies of the Robertson-Stevens-Lundy picture and tried to evaluate its authenticity, which was difficult because the photo was a third- or fourth-generation print from a missing negative.
The POW/MIA community hoped it would prove to be real.
“I hope to God it’s true,” says George Brooks, the then chairman of the National League of POW/MIA Families. “But if it’s not, whoever produced the photograph should be hung. They are the cruellest people in the world.”
A contemporary article that I read stated: “Everyone, even the most dedicated conspiracy theorist, knows there is only one way you prove or disprove the MIA dream. That is to go into the jungles of Southeast Asia and find a missing American – if, after all these years, there is one.”
That is basically what I have done over the past few summers, on my research trips, twenty five years after the debate about this photograph raged. And it is also what happens in my novel, BACK, which brings the issue of American POWs and MIAs left behind in the Laotian jungle into a 21st Century context, when a group of backpackers head into the Laotian jungle on a trek to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and find more than they expected.
But back to the photograph.
By 1992, Defense Department officials said they were convinced that the Robertson-Stevens-Lundy photograph (now known as the “Three Amigos” photo) was in fact a reproduction of a 1923 photo of three Soviet farmers published in the December 1989 Khmer-language issue of a magazine called ‘Soviet Union’.
A copy of the magazine was sent to the Pentagon from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, where it was found in the National Library, and it was released by the Pentagon after being shown to relatives of the three men.
After viewing the Russian photograph, Kathy Lundy, the daughter-in-law of Major Lundy, said that the families were skeptical of the Pentagon’s conclusions and believed that the picture found in Cambodia only “raises more questions.” She said that quick research done on their behalf by contacts in Moscow found that ‘Soviet Union’ magazine was published in 22 languages, but not Khmer.
Russian and English editions from December 1989 did not show the picture that was reported to have come from the Cambodian library, Mrs. Lundy said.
The Pentagon acknowledged that was true, and explained the discrepancy by saying that not all regional editions of the magazine were identical.
Mrs. Lundy said that while the families would ask in a news conference for more research into the origins of the magazine, they were prepared to be persuaded.
“If this is truly the source, we’ll accept it,” she said.
The photograph from Soviet Union was not identical to the Three Amigos photograph, a Pentagon spokesman said when he showed the fax to reporters.
The picture of three men, thought to have been taken in 1923, had been doctored to add mustaches. A banner praising collective farming was altered to include a message indicating captivity. But the setting’s similarities were apparent.
“D.I.A. is satisfied now that we have found the source of the ‘Robertson-Stevens-Lundy’ picture,” he said.
Soviet magazines would have been among the few publications with Caucasian or Western faces found in the three Communist Indochinese countries of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In a refugee camp for Cambodians in Thailand, where the picture first surfaced, it was a common practice for Vietnamese and Cambodian residents to try to barter information, pictures, bones or dog tags (also often faked) for money or settlement in the United States.
In an interview after the Pentagon denounced the photograph as a fake, POW hunter Mr. McDaniel said: “We can’t confirm or deny that the picture is real, but we have three families who say that the men are their loved ones. The Pentagon has tried to discredit every picture that has come in.”
And there the matter rested.
I believe, unless the Pentagon faked the Russian photograph, it appears that this was yet another cruel hoax perpetrated on families of MIAs and the US government by persons unknown, long after the war had ended.
The above article contains information from a longer Newsweek article written in 1991.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
And for POWs left behind in Laos:
(To find many more articles about POWs and MIAs in Laos, type either search term into the search engine on the top right of any page on my site).
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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