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- August 05, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 4
A Last Frail Hope
A Mysterious Photo Stirs Longings—and Anguish—for the Families of Three Fliers Missing in Southeast Asia
There are others whose lives have been forever altered by that picture. The families of U.S. Air Force Col. John Robertson, lost over North Vietnam in 1966, and U.S. Navy Lt. Larry Stevens, missing over Laos since 1969, both insist their loved ones are the other two men in the photo. Their hopes were resurrected last fall, when the print first reached the Pentagon. And since its public release two weeks ago, the picture—the authenticity of which remains in doubt—has raised anew the most painful unanswered questions about America's long, bloody odyssey in Vietnam.
The photograph has revived fears about the 2,273 Americans missing in action whose fates have never been established beyond a reasonable doubt. It has renewed the suspicion in some quarters that George Bush—and the four Presidents before him—may not have done all they could to make a final accounting of the country's dead and missing. And it has upset the emotional equilibrium of MIA families everywhere, who for 20 years have been torn, wanting to leave behind the despair of the past yet still hoping that those they love might be out there, somewhere, alive.
Even now there are nights in her quiet cabin overlooking California's Big Bear Lake when Gladys Fleckenstein, 70, awakes with a start. She hears the voice of her son. "Help me, Mom!" Larry Stevens pleads over and over. For the longest time, Fleckenstein couldn't enter a small room without keeping the door open. "I had the strangest feeling Larry was somewhere in a cave, alive," she says. Those feelings were as strong as the jolt she felt flying home from San Francisco on Valentine's Day in 1969. "It threw me back in my seat, and I said, 'Something's happened to Larry.' " The next day a Navy officer informed her that Larry, 27, had been shot down on a night bombing run.
For more than 22 years Fleckenstein has maintained hopes that her son is alive. Her dining table is strewn with MIA newsletters and documents pertaining to his case. The walls are covered with pictures of Larry, the eldest of her three sons. Raised in southern California, he was a standout athlete who quit college in 1965 to join the Navy. He began his tour of duty in Vietnam in April 1968 after marrying homecoming queen Charlene Flineaux. Ten months later Larry's A-4C fighter plane was hit, caught fire and crashed. No one saw him eject. But a pilot-activated beeper signal indicating he had survived was picked up, and he was declared missing in action.
Since then Fleckenstein has campaigned tirelessly to learn her son's fate. She joined the POW/MIA movement, wrote to Congress and in 1973 traveled to Laos, where she confronted a Vietnamese general and demanded to know Larry's whereabouts—all to no avail. Then last November she received a letter from the Navy saying they had received a report—which they described as "questionable"—in May 1990 from an unidentified Cambodian source that Larry was being held prisoner somewhere in Southeast Asia. The report also contained a copy of the supposed Stevens-Robertson-Lundy photograph. "My reaction was, 'Oh, my God!' " she says. "This was the miracle we had been waiting for."
There are, however, skeptics who point out the photo's inconsistencies, such as the heavy uniforms worn by the men and the wooded setting, which does not look anything like an Asian jungle. And then there is the strong possibility that the photo is a hoax, perhaps an attempt to extract money from families eager to hear something—anything—about what happened to their men.
Fleckenstein remains determined to keep trying to find Larry by relying on a close-knit group of war veterans and MIA families who have a network of sources in Southeast Asia. "I may even go when the time's right," she says. "We won't let it rest, not if our men and others are over there."
On the living-room wall of Barbara Robertson's home in Tustin, Calif., hangs a family portrait taken in 1966, just before her husband, John, shipped out for Vietnam. It shows a handsome 35-year-old with his beaming wife and four young children. But today Barbara, 60, is not smiling as she bitterly recalls the moment she learned her husband was missing. "A fat little taxi driver arrived at my door and handed me a telegram," she says. "I'll never forget it." From that day, she insists, the government not only never made a good-faith effort to find her husband, it also lowered a curtain of secrecy that compounded her anguish. "I tried to be the proper military wife and bear my grief privately," says Barbara. "I would never do that again."
She and John met in Seattle during their freshman year at the University of Washington and married in 1952. An ROTC cadet, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Texas, North Carolina and West Germany, earning a reputation as a crackerjack fighter pilot. On Sept. 16, 1966, just 29 days after he arrived in Vietnam, his F-4 fighter plane was shot down. "I have never been so devastated," says Barbara. "He had always won every contest. I was never prepared for anything to happen to him."
She was instructed not to discuss her husband's case with anyone. Officials also resisted helping her contact the family of Robertson's partner, Hugh Buchanan, who survived the crash and was taken prisoner. In 1971 she moved to Santa Ana, Calif., where she struggled to raise her four children on a pension and Social Security. Barbara never heard another word about her husband until April 1990, when the Pentagon informed her the Vietnamese had returned John's remains; the box, forensic experts later discovered, contained animal bones.
Finally, last November, Barbara got a call from Larry Stevens's family and learned of the photo. Days later she and daughter Shelby, 29, flew to Washington, D.C., to see it. "I didn't have a doubt, and none of my children did," says Barbara. "I looked at the picture and said, 'That's Daddy!' "
But the family's grief persists. Last year Shelby made an eight-week trip to Cambodia but failed to turn up any new leads on her father. Mother and daughter are driven by longing—and anger. "There's a window of opportunity now to find my father," says Shelby. "We'll give the government every chance. But if they don't go through that opening, I'll go past them. I'll nail them against the wall."
From the day 21 years ago when she learned her husband, Albro, was missing in action, Johanna Lundy tried to get on with her life. She took off her wedding band; she tucked away his letters in a steel file box; she decided to become an attorney and enrolled in night school. But her love and her longing never subsided. "He'd be 57 today," says Johanna, sitting in her living room and sifting through her memories. "We've done a lot of praying around here lately."
Albro Lundy Jr. was raised in southern California, a strapping 6'3" ROTC cadet when he met Johanna at a UCLA pledge party in 1954. He was 21 and on his way to being named cadet of the year. "He did everything perfectly," says Johanna. "We'd talk, and he wouldn't even hold my hand. We didn't kiss until our 10th date." They married in 1956 and soon moved to Texas, where Lundy was stationed with the Air Force. The couple went on to have six children, the youngest of whom was born just before her father was sent to Vietnam in April 1970.
For the next eight months Johanna, who had moved her family back to southern California, received letters daily from her husband. His job was perilous—providing cover for helicopters on search-and-rescue missions behind enemy lines—and he earned a Silver Star and two Distinguished Flying Cross medals. The devastating news came that Christmas Eve: Lundy's single-seat A-1E prop plane had gone down in the jungle over Laos. A parachute was ejected, but no one saw him in it; the plane exploded on impact, and no beeper signal was recorded. "I was walking around, buying groceries, paying the rent, but I was in bad shape," Johanna recalls of those first months. "I was completely destroyed emotionally."
With the help of a $1,200 monthly Veterans Administration pension, Social Security and insurance payments, Johanna bought a home in 1971 and began studying law; she passed the bar four years later, specializing in probate and estate planning. She never heard a word about her husband from military authorities until last May, when the Air Force POW/MIA office sent a copy of a badly forged letter purportedly written by her husband. "I tossed it in the trash," says Johanna. "The government told me he died. I didn't want to deal with it." A month later her son Albro, 31, received a report that Lundy was being held captive somewhere in Asia, probably with Robertson and Stevens. He contacted Gladys Fleckenstein, who showed him her copy of the mysterious photograph.
These days Johanna, who is a committed Catholic, is trying hard to hold back hope. After talking to her son, she slipped her wedding ring back on. "It just felt right, and it felt good," she says. "I have already grieved so much."
There may be more grief to come. Because the origins of the photo are so incredibly murky, U.S. officials remain doubtful about its authenticity. "I'm just not at this point especially optimistic," says Carl Ford, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, who met with the three families early this month. Because the photo is a third-or fourth-generation print, it may be impossible ever to determine whether it is genuine. An audiotape of a person claiming to be Robertson, which came with one report, was faked, made by a person speaking pidgin English. And Ford cautions that since POW/MIA advocacy groups have offered million-dollar rewards in Asia for the release of any captive servicemen, the sighting report and photo of the three men could well be a hoax. In fact, Pentagon sources say, hundreds of families have had hopes raised—and dashed—by fabricated reports, prints or dog tags. No MIA has ever been found as the result of such leads.
Even so, many MIA families still feel abandoned by the government, convinced that Washington is making only token efforts to find out what really happened to the missing men. According to Army Col. Millard Peck, those feelings are justified. Peck, the former head of the POW/MIA office of the Defense Intelligence Agency, resigned last March, accusing the DIA of discrediting and possibly covering up reports of sightings of missing Americans in Asia. Eager to close the book on the war, Peck insists, the agency routinely fails to pursue the hundreds of reports it receives yearly—including the initial report on Robertson and Stevens and the photo that arrived last November. "The bottom line is, nothing was done until the families confronted Carl Ford, and [POW activist] Red McDaniel took the photo to the media," Peck says. "Now it's a big hype, and everybody's saying, 'Oh, we're doing everything we can.' "
But such political conflicts matter little to Johanna Lundy. More important is the emotional turmoil that set in the moment she saw that fuzzy photograph. Last week Johanna called a reporter to say she had heard from a Vietnam veteran who, as a gesture of support, had worn a POW/ MIA bracelet engraved with her husband's name during the early '70s. After reading the news reports, he had dug it out again. "Can you believe it?" Johanna says, her voice cracking. "All my feelings are coming up now." As she hung up the phone, she was weeping.
LORENZO BENET and DORIS BACON in L.A., MARIA EFTIMIADES and MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington, D.C.
- Lorenzo Benet,
- Doris Bacon,
- Maria Eftimiades,
- Margie Sellinger.
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