MIA Facts Site

Phony Photos   

Summary.   In the summer of 1991, three photographs surfaced, each of which was alleged to be of US POWs alive, right now, in Southeast Asia.  The photos were phony.  Yet, in some MIA cult circles, these photos continue to be sacred relics.

First, A Little Background

Before launching into a description of the three phony photos from the summer of 1991, I need to provide a little background on the way things work in the murky world of MIA information.

Names and identifying data are not secret

The first thing to understand is that the names of missing men and detailed information about them are not secret.  Anyone who wants to can, with a little effort, come up with much detailed information about a missing man.  Name, date of birth, wife's name, details of loss incident, social security number, military service number, address, tail number of aircraft, are only some of the information that is readily available from open sources:  US government records, unit histories, newspaper stories about missing men, books, you name it.  Add to this the fact that family members and MIA "activists" have spread around detailed information about missing men.

Thus, anyone who wants to put together a document or a story, alleging that a missing man is still alive, will have no problem coming up with data that can be included in the story to make it appear authentic.

Fertile ground for stories

In East and NE Thailand  were located the refugee camps holding thousands of Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian refugees.  The majority of these refugees had no hope of being moved on to another country so they simply waited -- some for years -- to be sent back to their home.  In the meantime, these refugee camps provided fertile ground for phony MIA stories.   US interviewers worked  in these camps, collecting information form refugees regarding missing Americans.  The refugee sources provided all sorts of information:

  1. Some had seen captured Americans during the war.
  2. Some knew the locations of crashsites or gravesites.
  3. Those who were former inmates of the Yen Bai re-education camp system in northern Vietnam had seen -- some had even talked with -- former USMC Private Robert Garwood, working as a North Vietnamese soldier in the camps, during the period of his collaboration.
  4. Others were former Communist soldiers who knew the policies and procedures for handling captured Americans.
  5. Still others, hoping that knowledge of missing Americans would earn them a ticket to the US, were sources of phony stories.  Additionally, there were a number of bad actors around the camps who preyed on the refugees, promising them visas, assistance in travel, etc., in exchange for the gold that many of the refugees carried with them; none of these characters delivered anything but grief.

These conditions gave rise to two results.  First, US intelligence collected a lot of good information.  In the main, the information provided by these refugee sources was good.  Whenever a source claimed to have seen an American alive, that was dubbed a "live-sighting report."  Most observers do not realize that the bulk of the live-sighting reports -- around 85 percent of them -- were accurate.  The sources described Garwood; Americans who were captured and returned; Westerners who were imprisoned in Vietnam after the end of the war; and an occasional Eurasian who was mistaken for an American.

The second result was a substantial cottage industry in bogus MIA reports.  For detailed articles on this activity, check out these two articles:

            -- Let's Sell the Bones

            -- Fraudulent Reporting
Some war stories

Here is an example of the sort of thing that we dealt with regularly in the Defense Intelligence Agency.   In one case, an Air Force officer was lost over Laos.  His brother was a businessman who traveled throughout Southeast Asia.  The brother would use his trips to SEAsia as an opportunity to go to the refugee camps and distribute handbills advertising for information about his missing brother. These handbills contained, among other information, the missing brother's name, service number, social security number, tail number of aircraft, details of loss, and, the family's address and telephone number.  We could always tell when the brother had been on one of his forays into the camps because we would be flooded with reports about the missing man.

Refugees would come up to our interviewers clutching pieces of paper on which they had written various words.  They would tell us that they had just returned from a foray into Laos with the anti-Communist resistance.  Or, they had a brother who was in the resistance and he had just brought them some information about US POWs.  Or, they had a friend who was in contact with a disillusioned Communist officer who knew the whereabouts of  US POWs.  Etc. Etc. Etc.  Then, as "proof" of their story, they would hand over the piece of paper.  On it would be written bits and pieces of identifying data of this particular MIA.  We had only to wait a few days and someone would come in with one of the handbills then we would know the source of the reports.

 In another case, there was a photograph of a tall, skinny American that would surface from time to time.  In the photo, the American is standing next to an Asian man.  The way the American is standing, his left arm appears to be missing.  People who handed over this photo gave us the name of the American and told various stories about him.  In one story, he is a US pilot who was shot down, lost his arm in his incident, was nursed back to life by the people of a village.  To show his gratitude, he stayed in the village.  The man standing next to him is a Communist officer who wants to bring out the American in exchange for asylum (and a lot of money).   Follow this link to see the actual photo and another commonly used phony photo.

There was one problem with all the stories accompanying the photo of the tall, skinny American.  The man was not a US POW.  He was a Peace Corps worker in NE Thailand.  The Asian man in the photo was a friend of his.  The original of the photo had been in some papers stolen from the Thai man's home.

The amount of time that we spent tracking down these bogus stories is uncountable.

Now, let's get on with the stories about the photos from summer, 1991.

The "Three Amigos"

Probably the most famous of the summer 1991 photos is one that became known in the Pentagon as the "Three Amigos" photo.

In August 1990, US officials in Phnom Penh began to receive reports about three live Americans, still in captivity who could be released with the payment of some amount of ransom.  A frequently mentioned figure was $2.4 million; this is the same amount of money offered by a group of US Congressmen.  For several months, we negotiated with the Cambodian source.  Finally, he provided some written information that correlated to three missing Americans:  USAF Major John Robertson, shot down over North Vietnam in 1966; USN Lieutenant Larry Stevens, shot down over Laos in 1969, and USAF Major Albro Lundy, Jr., lost in Laos in 1970.

Included in the gibberish provided by the Cambodian guy was "biographical information" that was supposed to prove that the information was accurate.  According to this data:

bulletStevens and Lundy were both married to ladies named "Sweet Mary."
bulletMajor Robertson's mother, who is named Phyllis, was listed with the name "Rpoesioner."
bulletStevens' mother, Gladys, had become "Russiver Lumerriper."  (No, I am not making up any of this.  This is what the guy had written down.)

In fact, there had been a handbill circulating in SEAsia for several years that had various biographical data about all three of these men.  At some point, someone started getting with families and providing artistically aged drawings of their missing man.  That is, the family would provide an old photo of the missing man and some artist somewhere would age the photo, producing a drawing of what the man might look like today.  The handbills that had circulated contained just such aged drawings.

DIA concluded that the story was a fraud and dropped the whole thing.  Then came the photograph.

In November 1990, a photocopy of a grainy black-and-white photo was sent via fax to a Cambodian living in California.  He photocopied the fax then, in summer 1991, sent the photocopies to the Robertson, Lundy, and Stevens families.  The photo showed three Caucasian men, each with a mustache, each fairly well fed, standing together and holding a sign.  On the sign were letters and numbers:

25-5-1990  NNTK!

The Robertson, Lundy, and Stevens families declared that the photos were of their missing men.  The photo appeared on the cover of Newsweek (July 1991), in several major newspapers, and even showed up on highway billboards.  Never mind that a total of eight families claimed that the three men were their family member.

Later, more of the story would emerge.  It seems that DIA had, before the photo appeared, concluded that the whole thing was bogus and filed it away.  Army Colonel Mike Peck, who followed me as Chief of the DIA POW-MIA Office, gave a copy of the report to Robertson's daughter and told her how to get in touch with the Cambodian who made the report.  (No, don't get me started on Peck.  Suffice it to say that Mike's elevator does not run to the top floor.  He is, however, a legend in his own mind.)  With Billy Hendon's help, the daughter went to Cambodia, and tried to win her father's freedom.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian source got word to Red McDaniel (returned POW, source of many bogus reports; never has provided anything of value)  that they would trade Robertson, Lundy, and Stevens for the $2.4 million that a group of Congressmen had offered a few years earlier.  McDaniel went to Capitol Hill, telling folks there that they could see the photo for $500 a peep.  No one showed any interest so McDaniel released the photo to the press and the fun began.

Eventually, DIA researchers working in a Soviet cultural library in Phnom Penh, uncovered a moldy stack of Soviet Life magazines.  These were propaganda pieces, featuring articles about what great things the Communist revolution was producing in the Soviet Union.  In one issue was an article about a huge grain harvest in the Ukraine in 1923 and there was the photo of the "Three Amigos."  It was not a photo of US POWs, instead, it was of three farmers holding up a basket of wheat after the harvest.  The photo had been doctored to produce the "sign" that the three men were holding.  (A small point.  MIA cultists who attack this story claim that the Khmer Rouge destroyed all printed material in Cambodia; how could a collection of magazines survive?  The Khmer Rouge did no such thing. They did attack and destroy many libraries and museums, but they certainly did not destroy every library, museum, or written collection in the country.)

Believe it or not, this photo still shows up in MIA fund-raising appeals.  Follow this link to see the phony photo and the real photo.

Update:  Major Albro Lundy's remains identified (updated 9 Feb 2004).

On October 28, 2001, the Associated Press reported: "Laos has returned the possible remains of an American aviator missing in action from the Vietnam War to U.S. officials. The remains were presented Tuesday to U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin by Soubanh Srinthirath, Laotian vice minister for foreign affairs.... The remains were the first returned under a new program in which Laotian teams unilaterally investigate leads on cases that joint U.S.-Laotian teams have been unable to resolve..."

On March 26, 2002 those remains were officially identified as Major Albro L. Lundy Jr. At that time, the family chose not to accept the identification, pending independent examination and testing.

That independent review is now complete. In a note dated January 2004, sent to family and friends, the Lundy family states: "We have independently confirmed through multiple DNA testing that the remains returned by the Laotian Government are his and we will inter them at Arlington National Cemetery on April 7th 2004 with a hero's farewell."  The note continues: "We don't know exactly what happened to him between the time that he parachuted out of his plane on December 24, 1970 and the day his remains were returned. But we do know that we are finally able to lay him and our hopes to rest."

While it has been clear for years that the "Three Amigos" photo is a doctored version of a real photo, and that Major Lundy is not depicted in this photo, the photo remains a matter of faith in the 'MIA activist" community who still flash this photo as "proof" of Americans still being held alive in SEAsia.

The Daniel Borah Photo

Just a few days after the "Three Amigos" photo appeared in public, a photo surfaced of a balding, dark complexioned man sitting in a wooded area.  MIA parents Dan and Betty Borah claimed that the man was their son, USN Lieutenant Daniel Borah, shot down over Vietnam in 1972.

The Donald Carr Photo

Before anyone had time to catch their breath, former USAF LTC Jack Bailey, the source of a vast mountain of nonsense, announced that he had found a live US POW in Laos and that he had dispatched an agent to photograph the man.  Bailey claimed that he had provided the agent with a blue polo shirt, a watch, and sandals.  The agent was to have the US POW don these items, then photograph the POW wearing the shirt, watch, and sandals.

Bailey then produced a photo.  Are you at all surprised that the guy in the photo was wearing a blue polo shirt, a watch, and sandals? BAiley claimed that the man in the photo was missing US Army Captain Donald Carr, lost in an OV-10 in Laos, 1971.  To make things even better, forensic anthropologist Dr. Michael Charney stated that he had examined photos of Carr and the photo surfaced by Bailey and, yes, this was, without a doubt, a photo of Donald Carr.

Now, the Facts

The summer of 1991 was a tough one for the Defense Intelligence Agency.  POWs were all the rage in the news, what with the unveiling of these three photos. Gradually, though, the truth began to emerge.

No Borah

The Borah photograph was found to be a picture of a seventy-year-old man from a Laotian hill tribe; his name was Ahroe, he lived in Muang Nong, Laos, and he was French-Laotian.  He had been photographed by a Laotian refugee who gave some copies of his photographs to a friend who gave them to  Khambang Sibounheuang, a Laotian emigre living in Nashville, TN.

Khambang had shown the photos to his boss, a Tennessee judge named Hamilton Gayden.  Gayden looked through a Life magazine article on POWs until he found a "match" and declared that this was a photo of Borah.  Gayden withheld the photos from DIA  and contacted the Borah family who "positively identified" the photo.  The family called Senator Bob Smith for guidance.  DIA contacted Smith and asked for copies of the photo.  Smith refused.  Then, Smith and Mr. Borah appeared on the Today show where Smith -- get this -- accused DIA of trying to suppress the photo!!  (How does DIA suppress what they do not even have?)

Later , the Borah family went to Laos and met Ahroe who confirmed that he was the man in the photo. Ahroe was fingerprinted and photographed to prove that he was not a brainwashed Borah.  Still, the "Borah" photo is an article of faith among the MIA faithful.  Follow this link to see the phony photo.

A photo for the birds

Remember Jack Bailey's blue polo shirt, watch, and sandals?  What more proof do you need?  But, a couple of ABC reporters, Jimmy Walker and another whose name I do not remember but I visited him on his houseboat in the Washington yacht basin, were a bit skeptical.  They went to Thailand, flashed the photo around, and soon were led to a tropical bird exporting company in the suburbs of Bangkok.  There they were put onto a German national, Gunther Dietrich.  Dietrich had worked in Thailand but was, in 1991, in prison in Germany on smuggling charges.

They tracked Dietrich to Germany and interviewed him.  Dietrich confirmed that he was the man in the photo, that the shirt, watch, and sandals were his and that no one had given them to him.  Carr's wife later met Dietrich and confirmed that he was the man in the photo and he was not Donald Carr.   Follow this link to see the phony photo and a photo of Dietrich.

One footnote to all this.  Jimmy Walker and an ABC camera crew tracked Bailey down to his girlfriend's house in Thailand and confronted him with the proof that his photo was bogus.  Bailey jumped up and punched Jimmy; it was all on video and was shown on national TV.

These three photos were part of events in early 1991 that stampeded the Senate into forming the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs.  For a description of the circus of 1991, follow this link.

So, what else is there to say?  These photos were fake.  They had nothing to do with US POWs.  All the energy spent on them could have been spent with more results elsewhere.  And, the families will never recover from having their wounds ripped open again.  Meanwhile, Jack Bailey, Khambang, Senator Smith, Hendon, and a few other heroes continue to rave.