WASHINGTON — Relatives of three missing Vietnam-era servicemen Wednesday accused the Pentagon of putting out "misinformation" in an effort to discredit their contention that a photograph proves the men are still alive.
The families also said that the government had lost fingerprint records that could verify their claims and that they believe the three men are being held as slaves on a potato farm.
"There has been a significant amount of misinformation which has been reported over the past week," Los Angeles attorney Albro Lundy III told a news conference. "A lot of misinformation has been coming from the Pentagon."
Lundy maintains that his father, Air Force Maj. Albro Lundy Jr., is one of the three men pictured in the grainy photo that was made public last week, kicking off a new flurry of attention to the long-simmering issue of U.S. servicemen unaccounted for at the end of the Vietnam War.
If the men are being enslaved on a Southeast Asian potato farm, it should not be too difficult to find them, said Gary Lucier of the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.
Such farms are relatively scarce, he told the Associated Press, and the potatoes are inferior.
"You wouldn't want to make french fries out of them," Lucier said. "There can't be that many that can be classified as potato farms."
Lundy was joined at the news conference by relatives of Air Force Col. John Robertson and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Larry Stevens, the two other men who family members claim are pictured in the photograph. Each family cited numerous instances of what they contend has been false information circulated in recent days.
Lundy took issue with reports, apparently coming from the Defense Department, that four pilots who saw an empty parachute come out of his father's plane after it was shot down over Laos in 1970 were certain he had died.
"Ever since I was a young boy, I've been trying to find the man who specifically witnessed the incident itself," he said. "I wanted to speak person-to-person with that individual. The government not only wouldn't tell me who that man was, but under a Freedom of Information Act request that I put in in 1985, I received a response that there were not witnesses to this incident."
Later, Lundy said, he discovered that a 1975 Defense Intelligence Agency analysis indicated that a witness had made a statement in connection with the loss of his father's plane, but added that he was never given the statement. "I don't know what the witness statement said, and I don't know if, in fact, it was proof that my father was not in the parachute itself," he said.
He said he believes that it is unlikely an empty parachute would come out of the plane, because the aircraft was not equipped with an ejection seat.
The families said they have been unable to locate government records of their relatives' fingerprints, which they are hoping to compare with those they received with the photograph from sources in Southeast Asia.
"It has appeared that they have disappeared out of every single file that ever would have carried them," said Robertson's daughter, Shelby Robertson Quast. "And my understanding from people who were in the service at that time is that there is definitely more than one set of fingerprints."
Asked whether the apparently missing fingerprints might indicate some sort of Pentagon conspiracy, Stevens' mother, Gladys Fleckstein, said: "I don't want to use the word conspiracy. It's just a mystery. Let's put it that way."
Lt. Cmdr. Ned Lundquist, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that the military could not locate the fingerprints.
The families said they had been told that the men, initially valuable to the North Vietnamese for their technical expertise, are working as slaves on a potato farm. They declined to divulge the source of that information.
On Tuesday, a government broadcast from Hanoi said Robertson was killed when his plane was destroyed and denounced the photograph as "groundless," the Associated Press reported.
At the United Nations, Trinh Xuan Lang, Vietnam's ambassador, called the photo purporting to show the three missing airmen "a cruel fake" and said again that no U.S. prisoners remain in Vietnam. He pledged Vietnam's full cooperation in further investigations.