WASHINGTON — The Pentagon cast strong new doubts Thursday on the authenticity of evidence indicating that three missing Vietnam-era servicemen are alive, releasing a collection of bizarre documents supposedly written by the servicemen but apparently forged by someone with little knowledge of English.
The purported evidence--including a photograph of three men said to be missing Americans--was provided to the Defense Intelligence Agency by a variety of sources, most of whom sought rewards, the Pentagon said. It included personal letters, autobiographical data sheets, audiotapes, photographs and fingerprints.
The DIA said the information came from various sources, including smugglers, humanitarian workers, monks and a shaman. Relatives of the three missing servicemen, however, say that the report does not offer any revelations and does not shake their convictions that the men are alive.
In one of the documents, the DIA reported, a man purporting to be Maj. John Leighton Robertson said he had brothers and sisters named Liposrimere, Chia Ripsone and Lukeremander. Men who were purported to be Lt. Cmdr. Larry J. Stevens and Maj. Albro Lundy Jr. both stated on a similar data sheet that their wives are named "Sweet Mary." Their wives are actually named Charlene Yvonne and Johanna.
The DIA also noted that no fewer than five U.S. families have said their missing loved ones are pictured in a much-publicized photograph of three men.
"The fact that five families, in complete sincerity, have identified one of the three men as their loved one points up the problems inherent in photo identification, particularly of individuals who have not been seen for 20-25 years, and if alive, whose appearance would presumably have been changed by age and hardship," the Pentagon analysts wrote in their seven-page report.
The photograph, which was publicly released last week, has brought a new wave of attention to the delicate, long-simmering issue of the more than 2,200 U.S. servicemen left unaccounted for after the Vietnam War.
Since then, several other mysterious photographs have surfaced purporting to show that two other servicemen are being held in Southeast Asia. More than 40 U.S. senators have signed on as co-sponsors of legislation authored by Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) that would create a select committee to investigate the issue.
The families of Robertson, Stevens and Lundy, all of whom include relatives in Southern California, have publicly declared that they are convinced that the three men in the grainy photograph are their missing relatives. DIA spokesman Lt. Col. Kerry Gersmaneck refused to name the other two families who have said they can identify their loved ones in the picture.
Shelby Robertson Quast, 29, daughter of Col. Robertson, said she was "livid" about the contents of the report and the DIA's decision to make it public. "I asked them not to release it. It's full of misinformation," she said.
Quast, who traveled to Cambodia in November in hopes of seeing her father and securing his release, said the families had never believed that the men wrote the letters associated with the photos. The families still contend that the strongest evidence concerning the men's fates is the families' identifications of them, she said.
"Nobody has stood up and said we thought our fathers wrote these letters. We've never said that," Quast said.
Quast suggested that a difference of opinion exists within the Pentagon over the validity of the photo. Although the DIA has consistently cast doubt on the evidence, Assistant Secretary of Defense Carl W. Ford Jr. has continually assured families that the investigation will be pursued on the assumption that the photo is valid, she said.
"All we have is a seven-page report from the DIA citing all this negative stuff, but Carl Ford is still saying no, no, no."
Rather than shaking the families' faith that the picture depicts their missing loved ones, Quast said, the report reinforces their distrust of official efforts.
Cathy Lundy of Culver City, wife of Albro Lundy III, said the report does little to discount "live sighting" reports through Laotian sources that link the three men.
She said the families had heard that other families believed the men in the photo may be their missing relatives, "but nobody has come forward and tried to show us pictures."
When Quast traveled to Cambodia, the photo she received from a Cambodian source already had the names of Robertson and Stevens on it, Lundy said. "Other live sightings corroborated that Lundy was with those men--and the man (in the photo) looks incredibly like Al Lundy," she said.
Both women questioned the decision to release the report the day before Ken Quinn, assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asian affairs, is scheduled to, as Quast put it, "negotiate" with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi on POW-MIA issues.
"What kind of message does it send to Hanoi? To us, it undermines his mission," Lundy said.