1971: Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, Vietnam War photojournalists

2 comments June 6th, 2016 Headsman

On an unknown date thought to be approximately June of 1971, American photojournalists Sean Flynn and Dana Stone were executed by Communist captors in Southeast Asia.

Flynn is the big name of the pair,* literally: a former actor, he wasn’t in like his superstar father Errol Flynn. After trading on his prestigious name for a few silver screen credits, Sean grew bored of Hollywood and pivoted into a career in wanderlust — trying his hand as a safari guide and a singer before washing up in Vietnam where the action was in January 1966.

He made his name there as a man who would find a way to snatch an indelible image out of war’s hurricane, even at the risk of his own life.


One of Flynn’s photos: A captured Viet Cong being tortured. (1966)

On April 6, 1970, Flynn and fellow risk-seeking photojournalist Dana Stone hopped on rented motorbikes bound for the front lines in Cambodia. It was a last mission born of their characteristic bravado — all but bursting out of the frame astride their crotch rockets in the last photo that would become their epitaph. They were never seen again; having apparently been detained at a Viet Cong checkpoint, it’s thought that they ended up in the hands of Cambodian Khmer Rouge guerrillas and were held for over a year before they were slain by their jailers.


Flynn (left) and Stone mount the bikes for their lethal assignment. This is the last picture ever taken of them.

Sean’s mother, actress Lili Damita, spent years seeking definitive information about his fate, without success. Dana’s brother, John Thomas Stone, joined the army in 1971 reportedly with a similar end in mind; he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2006. The prevailing conclusion about their fate arrives via the investigation of their colleague and friend, Australian journalist Tim Page — a man for whom memorializing the journalists who lost their lives during the Vietnam War has been a lifelong mission.

Though Flynn’s and Stone’s guts are undeniable, not everyone appreciated their methods. “Dana Stone and Sean Flynn [son of the Hollywood actor, Errol Flynn] were straight out of Easy Rider, riding around on motorcycles carrying pearl-handled pistols. Cowboys, really,” said fellow photog Don McCullin. “I think they did more harm than good to our profession.”

* He’s not to be confused with present-day actor Sean Flynn — that’s our Sean Flynn’s nephew. (Sean the nephew was named for Sean the uncle.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Uncertain Dates,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1965: Kenneth Roraback and Rocky Versace, Vietnam War POWs

5 comments September 26th, 2015 Headsman

According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,

The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.

An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.

The two men shot on September 26 — whose names are garbled in the initial news report, since “the names were received phonetically” — were Sgt. Kenneth Mills Roraback and Capt. Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.

In 2002, Versace would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first Vietnam War soldier so decorated on grounds of unwavering defiance as a POW.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1964: Nguyen Van Troi, Viet Cong urban guerrilla

4 comments October 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1964, South Vietnam executed a 17-year-old Communist for a plot to assassinate American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The young electrical worker and Viet Cong urban guerrilla Nguyen Van Troi was nabbed in the spring of 1963 trying to off both McNamara, famous for the megatonnage he would bestow on Southeast Asia, and U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

(Later, when the South Vietnamese client president whose guests these men ostensibly were was being shot in an armored personnel carrier with the Americans’ blessing, Ngo Dinh Diem might have had cause to wish this youth’s inhospitable gesture had not been undone by his men. Lodge was a particularly vocal advocate in the Kennedy administration for overthrowing Diem.)

For the months leading up to his public shooting, he became an international cause celebre; North Vietnam would later milk his martyrdom with a postage stamp, an award, and numerous public streets.

The international reach of his case was underscored when a Venezuelan revolutionary cell kidnapped an American officer shortly before Troi’s execution, and threatened to shoot him in retaliation. (They didn’t.)

Against this, South Vietnam counterposed the unedifying spectacle of a 17-year-old patriot put to death, energetically declaiming at the stake while cameras rolled,

It is the Americans who have committed aggression on our country, it is they who have been killing our people with planes and bombs…. I have never acted against the will of my people. It is against the Americans that I have taken action.

Naturally, he became a worldwide leftist martyr. There’s an Estadio Nguyen Van Troi in Cuba; American actor Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda from her “Hanoi Jane” days, is also named for Nguyen Van Troi.

Robert McNamara, meanwhile, had many, many years yet to live, and many, many more Vietnamese deaths to burden his conscience.Troi’s widow wrote a 1965 book about him, out of print but still available on the used book market.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Children,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1969: Sirhan Sirhan condemned

4 comments April 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was condemned to the California gas chamber for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.

The aggrieved Palestinian was not marked by fate to suffer that last extremity of the law, however; instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when all existing death penalty statutes were invalidated in 1972.*

As a result, Sirhan Sirhan remains alive as of this writing, serving that sentence in the Golden State’s Pleasant Valley State Prison. He’ll be next up for parole in 2011.

(In a parole appeal back in 1982 — he’s been on a bit of a losing streak — the convicted assassin had the chutzpah to complain that “if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment.”)

Although the guy was seen in a crowded room pulling the trigger (onlookers tackled him) and he subsequently confessed to the deed, there has long been a conspiratorial counternarrative suggesting that other shooters were there, too. It’s pretty hard to say that the guy who emptied his chamber in front of dozens of witnesses wasn’t involved, but there are versions of this where he’s a Manchurian Candidate-style hypnotized patsy.

Politics: much more interesting in the 1960s.

Precisely because that is so, this particular man’s crime attracts retrospective interest for what followed: the charismatic Democratic frontrunner from Camelot cut down; the sinister Richard Nixon arising in his place to bomb Cambodia, burgle Watergate, and create the Environmental Protection Agency. Sirhan Sirhan “assassinated modern U.S. history.”

That really seems a bit much.

Sirhan Sirhan himself has contributed to the trippy theorizing about his case by being all over the map on it. At one point, he attempted to plead guilty and draw the death penalty; the trial judge forced him to go through with a defense. Subsequently, as noted, he’s whinged for an early release. He’s claimed to have had no memory of the attack, which certainly isn’t what he said after he got arrested.

Ultimately, the most self-evident explanation has always been the first one that he offered: “I did it for my country.”

Sirhan was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian dismayed by Israel’s success in the Six-Day War, and by America’s concomitant foreign policy tilt towards Israel.

Kennedy was a strong advocate of that policy, and his death happened to coincide with the anniversary of war.

Maybe that’s just what they want you to think. But it has to be allowed that the cause in question has claimed more lives than just RFK’s.

* People v. Anderson, decided by the California Supreme Court. Later that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court would issue Furman v. Georgia, which would have had the same effect for Sirhan Sirhan.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,California,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Gassed,History,Infamous,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA

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1960: Hoang Le Kha, NVA cadre

2 comments March 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1960, the former French colony of Vietnam made its last use of that most characteristically Gallic killing-machine: the guillotine.

Communist cadre Hoang Le Kha of the Vietnam People’s Army — the insurgent force also known at different times, in different manifestations, and through different eyes as the Viet Minh, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Vietcong* — earned the unpleasant distinction. According to a disappointingly truncated article (.pdf) from the Texas Tech University Vietnam Archive, the beheading took place notwithstanding an appeal pending before the International Control Commission, the multinational body charged with overseeing the supposedly temporary partition of Vietnam.

So, six years after Dien Bien Phu, what was independent Vietnam using this hated machine for?

Why, the same thing the French used it for: Terror.

The demonstrative device was redeployed in 1959 by Ngo Dinh Diem — a man whose obliviousness to blowback would soon land him in these pages — for exacting frightful, visible justice on subversive types.

According to that troubled former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,

On May 6, 1959, Diem signed Law 10/59, which, in an ironic bow to the former French colonial masters, inaugurated the era of death by beheading, as Diem’s lieutenants traveled the countryside with mobile guillotines and platforms, looking for “communists.” Article 1 of Law 10/59 called for “sentence of death, and confiscation of the whole or part of his property” for anyone convicted of crimes ranging from murder to stealing farm implements and water buffalo. Article 3 proclaimed that anyone belonging to “an organization designed to help to prepare or to perpetrate” such crimes “will be subjected to the sentences provided for” — that is, they will also be beheaded. … Article 16 announced: “The decisions of the special military court are not subject to appeal, and no appeal is allowed to the High Court.”

He then cites Hanoi historian Tran Van Giau’s recollection of the period.

“In 1959, the most difficult period of the revolution in South Vietnam, the Ngo Dinh Diem puppet regime dragged the guillotine everywhere and carried out a bloody fascist repression.”

Though officially downplayed overseas, all-but-summary beheadings were intentionally publicized in Vietnam in an effort to cow rebels.

The Diem government had many public executions. A lot of people in the West denied that it happened but Diem made no bones about it. They advertised the executions and there were pictures in the paper of people getting their heads chopped off by a guillotine. … In 1959, when I went around with the map teams there were many military outposts where they summarily chopped off the heads of people they thought were Communists. They put the heads on stakes right in front of their outposts, sometimes with two cigarettes up the nostrils. They even invited people to take pictures of it. They were very proud of themselves.

It didn’t work.

As a result, the guillotine itself, an archaic French model, can be seen among other dreadful mementos of that horrific war at Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum.

Right alongside it is a picture of Hoang Le Kha.

(Many images — some of them graphic or disturbing — available at this Vietnamese page.)

* This is a very hasty lumping-together; the terms are not synonymous.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1968: Nguyen Van Lem

24 comments February 1st, 2009 Headsman

Around noon of February 1, 1968, in the opening days of the communist Tet Offensive, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon — and photographer Eddie Adams captured perhaps the war’s most unforgettable image.

An American cameraman also captured it in on celluloid. Caution: This clip shows … well, a man being shot in the head at point-blank range.

Though the image brought Adams the Pulitzer Prize, he would express discomfort with it later in life, and eulogized General Loan in Time magazine when he died in the U.S. in 1998.

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera … photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

For Adams, the lie was the omission of context — that the plainclothes Lem had allegedly just been caught having murdered not only South Vietnamese police but their civilian family members; that Loan was a good officer and not a cold-blooded killer.

Adams’ editor has said that many such summary executions were taking place during the Battle of Saigon — a broader context to the image no matter its specific fairness to the executioner.

But of course, the shot gained its deeper resonance from the growing disgust with the Vietnam War … and from its concise tableau of a century’s brutality. Here is a frozen image of Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Like any great work of art, Adams’ serendipitous photograph took on a life of its own … and a tapestry of meanings richer than its creator could ever have intended.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scandal,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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