Dan Smith returned from Cambodia, charged and eager to report what he’d found to the group. The Vietnam veteran, who had initially wanted to track down a traitor and see him jailed, was now startled by what Cambodian villagers had told him: Nolan, they said, was a generous, selfless man who sacrificed himself to protect his friends from the Khmer Rouge.
Henry Corra, a New York filmmaker, decided to organize another Cambodia trip. This time, the entire team would go. Corra, journalist Richard Linnett, McKinley Nolan’s brother, Michael, and Smith spent part of March and April retracing Smith’s steps.
Smith lead the crew to the Cambodian village of Chamkar Cafe and introduced them to the people who’d said they’d known Nolan. Cham Sone, who said he had been Nolan’s friend, showed them where Khmer Rouge soldiers beat Nolan to death. He then took them to a nearby cashew tree, where, Cham Sone said, Nolan is buried in a shallow grave.
Standing beneath that tree, Michael Nolan said, was “joy and sadness.” After more than 40 years, with hardly a word from the U.S. government, here, finally, was some hint of his brother.
“I’m almost 60 years old, and I never had a feeling like it before in my life,” he said. “If he’s at the grave site, then we can start dealing with what happened in ‘67.”
Smith, Michael Nolan said last week, “helped us get to that point. That alone is worth everything in the world.”
Bringing a member of the Nolan family to the grave had left Smith in tears, Corra said. Leading up the trip, he said, Smith had been “very paranoid, anxious, troubled, someone who is just in pain.”
But now, he said, “It was just somebody who seemed at peace and was secure. He stopped crying…. That evening, when we sat down, he just looked over at me and said, ‘My job is done.’”
“He said, ‘I’ve been obsessed for the last two or three years and been a troubled man for my whole life, but now my work is done. I can get back to being Dan again,’ ” Corra recalled.
Asked about the his discussion that night with Corra, Smith said, “I can’t even explain it.” Getting Michael Nolan to the grave, he said, had been a form of vindication. People, he said, were finally seeing — and believing — the things he’d discovered.
Still, Smith said he had wanted to dig up Nolan’s alleged grave during the April trip. That, he said, could have ended the mystery right then.
“I felt like I was leaving McKinley behind again,” Smith recalled Friday. “I desperately wanted to bring him home.”
Michael Nolan and Corra, however, had wanted to make sure they had the Cambodian government’s permission to dig. “Michael was adamant about doing it on the up-and-up,” Smith said.
The group reported what they’d found to U.S. officials, Smith said, but as far as he knows nothing’s been done to recover Nolan’s remains. No one can be sure yet that Nolan’s body is beneath the cashew tree in Chamkar Cafe.
The official word
Major Brian DeSantis, a spokesman for JPAC, the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, said Wednesday that his agency believes Nolan is dead.
“Our indications are that McKinley Nolan is not alive,” DeSantis said. “We do have witnesses who say that he was executed.”
He said he did not know who killed Nolan or the manner in which he was executed. The agency, he said, is more interested in recovering soldiers’ remains than it is with the particulars of their deaths.
JPAC was in Cambodia investigating the Nolan case as recently as May, DeSantis said. But, he said, it has yet to find credible information that will lead investigators to Nolan’s grave site.
DeSantis said he had discussed the case with Smith and that he is familiar with the documentary film team. Asked if Smith’s information had been useful to JPAC, he said, “I wouldn’t say one way or the other that his efforts have been helpful or not helpful. … I don’t know if he’s spoken to anybody that we haven’t already spoken to.”
But Smith said the agency has brushed him off. He said investigators told him JPAC “doesn’t go after bad guys, just good guys.”
“I told JPAC in Hawaii exactly where he was and nobody did anything,” Smith said.
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Asked if the agency is ignoring Smith, DeSantis said, “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
‘Other people escaped that killin' '
But if Nolan is dead, who did Smith see in Tay Ninh in 2005?
Smith said he still isn’t sure. He suspects it’s another American deserter who has taken on Nolan’s identity.
“I truly believe that this man that I met was an American. I truly believe this guy was a deserter,” he said. “You just know you saw something. … I’ve been chasing a ghost for two years.”
He also said the man looked to be in his 60s, which is about how old Nolan would be today.
Despite Smith’s discoveries, Michael Nolan said he wonders if his brother is still alive. His brother, he said, managed to survive in the jungle for years. None of the villagers witnessed his execution, Michael Nolan said, so he may have escaped.
“Knowing my brother, it could be possible,” he said. “Other people escaped that killin.’ … I’m not fantasizing, but I still have to go with facts. … My role is to make sure that I find the truth.”
Smith and Linnett, however, said they continue to believe Nolan met his end in Chamkar Cafe.
If Nolan were alive, Smith said, he’d still be in the village, growing old and raising his grandchildren with Cham Sone.
“Nolan, I truly believe, found his place in the sun,” Smith said. “If he was alive, I would have found him alive in that village.”
Corra said his film, tentatively titled “The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan,” will be released in late 2009 or early 2010. Actor Danny Glover has signed on to produce it, he said.
The plan, he said, is to keep filming until Nolan’s mystery is solved. This summer, he said, the team will try to dislodge Nolan’s files from government archives. They’ll also try to get into Vietnam to interview anyone who may have known Nolan.
“We’re just not going to give up until we start to get some hard answers, where we find his bones and some DNA evidence that he was killed.”
“Or,” Cora continued, “we find — and it’s a long shot — that this man that Dan saw in Tay Ninh might be McKinley. McKinley is a real survivor.”
Michael Nolan said he wants to go back to the cashew tree and exhume his brother’s remains, if they are in fact there. He said he has also been talking with lawyers in Cambodia involved with the prosecution of former Khmer Rouge officials. He may testify before a tribunal there in the fall.
This week, the prospects of recovering Nolan’s body seemed to be dimming. And Smith, who has sometimes sworn off the hunt, was once again drawn into its midst. He said he’d recently received a call from his interpreter in Cambodia saying the tree marking Nolan’s grave had been cut down and that the field may be cultivated.
Another call, again from his interpreter, came Wednesday, he said. Four Cambodian policemen, Smith was told, had been threatening Nolan’s old friend Cham Sone and asking where Nolan is buried. Smith suspects they’re “bone hunters” plotting to sell the remains to the U.S. government.
Cham Sone, he said, gave the men bad information. But Smith said he’s worried the black marketeers will return and harm his friend when the information proves false. Smith said he also worries Nolan’s remains may be destroyed or moved before the Nolan family can recover them.
“Now we’re scrambling, trying to get a hold of someone from the Cambodian government to somehow intercede,” Smith said. “Somebody’s got to get back there, and it may be me.”
Originally published June 2, 2008.