45 years ago, Sean Flynn, an acclaimed war photojournalist and the son of golden-age Hollywood superstar Errol Flynn, disappeared without a trace while on assignment in Southeast Asia.
Now, archives from the estate of his mother, Errol Flynn’s first wife, Lili Damita, have gone up for auction, giving a rare glimpse into the life of one of Hollywood’s most daring descendants. “Sean Flynn’s disappearance in 1970 captivated the country, he was so young,” Bobby Livingston, executive vice-president at Boston-based RR Auction, tells PEOPLE.
Sean Flynn was the only son of action hero Errol, best known for his swashbuckling escapades in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.
After Flynn pursued a brief acting career, starring in the 1962 sequel The Son of Captain Blood and appearing in George Hamilton’s Where the Boys Are, he found his true calling in photojournalism, traveling to dangerous war zones, from Israel during an Arab-Israeli conflict to Vietnam and Cambodia, taking pictures for TIME, Paris Match and United Press International.
During the Vietnam War, Flynn parachuted into combat zones with U.S. troops. In 1970, as North Vietnamese troops made advances in the country, Flynn traveled to Cambodia on assignment for TIME.
On April 6, 1970, Flynn and fellow photojournalist Dana Stone were leaving the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh when they got word of a checkpoint on Highway One manned by the Viet Cong, the Vietnamese communist soldiers. Stone and Flynn took off for the highway on motorcycles (turning down the limousines that most journalists used) to get a firsthand look on the way to a press conference in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The pair were never heard from again.
While never confirmed, reports cited by TIME claim that Flynn and Stone were captured by Viet Cong guerrilla fighters and held captive for up to a year before being killed by the Cambodian communist organization Khmer Rouge. However, no remains of either man were ever found.
Now, the world has a rare glimpse of Sean Flynn via the keepsakes of his mother, who died in 1994 after exhausting her finances in the search for her son. The collection of letters, photographs and mementos includes pictures of the handsome photographer throughout his life and early letters that reveal a young man determined to chart his own path.
Even in high school, he writes to his mom, “If father and M.G.M. want me to do a picture, they can all go to hell – I just want to be with my family.” In another, he writes about looking for a job in construction “loading cement.”
In one haunting letter, Flynn expresses his appreciation for his mother.
“I just want to say ‘thanks’ for home, the car, and just the fact that you are the best mother that I could ever want; and although you never hear me say it, I love you very much! I actually tried to be with you a lot but everything just didn’t seem to go together.”
The collection includes a gold-embroidered red silk banner with original packaging sent to his mom from Vientiane, Laos, during his last trip to the Vietnam War.
The archive also includes materials she kept after Flynn’s disappearance, such as a “Whatever Happened to Sean Flynn” bumper sticker, along with a “Where Is Sean Flynn” T-shirt with a picture of the late photojournalist.
Flynn’s name and disappearance date are engraved on P.O.W.-M.I.A. bracelets produced by the Voices in Vital America organization, a Los Angeles-based student group that made the bracelets during the war.
Flynn’s friends, including British photographer Tim Page, who recently went to Cambodia to look for clues about Flynn’s disappearance, are still searching for the missing adventurer.
The auction ends May 13 at 7 p.m.