The Vietnam War saw thousands of American soldiers deployed to fight for freedom. Of course, no war is without its controversy – many still remain opposed to the idea of war today. Still, it doesn’t take away from the fact that thousands of people risked their lives. Many of these soldiers were captured by the Vietnamese and became Prisoners of War (POWs).
One man, Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, was presumed captured and killed by the Vietcong. So when he turned up in 2008 claiming to be a free man, many couldn’t believe it. Was it true? We explore what happened. Strap in – this is a wild ride…
Let’s Start At The Beginning
The year was 2008. A Christian missionary called Tom Faunce (a Vietnam veteran) traveled to Cambodia to help the local communities dig wells. In his life, Faunce had survived two tours of active duty – but not all the soldiers he served with were that lucky.
The Vietnam war always impacted Faunce. He realized that he had to turn his focus towards religion and helping those in need across the world. During a break from his project will the well, Faunce heard a story that there was an American veteran who had survived an aircraft crash way back in 1968. In fact, he heard he was still alive. According to locals, the man was living in Laos.
A Change In Name
Faunce discovered how the American, who was a highly decorated Green Beret, was called John Hartley Robertson. He learned how Robertson was badly injured after a helicopter crash and subsequently sent to a North Vietnamese Army prison.
While he was held captive, Robertson actually married a nurse who would care for him. Once Robertson had successfully escaped from his prison, he adopted the ID of the nurse’s dead husband and journeyed to South Vietnam. Robertson then changed his name to something more local: Dang Tan Ngoc.
Vietnamese, Not American
Once Faunce heard the story, he knew he needed to meet Robertson in person. In order to verify his story, he decided to go and visit his home to find out more. Finally, he met the man. Faunce described him as very thin, around six feet in height, and he had thinning gray hair.
Robertson welcomed Faunce into his house right away and led him into the living room. Immediately, Robertson knew why Faunce was there. While he was friendly and welcoming, his wife was not so happy to see him. She was shocked by the stranger and screamed in Vietnamese: “He’s not American. He’s Vietnamese!” There’s a reason she was so concerned…
Working In The CIA
Robertson’s wife didn’t want anyone to find out that she helped him sneak out of prison all those years ago. Over the next few hours, Robertson and Faunce spoke about Robertson’s time in the army. After his high school graduation in Alabama, he quickly joined the Green Berets.
There, he had trained as a paratrooper. It was in the mid-1960s when he was actually recruited by the CIA in a secretive position to help bomb North Vietnam. Robertson worked with the CIA in Cambodia and Laos, implementing sensitive search-and-destroy missions.
An Unlucky Turn
Even though Robertson was skilled at his job, he was unable to avoid the enemy fire flying in a helicopter across the South Asian jungle in 1968. The helicopter was hit, and as it started to spin towards the ground, many of the soldiers were ejected. Sadly for Robertson, he got stuck inside.
Little did he know, this probably saved his life. He managed to survive the crash, but he was not in good condition from the fall. His injured and bruised body was brought to a Vietcong hospital. Yep, you guessed it. This is where he would meet his future wife! Soon enough, Robertson started the next chapter of life as a Vietnamese farmer in Laos.
A Journey Home
During their meeting, Robertson had asked Faunce if he had any information on his family back home. Unfortunately, Faunce couldn’t help answer any of his questions. It’s true: he wanted to help Robertson, and he even requested he go to the United States embassy to get fingerprinted.
This would be the first step in confirming his identity. Once Robertson proved who he was without any questions, then he would reconnect with his American family and loved ones. None of this would be successful until he heard from this very special filmmaker…
A Meeting In Canada
In 2012, Emmy Award-winning director Michael Jorgensen had sent someone to Vietnam. This was to bring Robertson all the way to Canada and get reunited with his sister. She was very eager to see her long-lost brother!
Robertson would appear in one of Jorgensen’s films – Unclaimed. The film was about the former Special Forces Green Beret. He spoke about how he was shot and how he lived in Laos for all these years. The unusual thing was that Robertson only spoke Vietnamese and couldn’t remember his children’s names – or his own birthday.
Researching The Disappearance
It was time to dig a little deeper. Jorgensen insisted that he would research everything he could find about John Hartley Robertson before making the film. This way, he ensured it was as truthful as possible.
He told IndieWire: “I did a lot of research about this mission and the MACV-SOG Organization that the Pentagon put together in January of ’64. Then I tried to find everything I could about this missing man, and what was known about him… He disappeared; there are no files about this guy at all. There are a couple of statements by people who were in the air or on the ground when his helicopter went down, pretty minimal.”
In order to rejoin with her brother, Jean flew from Tuscaloosa to Canada to see him. Accompanying her was her husband and her daughter. The last time Gail, Jean’s daughter, had seen her uncle was at her 10th birthday party many years before.
Robertson reunited with his family in December 2012. Amazingly, he had such trouble with the English language that he needed a translator to communicate with them! To those who had loved him, Robertson appeared like an entirely different person. The fingerprint results finally came back…
After all that time, we learned that Robertson’s fingerprints were NOT a match. How could this have happened? It was first assumed that everyone got the name wrong and that it wasn’t actually John Hartley Robertson. Maybe he was a different soldier? Either way, they had no other explanation and decided it MUST still be him.
Jorgensen and Faunce decided to test his trustworthiness by reconnecting ‘the man from Vietnam’ with one of his old Green Beret friends called Ed Mahoney. After he discovered that he had survived the crash from 1968, Mahoney wanted to meet Robertson. Could the soldier spot if the man was who he said he was?
Jorgensen filmed their meeting at a restaurant in Dong Nai. When they eventually met, the two men exchanged an uncomfortable hug. People translated their conversation between English and Vietnamese so they could communicate with each other.
Mahoney, who had served with Robertson and claimed to know him well, believed it WAS John Hartley Robertson. However, the fingerprint evidence and Robertson’s peculiar family reunion pushed the family in Canada to find out if the man from Vietnam was who he claimed he was. So, they decided to get a DNA test to find out more.
Before the film was released, Jorgensen informed the media that Robertson’s American wife and two children had agreed to do a DNA test but later changed their minds. While it seems a little strange that they didn’t want to discover the truth, the filmmaker explains:
“Somebody suggested to me maybe that’s (because) the daughters don’t want to know if it’s him. It’s kind of like, that was an ugly war. It was a long time ago. We just want it to go away… I don’t know. What would compel you not to want to know if this person is your biological father?”
Not Family Robinson
When the film was released, a lot of people (including the family!) were convinced that the man from Vietnam WAS Robertson. They didn’t conduct a DNA test since they wanted to believe their beloved relative was alive. But science does not lie…
When the DNA tests were returned, they proved with 100% accuracy that the man was NOT who he said he was. Before the results were announced, Robertson’s niece, Gail, said of the situation: “The bottom line is even if the DNA test came back negative, he’s still proven to be an American. My mother will never believe he is not her brother.”
Finding The Truth
A forensics laboratory based in Alabama used a sample from Robertson’s ‘nephew’ alongside a blood stain discovered from the Vietnamese man conduct the DNA test. Robertson’s other niece, Cyndi Hanna, announced on her GoFundMe website: “We have received the results of the [nuclear] DNA test, and sadly there was NOT a match.”
“This is very disappointing,” Gail Metcalf added. “As my mother has said, we only want to do right by my Uncle John, and if that means exploring the possibility that the U.S. government has made a mistake or that the man claiming to be my uncle is actually another lost American and doesn’t know who he is, we intend to seek the truth on our own terms.”
The U.S. government didn’t help Jorgensen find the truth about Robertson. He explained to IndieWire: “The contact that I worked with in the government was very deceitful. I think they were trying to steer us clear of even doing this story.”
He continued: “As we were just about to finish the film…the government had told us that they had gotten blood samples from a brother and sister and that they were doing DNA tests. That was totally untrue.” Why would they lie?
A Conspiracy Theory
The day after Jorgensen’s film premiered, The Independent revealed that the man who claimed to be Robertson was actually called Dang Tan Ngoc. They described him as “a 76-year-old Vietnamese citizen of French origin who has a history of pretending to be US army veterans”.
The Independent had uncovered a note from 2009 from the Defense Prison of War/Missing Personnel Office about Ngoc. Ngoc had claimed to be Robertson since 1982! The Independent wrote that Ngoc had been impersonating Robertson for decades. “Some Vietnam War veterans said he could have possibly conned veteran groups out of thousands of pounds over the last 30 years.”
The Truth Is In The Teeth
While filming Unclaimed, the man who suggested he was Robertson extracted one of his teeth and gave it to the filmmakers. This helped them determine the man’s genetic composition and identity. A senior scientist at Salt Lake City’s IsoForensics Inc. analyzed the tooth. Lesley Chesson suggested it was “very likely” that the man who possessed the tooth had grown up in America.
The tooth enamel including chemicals that revealed many things. Scientists discover important information, like the climate and geology of a region where a person grew up. So even though the man wasn’t Robertson, they knew he was an American.
Even though we learned more about him, it is not certain that Ngoc is a full American. After all, all they did was test just one of his teeth. A Stars and Stripes article highlighted that the results from the tooth also match other parts of the world, too. It is a stronger indication where a person grew up if we test two teeth side by side.
Because they tested only one tooth, we can’t remove the chance that the man moved around when he was younger. Yes, that one tooth matched with a place in America, but what about the others?
Who exactly is Ngoc from Vietnam, and why was the CIA trying to tell a new story? Jorgensen told IndieWire: “I think it’s always the fallback position of the government to deny and to try to let it go away rather than to face the issues.”
He continues: “But… shortly after the film screened at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, the government launched a very large investigation into their own MIA agencies calling them ‘dysfunctional, inept, and potentially fraudulent’. That‘s in regard to more than 83,000 cases since WWII. That’s shocking.”
It’s unclear what will happen now. We’ve seen a story of deceit, anger, miscommunication, and conspiracy. Thankfully, this time there was no fraudulent activity that resulted in a serious crime, but what about next time?
Nowadays, technology is more advanced and can run tests to far greater accuracy. Still, there will always be people trying to trick others. The fact remains: we must always be careful. What do you think about the story? Do you think something like this can happen again?