The Vietnam War was a tumultuous time in American history. The nation at large was divided on whether or not we should be involved in a conflict so far from home. Nevertheless, thousands of American soldiers fought and died in the war. And many more soldiers were taken prisoner by the Vietcong.
These men were captured, starved, and tormented by the enemy right up until the moment the war ended in 1975. After that, many were sent home, but countless others remained lost: presumed dead. One such soldier, Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robertson, had apparently found a new life in the Vietnamese jungle and had been living there in secret until he was discovered in 2008. But this Vietnam veteran’s story was not a simple one….
It was a lovely Spring day in 2008. Christian Missionary, Tom Faunce was doing what he loved, helping locals to dig wells in rural Cambodia. They had taken a break during the day when Tom overheard a rumor going around the dig site. Apparently, there was an American soldier who had miraculously survived a helicopter crash in 1968 and was still living somewhere in Laos.
Who is the Minister?
Faunce himself was an ex-soldier who had survived two tours of duty overseas. Many of his friends had not been so lucky and the sheer amount of death and destruction he had seen in his tenure as a GI had a profound effect on him. He channeled his guilt and sadness into a bunch of crazy endeavors, eventually ending his marriage and moving off to Cambodia to help people in a very real way: through God….
The fallen soldier was apparently a highly-decorated Green Beret named John Hartley Robertson. He had gotten injured in the crash and married the nurse who had helped him in a North Vietnamese Army prison. Once they were free, he stole the woman’s dead husband’s ID and fled to South Vietnam, where he became known as Dang Tan Ngoc.
It was certainly a remarkable tale, almost unbelievable even. But where another person might have dismissed the story as pure fantasy, Tom Faunce knew that it may be true. That much time being thought as dead and left abandoned in a strange land can take its toll on a person. He knew that he had to investigate, especially if it was a fellow American soldier in need of help out there….
Faunce went to Robertson’s house. The man was slender and wizened, six-foot-tall, with thinning wisps of gray hair. His eyes shined with tears as he invited them in and bid them to sit down in the living room. He knew why they were there. His wife, however, was shocked to see them and lashed out angrily in Vietnamese.
“He’s not American,” she was saying. “He’s Vietnamese!” Robertson steered his wife out of the room. When they returned, she explained that he was an American soldier and that she was just afraid her family would suffer for having smuggled him out of prison so many years before. Robertson spent the next few hours regaling Faunce with tales of his military career and what tales they were…
Robertson had been a career soldier. He had enlisted in the army in his native Alabama right out of high school and had joined the Green Berets soon after. He spent years training as a paratrooper and was sent to help bomb North Vietnam in the mid-1960s. It was a top secret CIA position and he was a perfect fit.
Robertson was a natural talent in the group and helped them carry out many sensitive search-and-destroy reconnaissance missions in both Laos and Cambodia. It was on one such mission, as his chopper was flying high over the South Asian jungle that the helicopter got hit by enemy fire from the ground…
The helicopter began to go down and though most of his men were ejected from the falling chopper, Robertson was stuck inside. His battered, bruised body was taken to a nearby Vietcong hospital. There he met the woman who would become his wife and began his new life as a Vietnamese farmer living in rural Laos.
Robertson asked what had happened to his family at home, but unfortunately, Faunce didn’t have the answers. Instead, he recommended that Robertson accompany him to a United States embassy for a fingerprint test. It would establish his identity and give him access to his old life. Soon they were on their way to the embassy in Phnom Penh. It was a long, nerve-wracking ride…
Some years later, In the winter of 2012, Emmy Award-winning director Michael Jorgensen sent Hugh Tranh to Vietnam to retrieve Robertson. The goal was to bring him home to Edmonton, Alberta, where his family was waiting for him. His sister Jean was excited and buoyant with optimism to see her favorite brother finally after all these years. She couldn’t stop smiling at the thought that Johnny was coming home. But did he feel the same way?
In Jorgensen’s documentary, Robertson opens up about his ordeal in the Vietnamese jungle. He claims that he was trapped in a bamboo cage and tortured for a year before he was sent to a hospital. By the time he was found by Faunce, Robertson could only speak Vietnamese and couldn’t even remember his children’s names. What would his family even say when they saw him?
Robertson’s sister Jean, along with her husband, and her daughter Gail, flew from her home in Tuscaloosa to Canada to meet up with Robertson. Gail hadn’t seen her uncle since her 10th birthday party. The reunion took place on December 17, 2012, and Robertson’s translator helped him to communicate as best he could, but it was obvious to Jean’s entire family, that Johnny was much changed by his experiences.
There had been some doubt, before the meeting, that Robertson might not be who he said he was. In fact, while he and Faunce had awaited the results of the initial fingerprint analysis at the American embassy, they worried that the prints wouldn’t match exactly. They were right to worry, and the farmer’s prints were not those of the real Robertson. Perhaps he had gotten his name wrong initially. Maybe he wasn’t John Hartley Robertson, but some other lost soldier…
Meeting Old Allies
It was eventually decided that, with lack of any other evidence, the man from Vietnam must be the real Robertson. One of the ways that Faunce and Jorgensen used to test this was to reunite Robertson with one of his old Green Beret buddies, Mahoney. Mahoney jumped at the chance to meet his old friend and to learn he was still alive.
Their encounter, which was filmed by Jorgensen at a restaurant in Dong Nai, showed Tom Faunce and Mahoney meeting up with Robertson. The two hugged awkwardly and then began the start of a difficult conversation in translated English and Vietnamese. As the conversation dragged on, something became very clear, Robertson, or whoever he was, didn’t seem to recognize Mahoney…
This uncomfortable reunion, along with the mismatched fingerprints, and the odd meeting between “Robertson” and his family in Canada prompted the family to take the next step in proving that the lost soldier from Vietnam was really who he said he was. They ordered a DNA test. It was the only way to prove once and for all that Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robertson had survived…
At the time of the documentary, all of Robertson’s friends and family members had been convinced or rather, had convinced themselves that the man discovered in Vietnam was the real thing. Sadly, this was not the case. When the DNA results finally came back, they revealed the truth: whoever this fellow was, he was not John Hartley Roberson. But if he wasn’t, then why did he believe himself to be?
It had all been a terrible fraud. The hope that Robertson’s family had held onto for so many years had all amounted to nothing. John Hartley Robertson, the real John Hartley Robertson, had apparently died long before that. Whether or not he had been killed in the helicopter crash or during his torture at the hands of the Vietcong is still unclear…
If the story had been true, it would have been one of the most gripping war stories of all time. Unfortunately, the story itself and the documentary have now passed into the realm of pure fiction. No one really knows who Dang Tan Ngoc really is, perhaps just a sad old Vietnamese man with dementia who was swept up in a lie that he couldn’t control.