The Vietnam War was a time filled with violence, families torn apart and a rise in political activism in the United States. During this tumultuous period, many of the men and women serving in the army became prisoners of war. Some were released, but many were never heard from again.
One man was discovered by a humanitarian worker deep in the jungles of Vietnam, claiming to be a POW. Not speaking English and with a wild story of his capture, many were determined to find the truth. Let’s just say the end result is quite shocking.
A Man Who Saw the Horror
When it comes to the horrors of war, Tom Faunce knew it quite well. He completed two tours in Vietnam after joining the United States Army in the 1960s and lost many friends to the Vietcong. Once he returned to America, Faunce found solace in his faith. He became a devout Christian and began doing humanitarian work across the globe.
Rumor Has It
It was 2008 when Faunce returned to Southeast Asia as a missionary when he began to hear rumors of an elderly man who lived in the jungles of Vietnam. He claimed to be an American soldier that had been left behind when the war ended. Could it be true? How was it possible an American had gone unnoticed for over three decades?
Investigating the Tale
While the rumor seemed unbelievable, there had been reports over the years that some prisoners of war had been stuck in Vietnam long after the United States withdrew from the country in 1973. Faunce knew if the rumors were true this man probably had a family who thought he was dead and deserved to return back to his home country. Therefore, Faunce set out on a mission to discover the truth.
The Missing POW
Utilizing his contacts in the region, Faunce tracked down the elderly man who revealed himself to be John Hartley Robertson, a Green Beret. According to the United States Army, Robertson had been declared dead in 1976, but according to the elderly man he had been captured by the North Vietnamese and tortured for years.
A Wild Tale
According to the man, he remained in a prison camp for four years but managed to escape and hide in the jungle. Faunce found the story to be fascinating and somewhat possible. But why did the American soldier never try to get to an embassy or make it back to the United States?
Growing Up During War
Born on October 25, 1936, John Hartley Robertson grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. His family knew the struggles of war since he lived through World War II and after high school, he joined the Army at only 17 years of age. He then graduated into the Special Forces, landing a secret gig that would change the course of his life forever.
A Special Assignment
After proving his worth to the Army, Robertson was selected to be a member of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observation Group. Known for being an elite Special Operations command (MAVC-SOG), the team reported directly to the CIA. It was on one of his missions with this special unit that his life in Vietnam began.
Top Secret Missions
Due to the secrecy surrounding the SOG unit, the members were not to travel with dog tags or ID. This would allow their identities to remain unknown in case of capture. American forces were not supposed to be in Laos, but Robertson’s team happened to be in a chopper over the country when it unexpectedly came under fire. What happened next was the beginning of his nightmare.
Missing in Action
Unable to withstand the heavy fire, the helicopter crashed into the jungle before exploding in a fiery inferno in Laos. Since the mission was top secret, there was no way to conduct a search and rescue mission. Therefore, Robertson was considered to be MIA by the United States Army.
After his disappearance, eight years would pass with no word on Robertson’s fate. He was officially declared dead, and his wife and two children were finally able to move on with their lives. However, all of these years later, it seemed that Robertson may have been alive all along.
A Desire for The Truth
Fascinated by the elderly man’s wild tale, Faunce just knew he had to unravel the truth. He hired Canadian filmmaker Michael Jorgensen, who had experience in military documentaries and the two men set out to get to the bottom of the situation.
Married and Name Change
According to Robertson, after he escaped the prison he married a local Vietnamese woman and took on the identity of her dead husband, Dan Tan Ngoc. After so many years speaking the local language, his English had slowly faded into the background. Faunce noticed that during his time with Robertson/Ngoc his wife was none too pleased by his presence, constantly shouting “he’s Vietnamese, not American.”
Smuggled Out of Prison
Inquiring about his wife’s irritation, Robertson revealed that she had been the one to help smuggle him out of the prison camp. She feared what type of repercussions could happen if it was discovered he wasn’t Vietnamese and had been living as an American with her all this time. Therefore, out of fear, Faunce and his team weren’t wanted at her home attracting so much attention.
Suspicious of the Claims
Faunce was quite suspicious of the man’s claims. The story just seemed to wild to be true. Plus, Robertson not being able to speak any English at all seemed like a red flag. Regardless, Faunce and a film crew set out to find the truth, creating a documentary titled Unclaimed in the process.
A Five Year Journey
The investigation into Robertson’s story would take over five years, including multiple interviews with fellow servicemen and family members, as well as working with the local government. While Faunce originally had set out to expose Robertson as a fraud, as time passed he slowly began to believe his story was true.
Problems with His Story
Despite wanting to believe, there were a few issues Faunce had with his story. The first being the not speaking English, which had bothered him since the beginning. It seemed very unlikely that Robertson would simply forget how to speak the language. Also, Robertson had no recollection of his American children or their names. Could so many years in Vietnam really have wiped his memory of his entire life in the United States?
An Old Friend Helps
Hoping to confirm his story through an outside source, Faunce set up a meeting with a veteran who had remembered Robertson from when they were training back in 1960. Bringing the two men together, the veteran confirmed that Ngoc was really Robertson. Of course, Faunce still had a reason to doubt.
Surviving Sister Weighs In
Faunce decided that he had to try and track down any living family members of Robertson. If anyone were to know if Ngoc and Robertson were the same person, it would be a relative. His search led him to Robertson’s only surviving sister, Jean Robertson Holly. When he told her the tale, Holly just knew she had to reunite with her brother. After 45 years apart, the two of them finally met in person. At that moment, Holly knew that the man was her brother, in fact, she believed that a DNA test wasn’t even necessary. In her heart, she believed it was Roberton.
However, the truth was about to be revealed.
After years of hard work, Faunce’s documentary was finally released on April 30, 2013. Unfortunately, at the same time, the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office came forward with a shocking revelation. Thanks to fingerprints taken at the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, it was revealed that Ngoc was actually a French-Vietnamese man who had been impersonating Robertson for years. When comparing the fingerprints to Robertson’s they weren’t a match.
A Disappointing Development
For Faunce and Robertson’s sister, the truth was disappointing. They had fallen for an elaborate scam that Ngoc had been perpetuating since 1982. However, it wasn’t all for nothing. The documentary created from the story was a true tribute to Faunce’s character. He refused to never leave a man behind and that in itself is commendable. A testament to his character and an honor to the fallen men who were left behind in Southeast Asia during that terrible time.