The Vietnam War spanned for more than twenty years, so you can only imagine how many stories remain untold. The ones that were told were some of the most heart-wrenching ones. The way this next story unfolds is not only perplexing but also very emotional. This is the story of the man who was found alive in the jungle 40 years after the war ended.
The war begins
The Vietnam War was one of the longest and deadliest conflicts in American history and one of the most tumultuous times the nation has known. Ever since the war ended, the country was divided to those who believed it was justified for the American army to be involved in a conflict that was taking place so far far home, and those who thought it wasn’t. The war which started in 1955, took the lives of 58,000 Americans, and thousands of families were kept in the dark regarding whatever happened to their loved ones.
These men fought the war with bravery. Some survived, some died under the worst circumstances and others were taken as prisoners by The Viet Cong. They were starved and tortured by the enemy and when the war finally came to an end in 1975, many of these prisoners were sent home to their families. However, there were many others who until this day haven’t returned home and they were considered lost and later also presumed to be dead.
One of these men who was John Hartley Robertson, or should we say, Sgt. John Hartley Robertson. John was just another brave soldier who was sent to war in hopes to help bring peace to the area and mostly in hopes to return alive to his family back home. However, the story of John Robertson might be a bit different from the stories you are used to hearing related to that time. He found himself a new life in the jungles of Vietnam until he was found in 2008.
Digging for the truth
Our story starts with Tom Faunce, a Christian Missionary and a war veteran himself who was passionate about helping the locals in rural Cambodia dig wells. One of the rumors that was going around in the area was about the a lost American soldier who was has somehow survived after his helicopter was crashed in 1968 in the midst of the war, and was living somewhere in the region. The rumor got to Tom’s ears and he couldn’t stay indifferent.
The breaking point
Tom Faunce, who was a soldier himself in the deadly war, knows a thing or two about survival as he survived two duties when he was sent overseas as part of his service. Unlike many of his friends who were sadly killed, Faunce has managed to survive the horrors that he had seen with his own two eyes. It’s impossible to see so much death and destruction without letting it effect you. After he tried endless of ways to channel his sadness and guilt to good things, he ended up breaking off his marriage and moving to Cambodia to help the people there through what he was passionate about, God.
Rumor has it
Just like any rumor has its different side stories, the same was for this on the fallen soldier named John Hartley Robertson, a highly decorated soldier you must say. The story behind the rumor was that he married the same nurse who helped him when he was a prisoner at the North Vietnamese Army prison after he was injured in a crash. Once he was a free man, he allegedly stole the ID of the woman’s dead husband and traveled to South of Vietnam, where he established a new identity under the name of Dang Tan Ngoc.
A tale of two men
You have to admit that this is a great story, an amazing tale to tell your grandchildren when they get older. However, as much as it sounds like a fantasy to one person and just a good story to tell, Faunce had a hunch feeling that it might all be true at the end of the day, perhaps it was a veteran connection of some sort, who knows. Tom Faunce knew that he had to go deeper into the story and help his fellow soldier who was allegedly abandoned probably scarred as a result.
The house in the jungle
Faunce, who was led by his curiosity and and passion to help his fellow American soldier more than anything, decided to go to the house where Robertson lived in the jungle. When he got the house he couldn’t believe what he saw standing in front of him. It was the meeting Faunce was waiting for for a very long time and he finally got to see for his own eyes what he had imagined ever since he heard the rumor of the man in the jungle.
When Fanuce got close to the house, the man who opened the door seemed slim and wrinkly. He seemed like he has aged quit a bit since he escaped , and it was evident in the gray hair on his head. The man was tall, six-foot tall to be exact and it seemed like he was very emotional to see Tom standing there. His eyes were shining with tears. He soon invited Faunce to sit in his living room, however, his wife didn’t seem happy about the situation and started yelling in Vietnamese.
She was angrily yelling in Vietnamese ‘He’s not American, he’s Vietnamese!’. Robertson, who was shocked by his wife’s response, told his wife to leave the room. When she returned to the room, she was trying to justify her behavior by saying that she was scared for her family explaining that he used to be an American soldier and she was mostly scared they would suffer all over again for everything they have been through.
We’re not sure what Faunce’s responses were to the whole situation, he was probably puzzled by the whole scenario. However, he did what he knew best and that was to be a good war veteran and sit down and listen to the stories that Robertson was telling Faunce, keeping him entertained for hours from the tales of the war and his military history. And oh those tales were something else.
There were endless of jobs in the army back in the days, and they were all different yet. However, they all had one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to help serve the country in the best possible way. Robertson, who was from Alabama, had enlisted in the army as a career soldier. He joined right after high school and joined the Green Berets. After years of training to be a paratrooper, he was sent in the 60’s to help bomb North Vietnam, a mission that was top secret.
He was a natural
It seemed like Robertson was perfect for the job. There are all kinds of skills required to fill that type of job, and the lost man in the jungle was a natural. He dealt with the most sensitive materials, and helped to carry out some of the top-secret search-and-destroy missions both in Laos and in Cambodia. He was at the top of his game, however that was soon going to change.
The life-changing incident
Robertson, who was perfect for that top-secret task and mission and was a natural talent, had his life turn upside down, literally, when the helicopter he was flying in over the South Asian area and the jungles of that region, was hit by fire. Enemy fire that was sent from the ground. Little did he know that his life was going to change forever since that one incident, the incident that was a game changer.
Things were going downhill
The whirlybird started to go down, and quite fittingly, things were going down as well. Robertson’s future changed as soon as the helicopter was on its way to crash the ground. While many of the men who were on board were ejected from the falling helicopter, Robertson, on the other hand, was stuck inside the flying machine. His body was bruised and due to his severe injuries, he was soon taken to a close by hospital. That was the same hospital where he met his future wife whom he was going to start off a new life as a Vietnamese peasant.
Home away from home
A big part of going out to war is leaving everything you knew behind, that includes your family. Many of these soldiers who were captured left their families in the worst scenario possible, the unknown. Robertson, who was hoping Faunce would have some answers, asked his fellow veteran what ever happened to his family back home. Faunce, however did not have the answers, but he did offer one thing that was going to change things around and maybe give some closure.
Faunce offered Robertson to join him to the local United Stated Embassy in order to take a fingerprint test. That way, Robertson would be able to establish his lost identity and he would be granted access to the former life he left behind. A man is no man without his identity, and Robertson agreed to join the ride. Needless to say that it was the longest ride of his life to Phnom Penh, where the embassy was located.
Johnny Come Home
Fast forwarding four years down the line, Michale Jorgensen, a Canadian filmmaker who is also an Emmy Award winner, was on a mission to bring Robertson back home to Edmonton, Alberta. His family was waiting to see what had happened to their beloved member who was sent to war and never returned. Jean, Robertson’s sister was overwhelmed with excitement of the thought of seeing her long-lost brother once again. She was excited, however, how did Johnny feel about coming home.
Lost in translation
Jorgensen, whom we have mentioned before, wanted to portray Robertson’s story in the most authentic way in a revealing documentary. In the film, Robertson doesn’t hold back and opens up about everything that he went through in those jungles. He talks about how he was trapped inside a cage made of bamboo and was severely tortured until he was taken to the Vietcong hospital. It took 40 years to find Robertson, and by that time he only spoke Vietnamese and could barley remember anything from his old life. What would his family think of him now?
A changed man
It was one emotional family reunion on December 17 of 2012. Jean, Robertson’s sister, flew with her husband and daughter, Gail, all the way from Tuscaloosa to Canada to reunite with her lost brother. The last time Gail saw her lost uncle was when he attended her 10th birthday party. With the help of a translator, the family could communicate, however it was very obvious that Robertson wasn’t the same man as he was when he left.
Was it the same man?
Throughout the meeting, Jean had started to develop some doubts. She had a bad feeling that maybe the man who was sitting in front of her wasn’t who he said he was. Moreover, the results of the fingerprints analysis that were taken at the American Embassy haven’t arrived yet, which made everyone’s doubts grow even stronger regarding Robertson’s identity. Who was that man sitting there and was it the same man who left for the war?
You can’t fight with a hunch feeling, because as it turned out, they were right to be worried, both Faunce and Jean who were already so involved in this weird and tragic story. The man who claimed to be Robertson did not have the same matching fingerprints of the real Robertson. It turned out that the farmer from the jungle wasn’t Robertson based on the fingerprints. However, he did claim to go through a traumatic incident, so maybe he was just confused about his identity? Maybe he was another lost soldier but not John Hartley Robertson?
Mahoney was called in
When a family is waiting for so long to reunite with their loved ones, you can’t just dismiss that hope by one test result, and so it was decided at the end of the day, and also due to lack of any other piece of evidence that the farmer from Vietnam was in fact Robertson. Faunce and the filmmaker, Jorgensen, decided to test that theory by reuniting Robertson with one of the Green Beret veterans, a man named Mahoney. Mahoney was of course excited to reunite with his old friend and jumped at the opportunity.
Everything was set and organized for the anticipated meeting. Jorgensen, who was an experienced director, decided to have the meeting be filmed at a restaurant in Dong Nai. The scene showed Tom Faunce, who found Robertson together with Mahoney meeting Robertson at the local restaurant. It was an awkward yet exciting encounter and the two hugged as they saw each other. The two started a hard conversation that involved a lot of translating back and forth from Vietnamese to English. As the conversation progressed, one thing became very clear, Robertson did not recognize his old friend.
The next steps
The meeting soon turned to be very uncomfortable and the fact that the fingerprints were a mismatch, did not help this awkward situation. The bizarre meeting between the man who claimed to be Robertson and his family, promoted the worried family to take these next steps. They wanted to make sure that the man standing in front of them was indeed their beloved John, so they asked for a DNA test to be done. It was their way to find peace in the story and prove that John Hartley Robertson was their John who had survived.
The results round 2
During the time of the filming, anyone that had some sort of connection to the man who claimed to be Robertson, tried to convince themselves that he was who he said he was and the man that was discovered in Vietnam 40 years later was their beloved John. However, the ending wasn’t as happy as they had hoped and when the results of the DNA test ca,e back, the harsh truth was revealed: the man was not John Hartley Roberson. Why then, did this mystery man believe himself to be John Hartley Robertson.
From a dream to a nightmare
It turned out to be that it was all nothing but a big and horrible fraud. Robertson’s family who was hoping for their happy ending and were already so excited about their long-lost beloved son, realized that their dream soon became a nightmare all over again. It turned out that the real John Hartley Robertson had actually died many years before and until this day the circumstances of his death remain unclear. Nobody knows whether he died during the plane crash or whether he was tortured to death.
The documentary that followed the gripping story of the man who claimed to be the Vietnam War veteran who was part of the Green Beret Special Forces, was released in 2013 and was called Unclaimed. Faunce, who was always a little skeptical regarding the identity of Robertson was the one who convinced Jorgensen to make this heartfelt movie and tell that story. Little did they know that the anticipated reunion would soon become a living nightmare.
This story could have been one of the most fascinating stories from the deadly war, one that had a happy ending despite the circumstances. However, it turned out to be nothing but fraud and it shows how one man can just be swept up by his own lie for his own reasons just because he loved this new life that he created for himself. Nobody knows who Dang Tan Ngoc is and why did he ever get himself into that story. John was never claimed, but in a weird way, his spirit remains present forever due to this puzzling story.