The Vietnam war came to an end in 1975, leaving countless men lost or presumed dead. One soldier, Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robinson, was assumed to be one of the men who became a prisoner of war of the Vietcong or to have lost his life in battle. Then, nearly 40 years later, a man turned up claiming to be Army Sgt. 1st Class Robinson. He told stories of living a life in secret in the Vietnamese jungle after the war ended until he was found in 2008. But, was this man really who he said he was?
Tom Faunce, a Christian Missionary, was digging wells in the spring of 2008 in Cambodia. During a break in their day, he started to hear rumblings of a rumor about an American soldier. Supposedly, he managed to survive a helicopter crash back in 1968 and survived, only to continue living a life in Laos.
Faunce himself had been a soldier and remembered the tragic amount of death and destruction around him during two tours overseas. He was lucky enough to survive but many others were not. He was so affected by what he had seen that he left his wife and set off to Cambodia in an effort to help people.
As he listened to the story, Faunce learned they were talking about a highly-decorated Green Beret soldier named John Hartley Robertson. After surviving a helicopter crash, he ended up marrying the nurse who helped save him in a North Vietnamese Army prison. The two fled to South Vietnam once her husband had passed and he stole his identity, becoming Dang Tan Ngoc.
Tom Faunce was immediately interested in learning more about this story. What some may have brushed off as a tale, he knew could very well be real. Under all the hardships and trauma of war, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a man to leave everything behind for a new life. Faunce knew this American soldier may be real and he wanted to help.
Wanting to learn more, Tom Faunce went to Robertson’s house. A 6-foot aging man with tears in his eyes greeted him at the door. The soldier invited them in, understanding, even after all these years, why they had come. His wife was not as accepting and began yelling angrily in Vietnamese.
Afraid her family would be punished for their role in smuggling Robertson out of the country all those years ago, his wife persisted that Robertson was in fact Vietnamese. After getting worked up over this, Robertson sent her out of the room. She returned once she had calmed and Robertson began sharing stories and memories of his time in the war.
Robertson enlisted in the army in Alabama right after graduating high school. A career soldier, he quickly joined the Green Berets. After training for many years as a paratrooper, he was sent overseas to Vietnam in the mid-1960’s to help bomb Northern Vietnam in a top-secret CIA role.
A Big Hit
Robertson found success carrying out many search-and-destroy reconnaissance missions in Laos and Cambodia. He was a natural at it and a leader in the group. Then, one helicopter mission over the South Asian jungle turned tragic when one of the most horrible events for any soldier to experience happened.
Many men were ejected from the chopper as it crashed to the ground. However, Robertson was not as he was stuck inside unable to get out. His body was found and brought to a nearby Vietcong hospital. It was there that his life would change when he met the Vietnamese woman he would marry.
Who Is He
Naturally, Robertson inquired to Faunce about his family. Wondering what happened to them and if he could get any information on them. Faunce didn’t have the answers but decided they should get Robertson’s identity checked at the United States embassy and hopefully, a fingerprint test would provide some insight.
Robertson’s family had never forgotten about him. In 2012, Emmy-award winning director Michael Jorgenson sent Hugh Tranh to bring Robertson back to his family in Edmonton, Alberta. His sister, Jean, hadn’t seen him all these years but thought about him often and was so excited to see him, but wondered if he had changed.
Jorgenson created a documentary about the life of Robertson in which he opened up about his past. He told stories of being trapped in a bamboo cage and tortured before finally being sent to a hospital nearly a year later. Eventually, he was no longer able to speak English and had even forgotten the names of his children. He wondered if they forgot about him, too.
Robertson’s sister Jean and her husband and daughter traveled from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Canada to reunite with her long-lost brother. On December 17, 2012, they were finally able to meet and communicate through a translator. Unfortunately, John was not the same man they all remembered and his experiences had caused a drastic change in him.
The family began to wonder if he was really John Hartley Robertson. The fingerprint test at the embassy back in Vietnam did not match that of the soldier many years ago. It’s possible his name was wrong and that he was another soldier who had gone missing many years ago.
Lack Of Evidence
It was decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude that this was, in fact, Vietnam soldier John Hartley Robertson. In an effort to truly find out his identity, Faunce decided to reunite the man with an old Green Beret buddy, Mahoney. Would he be able to confirm his identity after all these years?
Jorgenson filmed their reunion at a restaurant in Dong Nai. Again, a translator helped the two communicate as Mahoney spoke English but Robertson did not. An awkward hug and some conversation later and it appeared as though Robertson really didn’t recognize this man who used to be his friend.
A DNA Test
After three failed attempts at trying to confirm the true identity of the soldier, a DNA test requested by the family was ordered. Perhaps this would finally conclude the investigation into who this man truly was and give closure to two men desperately seeking answers. Did Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robertson survive?
After all the effort Faunce had put in to reuniting this man with his family and friends and confirming his true identity, the results of the DNA test were in. All wanted so badly to believe this was the true John Hartley Robertson. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. So who was he?
The family may never truly know what really happened to the actual John Hartley Robertson. It was revealed that he did, in fact, die many years before, but the cause is unknown. He may have perished in that helicopter crash or perhaps he died of other causes many years later.
The documentary that hoped to have a happy ending is now just a piece of fiction. What could have been an exciting war story turned out to be nothing but a disappointment. The story of who Dang Tan Ngoc is may never be revealed, he may just be a Vietnamese man who got carried away with a story.