Sgt. John Hartley Robertson was on a secret mission, flying without identification in a helicopter over Laos when he was shot down on May 20, 1968. A search and rescue mission was impossible and the Alabama native was declared 'missing in action.' Presumed dead, Robertson was officially listed as killed in action in 1976. Later, his name joined the more than 58,000 other names of US service members killed in action carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
wall in Washington, DC.
Robertson left behind a wife, Wanda, and two daughters in the United States. His family long claimed that they had evidence that he'd survived the helicopter crash and was being held in a Vietnamese prison.
Enter Tom Faunce, a Vietnam veteran, and Michael Jorgensen
, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. Faunce learned of "an Army brother" who'd been shot down and captured during the war while traveling to South East Asia on a humanitarian mission in 2008. This soldier, Faunce heard, had been declared dead long ago and forgotten by his government.
According to the Toronto Globe and Mail
, Faunce, a born-again Christian who lives by the personal credo of "radical love: no one left behind," decided
to make it his mission to discover Robertson's fate and track him down if he really was
It turns out that he was. Now 76, hunched and frail with no memory whatsoever of the English language-- and not much memory at all due to dementia, Robertson was living in a remote village and went by the name Dang Tan Ngoc. He couldn't even remember his own birthday or the names of his two American daughters. He did, however, recall the harrowing details of his shoot-down, capture and imprisonment.
At the suggestion of a friend, Faunce contacted Jorgensen and asked the Canadian if he would be interested in making a documentary about Robertson to help reconnect him with his American family.
"The MIA story was pretty unbelievable, pretty grandiose," Jorgensen told the Globe and Mail
. "I was very skeptical." But Faunce intrigued him, and he agreed to take on the project.
The end result would be "Unclaimed,"
a documentary film opening at the Hot Docs festival
in Toronto on April 30.
Curiously, after expressing initial interest, Robertson's wife and daughters did not want to participate.
"Somebody suggested to me maybe that's because the daughters don't want to know if it's him," Jorgensen is quoted
in the Daily Mail
. "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?" Jorgensen asked.
Jorgensen traveled to meet Robertson and hear his amazing story.
Captured immediately by North Vietnamese forces following the helicopter crash, the Green Beret found himself in a world of hurt.
"They locked me up, high in the forest, in a cage," Robertson recalled. "I was in and out of consciousness from torture and starvation... I thought I would die."
Robertson said he escaped after four hellish years in captivity. While hiding in the woods, a woman found him and nursed him back to health. That woman is now his wife. He took her dead husband's surname and assumed the identity of a French-Vietnamese resident named Dang Tan Ngoc. He had children with his new wife. He never made any attempt to contact Wanda and his daughters back in Alabama.
Faunce was eventually able to track down Robertson's sole surviving sibling, 80-year-old Jean Robertson-Holly, and arrange a tearful on-camera reunion.
"There's no question," Robertson-Holly said after her face-to-face meeting with her long-lost brother. "I was certain it was him in the video, but when I held his head in my hands and looked in his eyes, there was no question that was my brother."
Despite confirming with near-certainty that the old man living in a remote Vietnamese village with a wife and children is indeed John Hartley Robertson, Jorgensen still has unanswered questions.
"Why did the Americans leave him there for all those years?" he asked the Globe and Mail
. "Are there other John Hartley Robertsons in Vietnam?"
Jorgensen claims that a "highly-placed source" told him there are others and that the answer to his first question was that "it's not because the Vietnamese won't let them go, it's more the US military does not want them to come home."
Robertson is going to remain in Vietnam. "There's maybe a bit of a misconception," Jorgensen told the Globe and Mail
. "Everybody assumes, 'well, obviously he wants to come back to North America.' But at this point, he's happier being back there, taking care of his wife, to whom he feels an incredible amount of loyalty, and their kids."
"Unclaimed" will make its US premier on May 12 at the GI Film Festival
in Washington, DC.
It appears as if the unbelievable tale of John Hartley Robertson's 'discovery' is just that-- an unbelievable tale