In the wilds of Southeast Asia, a veteran is on the trail of an incredible story. Deep in the jungle, he meets a man with an extraordinary tale to tell. The man speaks no English, but he claims to be a survivor of the Vietnam War. Has he really been missing in action for 40 years?
Tom Faunce is no stranger to the horrors that await soldiers at war. After joining the United States Army back in the 1960s, he completed two tours of Vietnam. And although Faunce survived the war, many of his friends did not. When he returned to America, then, he became a Christian and began doing outreach work.
Later, in 2008, Faunce was conducting humanitarian work in Southeast Asia when he began to hear an odd rumor. Apparently, there was an elderly man living in the jungle who claimed to be an American soldier – left behind in Vietnam when the war had ended 33 years earlier.
Over the years, several reports have emerged from Vietnam suggesting that some prisoners of war could have been held there long after U.S. forces withdrew in 1973. So, driven by a desire to never abandon a fellow soldier, Faunce decided to follow up on the rumors and see if there was any truth to the tale.
Eventually, Faunce managed to track down the man. And fascinatingly, he claimed to be Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, a Green Beret who was officially declared dead on May 28, 1976. Apparently, however, Robertson did not die; he was captured and tortured by North Vietnamese forces.
The man claiming to be Robertson went on to tell Faunce that he had managed to escape his captors four years later. And while hiding in the woods, he had then been rescued by a local woman. Assuming the identity of her dead husband, he subsequently married her and raised a family in rural Vietnam – where he had remained ever since.
John Hartley Robertson came into the world on October 25, 1936, in Birmingham, Alabama. Having grown up during World War II, he gave up high school to pursue a career in the Army at the tender age of 17. And after joining the Special Forces, he was chosen for an intriguing role.
Robertson was in fact selected to become part of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group. This was an elite Special Operations Group often referred to as MAVC-SOG. What’s more, these secretive units were purportedly controlled by the CIA.
Apparently, members of SOG units were instructed to travel without dog tags or ID. And although American forces were not supposed to be present in Laos, which borders Vietnam, Robertson was in a chopper over that country when the aircraft came under enemy fire.
Tragically, the helicopter went down, bursting into flames and crashing on a mountaintop somewhere in Laos. But because of the clandestine nature of the mission, it wasn’t possible to conduct a proper search and rescue operation. Instead, Roberston was declared missing in action.
And eight years later, with no further news of Robertson’s fate having emerged, the soldier was officially declared dead. Finally, his wife and two children in America could begin to grieve; at last, it seemed as if he would be laid to rest. But then, decades later, Faunce stumbled upon a secret in the Vietnamese jungle.
Having made it his mission to find out the truth, Faunce enlisted the help of the Canadian filmmaker Michael Jorgensen. Previously, Jorgensen had won an Emmy for his documentary Battle of the X-Planes, so he was used to tackling subjects linked to the American military.
And although Jorgensen was initially suspicious of the man claiming to be Robertson, he was still intrigued by Faunce’s determination to investigate further. Interestingly, Faunce himself had also initially approached the man in the hope of debunking his story, but over time he became convinced that it was true.
So over the next five years, Faunce and Jorgensen collaborated on Unclaimed, a documentary film that was released in 2013. The film follows Faunce’s attempts to reunite the man whom he believes to be Robertson with his remaining family in the United States.
However, there were some problems with the story. For one, the man – who now went by the name Dang Tan Ngoc – could not speak English or remember the names of his American children. According to Ngoc, he had lost the ability to speak his native tongue after spending so many years living in Vietnam.
Despite these setbacks, however, Faunce and Jorgensen were able to provide a degree of corroboration for Ngoc’s story. In one scene, they talk to a veteran who remembered Robertson from training in 1960, and according to him, the American soldier and the elderly Ngoc were one and the same.
Most tellingly, Faunce and Jorgensen also managed to track down Roberston’s only surviving sister, and she was convinced that her brother had come home. In fact, Jean Robertson Holly’s belief that Ngoc was Robertson was so strong that she declared a DNA test unnecessary.
Unfortunately, though, this miraculous tale of a family reunited was not quite what it seemed. Indeed, on April 30, 2013 – the same day that Faunce and Jorgensen’s documentary was released – a damning memo was sent to a U.K. news organization. In that memo, the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office made a remarkable statement.
According to the document, Ngoc is actually a French-Vietnamese man who has been falsely claiming to be Robertson since at least 2006. Apparently, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia once took his fingerprints, but they were not a match for the missing soldier’s. In fact, some reports state that Ngoc began perpetuating his deception as far back as 1982.
Eventually, the truth was established: Ngoc and Robertson were different men. Yet despite this disappointing development, Unclaimed remains a tribute to Faunce’s determination to never leave a man behind – especially as many believe that such men live forgotten in the jungles of Southeast Asia to this day.