It’s been decades since the Vietnam War came to a close, but its legacy has lingered in the minds of Americans for countless reasons. Many mysteries from America’s most infamous campaign have remained unanswered, too, and that was no more apparent than with one Vietnam veteran.
When John Robertson recently heard about the curious fate of a fellow American soldier, he decided he needed to help. So he teamed up with a filmmaker to finally find real answers. But their search only unearthed more questions—and no one could have predicted their surprise when they learned what happened to the POW in question…
John Robertson was born to be a soldier. He grew up during World War II, and at the age of 17, he traded his high school education for enlistment papers. He was eventually promoted to the Green Berets, and his superiors assigned him a unique role during the Vietnam War.
As part of a CIA-controlled force called the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam–Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), now-Sergeant Robertson wasn’t permitted dog tags or ID. That was because he and his platoon conducted covert unconventional warfare…
Part of this “unconventional warfare” involved operations in Laos. The nation bordered Vietnam—and American forces were not authorized to be there. In 1968, it was here that enemies shot down Sergeant Robertson and his unit’s helicopter.
The helicopter crashed in a Laotian mountain range, and since American forces weren’t permitted to be there, other units couldn’t conduct a proper search-and-rescue mission. Sergeant Robertson was officially declared MIA—Missing in Action.
Years later, on May 28, 1976, with no sign of Sergeant Robertson, the United States government officially declared him dead; he left behind a wife and two children. Yet, questions about his disappearance lingered…
Decades later, in the early 2010s, another Vietnam veteran by the name of Tom Faunce strolled passed the Vietnam War Memorial. He felt thankful that his name wasn’t etched on that wall.
Although Faunce had survived the war, he’d still suffered. He’d lost friends. He’d seen terrible things. Yet, in 2008, he decided to travel back to Southeast Asia. Once there, he stumbled upon something incredible—and it all had to do with Sergeant Robertson.
Myth Merchant Films / YouTube
In his older age, Faunce began focusing on humanitarian efforts, like digging wells in poor villages, and it was that work that brought him and a small company back to the Vietnam region. While there, he heard a curious rumor…
Myth Merchant Films / YouTube
The rumor suggested that North Vietnam didn’t release all American prisoners of war, not even after the fighting ended in 1973. According to this story, Sergeant Robertson also survived the plane crash—and he now lived in the jungles of Vietnam. Could it be true?
If the veteran would “go all the way in helping someone he didn’t even know,” Jorgensen told the Daily Mail, then whether Sergeant Robertson was alive or not didn’t matter. Faunce’s journey would be a good story in itself.
And so the unlikely duo traveled to Vietnam with cameras in tow. After tracking rumors and speaking with locals, Faunce and Jorgensen were led to a house in the woods. There, they met a man named Dang Tan Ngoc who revealed something shocking…
Ngoc claimed he was the missing soldier, Sergeant John Robertson! He explained he’d been captured by the Vietnamese after the crash, and his captors tortured him for four years, after which he finally escaped.
According to Ngoc, he then ended up in care of a Vietnamese woman who nursed him back to health and eventually married him. Together, they had two children. To protect his identity, Robertson assumed the identity of “Dang Tan Ngoc.”
The man’s story and character, however, had its fair share of holes: he didn’t speak English, claiming to have forgotten the language after decades without speaking it. Stranger, he’d made no effort to contact his American wife or kids (whose names he couldn’t remember).
But as Jorgensen told The Toronto Star, Faunce was “very skeptical, grilled this guy up and down trying to get him to break, to say, ‘Oh, no, I’m just making it up.’ And he was adamant he was that guy.”
Fishy story and all, Jorgensen filmed what he’d eventually call Unclaimed, a documentary about the journey to reunite Ngoc with his American sister, Jean Robertson-Holley. Surely, his sister would know if this man was really who he claimed to be.
With all of the pieces in place, the meeting between the alleged Sergeant Robertson and Robertson-Holley was set to occur. When the two finally saw each other, the resulting interaction was incredible…
“When I held his head in my hands and looked in his eyes,” Robertson-Holley said in Unclaimed, “there was no question that was my brother.” With unconditional love and unwavering faith in his identity, she welcomed her brother back into her life.
But while the tearful reunion might have been a statement on never giving up hope or a beautiful image of a family reunited, too many questions—like the rest of those generated by the murky war—were left unanswered. That is, until recently…
In 2009, the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office stated in a recently exposed memo that Dang Tan Ngoc was a known imposter—a con artist who’d been impersonating Sergeant Robertson since 1982.
Unclaimed via HuffingtonPost
Before filming ever took place, U.S. officials had interviewed this man, and, under pressure, he revealed he was not Sergeant Robertson. In 2008, he was caught impersonating the soldier another time and fingerprinted.
Unclaimed via HuffingtonPost
Those aware of Ngoc’s cons weren’t surprised that people like Faunce believed him. Don Bendell, an award-winning author (and himself a Vietnam War veteran), claimed “[he] is a guy from France, an imposter, who has been used to scam money from well-meaning veterans and others who would love to see any POW rescued.”
Unclaimed via Daily Mail
Additionally, many noted how impossible Dang Tan Ngoc’s story truly was. As Retired Special Forces Captain Robert Noe wrote, “No one forgets to speak their native language after that long.” Yet, one mystery still remained…
Robertson-Holley was so certain the man was her brother that she refused a DNA test. But why? Jorgensen understood. “It’s kind of like, ‘That was an ugly war. It was a long time ago. We just want it to go away,'” he said. Was she simply desperate to believe she never lost her brother in the war?
Eventually, Robertson’s niece, Cyndi Hanna, had a DNA test conducted. And? “We have received the results,” she wrote at the time, “and sadly there was NOT a match. This is very disappointing.”
Unclaimed via DailyMail
“As my mother has said, we only want to do right by my Uncle John,” Hanna said. “And if that means… the man claiming to be my uncle is actually another lost American and doesn’t know who he is, we intend to seek the truth on our own terms.”
In the end, Jorgensen’s filmmaker instincts about Faunce’s determination proved correct. While Sergeant John Robertson’s true fate might remain a mystery, Faunce’s journey to recover a man he’d never met made for an incredible story.
What a wild adventure this veteran and filmmaker undertook. It makes you wonder, though, what happened to the real Sergeant John Robertson?
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