pbrnewyork-1485532698-66.jpg
pbrnewyork-1485532698-66.jpg

M.I.A.

Half a century ago, an American commando vanished in the jungles of Laos. In 2008, he reappeared in Vietnam, reportedly alive and well. But nothing was what it seemed.

By Matthew Shaer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 64


Matthew Shaer is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a correspondent for Smithsonian. This is his third article for the Atavist Magazine.

Portraits: Patrick Brown
Editors: Joel Lovell and Evan Ratliff
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Additional Research: Calvin Godfrey and Nhung Nguyen
Video and Film Stills: Courtesy of Myth Merchant Films

Published in January 2017. Design updated in 2021.

The distress call was picked up by the radio crew at Forward Operating Base One, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, on the morning of May 20, 1968. Some 250 miles to the northwest, on the other side of the border with Laos, a team of American and South Vietnamese soldiers had come under heavy enemy fire—the group’s commander was reporting several South Vietnamese and at least one American killed in action. Immediate resupply and medevac were requested. Shouldering his rifle, John Hartley Robertson, the operations sergeant at FOB One, exited the main compound and dashed across the dirt courtyard in the direction of a waiting CH-34D Sikorsky Seahorse helicopter.

At 36, rangy and lean, Robertson was a military lifer in a recruit’s war: He’d enlisted in the Army in his native Alabama out of high school, tested into the Green Berets, and spent several years training paratroopers at Fort Benning, Georgia. In the mid-sixties, as the U.S. was ramping up its bombing of North Vietnam, he’d been dispatched to Asia to join the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group, or MACV-SOG, a top-secret unit that worked closely with the CIA. Robertson was a natural fit for the group, which routinely carried out sensitive search-and-destroy and reconnaissance work inside Cambodia and Laos. As a precaution in case of capture, the men of MACV-SOG wore no patches or insignia on their fatigues. In April of 1968, two years into his stint in Southeast Asia, Robertson had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery, for leading his men safely out of a firefight with the Vietcong.

“His actions during this time were an inspiration to those members who were evacuated,” the Department of the Army later wrote in its commendation letter, noting Robertson’s “exemplary courage.”

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories like this, read by audiobook narrators, in the Audm app for iPhone.

Now, strapping himself into the Seahorse’s jump seat, Robertson gave the thumbs-up sign to the South Vietnamese Air Force pilot and sat back as the chopper shimmied off the landing pad. Robertson would have fully understood the stakes of the mission he’d been asked to undertake: He was the lone American soldier on board an SVAF helicopter headed for the heart of a country, Laos, where the United States military was not officially active, and a region, the A Shau Valley, that was protected by two battalions of crack Vietcong troops and several rings of anti-air emplacements. Robertson was the cavalry. If the very worst happened, his own prospects of rescue would be slim.

Close to midday, Robertson’s chopper established radio contact with the American and South Vietnamese commandos, who had created a defensive perimeter around a clearing atop a hill referred to as 1045. According to American troops on the ground that day, the helicopter was on final approach when the first enemy soldier opened fire. The Seahorse was sturdy—some 8,000 pounds unloaded—but not bulletproof, and the South Vietnamese pilot attempted to yank the machine around for another pass. He did not get far: As the commandos watched, an enemy rocket spiraled out of the undergrowth, smacking the Seahorse on the flank. Losing power and coughing orange flame, the helicopter drifted into a nearby valley and exploded.

The body of Sergeant John Hartley Robertson was never found.

gettyimages-1485466440-19.jpg
Downed helicopter, Vietnam (Photo: Bettman / Getty Images)

In the spring of 2008, a Christian missionary named Tom Faunce was digging wells in rural Cambodia when he heard a rumor, from a local pastor, about an American soldier who had managed to survive a helicopter crash over Laos in the spring of 1968. According to the pastor, the soldier, a decorated Green Beret, had later married a nurse from a North Vietnamese Army prison, taken the identity of the woman’s dead husband, and migrated with his new wife to the southern Vietnamese province of Dong Nai. Locally, the man was known as Dang Tan Ngoc. But his real name, the pastor said, was John Hartley Robertson.

Another person might have dismissed the story as pure fantasy. Tom Faunce found that he could not. “I know what it’s like to be abandoned—the toll it can take on a person,” Faunce told me recently. “And I thought to myself, What will it say about me if I find out there’s an American out there and I don’t do anything to get to him?”

Growing up in Michigan, Faunce, who is stout and silver-haired, with a hunched posture that shells him up into a permanent defensive crouch, spent a lot of his time in group homes and juvenile detention centers. At the age of 12, returned temporarily to the custody of his parents, he watched his father perish in a house fire. At 17, he was arrested for felonious assault, for breaking a bottle over a man’s head. Faunce denied the charges, but a judge found him guilty and gave him a choice: jail or enlistment. Faunce chose the latter. He was assigned to an Army infantry unit and sent to Vietnam. He got there in 1968, just in time for the Tet Offensive. “If you want to stay alive, forget everything you ever learned,” a soldier told him by way of welcome.

Faunce survived two tours of duty, but plenty of his friends did not. “Seeing others as young as I was—dead—and knowing that it could have been me crushed my heart and I felt I had died, too, along with them,” Faunce wrote in his self-published 2007 memoir, A Soldier’s Story. In the 1980s, he channeled his guilt into a series of increasingly risky personal missions abroad. He traveled to the Balkans and South Sudan, where he distributed food and clothing, and he smuggled bibles to rebels on the Mosquito Coast. He contracted malaria, typhoid, and hepatitis. The months away from home took a toll on his wife, Julie, and their four children. But Faunce believed he had been handpicked by the Lord. He was fond of saying that he’d taken two oaths, one to his fellow soldiers—no one left behind—and the other to God: “No one left unloved.”

In the person of Dang Tan Ngoc, the mysterious stranger in Dong Nai, Faunce recognized a clear test of his values. “I kept remembering the parable of the lost sheep from the Gospels,” he told me. “There’s this shepherd, and he’s got 100 sheep in his flock. Well, one sheep disappears, and the shepherd leaves the other 99 to go after the one.” He recited the parable’s conclusion from memory: “And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices more over that one sheep than over the 99 that did not go astray.”

Faunce began making inquiries through the Cambodian pastor, who went by the Western name of Ames, about the man in Vietnam. Ames said he could get Ngoc’s phone number. Unfortunately, Faunce would not be able to make the call himself: John Hartley Robertson, Faunce was informed, no longer spoke any English, the result of severe mental and physical trauma suffered at the hands of the NVA.

Instead, Faunce listened as Ames made the call. It did not take long. “John says we can visit him,” Ames told Faunce, in Faunce’s recollection. “It’s no problem.”

The next day, Ames, Tom Faunce, and his cousin Joe Faunce, a paramedic who often joined Tom on missionary trips abroad, climbed into a van and drove overland from Cambodia to Dong Nai province—an eight hour trip, most of it on steep mountain roads and rutted asphalt. They arrived at a small bungalow in Dong Nai in the late afternoon. Thick-canopied hardwoods hung over the driveway, blotting out the sun.

Robertson appeared in the doorway of the bungalow. He was slender and wizened, about six feet tall, with thinning gray hair swept back in strands from his forehead. His eyes shiny with tears, he led his guests into the house and encouraged them to take a seat in the living room. But as soon as the Americans had made themselves comfortable, Robertson’s elderly wife emerged from the kitchen, shouting at Tom and Joe Faunce in Vietnamese. The pastor did his best to translate: “He’s not American,” she was saying. “He’s Vietnamese!” Robertson quickly steered his wife out of the room.

When they returned, the woman’s story had changed. “She says, ‘No, I lied,’” Faunce told me. “She said, ‘He is an American soldier. I just fear for my family.’”

Over the course of the next few hours, Robertson regaled Ames and the Faunces with tales of his military career, listing the American bases and outposts from the 1960s and correctly identifying aircraft used by the American military of that era. He had questions, too: Was his family OK? Were his parents still alive?

Faunce didn’t have the answers and recommended that Robertson accompany him to a United States embassy for a fingerprint test that would establish his identity and give him access to his old life. Fearing interference from the Vietnamese government, Faunce suggested they travel to the embassy in Phnom Penh rather than the closer American consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To Faunce’s surprise, Robertson assented. The Faunces and their passenger made the journey to Phnom Penh in less than a day. Robertson sat at the window, a peaceful expression on his face.

unclaimed31-1485532870-83.jpg
Green Beret John Hartley Robertson circa 1966. (Photo: Robertson family archives)

Between 1965 and 1975, approximately 58,000 American service members perished in the war in Southeast Asia. An estimated 153,000 were injured. And more than 2,000 were listed as missing in action, lost to a complex conflict that spilled across borders and oceans and hundreds of miles of jungled and mountainous terrain.

For many years, long after the fall of Saigon, it seemed eminently credible to many Americans that those soldiers might still be chained up in remote prisons, waiting to return home. (The 1984 Chuck Norris vehicle Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood Part II, where the titular hero travels to Vietnam to retrieve a group of POWs, helped establish that belief in the public’s consciousness.) Black POW/MIA flags hung in the New York Stock Exchange and flew above the White House. “A prudent person,” the Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin wrote in his 1992 study,  M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America, “would not question the existence of live POWs at a public gathering or in a strange bar, for the belief in their existence, their suffering, and their betrayal often has all the intensity of a religion.”

In 1993, a Senate committee chaired by John Kerry—and convened in part to tamp down speculation on the MIA issue—concluded that “while the Committee has some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present, and while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”

Still, many veterans, Faunce among them, refused to accept the findings of the committee, which to them looked to be born of political expediency. This conviction endured well into the 2000s. “I was there, and I know for a fact that whole squads were totally lost in Nam,” Faunce told me last spring. “You can’t say to me that we brought home everyone we could have.”

Before he met with the man in Dong Nai, Faunce had done his best to piece together the details of John Hartley Robertson’s biography. By poring over old military records, he’d learned that, officially, the Green Beret was listed as presumed dead. And yet Faunce thought it possible that Robertson survived the crash. After all, on the afternoon of May 20, 1968, the South Vietnamese had conducted a few flyovers of the A Shau Valley, but no ground troops had been dispatched, due to the thick enemy presence; by evening the search was called off entirely. (The troops Robertson had been sent to rescue, ironically, all came back alive.) Wasn’t there a scenario where Robertson leapt from the helicopter as it was going down and, badly injured, allowed himself to be taken captive by the NVA?

“I thought to myself, What will it say about me if I find out there’s an American out there and I don’t do anything to get to him?”

Now, at the front desk of the U.S. consulate in Phnom Penh, Faunce identified himself as a veteran and told the wary Cambodian guards that he’d located a man he believed to be a missing American soldier. Faunce says he and Robertson were met by two American officials and led into the main building for the fingerprint test. (Citing privacy concerns, the State Department declined to discuss Faunce’s visit on the record, but declassified government documents I viewed confirm that a fingerprint test took place.)

Robertson and Faunce retreated to their guesthouse to await the results. Faunce’s cell phone rang around dinnertime: The prints didn’t match. Faunce recalls urging the embassy staffers to conduct additional tests. Robertson knew too much to be a fake, he protested—if he wasn’t John Hartley Robertson, perhaps he was a different missing American service member. But the embassy staffers were adamant. “They said, ‘We don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars,’” Faunce remembered. “I go, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re sitting there in that multimillion-dollar compound, and you’re not going to conduct more tests on a guy who says he’s an American citizen?’ To be honest, it just made me want to fight harder,” he went on. “Something most certainly was not adding up.”

Until that point, Faunce had been carrying out his investigation largely on his own. But in 2009, he was connected by church friends to a filmmaker named Patrick Portelance, who had heard from a mutual acquaintance about Faunce’s discovery in Dong Nai province and wanted to make a documentary about John Robertson. Faunce was fascinated by the possibilities: A movie might help put pressure on the American government.

Joe and Tom Faunce purchased tickets for a flight to Phnom Penh, covering Portelance’s costs, and then drove with him out to Dong Nai. Portelance told me that before leaving, based on the Faunces’ research, he was about “50 percent” sure that the man in Dong Nai was Robertson. “Once I talked to the guy, though, I’d say I was at 75 percent,” he said. Portelance noticed that when Robertson was questioned, through a local translator, about his youth or his family, he’d furrow his brow, tap his forehead with one slender finger, and apologize: Those memories were lost. And Robertson’s description of the crash—he said there were multiple Americans on board the helicopter—didn’t fit the Army account.

Still, Portelance, who had recently been involved in a helicopter accident himself while filming a speedboat race in upstate New York, knew that a head injury could muddle the brain. “To this day, there are pictures that I can look at, and I’m in them, but I have no recollection of the photo being taken,” Portelance told me.

Robertson, pliant as always, accompanied Portelance and the Faunces to their hotel in Dong Nai province, where Joe Faunce, the paramedic, asked Robertson to strip naked for a physical examination. The absurdity of the request seems not to have bothered Robertson: He quickly removed his shirt, pants, and underwear. Joe took note of Robertson’s circumcised penis—circumcision is a rarity in Vietnam—and the heavy scarring on his stomach and waist. He had Robertson open his mouth for a buccal swab, for DNA-testing purposes, and took blood from his arm.

Outside, the summer dusk was gathering. The Faunces and Portelance promised to do what they could with the fluid samples. In response, Robertson embraced them one by one, wrapping them in his long arms. His face was again shiny with tears.

unclaimed13-1485490904-15.jpg
Ed Mahoney of the 82nd Airborne Division in the early 1960s. (Photo: Mahoney family archives)

Reviewing the footage from Vietnam, Portelance realized he had stumbled onto the story of a lifetime. But he’d collected only about 20 hours of tape. In order to do his subject justice, he’d have to go back to Dong Nai—an impossibility, given his weakened physical state. His head injury left him constantly fatigued and dizzy, and he was having trouble sleeping. In 2010, he told me, he reached out to a respected Canadian director named Michael Jorgensen, whose body of work included an Emmy Award–winning episode of PBS’s Nova, with the aim of convincing Jorgensen to partner with him on the documentary. According to Portelance, he and Jorgensen later struck a coproduction deal.(Portelance has since accused Jorgensen of elbowing him off the project; Jorgensen disputes Portelance’s account.)

Jorgensen spoke by phone with Tom Faunce and ordered a copy of Faunce’s book, A Soldier’s Story. He devoured it in a single sitting. “Here was a guy who had been really damaged as a kid, had been damaged by his experiences in Vietnam, and was on a journey to heal his heart and his soul,” Jorgensen told me. “And that was the deciding factor for me, regardless of whether this individual was actually John Hartley Robertson.”

He ultimately made two trips to Vietnam, the first with the Faunces and Hugh Tranh, a Vietnamese-Canadian translator, and the second with a former Army paratrooper named Ed Mahoney, who had been trained by John Hartley Robertson at Fort Benning. As a young recruit, Mahoney had been enamored by Robertson’s poise and intelligence, as had the other noncommissioned officers under him. “He was the embodiment of what we thought a perfect soldier should be,” Mahoney told me recently.

In 1991, at a reunion for the 82nd Airborne, Mahoney had discovered Robertson’s fate and sunk into a state, as he put it later, of “complete denial.” It was inconceivable to him that his former mentor could simply have vanished in a ball of fire. He’d spent the next two decades speaking to MACV-SOG veterans and attempting to piece together the details of the crash. He’d also reached out to various members of the Robertson family, which had, by all accounts, been shattered by John’s disappearance. One family member told me that the news had hit John’s father particularly hard—John had been Joe Robertson’s favorite, the golden child, the decorated Army hero. Joe had a difficult time going on without him; he died in 1970. “John being gone, that killed Joe, I know it,” the family member said. “And from there, everything just sort of fell apart.” Robertson’s wife remarried and took her new husband’s name; without John as the glue, his sisters became estranged from his only brother and gradually grew apart.

In 2002, Mahoney had obtained an email address for Robertson’s wife, only to be rebuffed. “She had been contacted many times about John,” Mahoney later wrote in a blog post. “All these contacts were bogus ones that claimed they had info about John that turned out to be totally false. Looking back at this contact with John’s ex-wife I could understand why she was not interested in what I had to say, so I let it be and never contacted her again.”

Now Mahoney was finally being offered a chance to reunite with Robertson, almost half a century after he’d last seen the tall Green Beret. “I was absolutely thrilled,” he told me of his 2012 visit to Dong Nai. “I remember getting there, too, and taking one look at him, I knew right there on the spot that it was him. There was no mistaking it.” (That the real John Hartley Robertson had been Caucasian, while the man in Dong Nai had Asian features, did not seem to give Mahoney pause. When I asked him about it later, he said he’d reasoned that age often blurred appearances.)

Their encounter, filmed by Jorgensen at a restaurant in Dong Nai, is a wonder to behold: Tom Faunce leads the way, hugging Robertson and greeting him as “homey.” Mahoney, clad in a white T-shirt, cargo shorts, and white sneakers, hangs back a few steps. He and Robertson start with a handshake and fall into an awkward embrace. “Long time no see,” Mahoney tells Robertson. For his part, Robertson appears not to recognize Mahoney at all.

Later, Jorgensen films Joe Faunce asking Mahoney if he thinks Robertson is the real deal. Mahoney replies emphatically in the affirmative. “This is John Hartley Robertson, the man I served with in Delta Company 1503, 82nd Airborne, in 1959 to 1961,” he says.

Jorgensen told me that Mahoney’s ID of Robertson was a “pretty strong testimonial.” But he lacked forensic proof that the Robertson in Dong Nai was John Hartley Robertson. Fortunately, it was a problem Jorgensen had overcome before. In 2005, he had produced a film for the Discovery Channel called Arctic Manhunt: Hunt for the Mad Trapper, about Albert Johnson, a murderous Canadian vagabond. To help shed some light on Johnson’s early life, Jorgensen had asked a forensic expert to measure the oxygen-isotope levels in Johnson’s teeth; since oxygen-isotope levels don’t change after childhood, the test can be used to determine where the subject grew up.

The filmmaker advocated doing the same for Robertson, and with the cameras rolling, Robertson allowed a local dentist to pluck a molar from his mouth. Placing the tooth in plastic, Jorgensen brought it to Lesley Chesson, the president of a Utah firm called IsoForensics

Chesson, a respected forensic expert, told me in an email message that before 2012, she’d never conducted a test on a tooth from a living person—oxygen-isotope analysis is customarily utilized by archaeologists and anthropologists to source long-buried human remains. But on Jorgensen’s insistence, she tested the tooth for both oxygen and strontium isotopes, a second possible indicator of geographic origin. Later, Jorgensen came to her lab in Salt Lake City to interview her. “Based on the oxygen and strontium data, in combination, we measured for the tooth enamel, it is very unlikely the individual JHR was from France or Vietnam,” she told the camera. “It is very likely that he actually lived, during young childhood, between the ages of 3 and 12, in the United States. In other words, it’s very likely that he is an American citizen.”

That was enough for Mahoney. In the fall of 2012, he called Jean Holley, Robertson’s eldest sister, at her home near Tuscaloosa. “I think we’ve found your brother,” he told her.  

It has since been pointed out by critics of Jorgensen’s film that the crises that followed might have been averted had the filmmaker simply ordered a test comparing Jean’s DNA to the fluid samples collected by the Faunces. But the documentary team claims—and a family member agrees—that Jean didn’t want the tests: She preferred to talk to the man in person.

In the winter of 2012, Jorgensen sent Hugh Tranh to Vietnam to retrieve Robertson and bring him to Edmonton, Alberta, where Jean would be waiting. People who spoke to Jean Holley in the run-up to the meeting recall a changed woman, buoyant with optimism. Johnny had been Jean’s favorite sibling growing up; his disappearance had left “a part of her forever missing,” as one family member recalled. Now near the end of her own life, she was being presented with a chance to hold Johnny again. She couldn’t stop smiling.

Jean flew from her home in Tuscaloosa to Canada with her husband of 63 years, Henry Holley, and one of her daughters, Gail Holley Metcalf, who had last seen John Hartley Robertson at her tenth birthday party. The reunion took place on December 17. In the final version of Jorgensen’s film, it is depicted from a variety of angles: Robertson and Tranh in a taxi cab, speeding through downtown traffic; Tom and Joe Faunce and Ed Mahoney striding confidently toward Jean Holley and Metcalf; Jean Holley in a wheelchair, her eyes watery and wide.

When Robertson enters the room, the synthetic string soundtrack surges. Jean gets out of her wheelchair, emitting a happy groan, and she and Robertson embrace. Both are sobbing. “We absolutely never, never forgot about you,” Jean says, clutching Robertson’s head. She later told family that she had “no doubt” that the man was her brother.  

On February 4, Jean and Henry Holley were involved in a severe car wreck near their home in Tuscaloosa. Henry passed away as a result of his injuries. Jean, who suffered severe head trauma, remains in full-time rehabilitative care.

When I reached out to Gail Metcalf this spring, she told me that in 2012, “my mother believed that she’d found her brother, and she was happy.” That was enough for Metcalf. As a family, she added, “we’ve closed the book on that chapter in our lives.”

artboard1-1485492864-22.png

Jorgensen’s film, Unclaimed, premiered on April 20, 2013, at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. In a feature published in the Toronto Star, staff reporter Linda Barnard called the documentary “dramatic” and “heart-wrenching.” Unclaimed, she went on, makes a “compelling case” that Tom Faunce had found John Hartley Robertson.

A few days later, the Huffington Post picked up on the story and published its own article under the headline, “Vietnam vet, presumed dead in combat, reportedly found 44 years later.” Among the readers of the HuffPo piece was a Virginia man named Rodney Millner, who happened to know a whole lot about John Hartley Robertson.

Millner is 67; he spent the majority of his professional life in the Air Force, as an intelligence analyst. In the early 1990s, facing retirement, he’d transitioned to a desk at the Department of Defense’s POW/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, where he was tasked with sorting through the seemingly endless number of live sighting and dog-tag reports coming out of Southeast Asia. If the evidence warranted, he would forward the cases to field operatives for further investigation. “At the peak, in the mid-1990s, we were handling 500 cases a year,” Millner, who recently retired from the DPMO, and thus is able to speak freely for the first time about the Robertson case, told me. “You’d get a lot of tags and bones, because there was a rumor that if you had evidence that led us to an MIA, you’d be able to come to the U.S. It wasn’t true. Still, it’s hard to quash a good rumor.”

Reading the HuffPo article, “I remember being pretty frustrated.” Millner told me recently. “Because [the documentary] was false on a couple of different levels: Not only had we known about the guy in Dong Nai for a long time, but we’d proved conclusively that he was a fraud.”

In 2009, after Tom Faunce escorted Robertson to the embassy in Phnom Penh, Millner was asked to compile a report on all the recent claims involving John Hartley Robertson. Millner had long been familiar with the name of the missing Green Beret—most people on the DPMO’s Vietnam desk were. “Dong Nai, for whatever reason, was always a fertile source of live sightings,” Garnett Bell, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s POW/MIA office, a predecessor to the DPMO, told me last spring. “I’d estimate we had four or five half-Asians from that area claiming to be American POWs.”

During his tenure in the 1980s, Bell told me, he had dispatched an investigator to Dong Nai to fingerprint a “John Robertson”; the results had been negative. But by 1992, “Robertson” was back on the government’s radar, this time courtesy of a Laotian dissident, Khambang Sibounheuang, who claimed to have knowledge of the whereabouts of an American POW hiding out in Dong Nai. Intrigued, Mark “Zippo” Smith, a retired Army Ranger then working a private security detail for the princess of Cambodia, drove to the Vietnamese border to meet with the man. “I get out of the car, and here’s this tall half-Asian guy,” Smith recalled. The man’s name was Larry Stevens, Smith was told.

Smith knew that Stevens, a naval aviator missing since 1969, had been one of the subjects of a widely circulated photo that purported to show three American POWs in Vietnamese custody. (The two others were Colonel John Leighton Robertson and Major Albro Lundy Jr., both of the Air Force, but the photo, which appeared on the cover of Newsweek in the spring of 1991, was itself later revealed to be fraudulent.)

“I looked at him and said, ‘You’re not Larry Stevens,’” Smith recalled. “Then I drove away.” A few years later, Smith was given new intel on an American POW. He traveled to Phnom Penh and found the same man waiting for him, along with a pair of Vietnamese men. “Only now the guy says his name is John Leighton Robertson,” Smith recalled. Brandishing his pistol, Smith suggested that the world might be better off if he shot the imposter then and there. I emailed Smith several photographs of Faunce’s John Robertson, and Smith confirmed that it was the same man he met at the Vietnamese border.  

Smith says he reported the incident to the Defense Department. But the DIA—and later the DPMO—had its hands tied: Aside from alerting the Vietnamese government, there was nothing the agency could do to punish a sovereign resident of a foreign country.

As Rodney Millner noted in his 2009 report, Robertson’s name next cropped up in the early aughts, with the arrival, at the Virginia offices of the DPMO, of a set of fingerprints purportedly belonging to John Hartley Robertson. The sender was a Vietnamese-American woman in Maryland, and like Khambang Sibounheuang, the Laotian, she was well-known to DPMO investigators: The suspicion in the agency was that she was serving as an American front for con artists in Vietnam.  

screenshot1-1485531894-63.png

A number of photos had followed, all showing a slender, silver-haired man identified as currently living in Dong Nai province. The images appeared Photoshopped and were captioned with erroneous information: In one, the name “Robby” is scrawled over the subject’s chest. In another, Robertson’s last known address is listed as 518 South Louis St., in Boston, an address that does not exist, and has never existed, on any map.

Still, in 2006, an investigator had again been dispatched to Dong Nai to speak with the alleged MIA. According to this investigator, the man, who looked to be of mixed Caucasian and Asian extraction, immediately admitted he was a lifelong citizen of Vietnam named Dang Tan Ngoc. “Despite DPMO requests, no source has provided any information that proves their claim is valid,” Millner wrote near the end of his report. He filed the document under the reference number 1184 and sent it to his bosses.

On May 1, 2013, as Jorgensen was preparing to take Unclaimed into wide release, the British paper The Independent obtained a copy of the 2009 report compiled by Rodney Millner and published a summary of Millner’s findings. Confronted with the allegations that Robertson was a fraud, Jorgensen argued that his critics misunderstood him: His movie was not about one man’s identity. Instead, it was “about one man’s”— Tom Faunce’s—“emotional journey.” The criticism, he said, “doesn’t make me rethink my film.”

Tom and Joe Faunce retreated to their homes to be with their families. “We were frustrated by the public reaction,” Joe Faunce told me recently. “We felt like people weren’t asking the right questions.” He pointed me to a 2013 investigation by Robert Burns of the Associated Press, depicting the government’s POW/MIA recovery operation as “woefully inept and even corrupt.” The article, which centered on a confidential internal evaluation, found that the MIA database employed by government investigators was incomplete and that the process used to test remains was “acutely dysfunctional.”

To trust the word of the DPMO, Joe and Tom Faunce concluded, would be a mistake. The DPMO could explain neither the IDs made by Holley and Mahoney, nor Robertson’s unprompted and correct recollection, during a scene that does not appear in Unclaimed, that Henry Holley once owned a pharmacy. (“No one on our crew was aware of that,” Jorgensen says.) “How would he know so much about the real Robertson?” Joe asked me.

I raised this last question in conversations with several current and retired POW/MIA investigators. All of them responded in the same way: Digging up biographical information on a missing soldier is the easy part of any MIA scam. “I actually thought about this a lot during my time as an investigator,” one retired official told me. “And what I figured out was that a lot of these con artists had contacts in the North Vietnamese government or had access to U.S. personnel files that had been stolen from bases.” He recalled once recovering files from a North Vietnamese soldier that “had a ton of data on American personnel, down to the size of the boots the soldiers wore.”  

Other potential sources included magazines such as Task Force Omega, which collected intel on American service members lost in Vietnam and were widely available in Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. (John Hartley Robertson, John Leighton Robertson, and Larry Stevens are all featured in the Task Force Omega archives). “The bottom line,” the official told me, “was that it was out there, if you were unsavory enough to use it.”

Harder to comprehend, for me, were the findings of the oxygen-isotope test on the molar, which are presented in Unclaimed as definitive proof of Robertson’s country of origin and thus his citizenship: “No matter what, the test shows you are an American,” Tom Faunce says to Robertson in one on-camera exchange captured by Jorgensen.

And if he’s a fraud? “Then I want to know that, too.”

This spring I emailed Lesley Chesson of IsoForensics to ask for a copy of the results of the test she conducted on Robertson’s tooth. Chesson said she couldn’t give it to me without the permission of Myth Merchant Films, Jorgensen’s company, but a producer at Myth Merchant agreed to send me a summary. The summary does indeed state that a number of areas in the U.S. have oxygen-isotope values consistent with the ones found in the molar. A measuring of precipitation oxygen-isotope levels (a slightly different metric that relies on weather models), though, shows values consistent with a range of locales—China, Myanmar, and a scattering of European countries.

I sent Chesson’s summary letter to two leading experts in oxygen-isotope analysis. In an email message, Carolyn Chenery, a scientist with the British Geological Survey, told me that “there is a possibility of North American origin.” Still, she added, “much of the rest of the world cannot be ruled out.” Wolfram Meier-Augenstein, a professor at Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, Scotland, concurred: The “tooth data do not provide evidence the man is Western,” he said. “He might be, but he might equally be Asian.”

In 2014, Gail Holley Metcalf and John Michael Robertson, the sole child of John Hartley Robertson’s only brother, submitted DNA samples to a lab in Alabama for comparison against the saliva samples collected by Joe Faunce in Dong Nai. The samples did not match. “At present, we do not have DNA proof of a biological relationship between my Mother and ‘John,’” Holley Metcalf wrote in a statement at the time.

But John Michael Robertson, who goes by Mike, has continued to hold out hope that the man in the documentary is his uncle. “There’s something the government isn’t saying,” he told me in a phone conversation this spring. He wondered aloud about the possibility of obtaining new saliva from Robertson, or of bringing John to the States or Mexico for a more rigorous battery of tests under more stringent conditions.

I asked Mike what he’d say if he had a chance to speak to the man in Dong Nai. He replied that he’d mailed Robertson a card for Veterans Day, along with an old black-and-white photo, dated to the mid-1960s, of John Hartley Robertson and his family standing outside their home in Alabama. “I guess I want to know how that photo made him feel, you know?” Mike said. “I want to know if he’s happy with his new family in Vietnam. And I want to know if he still thinks of his old family back home.”

And if he’s a fraud? “Then I want to know that, too,” he said.

Tom Faunce had always been the most obvious conduit to Robertson, and when he informed me, not so long ago, that he was planning another mission to Cambodia—and that it might be possible to get Robertson to join us there—I jumped at the opportunity. We met in Phnom Penh, in a guesthouse in the backpacker district of the capital. Faunce answered the door to his room in cargo shorts and an MIA T-shirt. A long knife hung from his belt.

“My thing is this: If the guy is a phony, then arrest him,” Faunce told me over lunch at a nearby café. “As a veteran, I’d want him punished, too—no one should be able to impersonate a soldier. But I don’t understand how you can try to just write a man off.”

He was worried about his friend: He’d heard that Robertson was having some kind of problem with his legs, or maybe his back, and that it was difficult for him to leave the house. Faunce wanted to purchase a wheelchair for him here in Phnom Penh; some medication, too, if he could figure out exactly what pills Robertson needed.  

“Do you think John might still meet us in Cambodia?” I asked.

The trip would be taxing for Robertson, Faunce responded, but he promised we could call him later on that day. We did; no one picked up.

I spent the next three days accompanying Faunce on his pre-expedition rounds. Soon it would be dry season, and Phnom Penh was already shadeless, swirling in diesel fumes and dust. We drove to the offices of a local printer and loaded up a truck with bibles and Christian audiobooks. We stopped at a warehouse where Faunce haggled with the proprietor over the price of a 50-pound bag of Chinese clothing.

But there was still no news from Dong Nai, and I was getting anxious. On the eve of his departure for the mountains, I pleaded with Faunce’s local fixer, Ratha Soy, to try Robertson one last time. Surely he’d be open to meeting us at the Cambodian border. Reluctantly, Soy punched in the numbers on his mobile. The call was short. “Sorry,” Soy said, hanging up. “He cannot do it. The police are there and he is scared.”

“Are the police there, or is he sick?” I asked.  

“Both,” Soy said.  

I told Faunce that I had no choice: I’d be buying a bus ticket to Vietnam. We said goodbye on bad terms. “You won’t be able to find him,” Faunce told me. Even if I did, Robertson wouldn’t talk to me, he insisted: “The only Americans he trusts are me and Joe.”

At home in the U.S., I had pored over every minute of Unclaimed, looking for the kind of identifying detail that might lead me to Robertson. To no avail: The Vietnamese hotels and restaurants depicted in the film were nameless, the houses generic. But when I showed the movie to a friend in Ho Chi Minh City, he caught something I had missed: The phone number, on a billboard, of a fruit wholesaler next door to Robertson’s dentist.

Through a translator, I got in touch with the dentist’s wife, who helped book clients for her husband. Of course she remembered the con lai, or mixed-race man, she said—he lived in the next hamlet. And she still had his phone number.

mg9438-1484718650-82.jpg

To reach Dong Nai from Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of the Republic of South Vietnam, you drive due east on the sleek new blacktop of Route CT101 before turning north over a series of steep hills humped like the curves of a dragon’s spine. The hills give way to shaded groves of rubber trees, the rubber trees again to city.

As recently as the 1970s, Dong Nai province was mostly wilderness, but at the end of the war, the victorious Communist government made it part of the New Economic Zones program, opening the area to hundreds of thousands of northerners. Today, Dong Nai is a rapidly industrializing exurb of Ho Chi Minh City, full of rubber processing and machine-parts plants, indistinguishable in its unlovely sprawl from any other Vietnamese manufacturing hub. Smog clings to the horizon; petrol stands crowd the road.

The dentist’s office, which doubled as the dentist’s home, was located off a busy avenue in the city’s Dinh Quan district. On the morning I visited, along with a photographer and an interpreter, I passed a half-dozen patients waiting on a bench outside the front door—one was holding a bag of ice to his chin. “Root canal,” the dentist’s wife explained, smiling broadly. If she was at all unsettled by our presence, she didn’t show it: She guided us to the living room and turned a rickety fan in our direction.

Over iced coffee, I pressed her on what she knew about Robertson. She responded in the same way as nearly everyone I would interview in Dong Nai: He was of French-Vietnamese ancestry, one of dozens of mixed-race people left over from the long Western occupation of her country. She shrugged to show she hadn’t given it much thought. But what about the documentary film crew that had brought the con lai to her office? That must have signaled that there was something special about Dang Tan Ngoc. Another shrug. “Maybe it was a movie about the war?” she asked.

She dialed Ngoc on her cell phone. “He’ll be here in ten minutes,” she said, hanging up. “He lives right around the corner.”

The next time I looked up, the man from Unclaimed was sitting on the bench outside the front door, alongside the waiting patients, one long leg crossed over the other, his hands gently steepled on top of his knees. He was dressed neatly, in creased slacks and a beige dress shirt. On his wrist he wore a fake gold Rolex. Not for the last time, I was struck by his placid demeanor: the unworried smile, the long cigarette collecting ash. We’d called him, and he had come—it had been as easy as that.

The dentist’s wife waved him inside. He declined a cup of coffee, accepted a glass of water, and folded himself into the chair to my right. “I’m pleased to see you,” he said, in what my interpreter later identified as a distinctly southern Vietnamese accent.

While we exchanged pleasantries, I examined his face. It might have been true, as Tom Faunce had told me, that Robertson’s height was the same as John Hartley Robertson’s, or, as Ed Mahoney had it, that his hairline matched the Green Beret’s. But I could see only the barest flicker of resemblance in Robertson to the man from 1968: The chin was square, not rounded, as Robertson’s was, the eyes an entirely different shape.

“We heard you were sick,” I told him.

His legs, he said. There was a lot of pain. I asked him about the card Mike Robertson had sent; he said he had not received it. He smiled and touched my wrist.

“Can you tell me your real name?” I asked.

“He only remembers his name is Johnson,” the interpreter translated.

“Johnson?”

The interpreter held up a hand. “No, he can’t remember his last name. Yeah, because of the torturing sometimes even now his head still feels pain.”

Do people in his village know that he’s an American?”

“No, because his wife—she knows he’s American, but she’s afraid of revenge from the local people, so she told everyone he’s a mixed-race French guy.”

It was almost one in the afternoon. Robertson did not want us to come to his house, but he happily accepted an offer of lunch. On his recommendation, we drove together to an open-air restaurant on the outskirts of town. At a table in the shadow of a crooked palm tree, Robertson lit a fresh cigarette and recalled that the area had been full of tigers when he arrived. People had hacked at the jungle with knives to make their homes. Now things were getting better, but Dong Nai province was still poor. He was still poor.

I asked if he worked. “I was a motorbike-taxi driver for a while,” he said—he used a nice motorbike that Tom Faunce had purchased for him. But he was getting too old for that. “I grow pomelos,” he said, a grapefruit-like crop native to Southeast Asia.

A waitress placed a hot pot of cháo, a kind of herbed rice porridge, on the table. Could Robertson tell us about the crash? Anything he wanted to share. He recited the outlines of the story that appear in the documentary: He was an American, he’d been in a helicopter crash, his wife had saved him. But slippage was occurring, the gears were rusty—now the crash had taken place at night, not in the morning; he’d been near the Cambodian border.

“I was on the helicopter preparing some artillery to shoot down, and there were three to five Americans there with me,” he explained. “Then a rocket came.”

Would it be possible for him to show us any of his government papers—identification documents, for example? His house had been robbed, he answered. The thieves had taken some money and all his papers.

“What are your dreams for the future?” I asked.

“I wish I had more money to buy a bigger piece of land and a farm.”

“But not to go back to the United States?”

“Yes, and to go to the United States. To Boston.”

“Why Boston?” I asked.

“My sister lives there, the old lady,”” he said.

“You know,” I said, “there are people back home who think you are not John Hartley Robertson. There were tests,” I added, waiting for the translation to reach Ngoc.  

He pointed at his head. “The accident,” he said. “It was a bad accident. I was hurt. My memory is bad.”

“Is it possible that you are not Robertson?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe you’re a different American soldier.”

“OK,” he said.

“Isn’t it possible that you are Vietnamese?”

“OK,” he said. “Yes.”

Ngoc was getting tired; a sheen of sweat coated his brow.

“I would like to go home,” he said finally.

pbrnewyork-1485533085-76.jpg

I had promised Ngoc that we’d stay away from his house, and I intended to keep my word. But there was nothing stopping us from visiting his neighbors. After depositing Ngoc at his motorbike, we climbed back in our truck and, following directions provided by the dentist’s wife, drove south out of town on a narrow single-lane road. At one house, a young amputee took a look at us and hopped off in alarm, calling in a high-pitched yelp for his mother. At another, a fearsome-looking dog was standing guard. At the third, we asked the balding owner what he could tell us about the local con lai. “Why don’t you go ask him yourself?” he replied and spit tobacco theatrically in our direction.

We stopped at a roadside food stand to rest. In a hammock, a black-haired man with a panther tattoo emblazoned on his chest was sipping beer. The light was soft and golden, the shadows long. The proprietor of the stand, an elegantly dressed older woman, confirmed that she knew a con lai called Ngoc, but not nearly as well as her father did—her dad and the con lai were close friends. The father was produced. His eyes were radically different colors, one brown and one lapis; his white hair stood up in a proud cowlick. “I’ve known Ngoc since 1976,” he said. “Good man.”

What kind of work did Ngoc do? I wondered.

The man rattled through the list: motor-taxi driver, quality-control inspector at a nearby factory, police officer.

“A police officer?” the translator blurted out. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely,” the man said. “You should talk to Tan Som. Som, he explained, had been Ngoc’s son-in-law for 20 years; Som and Ngoc’s daughter were now divorced, but Som had worked with Ngoc on the force, and he’d seen Ngoc’s personnel files.

“I would like to go home,” he said finally.

It took a while for Som to get to the food stand; he’d been hanging out at a buddy’s house, drinking rice wine. Arriving, he shook my hand, lit a cigarette, and proceeded to talk, without interruption, for 15 minutes. Ngoc, Som said, had been born in 1947 and raised at an orphanage in Saigon. At 18, Ngoc had left the orphanage and joined the Navy, serving with the South Vietnamese military during the war—a tour of duty that would partially explain Ngoc’s familiarity with U.S. bases and commands. Later he’d come north, to Dong Nai, and taken a position as a cop. For a few years, Ngoc had been chief of police.

“And he has two kids,” I said.

“Ten, I think. And four are in the United States.”

“Did Ngoc ever think about joining them there?”

“In the 1990s, he thought about it, but in the end he didn’t want to leave his family in Vietnam,” Som said. “He got too emotional when he was saying goodbye.”

Had any of the villagers spotted Western filmmakers in their hamlet? They had, he responded, but Ngoc had brushed off questions, and his neighbors had let it drop. They’d certainly never seen the finished product.

“Did you know that in the movie, Ngoc says he is an American soldier?” I said.

Som shook his head. In the stillness, I could hear him breathing. There was no guile in his gaze. Only shock. “That is impossible,” he said.

For the entirety of our conversation, the man with the chest tattoo had remained in his hammock, drinking his beer and listening quietly. Now he spoke up. He asked if we might be confusing fiction with fact: He remembered that in the late 1970s, he’d had a temporary gig guarding the set of a Vietnamese movie shot here in Dong Nai. He recounted the plot of the movie: An American helicopter pilot is shot down over enemy territory and nursed back to health by a kind-hearted Vietcong nurse. The nurse and the pilot fall in love and live happily ever after.

“Ngoc,” he went on, “played the pilot.”

According to Vietnamese film archivist Do Thuy Linh, downed American pilots and their noble Vietnamese saviors were a central trope of Vietnamese cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1984 adventure film Con Lai Mot Minh (translation: Left for Dead), for example, a dying American aviator receives succor—and at one point breast milk—from a Vietnamese peasant. Still, Linh was unable to locate a movie starring a lead that resembled Ngoc. “If that film indeed exists,” she said, “there might also be a chance that it was shot but wasn’t released,” in which case it wouldn’t appear on lists of productions from that time.

Listening to the man in the hammock, I felt profoundly disoriented, in the way you sometimes do when you’re climbing an unfamiliar staircase and your foot lands on a stair that isn’t there. Reality, for a moment, stutters.

Night fell over the hamlet. In the surrounding trees, the birds were singing. We said our goodbyes to Som and the proprietor of the stand and her father, and drove back by taxi to Ho Chi Minh City. In the backseat, I closed my eyes and envisioned the last moments of John Hartley Robertson’s mission—the rocket rushing up to meet the helicopter, the helicopter corkscrewing toward the valley floor. How amazing that those few incontrovertible details had come to form the foundation of such vivid fiction. And not just any fiction, but the type of fiction that held up a mirror to the people consuming it, allowing them to locate in it a piece of themselves. It was a fable that had fulfilled dreams and answered prayers. And what sustained it? Only the willingness of a poor con lai in Dong Nai province to say yes. Yes: I will tell you I am a long-lost American soldier. Yes: I will travel to the embassy in Phnom Penh for a fingerprint test. Yes: I will remove my pants for you. Yes: I will offer you my molar. Yes: I will accept this shiny new motorbike.

Yes: I will give you permission to believe.

pbrnewyork-1485465122-7.jpg

Two weeks after returning from Vietnam, I received a strange email from Tom Faunce. He had “kept in contact with John because I was trying to send him a few dollars,” he wrote. I’d told him I found Ngoc, but now he said Ngoc was denying it. “Do not know why he would lie to us,” Faunce wrote. “Said he never met with you.” I sent Faunce a photo of Ngoc and myself in Dong Nai. “Not sure what is going on,” Faunce replied.

In subsequent weeks, I spoke by phone with Joe Faunce and Hugh Tranh, Jorgenson’s translator. Faunce could not be budged from his insistence that Ngoc was Robertson. He texted me that he and Mike Jorgensen “have careers to protect pending what u write. Firestorm to come. Help the little guys!” He promised to send a “line item list” of “what myself & many others believe are facts” regarding Robertson’s identity, but the list never materialized. (I have been similarly unable to verify that Ngoc has relatives in the U.S.)

Hugh Tranh was more standoffish. Tranh still talks regularly to Ngoc and has helped raise money to send to Dong Nai. He said he doubted the validity of the DNA tests and mentioned Jean Holley’s embrace of Ngoc as proof of the man’s identity. (Ed Mahoney took much the same tack: “If I’m wrong, well, how could I be so wrong?” he asked me.) To Tranh I could only respond that sometimes we see what we want to see.

“You may have your facts, but I have mine,” he said and hung up on me.

My last conversation with Tom Faunce took place in April. We spoke for an hour, during which Faunce appeared to be ricocheting from one stage of grief to another: anger to denial, denial to acceptance, acceptance to sadness. He told me he’d never been entirely convinced that his Robertson was John Hartley Robertson. Then he took it back, saying he had found the missing Green Beret, or at the very least an American citizen.

Still, Faunce acknowledged that he was unnerved by Ngoc’s fib about not meeting with me in Dong Nai. “I guess it just makes me wonder, you know?” he said. “A person who will lie about one thing is capable of lying about a lot of other things.”

But there was still time to get to the bottom of it: Soon, Faunce plans to return to Cambodia on a bible-distribution mission. Maybe, he mused, he’d take a cross-border side trip to that leafy hamlet in Dong Nai and at long last discover the truth.


We welcome feedback at letters@atavist.com