A POW Returned from The Dead Fools Almost Everyone
Vietnam veterans have a lot to be angry about when they hear another story of someone impersonating one of their own. The number of fraud causes or impersonators has gotten so bad in recent years, with characters trying to take advantage of peoples tendency to want to help veterans, that many states have passed laws making impersonation of a military officer a crime. Unfortunately, such laws don’t matter much in the international arena, as this story explains next.
Numerous soldiers had been surrounded and taken as prisoner during the Vietnam War, giving the impetus for the POW-MIA organization as we know it today to become well-established in trying to find missing personnel and bring them home, even if for just some sense of closure for families. The prisoner of war status had started decades before, and the Korean War had seen its share, but the Vietnam conflict really struck home with so many personnel not being returned and forcibly kept prisoner after the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975.
The story of Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robertson was thought to be a similar statistic of one of the lost, until in 2008 an individual was found living in the Vietnamese jungle who seemed to have a very believable story. The situation started when Tom Faunce, working as a missionary on the Cambodia side of the border was helping local tribes and communities dig water wells for drinking. While on the excavation work at one particular site, Faunce started hearing rumors about an ex-American soldier living in nearby Laos who had survived a helicopter crash from the 1968 time period.
For Faunce, the idea of a leftover soldier in the area was entirely plausible. Faunce himself had spent time in uniform and served two full tours himself. He had lost friends, seen others injured permanently, and had seen more war-caused horrors than an average person should see in a lifetime. No surprise, he gravitated to charitable work later to do the opposite and give back to communities versus the fighting he had been part of when younger. But it also engrained him a sense of loyalty to a fellow soldier and to help as much as possible, whether the soldier was alive or dead.
According to the rumor, the fellow living Laos was in fact a special operations soldier named John Hartley Robertson. According to the same story, Robertson had survived his helicopter crash and was captured. In captivity he was brought back to health with the assistance of a given nurse, whom he fell in love with. She then helped him escape the North Vietnamese and escape into the jungle. He was able to stay hidden by using the nurse’s ex-husband’s identity who had died earlier before Robertson had been captured. Thus the locals knew the fellow as Dang Tan Ngoc.
For a rumor, there seemed to be far too much detail and specifics, which immediately had Faunce being skeptical, even unbelieving altogether. Then again, the missionary had seen plenty of unbelievable things happen or be found in the field, so simply brushing off the story could have been a big recovery mistake as well, especially if the lost soldier may actually still be alive. So Faunce decided to make a point of visiting this rumored Dang Tan Ngoc in Laos to see for himself whom the rumored soldier actually was.
Finally making his way to Ngoc’s residence, Faunce was immediately struck by how different the fellow was from the typical local in the area. Ngoc was clearly six feet in height, very skinny, and topped with wispy white hair. He clearly did not appear with typical southeast Asian physical characteristics. When Ngoc saw Faunce and understood whom he was, he welcomed the missionary into his home to talk. However, as soon as Ngoc’s wife saw the visitor in surprise, she began screaming at them.
Between the outbursts and noise it was clear to Faunce the woman was adamantly telling him that Ngoc was not an American, period. Ngoc focused on his wife immediately and ushered her out of the room. There was some talk and then they returned in a far calmer mood. Faunce soon understood the reasoning; Ngoc had been an American soldier, per his wife, and she was fearful that his discovery by another American would identify the fellow and trigger some kind of retribution from Vietnamese government, especially given that she had indeed smuggled him out of a war prison decades before.
According to the military records and files, John Hartley Robertson was classic lifetime soldier. He started enlistment at a young age, excelled, and was accepted into the Green Berets early on. Robertson spent a good amount of the 1960s working behind enemy lines as a paratrooper and coordinator for bombings of North Vietnam. There was a significant amount of coordination with CIA activities as well, so Robertson was definitely going to find himself in challenging situations on just about every assignment or mission. However, the soldier seemed to be a natural as a Green Beret and performed well, working regularly in Laos and Cambodia. However, his career seemed to end in 1968 when on one mission Robertson helicopter was shot down. His team escaped being thrown from the landing, but Robertson could not get out. It was assumed he had been captured or died and his body was taken by the Viet Cong.
In the case of Dang Tac Ngoc, the fellow seemed to fit the bill of Robertson’s story. However, Faunce knew Ngoc still needed to be objectively confirmed as the missing soldier, and only fingerprint and DNA would be the proof. So, after much talking, Faunce convinced Ngoc to go to the American Embassy with him in Phnom Penh for fingerprinting verification. However, despite the fingerprints not giving a verified confirmation, the mystery of Ngoc-Robertson continued. In 2012 a documentary was created telling the entire story and paying for Ngoc-Robertson to meet his assumed American family, now living in Canada. However, it was clear to everyone that beside not remembering any English, the fellow didn’t connect with anyone in the family, despite memories.
Additionally, Faunce tried to see if a fellow team soldier Roberson had worked with would trigger a connection. That meeting failed miserably with Ngoc-Robertson not having any memory or connection with the fellow team soldier. This too was filmed as part of the documentary. Faunce was beginning to suspect he was dealing with a fake.
DNA is a powerful too, but it doesn’t always provide what people want. Robertson family wanted to believe he was alive, and so did his ex-teammate. However, Ngoc’s DNA confirmed he was not Robertson never every related to the lost soldier. Faunce probably heard Ngoc’s wife’s yelling in his ears again saying, he’s not an American. And it was probably very true; Ngoc was likely a very tall anomaly who took on a rumored story and then didn’t want to hurt anyone once he was too deep to climb out.