In Washington D.C. there are two walls that, from far enough away, appear to be black slabs. As you come closer, you start to notice the etchings on the walls. Closer still and you will see that the etchings are names. In total there are fifty-eight thousand three hundred and eight names, each one belonging to an American man or woman who lost their life in the Vietnam War. Most of these lost souls returned home to be buried, but far too many (some who died but were never found, others who were taken as POWs, etc.) never came back. For the families of these missing 1,200 people, there is a hole that will never be filled. A hole created by uncertainty. By fear. By grief. To this day there are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, hoping for a miracle; hoping that their loved one will return and with each passing year, the chances of that miracle happening shrinks. For the family of Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, that miracle happened in 2013, no matter what the world tells them.
John Robertson was 32 when the helicopter he was in was shot down over Laos in May 1968. The copter, carrying Robertson was never recovered and in 1976, he and the other passengers were declared dead. In 1982, Robertson, along with his brothers in arms, had his named etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; he can be found at panel 64E, row 008. At the same time as the memorial was opened to the public, the US government received reports that Robertson was alive. Robertson’s wife and children weren’t told.
Tom Faunce never had an easy life. Born in Detroit, Faunce’s father died when he was young and while Faunce never liked to speak about it, his children believe that their grandfather perished in a house fire. After the death of his father, Faunce spent a life in and out of orphanages and detention centers, suffering abuses he preferred to keep to himself. When the chance came, Faunce joined the US Army and spent 27 months in Vietnam. His time in the military gave Faunce something he had been missing; a family.
After the war Faunce became a born-again Christian and chose to live his life by a simple but honorable credo; radical love: no one left behind; no one left unloved. Faunce spent his life traveling the world on humanitarian missions, doing his best to ease the suffering of others. In 2008, Faunce was on a humanitarian mission in Vietnam when he heard about John Robertson, the American soldier who had been living in a small village. Faunce set out to the village to find Robertson.
Robertson was old and he had all but forgotten how to speak English. He sat with Faunce and explained what happened in May 1968; his copter was en route to a rescue mission when it was shot down over some mountains. Robertson survived the crash but was instantly taken captive by North Vietnamese soldiers. For four years they kept Robertson caged up, beating and starving him. At first, they tortured Robertson in hopes of gaining information from him, but in time, the torture just became something to pass the time. When he saw his chance, Robertson escaped from his cage and ran. He evaded the soldiers that pursued him and broke out of the forest before collapsing in a field where he was found by a woman he would later marry and have four children with. For reasons unknown, Robertson never tried to contact his family in America. For over forty years, John Hartley Robertson lived with his new wife and children under the name of his new wife’s dead husband, Dang Tan Ngoc.
Faunce pushed Robertson, now in his seventies, for more information; he wasn’t about to blindly trust the man, but he hoped, deep in his heart, that what he was being told was the truth. Robertson was clear on some details, but other things, like when he was born or the names of his American children, he couldn’t remember. He was suffering from dementia and would often break down in tears. Faunce, with the help for Emmy-winning documentarian Michael Jorgensen, searched for more information on Robertson.
They found that the US government had been contacted by Robertson multiple times, but they never informed his family.
Robertson first contacted the US military in 2006 to tell them that he was alive. In the information he filled out, Robertson wrote down the name of a non-existent high school and the wrong address for his US home. He also misspelled his own name.
Robertson tried again in 2008 and this time he was taken to the US embassy in Phnom Penh where he was fingerprinted. His prints did not match the ones on file. As far as the US government was concerned, this was another case of a Vietnamese man trying to trick the military into giving him the back pay that Jon Robertson would be owed.
Tom Faunce wasn’t so ready to call Robertson a liar. His belief is that the US authorities are working to keep Robertson and other living US MIA/POWs in Vietnam silent, though the reason to do so is unclear. Faunce and Jorgensen took Robertson to Edmonton, Canada to meet his only living sister, Jean Robertson Holley. After a brief moment, Jean was sure that the man standing before her was her brother back from the dead. Jorgensen turned the story into a documentary, titled UNDOCUMENTED, in 2013. Shortly after the premier, US authorities released new information on Robertson.
In 1991 former CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Billy Waugh traveled to Vietnam to find Robertson and obtain a DNA sample to testing. Waugh was successful, and the test proved that Robertson hadn’t taken the name Dang Tan Ngoc from a dead man, he was Dang Tan Ngoc.
How Dang Tan Ngoc, a Vietnamese citizen of French origin had found the name of Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, or why he chose it, is unknown. What is known is that Dang Tan Ngoc is a well-known conman who has used the names of multiple dead soldiers to con veteran groups into giving him money. Waugh believed that Ngoc had collected thousands of dollars over the years.
Still, Master Sgt. Robertson’s family held out hope. In November of 2013, they started a GoFundMe in hopes to get the money needed to perform their own DNA test. While they were unable to reach the intended goal, the Robertson family was able to get the test done. The results showed what Waugh had found over 20 years earlier, Dang Tan Ngoc was not John Hartley Robertson.
Men like Dang Tan Ngoc, men who take advantage of the grieving and the hopeful, are true monsters who walk the Earth every day. To lose a family member to a war can be nothing less than shattering to one’s soul. To lose them again because of the actions of a conman is something no one should ever have to feel. The want to believe that your loved one is alive and well overtakes the rational side of your mind, pushing out all doubts because, in the end, all any of us want is a happy ending.