A US army veteran has been found living in a remote Vietnam village 44 years since his plane was shot down and presumed dead, a new documentary suggests.
Unclaimed, a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Michael Jorgenson, claims that a frail, elderly man, found in a remote south Vietnam village unable to remember the English language, his date of birth or even the names of his wife and two children, may be Sgt John Hartley Robertson – a former Green Beret shot down in 1968.
Sgt Robertson was working on a special operation over the South East Asian country of Laos when his helicopter was shot down. Despite his body never being found, he was presumed dead for nearly half a century; his name etched on Vietnam memorials and army records listing him as “killed in action”.
Despite this, Sgt Robertson’s family believed it was possible he survived the crash and claimed to have documents proving he had been held in a Vietnamese prison for some time.
This is where Vietnam veteran Tom Faunce and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Michael Jorgenson come in.
Faunce says he was on a humanitarian mission in South East Asia in 2008 when he was told of the existence of an “army brother” who’d been shot down 40-years earlier, listed as "deceased in action" and forgotten about by the US government.
Determined to make good on his army vow never to leave a man behind, Faunce teamed up with Jorgenson to track the mystery man down and find definitive evidence that either proved he was Sgt Robertson, or outed him as a hoaxer.
Jorgenson says he was sceptical about the project from the off, not least because of Faunce’s stated intention to reunite a man who had been missing and presumed dead for 44 years with his now fully recuperated family.
They agreed that one intention of the film would be to try and get the man they believed was claiming to be Sgt Robertson to admit he’d been making the whole thing up.
“The MIA story was pretty unbelievable, pretty grandiose”, Jorgenson told the Globe and Mail, adding “Tom went to meet him and was very sceptical, grilling this guy up and down, trying to get him to break”.
But as the man told the pair his story via a translator; how he’d been captured by the North Vietnamese shortly after his helicopter was shot down, and how he’d been held in a bamboo cage and tortured for around a year, the two men became convinced he was Sgt Robertson.
Although age and suspected head injuries sustained decades earlier have left the man confused and possibly suffering dementia, and despite the fact he is now completely unable to speak or understand English, the man was able to reveal that he believes he was eventually let go due to the extent of his injuries. Although he was unsure how long he had been held, he said a local nurse took care of him after his release and the pair eventually married.
The documentary also unearthed material that appeared to back-up the idea that Sgt Robertson had survived the helicopter crash, including a 1982 report that led Jorgenson and Faunce to question why his family had never been contacted to help get to the bottom of the mystery and try to find him.
“Why did the Americans leave him there for all those years? Are there other John Hartley Robertson's in Vietnam?” Jorgenson said.
Jorgenson added that the US military had been less-than-helpful in trying to identify the man, claiming they'd told him there was still not enough evidence to confirm he was Sgt Robertson, despite having fingerprints taken at a US embassy in 2010. Jorgenson went on to say: “It's not because the Vietnamese won't let him go, it's more the US military doesn't want him to come home.”
Personal reunions captured in the film appear to add further weight to the idea that the man is who he claims to be; including one tearful meeting with a man trained by Sgt Robertson in 1960 who says he recognised his former boss on sight.
The most poignant reunion, however, is with Sgt Robertson’s 80-year-old sister Jean Robertson Holly.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Jorgensen claims that in the film Mrs Holly says: “There’s no question. I was certain it was him in the video, but when I held his head in my hands and looked in his eyes, there was no question that was my brother”.
Although DNA testing would easily reveal once and for all the identity of the man in the Vietnam village, Mrs Holly apparently doesn’t believe it necessary. She says she is now wholly convinced that the man is her long-lost brother "Johnny". Sgt Robertson’s wife and two children originally agreed to take part in the documentary but later dropped out for unconfirmed reasons.
Hugh Tran, a Vietnam-born, Canadian police constable who accompanied Jorgensen and Faunce to Vietnam to act as translator, said the man claiming to be Sgt Robertson spoke like a Vietnamese native with no trace of an American accent.
“To tell you the truth, after I interviewed him the first time, I was 90 per cent sure he is MIA,” said Tran, admitting he had some doubts. “I still didn't believe . . . until I saw the family reunion.”
Despite meeting with the family, "Sgt Robertson" has decided to stay in Vietnam, reportedly after having fulfilled his final wish; to see his US relatives one final time.