In Depth

Lost soldier found in Vietnam 44 years after being shot down

Documentary tells the story of elderly man who claims to be Sgt John Hartley Robertson

130430robertson.jpg

A 76-year-old US Army veteran is thought to have been found living in a remote Vietnam village, 44 years after he went missing in action.

The man, who claims to be Sgt John Hartley Robertson, a former Green Beret who was shot down over Laos in 1968, is unable to speak or understand English, does not know his date of birth or the names of his wife and two children he left behind in America. He is now the subject of a documentary by Emmy-award winning filmmaker Michael Jorgenson.

In the movie, Unclaimed, Robertson tells Jorgensen that after his helicopter went down in flames he was taken captive by North Vietnamese soldiers who kept him in a bamboo cage and tortured him. He was eventually freed and nursed back to health by a local woman who he went on to marry.

Robertson eventually took the name of his wife’s dead husband and settled down in the Vietnamese village where she lived, making no effort to contact his relatives back in America.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the name of the missing soldier John Hartley Robertson appears on the memorial to those who died in the Vietnam war.

Jorgensen's film, which has its premiere in Toronto this evening, follows the efforts of another Vietnam veteran, Tom Faunce, as he tries to establish if Robertson is indeed an "army brother" abandoned by the US.

The filmmaker admitted he doubted the story when he first heard it. But he and Faunce "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," reports The Independent.

"The MIA story was pretty unbelievable, pretty grandiose," Jorgenson told Canada's Globe and Mail, "and I was very sceptical".

However, after talking to the man who is now known as Dang Tan Ngoc, the filmmakers became convinced he was Robertson, even though he was clearly suffering from dementia.

"Despite the inconsistencies that suggest either serious brain injury at the hands of his captors or... a deep callousness, many believe that the old man is indeed Robertson," says the Daily Mail, which adds that a series of reunions between the man and people from his past life add weight to the story.

"There is a tearful reunion with a soldier who Robertson trained in 1960 - who claims he knew it was him on sight", says the paper. And there is a moving moment when the man is brought back together with Sgt Robertson’s only surviving sister, 80-year-old Jean Robertson Holly.

Jorgensen said he also discovered evidence that the US knew that Robertson had survived but did not want to bring him home.

However, the Toronto Star notes that Robertson's American wife and children "who initially said they would like to participate in DNA testing, later abruptly declined to be involved".

Jorgensen suggested it was because they did not want to discover whether the man they had assumed was dead for more than 40 years was really still alive.

It is also notable that none of the participants want anything from each other. "As for Robertson, he is back in Vietnam and has no desire to leave, having fulfilled his one wish: to see his American family once more before he dies," said the Star.

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