John Hartley Robertson was a ghost of history, an American soldier who vanished in a war that was not supposed to exist. And for 44 years, neither did he. Robertson was shot down over Laos on May 20, 1968, as part of a mission by a special forces unit waging a secret war beyond the borders of Vietnam. The U.S. military listed him as MIA, then in 1976, presumed dead. But a Canadian filmmaker and a Vietnam vet tracked down a man living in a remote Vietnamese village who claims to be Robertson, though he has virtually no memory of his former life, has lost his ability to speak English—and is now married to a Vietnamese woman who rescued him, gave him the identity of her husband, a slain South Vietnamese soldier, and bore him four children.
With Unclaimed, an astonishing documentary that premieres this week at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, Emmy-winning Alberta director Michael Jorgensen follows a bizarre trail into a modern-day heart of darkness, guided by Michigan’s Tom Faunce, a traumatized Vietnam War vet obsessed with leaving no man behind, even decades after the war. It climaxes—spoiler alert—as the self-proclaimed MIA is flown to Edmonton for a rendezvous with the sole survivor of Robertson’s four siblings, Alabama’s Jean Robertson-Holley. (He was unable to enter the U.S.) She instantly confirms he’s her brother in a cathartic, tearful reunion.
“We had a small, private screening,” says Hot Docs director Chris McDonald, “and I don’t remember ever seeing an audience react like that emotionally. Afterwards, everyone was wobbly and teary—and curious. If this individual is a legitimate MIA left behind, as the family and filmmakers believe, it’s hard to overestimate what the impact might be.”
The documentary raises as many questions as it answers: it suggests Robertson’s case is cloaked in an elaborate cover-up by the U.S. military. Jorgensen says the U.S. government first became aware of the man claiming to be Robertson as early as 1991, and tried to verify his identity in 2006. But Robertson’s siblings were not informed. Then last year, before the reunion, the filmmaker says he was summoned to a meeting with an official from the U.S. military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), who told him Robertson’s sister and brother (then deceased) had offered up their DNA for testing. Jean, however, insists no one from the agency ever contacted the family.
And as the plot has thickened, this family of apolitical, devout Baptists have become unlikely whistleblowers. In a tragic twist, two weeks after embracing the man she has no doubt is “Johnny,” and proclaiming “a miracle,” Jean, along with her husband, was seriously injured in a car crash. Her daughter Gail Metcalf, who now represents the family, told Maclean’s they still haven’t heard from the government. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” said the retired kindergarten teacher and born-again Christian. “I love my government. I’m not trying to pick a fight. I’m not looking for money or attention. But I don’t like being lied about.”
Metcalf plans to attend the April 30 premiere of Unclaimed at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival. And among the 205 titles at the festival’s 20th-anniversary edition, it’s one that festival organizers expect to make serious waves. Already it has drawn fire from the Pentagon. Contacted by Maclean’s, a Pentagon spokesperson said the JPRA never contacted Robertson’s siblings or claimed to have their DNA. He says a JPRA official met with Jorgensen only at the filmmaker’s request.
Jorgensen’s film began as a portrait of Faunce, the Vietnam war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who found Jesus and vowed to devote his life to humanitarian work. Tipped off by an ex-soldier who knew Robertson, Faunce led the filmmaker to the story. Together they made two trips to Vietnam, with a team that included interpreter Hugh Tran, an Edmonton police officer whose family had fled Saigon in 1981.
The man they discover in a remote village seems so transformed by his ordeal, and four decades of living another life, he no longer looks like an American. His gracious, humble bearing seems more like that of a Vietnamese peasant. He tells his story, via an interpreter, of being captured immediately after jumping from a helicopter that crashed during a firefight on a Laos mountaintop. “They locked me up, high in the forest, in a cage,” he says. “I was in and out of consciousness from torture and starvation. The North Vietnamese soldier hit me on the head with a stick, shouting, ‘American!’ Then he would hit me even harder; I thought I would die. I never said anything, though they beat and tortured me.”
He says he escaped after four years, hid in the woods and was found in a field by a woman who nursed him back to health and would become his wife. She registered him as a French-Vietnamese resident named Dan Tan Ngoc, borrowing her late husband’s surname and birthdate. Robertson’s special-ops unit was so clandestine, its soldiers wore no ID or dog tags, so his old identity evaporated. As for losing his ability to speak English, that’s called “second-language syndrome,” according to Martin Mrazik, a psychologist at the University of Alberta interviewed in the film. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “The only way he could make sense of the world around him was by talking in Vietnamese.”
During the five days the family spent with their emotionally fragile visitor, his comprehension of English began to come back. And there were dramatic flashes of recognition. On meeting Jean’s husband, Henry Holley, Johnny remembered his brother-in-law “worked in the drug store;” no one on the team knew Holley had spent 15 years as a pharmacist. In Vietnam, when shown photos of Robertson’s two American daughters, he wept. (According to the filmmaker, the eldest daughter agreed to help confirm his identity after seeing video of him, but a week later, following talks with Gen. Ed Reeder of the U.S. special forces, she changed her mind.)
Faunce’s team built a compelling case. They even persuaded their man to have a molar extracted and sent to a U.S. forensics lab, which conducted enamel isotope tests to prove it belonged to someone who grew up in America. Also, Ed Mahoney, a former U.S. soldier trained by Robertson, joined the crew in Vietnam and recognized him immediately. “It was instantaneous,” he told Maclean’s. Mahoney, 72, was the original catalyst behind the quest. Calling Robertson a “father figure,” he says he spent 21 years searching for him, scouring everything from military records to the Library of Congress.
But you wonder why Robertson’s family doesn’t just erase all doubt with a DNA test. “It would be like me asking to prove your sibling belonged to you,” says Metcalf. “We don’t need it.” She concedes that she’d be willing to take a DNA test but has never been asked. “The government has never talked to us. I know the naysayers are going to say it’s a scam, and my answer is: why doesn’t he ask for anything?” In fact, the man she calls Johnny was happy to go back to being Ngoc with his Vietnamese family, and seeks no compensation. As for Jorgensen, he doesn’t believe he simply found what he’d hoped to find. “From a dramatic standpoint,” he says, “if that wasn’t him, boy, that would be a very interesting story. So there’s this guy in Vietnam who looks exactly like him, who walks and talks like him? Who is he?”
Metcalf’s family, like that of any MIA, receives annual updates from the military. She says they’ve included 32 bogus claims by men who said they were Robertson—“people in Vietnam trying to making money off this man”—but she says Ngoc’s claim was not among those reports, which she finds “kind of odd.” In 2004, photos of Ngoc first surfaced, and in 2006, U.S. officials subjected him to a marathon interrogation in Vietnam, she says. “He had a lot of a paranoia about anyone trying to help him,” she adds, stressing that his siblings should have been informed and invited to come along.
The filmmaker also recounts a cloak-and-dagger scene of his arranged meeting with the JPRA official at the Seattle airport in August 2012. By uncanny coincidence, after landing, Jorgensen talked to Jean for the first time by phone. “She was over the moon that John could be alive,” he recalls, “and she said, ‘I have never heard from the U.S. military.’ ” After hanging up, he says, “there’s a tap on my shoulder and the guy from the JPRA is standing there.” When the official told him that Robertson’s sister and brother had provided their DNA, Jorgensen was shocked because he’d just talked to Jean, and her brother had died the previous month. But he didn’t tip his hand. As for the Pentagon denials, Jorgensen says he has a recording of a phone call to the JPRA official that will prove the military is lying. He adds that a source “very high up” in one of three military agencies that handle MIAs told him: “We all know there are guys there. It’s not like the Vietnamese won’t let them go. We don’t want them to come back.”
Curiously, Jorgensen is leaving others to follow up the film’s loose ends. Emblematic of how documentaries have come to adopt the style of dramatic fiction, Unclaimed dwells on the emotional narrative. “If I was doing an investigative report,” says the director, “I could shake a lot of bushes, but I was afraid of coming across as conspiratorial. I just don’t think that’s very sticky.” Yet even if the answers are missing, the questions are not about to go away.