[Bit of a rambling post — thinking out loud like… just follow the links in the first paragraph and third last paragraph if you want to get to the bones of the stories and can’t be arsed reading… ]
So a US soldier — Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson— is shot down over Laos 45 years ago and captured by the Vietnamese. He’s thrown in a bamboo cage, accused of being a CIA operative, he’s tortured, beaten, and released/ abandoned, maybe left for dead (not sure), he recuperates and falls in love — or takes up…— with his nurse (not sure where she treated him), who once was married to a Frenchman (I think). The US soldier marries her, or assumes the deceased Frenchman’s identity inclusive of marital status (again, not quite sure on reading the article) and lives in the south central part of Vietnam. No one knows he’s there, no one comes looking for him. Back home where he has a wife and two kids it’s assumed he’s dead as a old door nail. Why did he stay? What did he do? Did he miss his momma and his poppa and his own missus and whippersnappers? We don’t know… not yet anyway. The documentary film Unclaimed will help answer some questions, but as documentaries LOVE To do, also leave us with many questions…[here’s the trailer].
How did the film come about?
We can fast forward a few decades from 1968 to 2008: A Vietnam vet called Tom Faunce is on a humanitarian mission in Southeast Asia and hears a story about a soldier who is listed as dead, but said to be alive and kicking in the back of beyond somewhere in Vietnam.
We are told Faunce “was determined to make good on his vow to leave no man behind after serving two years in a war that divided America and made him feel like a pariah when he finally came home.”
He finds the man who may be Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson grills him, trying to see if the guy’s story doesn’t add up, but it does, or at least he didn’t (I presume) suddenly confess: “My name is Pierre and I am not a fighter pilot, I’m a very naughty boy!”
So Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson is taken to a US embassy and fingerprinted but nothing conclusive is found. Later Faunce is told (by who? Not sure!): “There’s not enough proof to prove this is John Hartley Robertson.” And he responds, “There’s not enough proof to prove he isn’t.’” CHECK MATE SUCKA! (Not Quite).
Faunce eventually persuades a Canadian filmmaker to shoot the documentary (what becomes Unclaimed) to add clout to his mission to prove that the US Army did leave a man behind (oops!).
Eventually Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson is flown back over the pacific for the first time in over 40 years and meets his 80-year old sister. She says she knows he’s him on sight. She says a DNA test is not needed.
Weirdly his wife and kids don’t want anything to with the whole thing for unknown reasons. This throws a bit of suspicion into the equation. To further complicate things we’re told the old soldier is suffering from dementia. We’re also told Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson speaks Vietnamese like a native but can’t remember how to speak English very well anymore.
BUT! Apparently, the family reunion scene in the documentary is pretty convincing (at least it convinced those involved who were still harbouring suspicions) (Mind you, for anyone who saw the documentary Imposter they’ll know that human beings are sometimes gladly deceived).
There is a touch of The Return Of Martin Guerre (or whichever version of that tale you like: the sudden reemergence of a soldier hitherto believed dead and a growing suspicion that he might not be who he says he is — the wife’s suspicious of a man who seems nicer, kinder, and the local cobbler swears that old Martin Guerre’s feet must have shrunk…)
But Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson has nothing to gain from such a performance. He was tracked down, he didn’t reemerge…
It is a pretty remarkable story, perhaps, because we are surprised that someone would forsake his homeland (and family) for such a humdrum existence in the backwoods of Vietnam when he could have gone back to Sweet Home Alabama in the Land of the Free with his nuclear family… (it’s not like he was a Foreign Legionnaire seizing a chance to escape).
Which brings me to Case Study No.2: The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan — another American soldier with a wife and a kid, goes off the grid, allegedly going AWOL and apparently doing propaganda work for the Viet Cong, before marrying a Vietnamese woman, and settling in a village near Vietnam’s border with Cambodia…
His life is shrouded in myth and peppered with speculation… — read here about his life and the documentary — but [SPOILER ALERT!] no one really knows what happened to him …. there are more questions than answers. Which is a shame… (but we do love a good old mystery now don’t we?)
The Huffington Post article concludes nicely: “Regardless of what happened — why Private McKinley Nolan disappeared from his Army unit, what he did when living in that Vietnamese village, what happened to him in Cambodia — a family in Texas needs answers. Forty-three years is too long for a ghost to live. Forty-three years is too long for a grieving family to live without answers. The US Government needs to give or get these answers.”
Like Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson you gotta wonder.. .. what was it like being an expat in those days?!