DNA test proves Vietnam man is not missing Army sergeant

Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robertson went missing following a helicopter crash over Laos in 1968. Dang Tan Ngoc, who claimed to be the missing soldier, is an imposter, according to Robertson's family, which cited DNA test results.


By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 12, 2014

A man who claimed in a controversial documentary that he was U.S. Special Forces soldier lost during the Vietnam War is an imposter, according to the missing soldier’s family, which cited DNA test results.

In “Unclaimed,” Dang Tan Ngoc alleged he was Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robertson, who went missing following a helicopter crash over Laos in 1968.  The film, which premiered in the U.S. last year at the annual GI Film Festival, evoked impassioned responses from all sides of the POW/MIA issue.

Directed by Emmy Award winner Michael Jorgensen, it followed the journey of Vietnam veteran Tom Faunce as he looked into Ngoc’s claims and laid out an intriguing circumstantial case that he could be Robertson, despite government denials.

At the time of the documentary, friends and members of Robertson’s family were convinced he was the missing GI. But, it was not to be.

“We have received the results of the [nuclear] DNA test, and sadly there was NOT a match,” Robertson’s niece, Cyndi Hanna, wrote on her GoFundMe webpage that raised money for the test. “This is very disappointing.”

Hanna could not be reached for comment, but wrote that an Alabama-based forensics laboratory compared a recent sample from Robertson’s nephew with a blood stain collected from Ngoc.

Gail Metcalf, daughter of Robertson’s sole surviving sister, Jean Robertson-Holley, who was featured during an emotional reunion with Ngoc in the film, thanked Faunce and others for bringing Ngoc to their attention, something they have accused the government of neglecting to do. The family members reiterated that they believe the man is an American and will continue to seek his U.S. family.

“Regardless of DNA test results, my family does believe the man we’ve met is an American, a strong likelihood bolstered by the oxygen isotope analysis performed on his tooth” Metcalf wrote in a statement on behalf of her mother.

“As my mother has said, we only want to do right by my Uncle John, and if that means exploring the possibility that the U.S. government has made a mistake or that the man claiming to be my uncle is actually another lost American and doesn’t know who he is, we intend to seek the truth on our own terms.”

She said the family would not speak publicly again.

During filming for “Unclaimed,” Ngoc had a tooth removed and provided it to Faunce and the filmmaking team. The tooth was analyzed by Lesley Chesson, senior scientist at Salt Lake City’s IsoForensics Inc., which stated it is “very likely” that Ngoc grew up in America.

Tooth enamel stores a chemical record of childhood living environment, such as local climate and geology. This can be analyzed and matched against factors in different regions around the world.

However, there is a margin of error, and certain characteristics of the analysis matched other places, from the Scandinavian peninsula to the Tibetan plateau.

The film’s director hopes people will not focus on the negative DNA result but rather the isotope testing.

“This summary certainly will not and cannot prove this man is John Robertson, but it does suggest that the U.S. government should be taking a new, meaningful look at this man’s claim that he is an American, and that’s what your readers should be made aware of,” Jorgensen wrote to Stars and Stripes in an email.

Jorgensen said he has reached out to the family to corroborate the test results. The filmmakers are discussing an updated postscript for the film and will be discussing the new developments with festival audiences.

Lynn O’Shea, director of research for the National Alliance of POW/MIA Families, said she hopes the DNA test puts the debate about Ngoc to rest. O’Shea has a book coming out, “Abandoned in Place,” about POWs left behind in Laos and the top-secret mission to rescue them six years after the Vietnam War ended, called Operation Pocket Change. The effort was abandoned, she said.

O’Shea believes American prisoners of war were left behind at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, but thinks that fraudulent claims like Ngoc’s dilute the truth.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that this individual is an American,” O’Shea said. “I don’t know anything about isotope testing, but from what we’ve seen, it’s highly unlikely.”


A split screen image of Army Sgt. 1st Class John Hartley Robertson, left, and the man who claims to be the missing Green Beret, Dang Tan Ngoc.