How Western journalists in Vietnam and POW NGOs were not fooled by tales of MIA Vet back from the dead

The known facts: John Hartley Robertson went down in a chopper crash in Laos. Over flight suggested no one could survive the crash and burn. Over flight by other Green Berets saw no survivors and the crash did not look survivable. JHR was declared MIA, presumed KIA. His name is on the memorial wall as MIA.

From the DPMO May 1 press release

From the DPMO May 1 press release

The government agency the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) is charged with finding MIAs, which normally means finding bones and other remains. They investigate and test remains from Nam, the Korean war, et al. The DPMO’s 2009 report and the 2013 press release by PAO Jessica Pierno states the man in the movie was fingerprinted and his hair was tested for a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) match with mtDNA reference samples on file. The DPMO states the samples were provided by JHR’s only brother (deceased) and an unnamed sister (JHR had three sisters, two sisters are deceased, one died in 2006, and one remains alive and was pictured in the film being reunited with her “brother”). The sister in the film has stated she believes it is her brother and does not need a DNA test to confirm, although one had been done a few years previous and it proved negative.

So you would think it’s a slam dunk. Prints don’t match. Mitochondrial DNA a big negative.

People who believe the man in the film is JHR and the filmmaker dispute the DPMO claims.

From a Huff Po article getting Jorgensen’s comments on the DPMO claims:

Jorgensen also took issue with the conclusiveness of the fingerprinting. The filmmaker said that Robertson’s last surviving sister claims no one from the family ever submitted DNA. If officials did extract DNA from Ngoc, how could they compare it to any family member? And why didn’t officials alert the family that DNA tests were being done on a man who may or may not be Robertson?

Jorgensen seems to hand wave away the FBI fingerprint analysis, giving no specifics. In a CBC As It Happens interview (opens an mp3) the filmmaker is directly asked about the fingerprint evidence and he avoids commenting. This is pretty slam dunk evidence. If you had very specific reasons to doubt the fingerprint evidence, why not take it on directly?

In comments on the HuffPo article someone named “snowbunnykat” (sounds legit) claimed the prints did not make a 10 point match. The commenter never returned to document the source of that claim. As far as I can tell, coroners are required to make a ten point match to identify a dead body with prints on record. Criminal courts require a higher fourteen point match. However, even this claim, if true, makes zero sense. If there was no ten point match then the person clearly couldn’t even come close to being JHR! Some of the film’s supporters make the claim no fingerprint match could have been possible as, we’re told with all the authority of someone who read something once on Infowars, that special forces members are not fingerprinted. Again, no one seems to back that claim up with a source. As well, why wouldn’t you fingerprint Green Berets? It’s not like the Viet Cong are going to fight their way into your fingerprint office stateside and capture the prints of special forces soldiers. And you don’t become a Green Beret (real Green Berets like to note you earn your Green Beret) right out of basic. Would not all recruits be fingerprinted?

Where did the DNA come from?

The woman in the film, who is 80-years old, and other surviving members of the matrilineal family (sister, nieces) report they have never been asked by the military for a reference sample. Maclean’s, the Star, and the filmmaker himself like to highlight this apparent contradiction.

The military started collecting mtDNA as far back as 1992. The brother (unknown date of death) and one of the sister could have provided DNA any time over a period of fourteen years. According to the HuffPo article, if accurate, the DNA definitely came from one of the deceased sisters.

“The DNA provided no link with two of Robertson’s siblings (now dead).”

So. Yes. The sister is correct in saying the family (her and her daughters) has never been asked for DNA. Because the military did not ask her. It is also believable an 80-year-old woman might not have perfect memory or knowledge about what her brother and sister did the last fourteen years. If the mtDNA was collected as far back as 1992, the surviving sister might not have been even aware of the significance of DNA and not filed it away as something significant. DNA first made its appearance as evidence in court trials in 1987. One of the nieces admits in the CBC As It Happens interview (opens an mp3) that the family lives in different states and have lost touch over the years.

knockondoor

Another niece pointed out it seems like a life event that would have been known. A follow-on user tries to buttress the point by suggesting if some military man came knocking on their door for DNA that would have been memorable. However, the collection process is not quite so dramatic. Much of the collection work is done by amateur volunteers. The military does not have a perfect record of the locations of surviving families, notably those that aren’t the legal next of kin. Even the filmmaker himself reported having a hard time finding JHR’s surviving family. The military conducts open informational meetings across the country. It is clear families have to have some continuing interest and opt themselves in. If a family member wants to contribute mtDNA, the person is mailed a swab kit. So, it’s not two men in black knocking on a door demanding DNA as some might imagine it.

It would seem if the family doubts the truth of the claim that the military collected reference samples, the military would have, on file, some kind of release form signed by the donor. Further, families can obtain typing results by simply filling out a form. It should not be difficult to establish the truth of the donation claim if you so doubted it.

Jorgensen also seems to see subterfuge by claiming the family was never told about the DNA testing of the man in the film or the various investigations going on in Vietnam about the man claiming to be JHR. A little investigative work by me demonstrates this claim is simply not true. Everyone kept referencing a “2.pdf” on the Library of Congress site, the 2009 DPMO document that mentions the fingerprinting. However, no one ever seemed to see what was in the root directory. Visiting http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/pwmia/S134_4/ revealed 7 PDFs related to the JHR case. The first pdf reveals quite clearly the wife was informed about the man claiming to be her husband and stated she wanted nothing to do with it. (See point 2 in the 1.pdf. It’s highly redacted and a bit hard to read but the wife’s wishes are clear).

wife

It seems to me that the wife is JHR’s legal next of kin. She has the express right to speak for the family. If the wife tells the military, in no uncertain terms, she does not want to be bothered by this matter, the military has no right to bother the rest of the family. I emailed Steve Maxner, the head of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech and asked him about procedure. He kindly wrote back:

“The one thing I can confirm for you is your conclusion about DOD [Department of Defense] being legally bound to obey the wishes of the NoK [Next of Kin]. The procedures used regarding that as well as the handling of information about current MIA cases has received Congressional scrutiny and attention. It is my understanding that this is not simply procedure but is something that has been codified by federal legislation.”

I informed the spokespeople for Unclaimed, Maclean’s Johnson, the Star‘s Bernard of this document regarding the wife’s wishes, noting the reported contradiction is easily explained. But I’ve not heard back from any of them on this. The Unclaimed spokespeople keep on making the “the family wasn’t informed” claim.

Why mtDNA? Only mtDNA?

It’s notable that the wife and JHR’s surviving daughter (or daughters) refused to deal with the filmmaker and the missionary Faunce. From reports, the wife and daughter are of the firm belief the man in the movie is a fraud. Barnard reported to me in email that the wife and children, at some point, refused all further contact with Faunce. On the Unclaimed Facebook page I asked Faunce directly if this was true and if true why? Faunce never responded.

tfnoresponse

The movie’s representatives on the Unclaimed Facebook page do not seem to understand DNA testing and seem to be under the impression that only mtDNA from those in the matrilineal line (who have mtDNA shared with JHR) can be used to establish the identity of the man in the movie. The filmmaker repeats the same point on the CBC As It Happens interview (opens an mp3).

This is not quite accurate. Nuclear DNA between father and daughter can be used. Nuclear DNA is actually more accurate than mtDNA for determining parentage. The military likes to collect mtDNA reference samples because mtDNA is more robust. The military is in the business of recovering old remains. Bones from the Korean war and the Vietnam war. It is more likely they can get mtDNA samples from such remains versus nuclear DNA samples.

Of the wife’s refusal to have anything to do with Faunce and the man in the movie, the MIA support/advocacy group National Alliance of Families makes this point:

“Over the years, we met with many POW/MIA family members. We never met one who would not do anything for the opportunity to meet with their loved one.”

One would think the wife would have to been presented with very compelling evidence to take a position against the claims of Faunce. The National Alliance of Families themselves take the stance there are POWs “left behind” in Vietnam. And yet this organization has not been swayed. Like so many other MIA groups, they’ve been urging deep skepticism for years.

In-Country Journalists Deeply Skeptical

 

"Along the way, people tried to sell us bones and tales of missing Americans living in the jungles of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam."

“Along the way, people tried to sell us bones and tales of missing Americans living in the jungles of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.”

As I’ve noted, some of the earliest critics of the Unclaimed claim were Western journalists who were familiar with the JHR story and MIA/POW issues. Two days after the Star‘s Barnard wrote her first piece about Unclaimed, journalist Geoffrey Cain alerted the Star writer about helping peddle the JHR hoax without checking some basic facts. Reviewing Cain’s writing for Time and The Economist, it is pretty clear he has valuable insight into MIA issues in Vietnam. In writing this blog post, I had the good sense to contact Cain to dig for information. Cain pointed me to a google group called Vietnam Old Hacks. It’s a closed group for, primarily, journalists who covered the Vietnam War. Non members can still read it.

A day after the Star‘s April 25 Unclaimed article, journalist Richard Linnett commented on the group about the unfortunate direction Jorgensen took with Unclaimed:

“It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers behind ‘Unclaimed’ felt compelled to cave and create fiction out of reality.”

Linnett is not some keyboard jockey taking pot shots from the sidelines (a charge you could probably make of me). Linnett was involved in making The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, a 2010 documentary about another Vietnam-era MIA claim.

Here’s a description of that 2010 film

The search for missing Vietnam foot soldier McKinley Nolan takes many unexpected turns in this moving documentary. After retired Army Lieutenant Dan Smith thinks he sees McKinley (who disappeared nearly 40 years prior) in a small Vietnamese town, devoted younger brother Michael travels from rural Texas to Vietnam to try to unravel the story. He meets the Vietnamese family McKinley married into as well as members of the Khmer Rouge who knew him. Though the search does not resolve all of the family’s questions, deeper issues of family ties, military cover-ups and remarkable personal histories are revealed.

Compare to Unclaimed‘s description:

No one left behind. No one left unloved. These mantras have guided war-worn Vietnam veteran Tom Faunce through the better part of his life as a missionary devoted to the less fortunate. The work takes him back to Vietnam, where he hears of an elderly man claiming to be John Hartley Robertson, an American listed as killed in action after a covert mission in Laos, who has spent the past 40 years in Vietnam. Their meeting begins an unbelievable sequence of events as Faunce works to repatriate an aging soldier with a failing memory against the wishes of the American government. A masterfully crafted story of two men whose lives intersect through the burdens of war, Unclaimed is emotionally riveting and an inspirational example of what strangers will do when bound by loyalty, duty and faith.

Kind of familiar?

In a group post two days later Linnett further comments:

“Why weren’t the filmmakers content with exploring that incredibly inscrutable, almost pathological need to find closure, instead of imposing an artificial closure? That’s what annoys me.”

Linnett himself lived those words in exploring his own investigation into Nolan. He took a hard-nosed approach to his story.

Linnett also posted a document that brings some interesting clarity. The document is unattributed although Linnett notes it’s from “a reliable, informed source just shared with me.”

First, it notes

On 20 May 1968, SFC John H. Robertson was the only American aboard a Vietnamese Air Force H-34 helicopter, which was attempting to re-supply an American Special Forces unit that had been under heavy enemy fire. As the helicopter approached its landing zone near the unit (Kalum District, XekongProvince, Laos), it received heavy enemy ground fire. The pilot attempted to pull away and, losing power, turned the aircraft toward the northeast. The helicopter then struck a row of trees, exploded into flames, and crashed on a hillside. American witnesses, both on the ground and onboard nearby aircraft, saw the helicopter crash and burn. According to these witnesses, there was no indication that anyone survived.

An important take away here is American witnesses (that is to say fellow special forces) in the air and on the ground had good reason to believe there were no survivors. As many Green Berets have given to comment about this film, it is wholly unbelievable any Green Beret would have not risked life and limb to rescue a fellow soldier if they thought there was any chance the crash was survivable. According to Unclaimed, we’re to believe JHR was able to jump out of the crashing helicopter and failed to be noticed by his fellow American searchers. Outside of a Hollywood movie, has anyone ever survived a helicopter crash by leaping out of the chopper before it crashed and burned?

The document also adds some information about the details of the DNA test:

The DNA sequences from hair samples obtained were compared to family reference samples held by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL). Lab technicians determined the sequences did not match. Moreover, biological material provided to a known scam artist by Mr. Ngoc and eventually confiscated by FBI agents in 2010 was determined to be from a haplogroup most commonly associated with Asian individuals.

Keen observers of the document will note it was prepared February 8, 2013 and mentions the film. That might strike some as odd given the film did not come to public attention until shortly before Hot Docs in April. However, the film was actually first screened January 7, 2013. The document also seems to have been emailed by the head of the Vietnam Center and Archive Steve Maxner (see his comments above regarding obeying the wishes of the next of kin). Maxner has been active in collecting the oral histories of vets. He seems like a person who might get early wind of a project like Unclaimed.

MIA/POW NGO Groups Warnings

As I noted, early on in researching the truth of the claim, I kept finding MIA/POW groups who had been warning about a JHR scam for several years. As already noted, the National Alliance of Families has been documenting JHR claims for years. The less hardcore National League of Families themselves released a statement about Unclaimed on their Facebook page the day after Barnard’s original April 25 article. In it they stated “Sadly, as noted in the official report, claims made by Mr. Dang Than Ngoc and the film’s producer are false as substantiated by DNA testing and FBI fingerprint analysis.”

Even the DPMO honors the The National League of Families' flag

Even the DPMO honors the The National League of Families’ flag

The National League of Families reproduced the Feb 8, 2013 document Linnett linked to in his Old Hacks Vietnam Google group comment. If you’re curious about the credibility of this group, consider the group’s POW/MIA flag was given official status by Congress.

“The League’s POW/MIA flag is the only flag ever displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where it will stand as a powerful symbol of national commitment to America’s POW/MIAs until the fullest possible accounting has been achieved for U.S. personnel still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

On August 10, 1990, the 101st Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355, which recognized the League’s POW/MIA flag and designated it ‘as the symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the Nation’.”

In an email conversation, I directed Barnard to their official statement on April 29 (before Barnard’s May 2 “mostly harmless” follow up story). I cautioned Barnard about the consequences of her original article:

“The implications are huge. But the fall out from a fraud are equally as huge. The movie injects lifeblood into scam claims and, potentially, more families are going to be victimized.”

Her May 2 “mostly harmless” article, alas, failed to reference the pattern of skepticism coming out of notable MIA/POW groups. Barnard merely suggested in her article there was active debate. Barnard seems to imply (or her words can be taken as meaning) there is a legitimate controversy regarding JHR’s status. Yet no such controversy, in fact, exists. Skeptics will recognize this as a classic creationist tactic, suggesting that among actual experts there’s a legitimate controversy regarding evolution, when none actually exists.

Green Berets and Fake Warrior Busters

Before Google searches for “John Hartley Robertson” just turn up articles about the film, some of the first hits to come up on “John Hartley Robertson” were pages put up by former Green Berets and other military veterans warning of JHR-related hoaxes. One page was found on the MACV-SOG site, a site devoted to former members of a group called MACV-SOG. It is run by Captain Robert Noe. Part of the MACV-SOG mission was to rescue downed pilots and rescue POWs. These are some tough hombres. As one can see from the page devoted to JHR, this site has been compiling information about the hoax since at least 2009. I will freely admit, web design skills are not one of the strong suits of vets and MIA groups. Their pages can be a bit hard to read and do not always present themselves as authoritative.

MACV-SOG site had some of the pre-Unclaimed info on the JHR hoax

MACV-SOG site had some of the pre-Unclaimed info on the JHR hoax

The Fake Warriors page devoted to JHR came up a lot in early Google searches. The Fake Warriors site is devoted to exposing scammers who claim military honors they’ve not earned. It has a page devoted to POW/MIA Scams. It mentioned JHR before the movie came out and linked to a longer discussion. Its earliest warning about the JHR hoax was from 2011. The Fake Warriors page seems to be the project of a former United States Army Intelligence man who served in Korea.

Garnett “Bill” Bell is a vet who, sadly, lost his wife and children during the horrendous Operation Babylift in 1975. He would later head up the U.S. POW/MIA office in Hanoi and is fluent in various regional dialects. Bell, in an email sent to Soldier of Fortune a day after Barnard’s original Star article, has a bit more “out there” stance on the fraud. He sees it as a commie plot. He reminds me a bit of my friend’s dad who survived the Blitz in London. My friend mentioned he bought a Volkswagen. His dad commented angrily “you know we fought a war against the Germans!” Some old soldiers can’t let go. Having been born into a time and place where, as The Who sings, “I’ve known no war”, I have zero right to speak about what real war fighters should and should not let go of.

Within his comments, Bell does give us an important take away about the ethic of those involved in MIA issues when such reports are filed:

“This is especially true when we consider the long-held concept that ‘the benefit of the doubt always goes to the missing man.’”

John Stryker Meyer is a former member of MACV-SOG and told Soldier of Fortune “The real Robertson was MIA/KIA in May ’68. This guy in [the] movie is a phony.” Meyer, in an unsoured email apparently written to the GI Film festival (which exhibited the film on May 12, a couple weeks after Toronto Hot Docs) notes:

“I served with fellow Green Beret John Hartley Robertson at FOB 1, Phu Bai, S.Vietnam… The service members who witnessed that crash said it was highly improbable, if not impossible to survive it. By showing this documentary, you are enabling individuals to inflict great harm on the family of SFC Robertson, families of MIAs, and the legacy of the special operators in general who serve our country daily running high-risk operations far behind enemy lines without fanfare or publicity. Promos for this film feature photos of SFC Robertson and trade on his professional prowess and tragic story for commercial gain.”

Former Green Beret Don Bendell is also no stranger to scammers and has little fear of those with political power. He exposed Atlantic City Mayor Bob Levy as a “fake warrior”. In the comments section to a Stars & Stripes article on the controversy. Bendell comments:

“We (POWNetwork, Fake Warriors dot org, former POW MAJ Zippo Smith, DSC, Tsk Force Omega, and others) exposed this guy (Dang Tan Ngoc) years ago as a fraud. In 1976, the Army Review Board ruled SFC Robertson;s status was changed from MIA to ‘Presumptive Finding of Death,’ because although his body could not be recovered fellow Special Forces operators witnessed his CH-34 helicopter go down in a ball of flame and explode. They knew he was dead and we (USA Speclal Forces) do not leave our wounded behind as long as we have breath. The documentary is a complete sham which answers zero question about the MIA issue.”

Bendell also wrote an email (un-sourced) to the GI Film fest protesting showing Unclaimed. He comments here:

“Besides those openly copied, I have blind-copied this to Billy Waugh, Rudi Gresham, Gary Sinise, and Robert Noe, who works like me with the POW Network exposing MAC-V/SOG “wannabes,” and I expose Green Beret phonies with the POWNetwork. You are dealing with the elite of the elite warriors of the world who are each and every one men of tremendous principle and honor. You have been presented with rock solid evidence that this man is a sham…”

Next up, we have Billy Waugh (mentioned above by Bendell). Waugh is yet another Green Beret with issues about the man in the Unclaimed documentary. Waugh helped capture Carlos the Jackal. He is also the actual man (according to The Independent) who got the DNA from the man in the Unclaimed documentary. Waugh over on the Macvsog web site was warning about the JHR scam. This was the original source of the DNA scuttlebutt and posted back in 2009 (according to the Wayback Machine):

“Sorry that the information concerning John Hartley Robertson (JHR) flying around the net for the past days, has become confusing.

According to persons in the USG [US Government], working in Phnom Phen, the Caucasian depicted in the photo has been proven not to be JHR, but to be a French citizen, long time in Cambodia, with a Vietnamese wife, and several children. Proof was produced by a DNA sample, more than one year back.

On receiving a message via email, for a solid contact, from the USG, with this info, who received this from his USG organization in Cambodia, I have become convinced that the brothers Faunce (Joseph and Thomas) are being duped by this Caucasian, whose language is pidgin English and Viet.

I did speak to Joseph Faunce on 25 Feb, prior to his departure / return to Cambodia that very day. These Faunce lads seem thoroughly convinced (that) they have JHR, but those USG personnel on the ground, who have taken DNA from this same man (according to the info I received) are certain this man is a fraud. I wish this was not true; however, it surely seems to be true.”

Major Mark Smith (Zippo) comments in another email (un-sourced) and posted to the Macvsog web site:

“I finally met the individual, in the latest pictures, being then shopped as ‘Colonel John L. Robertson, USAF’ … I sat next to this individual and talked to him in Vietnamese and by his features alone It was obvious that he was not Colonel Robertson. He had no trouble speaking Vietnamese and when I told him that he was a fraud, his response and that of Cambodian General Minh was that ethnic Lao Khambang (bailiff of Judge Hamilton Gayden in Nashville) thought he was indeed Colonel Robertson. I then threatened to shoot him if he ever tried this again. This then led to the rumor that my ‘real job’ was that of an assassin to kill POWS (that I had been one myself seemed lost on all).”

Astute readers will note the name change (Col. John L. Robertson vs JHR). At the time, the scammers were shopping him around (as far back as 1991!) under that name and then for whatever reasons re-branded him JHR. The threat by Smith to shoot the man seems to have given believers in Unclaimed an out regarding the man’s confession at the embassy that he is not JHR. He had to claim to be a Vietnamese man or else he would be shot.

Tomorrow: Toronto Media falls for “false balance” and ignores the evidence

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