Too good to be true

The real John Hartley Robertson.

The real John Hartley Robertson.


If you lived through the Vietnam War and wore an MIA/POW bracelet — stamped with a name and the date he went missing — the story sounded too good to be true. It also had a twisted logic.

The Defense Department admits that there are more than 1,600 Americans who fought in Vietnam and remain unaccounted for. Even though a Senate panel concluded in 1993 that none of those men were alive, you might say to yourself, isn’t the Vietnam jungle big enough to hide an American soldier, sailor or Marine who could survive with some luck, bravery and cunning.

Why couldn’t John Hartley Robertson be that man?

There are now plenty of people on the Internet saying the opposite, that a documentary filmmaker was duped by an old man in Vietnam who claimed he was a Green Beret captured by the Vietcong in 1968. The old guy had vivid accounts of his treatment in captivity, but couldn’t speak English and memory of his life in Alabama was shoddy. The best proof the filmmakers had of his identity was from Robertson’s sister. When he was reunited with his only living sibling, Jean Robertson Holley said she immediately knew it was “Johnny” and that there was no reason to perform DNA tests.

At the end of World War I, there was the case of Anthelme Mangin, the name an amnesiac in a tattered French uniform mumbled when the Germans returned shell-shocked POWs to France in 1918. With his mind, dog tag and identity papers lost, he was sent to an asylum and became famous as the  “living unknown soldier.” In an effort to find his loved ones, his doctor had newspapers publish his picture. In the 1920s, there were grieving parents and wives who met the incoherent Mangin, looked into his eyes and were convinced he belonged to them.

“Families recognized Mangin because they were ready to recognize practically anybody,” wrote Jean-Yves Le Naour in his book on the mystery. ”Contemplating the photo of the amnesiac, all of them were struck by the resemblance to their relative — a resemblance that existed only in the obstinate wills of those in need.”

It’s the stuff of myths and Greek tragedy.

No one expected Odysseus by the time he finally got home. The man of many wiles survived 10 years of the Trojan War, and then a series of travails that prevented him from reaching his family for another decade. After being gone for so long, Odysseus was presumed dead. Only his dog — neglected and flea-ridden — recognizes his master.

I’d like to think that two or three or even four decades later, I would recognize my brother, who was serving in the Air Force in Vietnam at the same time that Robertson’s helicopter was shot down. We lost Richard not in battle, but to cancer 14 years after his tour of duty. I would give anything to see his smile walk through the door again.

So when Robertson Holley held an aging man’s face in her hands, looked in his eyes and saw her brother, who could blame her.