Times of war can tear families apart — literally. When bombs start dropping and bullets start flying, family matriarchs make tough choices to keep their loved ones safe. That can sometimes lead to heart-breaking decisions.
During the Vietnam War, a mother of two was forced to make an impossible decision. Little did she know that the split-second choice would fuel one of her daughters on a life-long quest for answers.
In 1975, the Vietnam war was in its final months, and the city of Saigon was being devastated. Soon, rumors started spreading that certain women and children were unsafe.
See, during the war it was common for American soldiers to father children with Vietnamese women. The mixed-race children and their mothers were at extremely high risk, due to the Northern Vietnamese threatening the lives of anyone associated with the U.S military.
United States Air Force
Getting those women and children out of Vietnam became a monumental and very urgent task. Those families were air lifted out of Vietnam and relocated elsewhere, often in the United States. However, things didn’t always go according to plan.
manhhai / Flickr
Like when two-year-old Rose and her four-year-old sister Berni were on their way out of the country with their mother. In the chaos of the city, their mother realized she couldn’t find Rose anywhere.
Berni was still next to her, but rose was nowhere to be found in the suffocating crowd. To make matters worse, the plane to safety was about to leave. Their mother had an absolutely impossible choice to make.
Ronald E. Yates
Her options were to leave her child behind, or stay in an unsafe area threatening all their lives at the chance of finding Rose. She made the decision that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Berni and her mother left Rose behind.
manhhai / Flickr
Berni Slowey and her mother moved to Nebraska and settled with her father. The small family had three more children, but nothing in the world could fill the gaping hole in her mother’s heart. “I could never understand it entirely, and my mother never spoke of it,” said Slowey.
She knew her mother was wrought with shame and crushing sadness because of the missing daughter. Bermi, of course wanted nothing more than to locate her long lost sister, and she made valiant efforts to make it happen.
During her 20s for instance, Berni made a trip to Vietnam to find her sister but found out nothing. In 2012, her mother died from a diabetes-related illness, never to know what became of the daughter she left behind.
Berni said she believed her mother died partially from a broken heart. Although her mother had passed on, Berni had no plans of giving up the search for her sister. She decided to do something drastic to get the word out.
In 2016, she did a Ted Talk in Denver where she shared her story. She waited patiently, hoping that in this modern age someone, somewhere would hear her talk and be able to help her find her Rose. Years went by. She heard nothing.
This heart wrenching story was completely unknown to Vannessa Pham, a Vietnamese woman living in America. She didn’t know much about her past or her original name. She only knew a few things about her background.
She did know, however, that she’d relocated to the United States from Vietnam with adoptive parents. Now, she was living on the West Coast with her husband and children. Desperate to know more about her history, she started digging.
Years went on, and her continued efforts to understand herself appeared to be fruitless. Willing to try anything, she bought an ancestry kit, wanting to know the truth about her past. This, she figured, were help her get answers.
She sent in her DNA swabs and waited. It didn’t take long for the service to get back to her and inform her that she actually had relatives in Colorado who also submitted their DNA. “It just made me feel so happy,” she said.
She reached out and connected with the distant cousin she shared DNA with in Colorado, and he pointed her in the direction of Berni. The two sisters immediately got on the phone, attempting to piece together their broken story.
CBS4 Denver / Berni Slowey
Finally, another DNA test confirmed what they knew to be true the second they spoke to one another: The women were full sisters! They were ecstatic about reuniting, but Berni knew she had to deliver some grave news.
Sadly, she told her sister that their mother had passed away six years earlier. They would not be able to reunite. Of course, this news was a massive blow to Vannessa. “I was like, ‘I am only six years late,” she said.
Even with this news, the sisters arranged a face-to-face meeting where they could have a proper reunion. After 44 years of separation, the women embraced at the airport gate with tears streaming down their faces.
CBS 4 Denver
“This is a dream,” said Vannessa, ”and I’m afraid to wake up. I have been walking for so long. I have been gone walking and wandering for 43 years, and I just want to come home, and I found my way home.”
They are now inseparable. The sisters talk almost every day and are planning another visit soon, and Vanessa adopted “Rose” as her last name. The sisters were so relieved to be back together: they knew others in their position weren’t so lucky.
On April 4th, 1975, a plane from Saigon took off into the balmy morning sky. At this point, all eyes were on Vietnam and its inevitable downfall. But as the plane edged above the clouds, the passengers thought only of home…
But twelve minutes later, the plane was engulfed with smoke. It shook as it grazed the treetops. What made this crash unique wasn’t the fact that it happened at all, but the lives it took: 138 total…including 78 children.
One day earlier, President Ford announced a plan to evacuate orphans out of Saigon on a series of 30 flights to the U.S. It was a humanitarian mission, but for those involved, the danger was impossible to ignore.
Gerald R. Ford Museum
It’s unknown what caused the initial Operation Babylift flight to crash, but everyone knew that the South Vietnamese had a matter of days before being overcome by U.S. forces. Everyone was tense, and everyone was in a state of anticipation…especially one group.
In April 1975, Vietnamese orphans waited outside of a plane with thirty strangers, unsure of where they were and where they were going. When the time came for the children to board the plane, flight attendant Karen Ryan described a heart-breaking sight.
ABC 7 News
“The onslaught of little [children] being being carried up the ramp and thrust into our arms brought tears to our eyes,” Karen wrote. “I have never seen so many ill and malnourished babies; some looked to be at death’s door.”
Australian War Memorial/Barrie Winston/Farleigh Gillman
One thing was clear as they ascended into the sky: “FAA rules be damned,” Karen wrote. Keeping the kids safe was their only goal. They held as many babies as they could to keep them from rolling around the makeshift nursery.
Once in the air, the flight attendants, nurses, and volunteers surveyed the cabin of children — and were shocked by what they saw. A lack of resources combined with various illnesses made their single goal a nerve-wracking one to accomplish.
“We constantly peeked into bassinets to make sure each baby was still breathing. I froze as I flashed my light on each little back, waiting for what seemed like hours to see a rib cage move,” Karen remembered.
Joyce Wertz Harrington
“There were no baby carriers, so we…[used] seat belts tightened around the babies,” a volunteer said. “If there was a crash, I was to get off the plane first and [the flight attendant] would toss babies to me,” he said.
Nick Ut/Associated Press
For all the chaos that occurred in the sky, there were good moments, too. “They were just darling or they were very scared,” said flight attendant Jan Wollett. “And you’d hug them…and tell them it was going to be okay.”
The Times and Democrat
Some children reveled in the clouds, but others were too distracted by illness to care. The volunteers had no clue that a majority of the children were lactose intolerant, so the use of baby formula resulted in a singularly messy flight.
Other children were already sick, as Karen described: Severe dehydration, intestinal illness, pneumonia, and chicken pox ran rampant. The intensely ill kids were held or watched over by a nurse or volunteer as they waited breathlessly for the plane’s descent.
What happened in the sky was chaotic, and once they finally landed in the U.S., the pandemonium continued. Planes were met by medical teams who separated the children by illness, but most were brought to Harmon Hall…which wasn’t much of an improvement.
Michael Howe, a volunteer coordinator, remembered the sheer confusion inside Harmon Hall. “We were there doing what we possibly could do in an environment where we really weren’t quite sure what to do,” said Howe. They all had one instinct…
Nick Ut/AP/Sacramento Bee
To help as many terrified children as possible. Harmon Hall was filled with old mattresses, disposable diapers, aspirin tablets, and gallons of baby powder — but as the volunteers fed, held, and talked to each child, concern seeped into the frenzied atmosphere.
Golden Gate NRA/Park Archives and Records Center
“I felt it before we closed out our work,” said Howe. What he “felt” was that some of the children weren’t as alone in the world as once thought. “A number of children…said they are not orphans,” volunteer Jane Barton said frankly.
DIA History Office
The rumor that the government was unsure of these kids’ orphan status is not so much a “rumor” as it is an unconfirmed fact, and it makes Operation Babylift a complicated moment in U.S. history. But for those involved, what happened isn’t complicated at all.
Joyce Wertz Harrington
“We thought we were taking [the kids] from a possible bad life to maybe a good life,” Jan Wollett recalled. Is there a difference between a “possible bad life” and “maybe a good life?” There’s only one group of people who can decide.
Whether they were stolen or saved, the U.S. ended up transporting around 2,500 children out of Vietnam. Now adults, these children have since commented on how the historic flights changed their lives — for the better and for the worse.
“[My] first thought was, ‘My, it was cold,’” said Thanh Jeff Ghar, who was twelve when he first touched down on American soil. He believes that he never could’ve become an engineer had he not been put onto that plane.
Joyce Wertz Harrington
“I really want them to know that they did a wonderful thing,” he said of Operation Babylift. In an ironic — or maybe destined — turn of events, some of his fellow Babylift survivors have since boarded new planes…
Richard Silver/Ric Feld/AP
Many children who arrived in the U.S. via Operation Babylift have returned to Vietnam to untangle old family ties. But unlike their last trip from Vietnam, this one was on their own terms…and the decision to fly was all their own.
Their journeys home wouldn’t have been possible in the first place were it not for the work of soldiers like John Robertson. A Green Beret, his superiors assigned him a unique role during the Vietnam War.
As part of a CIA-controlled force called the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam–Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), now-Sergeant Robertson wasn’t permitted dog tags or ID. That was because he and his platoon conducted covert unconventional warfare…
Part of this “unconventional warfare” involved operations in Laos. The nation bordered Vietnam—and American forces were not authorized to be there. In 1968, it was here that enemies shot down Sergeant Robertson and his unit’s helicopter.
The helicopter crashed in a Laotian mountain range, and since American forces weren’t permitted to be there, other units couldn’t conduct a proper search-and-rescue mission. Sergeant Robertson was officially declared MIA—Missing in Action.
Years later, on May 28, 1976, with no sign of Sergeant Robertson, the United States government officially declared him dead; he left behind a wife and two children. Yet, questions about his disappearance lingered…
Decades later, in the early 2010s, another Vietnam veteran by the name of Tom Faunce strolled passed the Vietnam War Memorial. He felt thankful that his name wasn’t etched on that wall.
Although Faunce had survived the war, he’d still suffered. He’d lost friends. He’d seen terrible things. Yet, in 2008, he decided to travel back to Southeast Asia. Once there, he stumbled upon something incredible—and it all had to do with Sergeant Robertson.
Myth Merchant Films / YouTube
In his older age, Faunce began focusing on humanitarian efforts, like digging wells in poor villages, and it was that work that brought him and a small company back to the Vietnam region. While there, he heard a curious rumor…
Myth Merchant Films / YouTube
The rumor suggested that North Vietnam didn’t release all American prisoners of war, not even after the fighting ended in 1973. According to this story, Sergeant Robertson also survived the plane crash—and he now lived in the jungles of Vietnam. Could it be true?
Sticking to the no-man-left-behind mantra, Faunce then embarked on a quest to find out if his comrade-in-arms was alive. To begin, he enlisted Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Jorgensen (pictured at right). Though Jorgensen was skeptical, he agreed to help.
Unclaimed via Daily Mail
If the veteran would “go all the way in helping someone he didn’t even know,” Jorgensen told the Daily Mail, then whether Sergeant Robertson was alive or not didn’t matter. Faunce’s journey would be a good story in itself.
And so the unlikely duo traveled to Vietnam with cameras in tow. After tracking rumors and speaking with locals, Faunce and Jorgensen were led to a house in the woods. There, they met a man named Dang Tan Ngoc who revealed something shocking…
Ngoc claimed he was the missing soldier, Sergeant John Robertson! He explained he’d been captured by the Vietnamese after the crash, and his captors tortured him for four years, after which he finally escaped.
According to Ngoc, he then ended up in care of a Vietnamese woman who nursed him back to health and eventually married him. Together, they had two children. To protect his identity, Robertson assumed the identity of “Dang Tan Ngoc.”
The man’s story and character, however, had its fair share of holes: he didn’t speak English, claiming to have forgotten the language after decades without speaking it. Stranger, he’d made no effort to contact his American wife or kids (whose names he couldn’t remember).
But as Jorgensen told The Toronto Star, Faunce was “very skeptical, grilled this guy up and down trying to get him to break, to say, ‘Oh, no, I’m just making it up.’ And he was adamant he was that guy.”
Fishy story and all, Jorgensen filmed what he’d eventually call Unclaimed, a documentary about the journey to reunite Ngoc with his American sister, Jean Robertson-Holley. Surely, his sister would know if this man was really who he claimed to be.
With all of the pieces in place, the meeting between the alleged Sergeant Robertson and Robertson-Holley was set to occur. When the two finally saw each other, the resulting interaction was incredible…
“When I held his head in my hands and looked in his eyes,” Robertson-Holley said in Unclaimed, “there was no question that was my brother.” With unconditional love and unwavering faith in his identity, she welcomed her brother back into her life.
But while the tearful reunion might have been a statement on never giving up hope or a beautiful image of a family reunited, too many questions—like the rest of those generated by the murky war—were left unanswered. That is, until recently…
In 2009, the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office stated in a recently exposed memo that Dang Tan Ngoc was a known imposter—a con artist who’d been impersonating Sergeant Robertson since 1982.
Unclaimed via HuffingtonPost
Before filming ever took place, U.S. officials had interviewed this man, and, under pressure, he revealed he was not Sergeant Robertson. In 2008, he was caught impersonating the soldier another time and fingerprinted.
Unclaimed via HuffingtonPost
Those aware of Ngoc’s cons weren’t surprised that people like Faunce believed him. Don Bendell, an award-winning author (and himself a Vietnam War veteran), claimed “[he] is a guy from France, an imposter, who has been used to scam money from well-meaning veterans and others who would love to see any POW rescued.”
Unclaimed via Daily Mail
Additionally, many noted how impossible Dang Tan Ngoc’s story truly was. As Retired Special Forces Captain Robert Noe wrote, “No one forgets to speak their native language after that long.” Yet, one mystery still remained…
Robertson-Holley was so certain the man was her brother that she refused a DNA test. But why? Jorgensen understood. “It’s kind of like, ‘That was an ugly war. It was a long time ago. We just want it to go away,'” he said. Was she simply desperate to believe she never lost her brother in the war?
Eventually, Robertson’s niece, Cyndi Hanna, had a DNA test conducted. And? “We have received the results,” she wrote at the time, “and sadly there was NOT a match. This is very disappointing.”
Unclaimed via DailyMail
“As my mother has said, we only want to do right by my Uncle John,” Hanna said. “And if that means… 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.”
Jorgensen’s filmmaker instincts about Faunce’s determination proved correct. While Sergeant John Robertson’s true fate might remain a mystery, Faunce’s journey to recover a man he’d never met made for an incredible story.