*Editors note: The man's alias and real name has not been published online to honor his request to keep his personal story within the United States.
When Gary was just 2 years old, his father John* shipped out to serve his country in Vietnam. His father never came home.
When “Dateline” met Gary, he was 29 years old, married, with two young sons of his own. Gary's mom, Gisela, says he has his dad’s deep blue eyes. But Gary had no memories of his father, just some old photographs and bits of information.
“I love my kids and my mom always tells me that he loved me that way,” says Gary of his father. “He was always pushing me, he was always carrying me, he was always holding me. And whenever she sees me she would say that. ‘You know? You remind me of your dad.’”
Gary’s parents got married in Germany, where his mother Gisela grew up and his father had been stationed with the U.S. Army.
When Gary was 2 years old, the family moved to Indiana. But within a few months, John had volunteered for Vietnam. Gary’s younger sister Judy was just four months old at the time, and like Gary grew up to think about the father she never knew.
“I wondered about him all the time. I wondered if maybe I walked like him or I talked like him or if I was anything like him,” says Judy.
“'Am I the kind of man he would have been proud of to have as a son? Did I do the things in school that he would have wanted?' Those are big questions,” says Gary.
And they’re part of the mystery, that began on a summer day 36 years ago.
John never came home
On July 1, 1969 in Ashley, Indiana, 3-year-old Gary, his mother, and little sister were waiting for a telephone call and a voice on the other end saying “I’m here at the airport, come pick me up.”
It was the day John was supposed to come home from Vietnam.
“He was supposed to come home and didn’t,” says Gary. “The government didn’t tell us he wasn’t coming home. My mom called them and asked where her husband was.”
Every day, Gisela would check the mail, hoping there would be a letter from him. Or one from the Army explaining something of his disappearance. But nothing ever came.
John seemed to have vanished — no phone calls, no letters, no dog tags. Gisela was still new to the U.S., and she wasn’t sure where to turn for help. She says years went by before she finally learned anything of her husband’s status.
“I believe I got a letter in 1974 where I was advised that he was A.W.O.L. and at that time — a deserter. I was shocked. I had no idea to believe it or disbelieve it,” she says.
She didn’t know what to make of it. And Gary was too young to understand the lengths to which his mother would go to try and find out more about what had happened to his father—the lawyers hired, the letters written, the congressman contacted.
Even as Gary and Judy grew older, Gisela was torn over how much to tell them of what she did know.
“I think one of the reasons we never talked about it was because she couldn’t explain it,” says Gary.
“Everything was pretty normal except for the fact that I had a father who was missing,” says Judy.
Several times, investigators came to Indiana looking for John, searching Gisela’s house, even his mother’s.
After seven years, Gisela took steps to have him declared legally dead.
In 1981, 12 years after John disappeared, the Army finally reached the same conclusion: He had served his country in Vietnam and he had not been seen since. The Army was giving up its search.
“A major came to my home and said there was no hope in finding him. That they would declare him dead through the Army,” says Gisela.
A condolence message followed, and a certificate saying "In grateful memory of staff Sergeant John X., a soldier who died in honorable service to his country."
Now officially an Army widow, Gary’s mother, who’d supported her family on a factory job, would finally receive the veteran’s death benefits she and her children had been denied for 12 years.
The son discovers the mystery
As time passed, Gary looked more and more to another man to fill the void left by his father: Rick Hossinger. Though Rick and Gisela never married, Rick helped raise her two children. And eventually, he and Gary became like father and son, spending hours together on the basketball court.
By the time Gary was playing high school ball, it wasn’t John he looked for in the stands. The man who wasn’t there, by then, was rarely even a topic of conversation. “I thought he’d served his country at 18 years of age and he was killed,” says Gary.
But the death certificate that closed the book on John was about to open up a world of questions for his son.
He remembers the first time he saw the death certificate, reading it at the kitchen table.
“And I was like, ‘Well, this doesn’t make sense mom. What’s going on?’” says Gary. In the time it took him to read the one page document, Gary discovered what his mother, in her uncertainty, had never shared with him. His father had not died in battle, as he’d always assumed, but from “unknown causes.” It was unknown because his body had never been found. And, for years, John had been listed as a deserter. In declaring that he had died in honorable service, the Army had done an about face.
Finally, this: On July 8, 1969, the last place John had been seen was not Vietnam, but Sydney, Australia.
“That’s when you started thinking, 'Well, maybe he’s alive, maybe he’s not dead,'” says Gary.
So the searching began. Off and on for the next 13 years, Gary contacted MIA and veterans groups, but could find no trace of his father — just the occasional unsettling rumor.
“I remember somebody telling my family that 'Your grandma’s going to Texas to see him.' I cornered her one day. I said ‘Are you seeing him in Texas? I want to know the truth.’ Knowing that that wasn’t right, but I wanted it to be true. I wanted her to say ‘Yeah, your dad’s in Texas.’
But John didn’t turn up where he was born in Texas, or any place else.
“In the evening somebody would knock on the door. and I’d think ‘Well, maybe that’s him knocking on my door,’” says Gisela. “I sit in a restaurant, the door comes open, I’ll look and wonder if it's him coming in. Your mind plays with you. When you don’t have a body, the uncertainty just eats you up.”
A dead man comes alive
And Gisela figured it was just another mind game in December 1993, when she got a message to call a lawyer who had helped her after John had disappeared.
“I called him with shaking fingers and he said to me, ‘Are you sitting down?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ and he said, ‘Have you heard from your husband lately?’ and I said, ‘No he’s presumed dead.’ And he says, ‘No he’s not. He’s very much alive, living in New Zealand, and he’s in prison.’”
“I was in such a shock that I literally felt the earth shake under my feet,” says Gisela. “I sat there in total disbelief. Matter of fact, I thought maybe it was even a hoax, this whole phone call just can’t be right. So I decided to wait until an Army representative would come to visit me before I would tell my children. I did not want to put false hope in them.”
She never got a visit from an Army representative, but in February 1994, 25 years after John was supposed to come home, 13 years after the Army declared him dead, she did get a letter that erased all doubt.
"From the Department of Veterans Affairs. We have received information that John X. is alive. We propose to stop your benefit payments effective May 1, 1994."
The language was bureaucratic, but the impact was tremendous.
“My first reaction was I was shocked,” says Gisela. “Then, then somewhat of relief. And then some terrible anger set in. He had let us hang like this for 25 years.”
First he disappeared, then he was dead, now he was suddenly alive again. This time, Gisela decided to keep nothing from her children.
Judy was the first to hear.
“I started crying, I started shaking. I couldn’t believe it,” says Judy. “It was like finding the missing piece of the puzzle that you’ve been searching for your whole life.”
Gary got the news by phone. Gary recounts: “She said ‘Sit down’ and, I thought somebody died. And she said ‘Your dad’s alive.” And I didn’t believe her. I said ‘Come on, 26 years’?”
Like his mother, Gary’s disbelief quickly turned to anger. But he was also filled with self-doubt. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘What did I do? What did I do wrong for him not to come back?”
The government letter didn’t say where John was, but Gisela realized that that phone call placing him in New Zealand might have had it right. She told Gary.
“I started looking for him that day,” says Gary.
From his home in Toledo, Gary started calling New Zealand and anyone he thought might help: from the Salvation Army, to the prisons, to the police, where he talked to an officer who told him they’d made an arrest in a case that seemed to fit the bill, but the name wasn’t John, it was Bob.
As the policeman continued scanning through his file, the clincher: Bob had an alias — John.
“My heart stopped,” says Gary.
A day later, a quarter century of waiting was about to end. About 8,500 miles from Ohio, a phone rang in a home outside Wellington, New Zealand. It was a phone call Gary will never forget.
Gary recounts that conversation: I said, ‘Is this Bob?’ He said ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Where were you born?’ Because I figured if I asked him some questions and he answered them in the right way, there was no doubt. He said, ‘Texas.’ So I said, ‘Then you’re John .’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said ‘Do you know who this is?’ He goes ‘no.’ I said ‘This is your son.’”
John had walked away from everything— his country, his name, and his family.
"I knew if I wrote them wouldn’t take them long to figure out where I was out," he says, explaining why he never contacted them. "If I called, they’d know where I was at. And I thought if I don’t write, don’t tell anyone, no one’s ever going to find me."
For the better part of 20 years, John had lived as Bob. If you believed the Army, for 25 years, hewas a dead man.
“I was sort of amazed that I was declared dead,” says John. “I was missing, but I didn’t think I’d be dead, you know.”
Phillips: Did you ever do anything to lead the army to believe you were dead?
John: No. Never. No.
Phillips: Never faked your death?
Phillips: Never left a suicide note?
Phillips: Why do you think they declared you dead?
John: I have no idea.
There would be no easy answers to a lot of the questions we asked John. When we first met him in 1994, we found a friendly, unassuming man, who looked old beyond his 48 years, and not at all prepared to face the past that had finally caught up with him.
Phillips: For someone who has spent most of his life in hiding, what is it like to be found?
John: Frightening. Very frightening. I just never thought, I probably always thought that one day, someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “We know who you are.” But it never happened so I just, as it went on it just got easier just to be Bob.
To see his life in New Zealand, you’d never suspect he was anything but an ordinary member of New Zealand’s middle class. The only conspicuous thing about him and the only hint of his American roots was in his car — the Corvette he’d always dreamed about as a teenager in Indiana.
But for John, Indiana was, quite literally, a lifetime ago.
When we showed him some of his old family photos, it was almost as if he were looking at someone else’s life.
Phillips: What did that little boy mean to you?
John: A lot, at the time. A lot. Well, he still does. But I mean, it’s, it’s another life, isn’t it?
Phillips: Do you feel any connection with your daughter?
John: That’s, it’s a hard question. I don’t know. I know that she’s my daughter but I can’t even remember seeing her or holding her.
Phillips: Do you worry about your kids, about Gary and Judy today? What they think of you and how they’re feeling about all of this?
John: Yes. I do. I can’t understand why they could possibly want anything to do with me. I mean, I left them at a very young age when they were growing up. They should have had a father with them. They didn’t. And not because he was dead, because he just ran away.
Scarred by Vietnam
Why did John run away? To answer that question, he says you have to go back to Vietnam. It was 1967, a time when America’s involvement in the war was escalating rapidly.
The man who became a deserter not only volunteered for Vietnam, he served two combat tours, and by age 21, had his sergeant’s stripes.
Phillips: Were you scared at all about going to war?
John: I didn’t know what war was, did I? I mean I was still a young man. It looked like a good opportunity for advancement. You know, I’ll get, get me medals, get me stripes, and a bigger paycheck every month, and I’ll be happy. (Laughs)
He remembers his first months in Vietnam as relaxed and uneventful. But all that changed one afternoon with an enemy mortar attack. It marked the beginning of what he calls, his “going down.”
John: You just heard this pop, pop, pop - and then the mortar rounds started landing in base camp, and they were just landing—coming towards us—and I just froze—I think we all froze cause the next one would have landed right where we were at—and they just stopped. And that was the first time I got scared, and I thought this is for real. Before that I just—didn’t worry about it. It was just something that wasn’t going to happen to me. You know, it’d always happen to the next person.
Fear took hold of him that day, and there was only one way he could numb it: Booze and dope.
Phillips: That’s how you dealt with it?
John: Yeah. I think that was the downfall, when I started. I didn’t think I was going down but it was quite obvious I was.
Though he hid his growing alcohol and marijuana use from the Army, one person would later find the change in John alarming.
Betrayed by his wife?
Gisela has never forgotten the last time she saw her husband. It was May 1968. John had five days leave and met her in Hawaii.
Gisela: He couldn’t sleep at night. I saw him one, one night, literally run against the wall with his head. He was having nightmares.
Phillips: What did it seem to be about?
Gisela: The war, the war.
Gisela was concerned and when she returned to Indiana, she did something John would hold against her.
Gisela: I wrote a letter to his commanding officer and asked for help. I was assuming that he was on drugs.
Phillips: Did you get any kind of response?
Gisela: Yes, I did. I was told at this time they could not do anything.
John says he was called in and questioned about drug use. He convinced his superiors there was no problem, but he remembers feeling that Gisela had betrayed him.
John: Why should she write a letter — that’s my problem. What’s it got to do with her? And that’s just how I felt you know? And I think that was when I decided, well, if you’re gonna’ do that, I’m not gonna’ bother writing to you anymore.
Phillips: You began to burn some bridges right then.
John: Yeah, that was.
The connection to his family was beginning to break. Not only did he stop writing to Gisela but instead of coming home after his first tour, John signed up for six more months in Vietnam. He volunteered for an infantry platoon specializing in night ambushes. It was the kind of combat duty that pushed a lot of soldiers to the edge: battling booby traps and unending fatigue, as they lay in the dark waiting for the enemy.
Phillips: Did you see people get killed?
Even after a quarter of a century, his memories of the war, and of one mission in particular, were still overwhelming. It was a midnight ambush that went terribly wrong.
John: We just saw a group of people coming across in front of us, and waited till they’re there, and we just let loose with everything we had. And then all of a sudden there was the village behind us, and they were firing from us from behind too, so we were just sort of stuck in the middle. A friend beside me got killed that night. He didn’t get killed on the spot, but we had to lift him into a helicopter. I remember his leg coming off in my hand.
John’s friend was Charles Clay, known as “Pops,” because at 31, he was the oldest member of the platoon and a man they all looked up to.
John: I still wonder why it happened to him. You know? I was laying right beside him, I never got a scratch. And I’ll never understand that. That was virtually the end of it. I could go get a bottle of whiskey in the morning and drink it before lunch time.
“It had a major impact on him,” says Lee Burton, the lieutenant-in-command of John’s platoon and was lying next to him the night Pops was mortally wounded. “He seemed to kind of just go further back in his shell. I would say that night changed John. It was just a short time after that a couple members of the unit were injured by a booby trap. And I’m sure that didn’t help him any either.”
But once again, when the chance came to leave Vietnam, John wanted to stay and tried to sign up for another tour. This time, the Army said "no" and told him to finish his enlistment back in the states.
He was given 45 days to get home. It was May 1969.
Decision to disappear
John stopped over in Sydney, Australia, a popular R&R spot for American servicemen. And, like thousands of other GI’s, he headed for the King’s Cross district, where bars and nightlife were plentiful. It was here in Sydney that he made the fateful decision that would turn a 45-day leave into 25 years of hiding.
John: I’d met a guy that I knew from Vietnam, and he had told me that the 12 people I was with had all been killed a couple of days before. I think the only one they said that wasn’t killed, was the lieutenant that was with us. Now, whether this happened, I don’t know. But I couldn’t see any reason why someone should come over and lie to me like that, you know?
The lieutenant that wasn’t killed was Lee Bruton. Bruton says on June 29, 1969, a bomb did explode in his platoon’s bunker. Though the soldier who told John about it had the casualty count wrong, six of his buddies had been killed.
John: I thought, 'Well I should have been there with them. I shouldn’t be over here!' I think that’s when the decision came to disappear.
John: I didn’t really care about anything or anybody at that time. You know, most, the most important thing to me was being able to get a drink some place the next day.
Phillips: And your wife and your son and your daughter?
John: Well, I just assumed if I didn’t go home that Gisela probably went back to Germany. I thought she’d go back there with her parents and meet somebody else and she’ll be fine, ‘cause she was still a young person, you know?
She would get on with her life, and he would start a new one. That’s how 22-year-old John saw it, when he decided to make himself disappear. Though he stayed in Sydney, he stopped showing up at the usual places where GI’s hung out like his own favorite bar, the Texas Tavern. He was afraid he’d be spotted by military police.
Phillips: You knew you were deserting?
John: No, I call it more like I was quitting. I didn’t want to play the game anymore, I think.
John started playing a different game. He moved constantly, never keeping the same job, the same address, or the same name for more than a few months.
But one name stuck: Bob. Eventually, he destroyed the one document he would need if he ever decided to return home— his American passport.
John: I thought, if anyone picked me up and I’ve got this on me, I’m gone.
Phillips: Were you running away from the Army, or were you running away from your family?
John: Everybody, everything. There wasn’t one thing that I wasn’t running away from.
Though he never stopped looking over his shoulder, John says never once during his eight years in Australia was he challenged about his identity.
Surprisingly easy to become someone else
It was 1977 when John left Australia for the one country he could enter without a passport— New Zealand. He came here with one piece of identification: an Australian driver’s license using a different first and last name. That’s all he needed to get a new job and start a new life.
The man known in New Zealand as Bob traded his Australian driver's license and a life-on-the-run, for a New Zealand license and a life that became remarkably routine.
Looking at his license, we noticed that the name wasn’t the only thing he had changed. He had also changed his date of birth. It was a tip he picked up, along with several others, from a book he had once read, “The Day of the Jackal.” It was a best selling novel from the '70s, and became John’s guide for disappearing. It’s about a fictional assassin with a genius for creating false identities.
John says he borrowed from the jackal’s techniques, pulling names from the obituaries, once even searching tombstones in a cemetery for an alias. But for the most part, he says becoming someone else was surprisingly easy.
John: I’ve been able to buy a house. I vote, work, pay tax, and never had any problem at all.
It did take John awhile to develop a Kiwi accent. So he told his friends he was Canadian, and that his parents had died in an accident.
John: So that covered up, never writing letters, or never getting letters from home.
But the tool that served him best in hiding was something that came naturally to him — an ability to blend in.
John: If you get in a crowd, you know, you just sit there and don’t say anything, nobody pays any attention to you.
Phillips: Did anybody ever get suspicious that you weren’t who you said you were?
John: Not that I know of. No one ever brought it up to me. Maybe it’s just a bit more relaxed here. (laughs)
But if disappearing was easy, living with his past was not.
There was so much he could never tell his friends: the thoughts that troubled him, the nightmares that left him drenched in cold sweat, or the flashbacks to a time he had tried to forget.
“Many of us knew something was inside him that he wouldn’t talk about,” says Bill Cooper, a close friend and fellow member of John’s lawn bowling club. “He would have a couple of beers and then suddenly he would move away from the table and would go to the corner and sort of have his beer and then stand, like that. And he was obviously thinking about something, either that or depression.”
Or maybe, after all the years away, it was just the pangs of conscience about the family he had left behind.
Phillips: Did you love your kids?
Phillips: Do you still love them?
John: I don’t know ‘em. I mean they’re, they’re grown ups aren’t they? You know, it’s, it’s hard, hard thing to say, I, I don’t know ‘em.
Phillips: Do you wish you did?
John: Oh, I wish none of this would have happened. I wish I would have went back and, you know, been the perfect father and everything but I didn’t and it’s just something that’s happened. You can’t turn it back.
Phillips: Would you have gone to your grave as Bob?
And he might have, but for one serious mistake that took him out of the shadows and into the public eye.
One serious mistake, and a man 'found'
In August 1993, police in Wellington arrested two men for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars from parking meters. They were city workers whose job it was to go from meter to meter, collecting the coins. And authorities say hidden cameras caught them pocketing some of the money. One of the men was named Bob.
John: I showed ‘em my driver’s license, and that wasn’t enough. That’s the first time it’s never been enough.
The police wanted more identification and he didn’t have it— no birth certificate, no passport, no way to prove he was who he said he was. That’s when he decided to tell all, a story so bizarre, at first the police didn’t even believe him. In fact, not until they matched Bob’s fingerprints with those of John's, a U.S. Army deserter, did the police buy his story.
John was released on bail and waiting to be sentenced when the call he never expected came from the son he hadn’t seen in almost 27 years.
John: What do you say? I mean he told me how he’d been looking for me all this time, and I think I found it a bit unbelievable to me.
Phillips: Did you feel any warmth toward him?
John: The only thing I felt was scared, panicky, and frightened. That’s all I felt.
Phillips: Scared of what?
John: The whole thing. Everything just coming back. I was on the verge of starting over again, you know, taking off.
Phillips: You were thinking about...
John: On my way again.
Phillips: ...running again?
John: I had everything ready to go. I knew where there was a boat I could get on that would’ve got me back to Australia.
Phillips: What stopped you?
John: Lynda. I just couldn’t do that to her.
Lynda, who asked not to be identified when we first met, had been John’s companion for 14 years. For a long time, she had been the only person in New Zealand who knew anything of his hidden past.
John couldn’t leave her because she had stuck by him through the arrest and through the difficult process of reconnecting with his family, a process so traumatic that John suffered a mild heart attack.
The heart attack happened one day while he was mowing the yard. He stopped to check the mailbox and found a letter from Gisela, the wife he had abandoned.
Gisela: I just basically wrote the last 25 years in a 15-page letter.
Phillips: Was it a tough letter?
Gisela: Yes. And obviously it was tough for him to read it.
It was tougher than Gisela could have imagined. John never got beyond her return address on the envelope. That’s when he had his heart attack and his doctor advised him not to read the letter until he recovered.
John: I will read it. And I will write back to her.
Three months later, John still hadn’t contacted Gisela.
Phillips: What’s so hard about that, John:?
John: What am I going to say? What do you say to someone you took off and left with two kids, and you never had anything to do with them afterwards? It’s going to be pretty hard to explain.
But while he hadn’t yet written a letter of explanation, John had sent a photo to the family. To them, it spoke volumes.
Gisela: The first time I saw a picture I took a magnifying glass and I believe I looked at it for sixty minutes. And the man I saw in that picture did not resemble at all the man I married. Not at all. He looked just like a stranger.
Phillips: Have you stopped caring?
Gisela: I’ve stopped loving him, yes. I wonder no more is he going to stand at my door at night. Do I see him some place in a crowd?
Judy: I think he looks like a very sad person who’s been through some hard times. I don’t have any hard feelings for him.
Phillips: Do you want to see him?
Judy: Yes, I do. I have a lot of questions for him. Questions that I want to ask him face-to-face. Not something that I can do in a letter or over the phone. I have to see him and we have to talk. I want to know what his life has been like. And if he’s ever thought of me and the family. Because we’ve thought about him through the years.
Phillips: You think it’s still possible to love him?
Judy: I hope so. I’m gonna give it my best shot.
Phillips: What do you worry most about in terms of people back home?
John: Probably Gary. And facing up to my mother.
Phillips: Facing up to your mother? (laughs)
John: (laughs) They kept telling me she’s mellowed a lot in the last twenty years. I hope so. (laughs)
But answering to his mother was something he could put on hold. For now, he would begin meeting his family one at a time.
Gary meets his father
Gary couldn’t stop thinking about his dad.
Gary: I always had that hope in my heart that he was alive, that I would get the chance to see him one day. That’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do was to look into his eyes and see what I’m gonna’ be like in twenty years. Who am I gonna’ look like?
So, in November, 1994, nine months after he called a stranger in New Zealand, Gary packed his bags to go meet his father face-to-face.
Gary: Every time I talk to him I start to love him more. I can’t tell you why. I don’t know him. Until I see him and I’m hugging him or I’m shaking his hand or whatever I’m gonna’ do, I probably won’t believe that he’s alive.
John: They were saying that Gary’s pretty big. Let’s hope he doesn’t thump me when he gets off the plane, you know probably worries me more than anything else.
Phillips: You’re afraid he’s angry with you?
John: I think he should be angry with me. You know but I hope he’s not too angry.
At Wellington, New Zealand’s International Airport, the meeting between this father and the son he never came home to was now just moments away.
John: I don’t know who’s going to be scared the most, him or me. I mean, I don’t know what he’s going to think of me when he sees me.
Phillips: Are you going to tell him he’s not the reason you didn’t come back?
John: Oh, I hope he realizes that himself. When he was born he was probably the most important thing in me life.
It was an airport reunion. The last time father and son stood side-by-side, Gary was 2 years old and just over two feet tall.
Today, his father would look up to him. The two men would have little more than a week together — not much time catch up on more than twenty years of life.
Phillips: So what do you call him now? Is it John? Is it Bob? Or is it dad?
Gary: Well, it’s been John to this point. I’m sure it’ll probably end up being "dad" before, before I leave. Because at the bottom line, he’s my dad.
Phillips: Have you asked him why he hadn't come home?
Gary: No. And, you know, to be real honest with you, it’s not important. This is a second chance I’ve got. And, and there is just a, million people in the world that would like this chance that I’ve got. And, it doesn’t matter. You know, 26 years has went by, so I take what we’ve got.
Phillips: What does it mean to you to hear that?
John: Quite surprised. I thought he’d want an answer. You know, if he does ask me later on, you know, I’ll try to explain to him why and hope he understands.
Gary came to New Zealand with more than just questions for his dad. He also brought gifts from the family back in the States.
With all the reminders of America, inevitably, one question came up:
Phillips: Do you want to go back to Ashley, Indiana to visit?
John: Oh, yes, I can’t, can’t wait to get back to see everybody, yeah. I think it’s just going to be an amazing trip. It’s gonna’, it’s going to be another world to me.
But John told us the legal case against him in New Zealand would have to be settled before he could come home. And, he faced another question: if he did return, would he be prosecuted as a deserter? His old platoon leader says, as far as he’s concerned, John has paid his debt to the military.
John’s friend Bill Cooper, says he hopes that after John goes back to see his family in America, John will come home to New Zealand.
Cooper: There’s good in him. He's made a mistake, and to hell with it, who hasn’t? But for God’s sake, now is the time forgive him. And if he wants to go back to America, fine. We’ll help him. But if he wants to stay here, let us keep him.
Phillips: Will John disappear again?
John No, he’s going to be around for a while. (laughs) We hope! (laughs)
Their week together would go by quickly, but there was one place where time stood still: on the basketball court. Gary and John did what comes so naturally to fathers and sons from Indiana.
Phillips: Can there be a happy ending to this story?
John: I think there can be. I can go back, see the family, see the kids. I mean there’s no reason why we can’t keep in touch and that, have trips back and forth.
Phillips: What happens from here?
Gary: Well, he’s, he’s flying next. I’m not flying back here again. He’s got to come back home. He’s got to come back home and see us.
Planning to come home to the U.S.
That was November, 1994 when the promise of a full-fledged family reunion seemed very real. But it wouldn’t happen for several years. First, John had to serve ten months in prison for stealing that parking meter money which he also had to repay. Then there were the years he spent fighting an immigration battle, making sure that if he left New Zealand to visit the united states, he could return to the country he now considers home.
In the meantime, John built bridges to his family, through calls and letters re-acquainting himself with his siblings, his mother, and his children.
John’s daughter, Judy, was especially anxious for him to come home. When we talked to her in 1997, three years after she found out John was alive, she still hadn’t met her father.
Judy: I’m a little sad because I haven’t met him yet. But I will someday, and it’s going to be really exciting, an exciting day for me.
There was another family John reconnected with, as well. Several years ago, he joined a group of Americans who came to New Zealand to march in a Vietnam veterans parade. A number of the American vets wore earrings as a symbol of solidarity. After they left, John got one, too.
John: That was probably like my parade that I’d never had. It felt like you were being recognized at last.
It was another step in his journey to reclaim the past he had once tried to forget.
Five years ago, the last obstacle to a family reunion finally fell away. A deportation order against John was lifted. New Zealand granted him residency status and permission to travel freely in and out of the country.
To help pay for his trip to America, John sold the most visibly American thing about him— his Corvette. He considered it a small sacrifice.
More than 30 years had passed since John last set foot in the United States. At age 54, he had spent most of his life overseas and in hiding, buffeted all the while by memories of wartime loss, pushing away thoughts of the home and family he thought he would never see again. He had faced up to the past. Now it was time to face his family.
The day before he left, John got a call from Judy, just making sure that her dad was going to be ok.
Judy: I want to build a relationship with him, with, you know—with what we can. I mean, I know I’m not going to see him very often. But I just want to take the time to get to know him. I mean, he’s my father. Why would you not want to do that? I want to find out what his life has been like for 30 years.
John would begin to show all of them with mementos from his adopted country.
John: A New Zealand stone that they have polished up for Gary and Denise, my son and his wife. That’s a necklace for my daughter Judy. It’s called a Paua shell over here. A sheepskin rug for my mom. That’s for her birthday.
But for the John's family, the only gift from New Zealand that mattered was John himself.
The overnight flight would take 11 hours but John was too nervous to get more than a few of minutes of sleep.
His last flight across the Pacific had taken him back to Vietnam. His life had never been the same. Now, with Indiana as his destination, he hoped some old wounds could be healed.
John: I just missed so much not being with my family that, there’s no way it can ever be made up, for anybody. All we gotta’ do now is just live with what we got left for however long we got it.
Before going on to Indiana, John stopped in Los Angeles to rest and gather himself emotionally for his five weeks at home. It was instantly clear he wasn't in Wellington anymore.
John: Everything is different from what I can remember it. Even me coming back now, watching people drive on the other side of the road...
John: It's just incredible. I can't believe I'm here.
Phillips: It's a different world and you're a different man.
John: Yes. I left home a young man. Now I'm 54, I'm back home.
Phillips: And the passport you're traveling on?
John: Yeah, it's got "John" in it.
Phillips: The real name. Real place of birth. Texas.
John: Yes. I've changed everything over. I had to change my license and everything.
John: I'm who I am now. I'm not somebody else. I've been somebody else for the last 30 years. And actually to be able to say who I am without worrying about it is very good...like a monkey on your back is gone.
Phillips: Are there any more secrets, John?
John: No, no, that's it. Everything's out. Everybody knows everything about me. So that's, there's nothing to hide. I've got nothing to hide now.
He no longer had anything to hide, but occasionally he was still blindsided by his own emotions. As we walked along a sunny Los Angeles street, Vietnam touched a nerve in a new and unsettling way. It happened in a chance encounter with a man who said he was a homeless veteran.
Until now, John's identification with his fellow Vietnam vets had brought him a sense of pride. But what saw brought out a very different feeling. Vietnam had changed John. But it had changed the country he'd left behind even more.
Phillips: It was hard for you to talk about this seven years ago and it's still hard for you to talk about isn't it?
John: It's something you don't get over very quick.
Phillips: You gonna' talk to your family about it?
John: Only if they ask me. Because it wouldn't, I wouldn't know how to explain it to 'em anyway.
Phillips: Don't you think they need to understand?
John: Would they understand? I mean, I don't know, if they ask me, I'll sit down and try to explain what I did and why I did it. But I sort of hope now that I've came home to see 'em that that's just history, past history. And I hope they leave it that way. You know I'd feel a lot better if they did.
A father-daughter love
In Indiana, the first person to meet him would be his daughter, Judy.
John: The last time I seen her, I might have only seen her two weeks and she was, I don't think she could even crawl yet. So to see her now as a woman, it's just gonna' be incredible.
Phillips: Do you feel like her father?
John: Yes. Although I had nothing, nothing to do with bringing her up, she's still my daughter, regardless of what I've done.
Judy: I've waited seven years to actually see his face, and I still don't know what I'm gonna say to him when I see him.
Even before her father's return, there had been some wonderful turns in Judy's life. She was back together with her high school sweetheart, Brent Middleton. He had taken her to the prom that John had missed. Now, he would have a second chance to see them together.
Phillips: Do you understand why he never came home?
Judy: I don't think I can ever truly understand it. I've never been in a war so I don't know. So that's why I don't judge him. I'm more concerned about what we have now more than I am about the past.
Phillips: Coming back to see you because he wants to, instead of because he was deported...
Judy: Right. Extremely different. I'm thrilled that he's coming back because he wants to. I think it's gonna take a lot of courage to come back home to us after so many years, when we know that he doesn't have to do this.
Gisela: Judy looks an awful lot like John used to in his younger years, an awful lot more than Gary does, I think.
Gisela knew better than anyone how much John's homecoming meant to their daughter.
Gisela: I think Judy was the first one to bond with him. It must have been two weeks within that we had heard he was alive. She made up an album from the time she was a baby up the present time, and she sent it to him so he could see what she looked like. And she was the first one to forgive, I'm positive of that as well. And it made me really proud of her.
Phillips: You know, he said in the interview when I asked him if he felt that he loved his children, he said, "Well, I don't know them, do I?"
Judy: Uh-huh. I remember that.
Phillips: What did you think when you heard that?
Judy: I thought it was a very honest answer. And I appreciated the honesty. He's right.
But that was going to change soon. Airport reunions were becoming a family specialty.
Judy: I've been waiting forever. Seems like forever for this.
Gary: You nervous now?
Judy: Oh my God! I think my heart's beating' so fast right now. This is taking too long.
Judy: Oh, gosh!
John: Hey Gary.
Judy: Hi. I'm so happy to finally meet you.
Judy: Indescribable. I felt so much excitement and so much nervousness. It's seven years of all this building up.
Phillips: And when you saw him?
Judy: I wanted to hug him.
Judy: This is Brent. (introducing to John)
Boyfriend meets father. A little nerve-wracking no matter how old you are.
As Judy and Gary welcomed their father home, they also dropped the first hints about who would be running the show once he got back to Ashley.
Judy: Grandma will make you smoke outside.
John: She might make an exception.
Judy: It almost seemed like a dream. You know, after all these years, you feel like you're in some kind of a dream.
They knew their first meeting in Indianapolis had to be brief. John would not be going on to Ashley just yet. Because there were some other folks who had been waiting a long time to have a word with John.
Phillips: What are you going to tell the Army?
John: I shouldn't have been where I was in the first place. None of this would've happened. But you know, I volunteered to go. But I didn't know where I was going to. And I think there was a lot of people like that. An awful lot. Whether we needed to be over there or not, I don't know. You know there was 52,000 Americans killed there. Maybe you have to ask their families what they think about it. Because I got out of it and there was this whole other group of people that didn't.
At Fort Knox, Kentucky, John's heart, that had pounded with joy at the sight of his daughter, was now pounding with anxiety as he faced the prospect of turning himself in as a deserter.
Phillips: You've been thinking about this for a long time. How you feeling about it?
John: Nervous. Just want to go down, do whatever we have to do and just get it over with and get out. That's it.
Gary accompanied his father. He had been told that John would be treated fairly and with understanding — no handcuffs. No arrest.
Fort Knox is one of two places where the Army processes its deserters — those who return voluntarily, like John, and the far greater number who don't.
Maj. Harris, in charge of the returnee facility: I've been in command here about 2 1/2years and I would say that probably I've dealt with over 8000 soldiers. And out of those, probably 20 of 'em are 20 plus years and maybe half of those are Vietnam era soldiers. So it's very unusual to see him.
Phillips: John was a dead man in the eyes of the Army. And now he is back.
Maj. Harris: Yes, sir.
Phillips: Have you ever seen anything like this?
Maj. Harris: No, sir.
The Army questioned John about where he had been and why he had walked away. There were forms to fill out, which John did. But when it came to writing a letter explaining what had happened to him in Vietnam, the memories were still so upsetting that Gary had to do the writing. John tried, but his hand was shaking too badly.
John would not go to jail but the Army still had to determine what kind of discharge to grant him and what benefits he would receive. There were check on benefits things working in his favor. He had wanted to make the Army his career, and he'd volunteered for Vietnam, where he had completed not just one but two combat tours. John had even requested a third. That's when the Army insisted that he go home. Only then had he deserted. He had not run from the battlefield.
As part of the process, John was actually returned to the Army's rolls, though he would not be paid. He avoided the military buzzcut, but he got his sergeant's rank back and received a new government issue I.D.
It would take the Army a few weeks to decide John's case. All indications were that he would receive the general discharge he'd requested.
Phillips: You're in the Army again.
John: Yes. I had to take my earring out.
Phillips: Did they calculate how long you'd been gone?
John: 11,601 days. That's how long I've been missing.
Phillips: So, any surprises?
John: Yes, I was just surprised how I was treated. I never thought it would be simple. How well I was treated since I've been here. It's just amazing. I just find it really hard to believe.
John had made it back to America and had settled up with the Army.
But there was one more authority figure still waiting for John to report. And she didn't need a uniform to command his respect.
John was now on the last leg of his long journey home, to the house he grew up in Ashley, Indiana and to the mother who was still waiting for her son to come back from the war.
Gary brought back his father back to Ashley, Indiana to fulfill a promise he had made to his grandmother.
Gary: When I found him, I told his Mom, “Grandma, we’ll get him here.” You know, and that was tough on her. And each year that goes by, it’s a little bit tougher because I’ve promised and I’ve promised and I promised. And getting him back here, getting him in her house, letting them see each other is gonna’ it’s just gonna’ be amazing.
John: I’m gonna’ be home for her birthday. And the first time in 30 years.
Phillips: Do you love her, John?
John: Oh, yeah. I can’t wait to see her. You know, we talk on the phone, we just talk about the family. But she’s never brought up what I done. All she says is, “You’re my son. I still love you.”
Phillips: Did you ever stop thinking about her? I mean, were you able to forget and to bury all of that and let it go?
John: I don’t think I ever forgot. I just put it in the back of me mind and it just stayed there because I knew I’d gone so far doing what I was doing that I was too scared to front up and go home.
Phillips: There’s a lot of people that would say what you did was cold.
John: Yeah, but a lot of people weren’t in my situation at the time I did it. It is cold. It’s hard. It wasn’t a nice thing to do. But I had no other way of dealing with it at the time. And I think I hurt a lot of people for what I’ve done. I mean there’s nothing I can do about it. I can just go home, say “I’m sorry” and hope that that’s it.
He had abandoned his family, disappearing without any contact for 25 years. But whatever anger and hurt they felt was gone. Time and understanding had paved the way for John's return.
Phillips: Does he owe you an apology?
Jo: Not really. No. he just didn’t come home.
Jo has spent most of her life in Indiana. But she’s a Texan by birth and by inclination, a woman of ageless spirit. I sat down with her after the army had finished with John and just before he was due to arrive home.
Phillips: He's a sergeant once again.
Phillips: They made him take off his earring for his picture, though.
Jo: I didn’t even know he had one. Did you?
Phillips: Do you like earrings on men?
Jo: No. (laughs)
Phillips: Something else John is gonna’ have to answer for with Mom.
Jo: (laughing): That’s right. Uh-huh.
John is the oldest of Jo’s four children. After her husband died, she raised them on her own. Other than pictures, she had not seen John since the day he left for Vietnam. He had just turned 21.
Phillips: Did you think he would come home?
Jo: I was in hopes he would, yes. But you never can tell when you go somewhere like that.
The day John left, she says she didn’t shed a tear. She didn’t want to cry in front of Gary and Judy.
Over the years, she kept the letters John sent home from Vietnam. This one, dated April 22, 1969, not long after John and his platoon had been ambushed and “Pops” had died. John wrote: “Only 42 more days...sure will be glad to get out of here.” He wasn’t the only one counting down the days.
Phillips: July 1, 1969, John was supposed to come home?
Phillips: And he never called from the airport?
Jo: Never called. But I kept thinking maybe eventually he would show up. But no.
Phillips: You didn’t believe he was dead?
Jo: Not really, no. You never give up until you see, you know what I’m saying?
Phillips: There was nobody?
Jo: Yeah, that’s right. I never knew what to think. I kept thinking maybe some day that he would call me or, or just walk in the door.
Phillips: When you first heard that he was alive and living in New Zealand, what did you think?
Jo: Oh, we all started crying, you know. He wasn’t dead. He was still alive.
Phillips: Just as you had always believed.
Jo: Just as, I, yes. That’s right. And I didn’t sleep very much that night.
Her first contact with John was a very long distance phone call. She was surprised by his Kiwi accent. But she told us that when she saw the first photograph of her son, she was shocked.
Jo: Because when he left, he had dark hair.
Phillips: He’s aged a lot.
Jo: Uh-huh. I can see that. And I think with the life he was living and being in Vietnam did that. Put the age on him.
Phillips: You know, with every step, John seems to feel the burden lifting. Meeting Gary...
Phillips: Coming back to this country. Facing up to the Army. Meeting Judy.
Jo: Uh huh.
Phillips: And tomorrow he’s gonna’ come see you.
Jo: Yes. And don’t be afraid. (laughter) Take it like a man. (laughter)
Phillips: What do you most want to tell him when you see your boy?
Jo: That I love him and. We all make mistakes. There’s nobody perfect.
People aren’t perfect. But some moments are. As they pulled in the driveway, she was waiting.
Jo did not cry when her son walked out the door in 1967 and she didn’t cry on the day he returned. She said there had been enough tears in the 30 years in between.
It must have seemed like another life to John, holding his mother’s hand and walking in the backyard where he had played as a boy... seeing the sister and brother he remembered as children, now middle-aged themselves.
But, by the next morning, it was almost as if John had never been away.
Phillips: How is it having him home?
Jo: Real nice. It’s kind of strange, you know. But I had to wake him up this morning as usual.
John: I was awake. I was waiting for you to bring breakfast in.
Phillips: Are you getting used to his New Zealand accent?
Jo: Oh, yeah.
Phillips: No trouble understanding him.
Jo: The only part I don’t understand is I might be late coming home. I don’t quite understand that.
Phillips: Those words don’t register.
Jo: No, they don’t. He’s in my care now, right?
Phillips: He is. He’s under your roof, in your house.
Jo: Yes, now, we have to mind.
John: Oh, trust me. I will.
Phillips: You know, there’s one more person that John needs to see.
Judy: Right. It’s my mom. I don’t think he’s in a real big hurry (laughs).
Gisela sees John again
Gisela and John had finally done the paperwork and gotten divorced — amicably. Although they had communicated only a handful of times over seven years, she told us she was looking forward to seeing him again.
Phillips: Several years have gone by now. Have your thoughts or your feelings changed about all of this?
Gisela: Yeah, yeah. I think I’m very much at peace with it. I’m at peace with it.
Phillips: In what way?
Gisela: Well, if you get into situations like this, you have choices. One choice is you can be angry, hateful. And that means you’re miserable around other people. And that’s not the way I wanted to go.
Phillips: Have you forgiven him?
Gisela: I have. A long time ago.
Despite a potentially awkward situation, Gisela’s companion, Rick Hossinger, decided he, too, would welcome home the man he had replaced.
Rick: I’m actually looking forward to meeting him. He deserves a fresh start.
Phillips: You’re going to shake his hand?
Rick: Sure am. Probably fall to pieces when I do. But, you know, it needs to be done.
Phillips: Are you nervous about seeing Gisela?
John: I don’t know what she feels. I don’t know. I think she’s got every reason on earth to be angry at me and upset with me. The only thing I can say to her is “I’m sorry.”
It was only a few blocks from his mother’s house to Gisela’s but, for John, the walk couldn’t have been long enough.
Phillips: What do you hope will come of this for him, this visit...
Gisela: Peace in his heart, that’s easy.
Rick: Come on in. Hi, John. (hand shake)
John: How are you?
Rick: Good to see you finally.
John: You okay?
Gisela: I’m Okay.
Judy: Oh man.
Gisela: I’m all right. I’m all right.
They held their reunion in private. It lasted less than an hour, more of an ending than a beginning.
Phillips: Did you give him a hug?
Gisela: Yes, I did. Twice. Yeah, absolutely. Why not?
John: She’s still good-looking. You know, so that was it, you know. I thought she looked a bit taller for some reason. I don’t know, I really did.
Phillips: Maybe you shrunk.
John: Maybe I did. I don’t know.
Gisela: I hope he feels a stronger connection to his children. And that he always remembers he has children in Indiana that worry about him and love him. I hope that feeling can be mutual. That’s my wish.
One thing certain about John — he has been blessed with strong and forgiving women.
He had cleared every hurdle, both real and imagined. Now, he had one more set of ghosts to lay to rest. They were dressed in jungle fatigues, with young faces, but eyes that were old beyond their years. It was time to say good-bye to a comrade-in-arms.
Joining the ranks of Vietnam veterans had done John a world of good. The American vets he paraded with sent him an old fatigue jacket with his regimental insignia on the sleeve. He’s proud of that. And, from New Zealand, he joined the Vietnam Veterans of America. He’s proud of that, too.
After his morning at Fort Knox, John spent some time with a Vietnam veterans official who hoped the army would give him a fair shake.
Phillips: Connecting with your fellow vets has become...
John: Very important. Because I think you have something in common that you can’t talk with someone else about. You know, you can’t sit down and talk to your wife or your kids or your neighbors because they weren’t there. And I think you just got this feeling when you’re sitting with a Vietnam veteran, you don’t have to say anything. You just know.
Phillips: Does the war explain everything, John?
John: I think it’s made me what I am. I lost a lot of years because of the war, the two years I was there and a lot of years after.
Phillips: How do you think it affected you?
John: It changed me. From a kid at 19 ‘til I thought I was 40 when I left there. And I was only another two years older when…
Phillips: You felt like you were 40?
John: I felt like I was 40. I felt like I had seen everything that could be seen. You know, experienced things that, people don’t experience.
And, John believes, in 1969, those experiences would have made him the wrong kind of man to be responsible for a family.
John: I think if I went home, I’d have been in a lot of trouble. It was just my attitude, I had a pretty violent attitude at that time and not really, I wasn’t a very nice person to be around with, I don’t think.
Phillips: Do you think you’re ever going be able to come to terms with the experiences in Vietnam?
John: No, I don’t think anybody does. I don’t think. You live with it. You try to forget it but it’s always going to be with you. I mean, there’s no way to get rid of it. It’s something that doesn’t, it’s not like a bad nightmare. A bad nightmare will go away. This doesn’t go away. You just live with it.
Phillips: Do you want to go to the Wall?
John: Yes, very much. I just want to see it. I reckon it’s just an amazing thing to look at. I’d just like to see it and leave something there.
Phillips: You’re going to look for some names?
John: Yeah, just the one name I want to see.
John: Yeah, and (crying) I’ll just take him a pack of Camels. (long pause) ‘Cause that’s what he smoked and that was the last thing he asked me for.
We brought John and Gary to Washington, D.C., to the Vietnam Veterans memorial, where they later found Pop's name.
John: I’ve always sort of had a guilty feeling about making it out and I probably always will have. I don’t know why I made it out. I was one of the ones that did.
In a place that whispered of war and lost youth, John took a walk back in time. 58,000 names...on panel 31, line 65, the name of a friend—Charles Clay, “Pops,” shot up in that night ambush back in 1969.
He would take that name with him... and he would leave something behind — the Camels.
There were many moments to celebrate during John’s visit to America. He finally made it home for his mother’s birthday. That sheepskin rug from New Zealand made it, too.
He found time for old acquaintances and couldn’t spend enough time with some new ones: his grandchildren, Gary and Denise’s kids — Aaron, Andy — and Alyssa, the newest member of the family.
John learned quickly the way to a grandchild’s heart: If a trip to McDonald’s wasn’t proof enough of his status as an American, a baseball game was.
John might have taken a liking to cricket and lawn bowling, but baseball was still in his blood. Cincinnati at Cleveland, a major league game in the heart of America. And, for the first time in decades, John stood for the “Star Spangled Banner.”
His face said it all. He was home. With big league bats one night, and Little League dreams the next morning. How much happier could a man be? Handed a gift he might never have thought possible: The chance to watch his son coach his grandson in a baseball game.
John: They’re two great kids. Three great grandchildren. You can’t ask for more than that, can you?
John decided to extend his stay by a couple of weeks to spend more time with his family. For his mother, every extra day with him was precious.
Jo: Before he goes to bed at night, he always gives me a hug.
John: I think that she’s quite happy that I got home. I’m still, still a little kid to her. You know? (laughs) Waiting for you to come home at nights if you go out. (laughs)
Jo: And it’s time to be together and appreciate each other. Because there’s been an empty space all this time, these years. You know what I’m saying’?
John: This is where I was born. And it’s always going to be my home whether I live here or not.
Of all the moments John had worried about on his visit, the hardest one might have been the last one— saying goodbye.
Gary and Judy said their good-byes early. Now it was time for the rest of the family. Jo packed her son off with the same advice she had given him so long ago, “Take care, be safe.”
Jo: And he’s welcome back any time.
John: It’s been a great trip. It’s been a trip of a lifetime for me. Something I never thought I’d do seven years ago. And I’ve done it. Been a long time coming. The next trip won’t be so long, that’s for sure.
John visits again... this time with Lynda
True to his word, John returned to Indiana this past June. And, for the second time in his life, he brought a girl home from overseas to meet his mom.
John: I think she was as happy to see Lynda as she was me, ‘cause they talked on the phone so many times. You know, she was just pleased to meet her.
No longer camera shy, John’s longtime companion, Lynda, finally got to meet the John's family and get a taste of Ashley.
By all accounts, the visitor from down under was a big hit in the heartland.
At a birthday party for Judy, John’s former wife, Gisela, made a point of welcoming Lynda to the family.
John: They treat her like she’s part of the family, like she’s been part of the family all of her life. Well, that’s the impression I get. I mean, everybody was really happy to meet her and talk to her and took to her and helped her do whatever she wanted to do.
Today, John says he’s more relaxed and happier than ever. He looks it. And, with no one to “face up to” on this trip, he reserved the time for family. It passed quickly. Already, Jo is counting down the days to her son’s next visit.
Jo: Two. He said he’d be back in two years.
John: For your 80th birthday.
Jo: (Shushes John).
John’s life has taken him places he never imagined. In the process, he gave up his home, his family, even his name. But he never really lost them.
Peace in his heart? Finally, that seems like a real possibility.
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