Skip to comments.Thirty Years at 300 Millimeters (Saigon April 30, 1975)
Posted on 04/28/2005 11:00:09 PM PDT by neverdem
THIRTY years ago I was fortunate enough to take a photograph that has become perhaps the most recognizable image of the fall of Saigon - you know it, the one that is always described as showing an American helicopter evacuating people from the roof of the United States Embassy. Well, like so many things about the Vietnam War, it's not exactly what it seems. In fact, the photo is not of the embassy at all; the helicopter was actually on the roof of an apartment building in downtown Saigon where senior Central Intelligence Agency employees were housed.
It was Tuesday, April 29, 1975. Rumors about the final evacuation of Saigon had been rife for weeks, with thousands of people - American civilians, Vietnamese citizens and third-country nationals - being loaded on transport planes at Tan Son Nhut air base, to be flown to United States bases on Guam, Okinawa and elsewhere. Everybody knew that the city was surrounded by the North Vietnamese, and that it was only a matter of time before they would take it. Around 11 a.m. the call came from Brian Ellis, the bureau chief of CBS News, who was in charge of coordinating the evacuation of the foreign press corps. It was on!
The assembly point was on Gia Long Street, opposite the Grall Hospital, where buses would pick up those wanting to leave. The evacuation was supposed to have been announced by a "secret" code on Armed Forces Radio: the comment that "the temperature is 105 degrees and rising," followed by eight bars of "White Christmas." Don't even ask what idiot dreamed this up. There were no secrets in Saigon in those days, and every Vietnamese and his dog knew the code. In the end, I think, they scrapped the idea. I certainly have no recollection of hearing it.
The journalists who had decided to leave went to the assembly point, each carrying only a small carry-on bag, as instructed. But the Vietnamese seeing this exodus were quick to figure out what was happening, and dozens showed up to try to board the buses. It took quite a while for the vehicles to show - they were being driven by fully armed marines, who were not very familiar with Saigon streets - and then some scuffles broke out, as the marines had been told to let only the press on board. We did manage to sneak in some Vietnamese civilians, and the buses headed for the airport.
I wasn't on them. I had decided, along with several colleagues at United Press International, to stay as long as possible. As a Dutch citizen, I was probably taking less of a risk than the others. They included our bureau chief, Al Dawson; Paul Vogle, a terrific reporter who spoke fluent Vietnamese; Leon Daniel, an affable Southerner; and a freelancer working for U.P.I. named Chad Huntley. I was the only photographer left, but luckily we had a bunch of Vietnamese stringers, who kept bringing in pictures from all over the city. These guys were remarkable. They had turned down all offers to be evacuated and decided to see the end of the war that had overturned their lives.
On the way back from the evacuation point, where I had gotten some great shots of a marine confronting a Vietnamese mother and her little boy, I photographed many panicking Vietnamese in the streets burning papers that could identify them as having had ties to the United States. South Vietnamese soldiers were discarding their uniforms and weapons along the streets leading to the Saigon River, where they hoped to get on boats to the coast. I saw a group of young boys, barely in their teens, picking up M-16's abandoned on Tu Do Street. It's amazing I didn't see any accidental shootings.
Returning to the office, which was on the top floor of the rather grandly named Peninsula Hotel, I started processing, editing and printing my pictures from that morning, as well as the film from our stringers. Our regular darkroom technician had decided to return to the family farm in the countryside. Two more U.P.I. staffers, Bert Okuley and Ken Englade, were still at the bureau. They had decided to skip the morning evacuation and try their luck in the early evening at the United States Embassy, where big Chinook helicopters were lifting evacuees off the roof to waiting Navy ships off the coast. (Both made it out that evening.)
If you looked north from the office balcony, toward the cathedral, about four blocks from us, on the corner of Tu Do and Gia Long, you could see a building called the Pittman Apartments, where we knew the C.I.A. station chief and many of his officers lived. Several weeks earlier the roof of the elevator shaft had been reinforced with steel plate so that it would be able to take the weight of a helicopter. A makeshift wooden ladder now ran from the lower roof to the top of the shaft. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, while I was working in the darkroom, I suddenly heard Bert Okuley shout, "Van Es, get out here, there's a chopper on that roof!"
I grabbed my camera and the longest lens left in the office - it was only 300 millimeters, but it would have to do - and dashed to the balcony. Looking at the Pittman Apartments, I could see 20 or 30 people on the roof, climbing the ladder to an Air America Huey helicopter. At the top of the ladder stood an American in civilian clothes, pulling people up and shoving them inside.
Of course, there was no possibility that all the people on the roof could get into the helicopter, and it took off with 12 or 14 on board. (The recommended maximum for that model was eight.) Those left on the roof waited for hours, hoping for more helicopters to arrive. To no avail.
After shooting about 10 frames, I went back to the darkroom to process the film and get a print ready for the regular 5 p.m. transmission to Tokyo from Saigon's telegraph office. In those days, pictures were transmitted via radio signals, which at the receiving end were translated back into an image. A 5-inch-by-7-inch black-and-white print with a short caption took 12 minutes to send.
And this is where the confusion began. For the caption, I wrote very clearly that the helicopter was taking evacuees off the roof of a downtown Saigon building. Apparently, editors didn't read captions carefully in those days, and they just took it for granted that it was the embassy roof, since that was the main evacuation site. This mistake has been carried on in the form of incorrect captions for decades. My efforts to correct the misunderstanding were futile, and eventually I gave up. Thus one of the best-known images of the Vietnam War shows something other than what almost everyone thinks it does.
LATER that afternoon, five Vietnamese civilians came into my office looking distraught and afraid. They had been on the Pittman roof when the chopper had landed, but were unable to get a seat. They asked for our help in getting out; they had worked in the offices of the United States Agency for International Development, and were afraid that this connection might harm them when the city fell to the Communists.
One of them had a two-way radio that could connect to the embassy, and Chad Huntley managed to reach somebody there. He asked for a helicopter to land on the roof of our hotel to pick them up, but was told it was impossible. Al Dawson put them up for the night, because by then a curfew was in place; we heard sporadic shooting in the streets, as looters ransacked buildings evacuated by the Americans. All through the night the big Chinooks landed and took off from the embassy, each accompanied by two Cobra gunships in case they took ground fire.
After a restless night, our photo stringers started coming back with film they had shot during the late afternoon of the 29th and that morning - the 30th. Nguyen Van Tam, our radio-photo operator, went back and forth between our bureau and the telegraph office to send the pictures out to the world. I printed the last batch around 11 a.m. and put them in order of importance for him to transmit. The last was a shot of the six-story chancery, next to the embassy, burning after being looted during the night.
About 12:15 Mr. Tam called me and with a trembling voice told me that that North Vietnamese troops were downstairs at the radio office. I told him to keep transmitting until they pulled the plug, which they did some five minutes later. The last photo sent from Saigon showed the burning chancery at the top half of the picture; the lower half were lines of static.
The war was over.
I went out into the streets to photograph the self-proclaimed liberators. We had been assured by the North Vietnamese delegates, who had been giving Saturday morning briefings to the foreign press out at the airport, that their troops had been told to expect foreigners with cameras and not to harm them. But just to make sure they wouldn't take me for an American, I wore, on my camouflage hat, a small plastic Dutch flag printed with the words "Boa Chi Hoa Lan" ("Dutch Press"). The soldiers, most of them quite young, were remarkably friendly and happy to pose for pictures. It was a weird feeling to come face to face with the "enemy," and I imagine that was how they felt too.
I left Saigon on June 1, by plane for Vientiane, Laos, after having been "invited" by the new regime to leave, as were the majority of newspeople of all nationalities who had stayed behind to witness the fall of Saigon.
It was 15 years before I returned. My absence was not for a lack of desire, but for the repeated rejections of my visa applications by an official at the press department of the Foreign Ministry. It turned out that I had a history with this man; he had come to our office about a week after Saigon fell because, as the editor of one of North Vietnam's military publications, he wanted to print in his magazine some pictures we had of the "liberation." I showed him 52 images that we had been unable to send out since April 30, and said he could have them only if he used his influence to make it possible for us first to transmit them to the West. He said that was not possible, so I told him there was no deal.
He obviously had a long memory, and I assume it was only after he retired or died that my actions were forgiven and I was given a visa. I have since returned many times from my home in Hong Kong, including for the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the fall, at which many old Vietnam hands got together and reminisced about the "good old days." Now I am returning for the 30th anniversary reunion. It will be good to be with old comrades and, again, many a glass will be hoisted to the memories of departed friends - both the colleagues who made it out and the Vietnamese we left behind.
Hubert Van Es, a freelance photographer, covered the Vietnam War, the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The pics in this Times' guest OpEd column are from a restricted source, i.e. Bettman Corbis. If you want to see the rest of them, but don't want to register with the Times, use bugmenot.com .
I posted the story for two reasons. I thought some Vietnam Veterans might appreciate the story. Those who would recognize the roof of the embassy would be a relatively small percentage of those who served in South Vietnam. The story also explains how historical errors get propagated, and how hard they are to correct.
I'm sorry if it brings back any bad memories. The story brings back bad memories to me.
From time to time, Ill ping on noteworthy articles about politics, foreign and military affairs. FReepmail me if you want on or off my list.
The day that the passenger capacity of the C130 was proven wrong........
Thanks. It's obvious that the "liberation" of Saigon wasn't welcome by most Vietnamese.
LOL! Yeah, and eight on a slick!
It would do freedom-loving Iraqis well to study this story.
Ya know it's funny that yer moniker is "risk" with regards to this thread. I am of the opinion that polidiots were playing just that game with us as the game pieces.......
Stay safe !!
That point can't be made too strongly for all concerned. Unless feeling threatened from overseas, most Americans could give a flying fart about the rest of the world. International polls want to ascribe all the ills of the world to American capitalism. I think there's a reason why the feeling is mutual.
I'm persuaded that LBJ escalated our involvement in Vietnam because he thought that was required to play "RISK" in Southeast Asia in order to get the "GREAT SOCIETY" passed in Congress. He thought he could parlay with the VC and the commies in North Vietnam. Besides being fooled by those commies, LBJ was unable to appreciate the geographical difference between fighting a war on the Korean Peninsula, and a war in Vietnam with the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" going through Laos and Cambodia.
Check out Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss. Here's a link.
I believe LBJ used the months and years after Nov 22, 1963 to escalate the conflict in Vietnam and to push Civil Rights legislation so Americans wouldn't 'look behind the curtain' to see what was to become the Warren Commission Report.
I knew the Pittman story before, it's detailed in Decent Interval by Frank Snepp. However, nice to have the first-hand account from Van Es himself.
More recently I've spent hours walking around Saigon trying to find the actual building. It's difficult because all the street names have been changed (is Tu Do Street now Dong Khoi aka Rue Catinat?).
Over the years I've searched the Web for hours trying to find a good streetmap of downtown Saigon circa 1975. Anyone know where to get one?
Of equal interest is a period map of the Tan San Nhut area from Tan Binh circle and to the northeast. I think that was all MACV territory during the war.
Apologies are not necessary. To be reminded of those days is a good thing as it may help to prevent a reneactment of it in the future. Well done.
"I'm sorry if it brings back any bad memories. The story brings back bad memories to me."
I had been back for 5 years when Saigon fell. It was a horrible feeling to watch that on tv thinking about all the men who died for no reason whatsoever, and the seeminly wasted year of my life. It was a horrible, horrible feeling. The only thing close to it was watching the Twin Towers collapse, but at least that was a call to arms. I just hope we don't repeat ourselves in the war on terrorism. There is so much more at stake.
I was also there for the evacuation after almost 10 years in country in military and civil service roles. I have always corrected the misnaming of the building as the Embassy. A couple of clarifications: they did broadcast "White Christmas" several times on the American FM station and the Huey in the picture was Air America operated. I don't think the Navy had Huey's; the VNAF did but they weren't officially involved in the evacuation of Americans. The runway at Tan Son Nhut was closed due to enemy shelling on the 27th I believe. We were flying helicopters out of the parking lot of the MACV PX. Also, I don't think we were operating Chinooks during the evacuation; again, the VNAF had some so there were probably a couple in the air but not officially in the evacuation. Finally, the author was correct in his surprise about the lack of shooting and other desperate actions by the Vietnamese we were obviously leaving behind - I recall thousands of people, including many many soldiers in their underwear walking zombie like a daze and drifting silently out of the path of our slow moving bus as we escaped to Tan Son Nhut and the parameter the Marines set up.
As I reflected on my own rememberances of that day, I realized there was no way to do the post justice...
The shame and anger I had for the traitors (the democrat party) that abandoned our comrads was profound. To this day I can not, and will not forgive, or forget what they had done.
Be that as it may, April 30th, 30 years later, and the democrat party still exists. Still is doing it's best to destroy America from within, and the ignorant masses still support it...
For your thoughts and ping list for this anniversary...
Thank you for putting in to words what has been in my heart for over thirty years.
The Vietnam war was the longest in our nation's history.
1st American advisor was killed on June 08, 1956,
and the last casualties in connection with the war occurred on May 15, 1975, during the Mayaquez incident. Approximately 2.7 million Americans served in the war zone; 300,000 were wounded and approximately 75,000 permanently disabled. Officially there are still 1,991 Americans unaccounted for from SE Asia.
Vietnam was a savage, in your face war where death could and did strike from anywhere with absolutely no warning. The brave young men and women who fought that war paid an awful price of blood, pain and suffering. As it is said: "ALL GAVE SOME ... SOME GAVE ALL"
The Vietnam war was not lost on the battlefield. No American force in ANY other conflict fought with more determination or sheer courage than the Vietnam Veteran. For the first time in our history America sent it's young men and women into a war run by inept politicians who had no grasp of military strategies and no moral will to win. They were led by "top brass" who were concerned mainly with furthering their own careers, most neither understood the nature of the war nor had a clue about the impossible mission with which they'd tasked their soldiers. And the war was reported by a self serving Media who penned stories filled with inaccuracies, deliberate omissions, biased presentations and blatant distorted interpretations because they were more interested in a story than the truth! It can be debated that we should never have fought that war. It can also be argued that the young Americans who fought so courageously, never losing a single major battle, helped in a huge way to WIN THE COLD WAR.
"As I reflected on my own rememberances of that day"
That was one of the worst days in my life.
All os had really won the war.
The DC crowd gave in to the likes of Hanoi Kerry and Hanoi Jane
by Col. Bud Day, to HONOR those who served and educate about the VietNam War:
WELCOME HOME VIET NAM VETS event on Veterans Day.
NOT to be confused with this "Welcome Home" in Branson MO in June
"Welcome Home Americas Tribute to Vietnam Veterans will be the homecoming celebration they never received."
How much does the event cost?
The registration fee is $79.95 per person,
$39.95 for teens 13 to 17 and free for kids 12 and under.
Hey, you already know me FRiend.
Fonda? Not so much!
I took the day off from college, and my job. My life long buddy, David, was visiting me, and we sat on the patio of a hilltop house I was renting that overlooked the Marin County towns of Ross, San Anselmo, and Mt. Tamalpais.
We had the TV on watching the horror unfold...David wasn't a vet, but he knew, from our conversations, how I felt about the betrayal, and dishonorable deed we perpetrated on the millions who were about to die that we had left behind.
When the last words came over the tube, and the radio news that Saigon was captured, I screamed/yelled to the valley below with a volley of curses and rants that even I didn't realize had been pent up in my heart...
I didn't draw a sober breath for a week...
Some years back, I attended a Memorial Day Service at a local cemetery. The speaker was a retired Marine, whose name has long escaped me, sad to say.
He recognized veterans by the conflicts they served in, beginning with WWI (of which there were two in attendance). For each group that followed, he had appropriate remarks to make. For WWII, the obligatory comments about saving the world, and rightly so. For Korea, that those men were the first casualties of the cold war.
Then he got to the Vietnam veterans. And those comments I memorized, and know by heart, to this day:
"You men fought two wars. You fought the war of attrition in the free-fire zones of Vietnam. Then you fought the war of scorn, contempt and indifference at home. And to all of you, I say, good job, well done, and welcome home."
Words to live by.
Wish I could remember his name.
Keep up the good work Tonk.
Thanks to your tireless work and the work of other here, I don't have to explain every detail of the war to my daughters. They can simply come here and find it from time to time. They understand Kerry and Fonda -- thanks to you all.
Taken earlier this month, when they towed the America to sea for the last time, so a few things come full circle together...
Welcome Home, Tonk,
Never forget and never forgive. Kerry has to sign the Form 180.
Thank you for the ping!
No...it's not over...until the last traitor (traitors to their Nation...traitors to the Vietnamese who BELIEVED in what we told them about Freedom..self-government...and that we would help them)...has been punished.
Thanks for the ping!
Jonathan Bean, a professor in Illinois is being attacked as a racist for giving his students the optional assignment of reading a FrontPageMag.com article, he was attacked by treasonous Leftist professors, led by Marxist professor Robbie Lieberman, Kay J. Carr, Germaine Etienne, Mary McGuire, Rachel Stocking, and Natasha Zaretsky. University Administrators piled on.
It's obvious to everyone that America is in an education crisis, that's why we need to support David Horowitz in his Academic Bill of Rights campaign.
As Horowitz' explains:
An incident illustrating this problem was related by Representative Gib Armstrong, the sponsor of the Academic Bill of Rights in Pennsylvania. Armstrong referred to a biology class at a campus in the Pennsylvania State University system that was entirely taken up with a showing of Farenheit 9/11, Michael Moores propaganda film against the Bush Administration. The film was shown to students during the presidential election campaign of 2004. The biology professors agenda in showing the film obviously had nothing to do with biology and was clearly political.
Students are a captive and vulnerable audience. They have paid tuition to be taught biology or English literature by professionals credentialed in these fields. These professionals have been given authority and power over students and their academic careers precisely because they themselves have gone through a long and arduous credentialing process that qualifies them as experts in their particular disciplines. Why then should students be subjected to the political prejudices of these same professors who have no particular expertise in the field of politics, particularly since students have not paid their tuition to attend a political lecture?
The soldiers, most of them quite young, were remarkably friendly and happy to pose for pictures. It was a weird feeling to come face to face with the "enemy," and I imagine that was how they felt too.
As I reflected on my own remembrances of that day
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