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April 30, 2019

Last Days in Vietnam: The Story Behind the Iconic Image of the Fall of Saigon in April 1975

Dutch photographer Hugh van Es, who died in 2009 at the age of 67, became famous for his iconic picture of Americans leaving Saigon, on one of the last helicopters out, on 29 April 1975, the day before the city was captured by the North Vietnamese army at the end of the Vietnam war. At the time he was working as a staff photographer for United Press International (UPI).

A member of the CIA helps evacuees up a ladder onto an Air America helicopter on the roof of 22 Gia Long Street on April 29, 1975, shortly before Saigon fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops.

The photograph has usually been assumed to be of the US embassy, but in a newspaper article Van Es wrote: “If you looked north from the office balcony, towards 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 CIA 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 [a UPI staffer who escaped that evening] shout ‘Van Es, get out here, there's a chopper on that roof!’”

Van Es grabbed his camera and dashed to the balcony. “Looking at the Pittman Apartments,” he said, “I could see 20 or 30 people on the roof, climbing the ladder to an American 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 ... Those left on the roof waited for hours, hoping for more helicopters to arrive. To no avail.”

Illustrating the Fall of Saigon, this is the most iconic picture of the evacuation of Saigon and there's no free replacement which captures the event in the same way. (Photograph: Hugh van Es)

After shooting about 10 frames, Van Es went back to the darkroom and prepared a print for his regular 5pm transmission to Tokyo. It took about 12 minutes to send a single print with a caption but, as he laconically put it: “Editors didn’t read captions carefully in those days.” The picture was erroneously described as showing the embassy roof and, after years of trying to put the record straight, the photographer gave up. “Thus,” he said later, “one of the best known images of the Vietnam war shows something other than what almost everyone thinks it does.”

He was born Hubert van Es in Hilversum in the Netherlands and learned his profane and always apparently rudimentary English while hanging out with allied troops at the end of the second world war. He had decided he wanted to become a photographer at the age of 13, after going to a photo exhibition at the local museum which featured the work of the war photographer Robert Capa, who became his lifelong hero.

Van Es began work as a photographer with the Nederlands Fotopersbureau in Amsterdam in 1959. After arriving in Hong Kong as a freelance in 1967, he joined the South China Morning Post as chief photographer, and the following year had a chance to go to Vietnam as a soundman with NBC News. After a brief stint there, he joined the Associated Press staff and was with them in Saigon until 1972, when he transferred to UPI, with whom he spent three years.

The only money he ever made from the famous photograph was a one-off bonus of $150. Proud though he was of the picture, he was even more pleased with the shots he had taken during the battle for Hamburger Hill. Van Es stayed on in Saigon and took pictures of the North Vietnamese, made safer by the Vietnamese words Báo Chí Hà Lan, meaning Dutch Press, which he stuck in his camouflage hat along with a miniature plastic Dutch flag. After Vietnam, he made Hong Kong his base and also covered the Moro rebellion in the Philippines and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.



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