Iconic Photos from The Vietnam War Revisited
US Evacuation, Saigon (1975)
‘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.’ (Hubert van Es, writing in The New York Times, 2005)
Van Es was a Dutch photojournalist who stayed in Vietnam right through the Fall of Saigon, and took a picture which, perhaps more than any other, came to symbolize the US’s ignominious defeat. And much like the other images in our series, the shot was more a result of ‘right place, right time’ than technique or imagination.
‘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. The enemy was closing in.
I remember looking up to the sky and giving a short prayer. 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.’
‘Operation Frequent Wind’, the American evacuation of US citizens and ‘at-risk’ Vietnamese during the Fall of Saigon, lifted around 7,000 people out of Vietnam in just two days. This was just a small part of the million or so people who fled the country at the end of the war, many by boat.
The building in the image has widely, and falsely, been labelled the US Embassy in Saigon. In fact it was a USAID office, with the top floors hosting operatives of the CIA, including the deputy station chief. Today, it still stands in the same spot, decrepit, but resolute amidst the glittering shopping malls and apartment blocks that surround it.
Van Es returned to Vietnam in 1990, and commented, ‘It [Vietnam] hasn’t really changed since I was last here; but our photos changed the views of those who were lucky enough not to witness this terrible war.’
If he could see the country in 2017, for sure van Es would be startled by the transformation; but these quiet corners that once witnessed the horrors of the ‘American War’ remain, real-life testaments to iconic images.