The picture that symbolized America’s final defeat in Vietnam was taken by a Dutchman, Hubert van Es. The photo showed chaos and panic among many South Vietnamese who were in the employ of the Americans as they desperately tried to secure a seat on one of the last American helicopters shuttling between Saigon rooftops and the American fleet off the coast of Vietnam. The ladder leading up to the roof already had more people on it that can fit on the helicopter.
By early 1975, the war in Vietnam was already lost. The communist North Vietnamese troops continued to push south, capturing territory and sending thousands of refugees fleeing for safety. The evaculations began. On April 2, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told an internal staff meeting that it was America’s duty “to get the people who believed in us out.” A list of evacuees which included high-ranking officials, translators and others at high risk was put together as well as potential rooftops for helicopter landings. Contractors were sent to remove flagpoles, electricity wires and laundry lines and to build the required infrastructure on these rooftops. Some roofs were reinforced with steel plates so that they could take the weight of a helicopter.
The helipad shown above was not, as UPI’s Tokyo bureau wrongly attributed the roof of the US embassy. It was 22 Gia Long Street at Pittman Apartments, a complex where senior Central Intelligence Agency employees were housed (the complex was later demolished). The helicopters belonged to Air America, a CIA cover organization.
Van Es was in United Press International’s own offices in the penthouse of Saigon’s Peninsula Hotel, about four blocks away. He was processing pictures he took earlier in the day, photos of the evacuation of foreign workers from Saigon. The “secret” code to signal the start of the evacuation had just come on the Armed Forces Radio: “The temperature is rising”, followed by eight bars of White Christmas.
A colleague called out, “Van Es, get out here! There’s a chopper on that roof!” He grabbed his Nikon and the longest lens left in the office (which was only a 300mm lens) and began snapping. He was one of the last Western journalists left in Saigon.
In New York Times, he remembered that fateful day:
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 onboard. (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.
The photo appeared on front pages all over the world but it didn’t make Van Es rich. He was paid a one-time bonus of $150 for the photo, and all the royalties went to UPI, which owned the copyright to his pictures.
Van Es didn’t evacuate with the other foreigners because he wanted to see how the war played out. As a Dutch citizen, he thought he would be largely safe. He remained in Saigon until he was invited by the new regime to leave on June 1, 1975.