Hugh Van Es, the photographer who took the iconic “helicopters on the roof” photo of the fall of Saigon, has died at 67:
[Van Es’s] shot of the helicopter escape from a Saigon rooftop on April 29, 1975 became a stunning metaphor for the desperate U.S. withdrawal and its overall policy failure in Vietnam.
As North Vietnamese forces neared the city, upwards of 1,000 Vietnamese joined American military and civilians fleeing the country, mostly by helicopters from the U.S. Embassy roof.
A few blocks distant, others climbed a ladder on the roof of an apartment building that housed CIA officials and families, hoping to escape aboard a helicopter owned by Air America, the CIA-run airline.
From his vantage point on a balcony at the UPI bureau several blocks away, Van Es recorded the scene with a 300-mm lens—the longest one he had.
Van Es spent a great deal of time attempting (usually in vain) to correct the popular notion that his photo was of the US Embassy roof, where the bulk of the evacuations took place. Here’s his photo:
I’ve written several pieces about the fall of Vietnam and the meaning this and similar photos have taken on in the aftermath (see these posts). But today I’d like to reprise one of them, which describes the real story of the evacuations at the end of the war.
A view of that famous day in 1975, from eyewitness Col. Harry G. Summers, appears here, (see pages four through six). Col. Summers paints a vivid and detailed picture of the Herculean but ultimately unsuccessful efforts of the military to make sure everyone at the embassy was evacuated, as they had been promised.
One seldom-remembered fact is that the evacuation had been ongoing for several weeks, beginning with fixed-wing flights that had to be creatively managed because (in another seldom-remembered fact), the South Vietnamese government had barred its officials and its military personnel from leaving.
Even so, there was no way all those who wanted to go could be evacuated in time. But on that fateful day on the Embassy roof, Summers relates that all of those who had gathered there to be airlifted could have successfully escaped, and the majority there did. Of thousands who had already been helicoptered out from the Embassy alone on that single day and night, “only” 420 were left behind. Summers describes some of them:
America had not only fecklessly abandoned its erstwhile ally in its time of most desperate need but also had shamefully abandoned the last several hundred of those evacuees who had trusted America to the very end. Included were the local firemen who had refused earlier evacuated so as to be on hand if one of the evacuation helicopters crashed into the landing zone in the embassy courtyard; a German priest with a number of Vietnamese orphans; and members of the Republic of Korea (ROK) embassy, including several ROK Central Intelligence Agency officers who chose to remain to the end to allow civilians to be evacuated ahead of them and who would later be executed in cold blood by the North Vietnamese invaders.
After calming the panicky crowds by speaking in Vietnamese to them, clearing a landing area so that the choppers could do their work (it was impossible to evacuate the people by any other vehicle, since the streets of Saigon had become virtually impassible with the enormous crowds), why were the Marines forced to abandon some of their allies who had gathered at the Embassy?
The worst of it was that it was all unintentional, the result of a breakdown in communication between those on the ground running the embassy evacuation, those offshore with the fleet controlling the helicopters, and those in Honolulu and Washington who were making the final decisions. In short, it was the Vietnam War all over again.
As Summers tells it, there were only six planeloads left, and the Marines were determined to airlift them. But then the order came:
At 4:15 a.m. Colonel Madison informed Wolfgang Lehmann that only six lifts remained to complete the evacuation. Lehmann told him no more helicopters would be coming. But Colonel Madison would have none of it. We had given our word.
Madison and his men would be on the final lift after all the evacuees under our care had been flown to safety. Lehmann relented and said the helicopters would be provided. That message was later reaffirmed by Brunson McKinley, the ambassador’s personal assistant. But McKinley was lying. Even as he reassured us, he knew the lift had been canceled, and he soon fled, along with the ambassador and Lehmann, his DCM.
Apparently, the helicopter squadron commander back at the fleet had given the command to cease. But it was a misunderstanding; in Summers’s words, the commander had “believed they were dealing with a bottomless pit, and no one realized they were but six lifts from success.”
But it was too late now; the evacuation was over, and the images remain. And although it’s true that more of these people were successfully rescued that day than is commonly believed, it’s also true that they only represented a tiny fraction of those who wanted to leave but could not. The vast numbers of boat people who tried to follow later proved that, only too well.