The Digital Journalist
Thirty Years at 300 Millimeters

by Hubert Van Es

Published April 29, 2005
Copyright 2005 - The New York Times Company

Photograph by Hubert Van Es/Bettman - Corbis

HONG KONG - 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-16s 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, 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

Hubert Van Es, a freelance photographer, covered the Vietnam War, the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.