Iconic Photos: The Fall of Saigon
It was ironic that the picture that symbolized the American defeat in Vietnam was taken by a Dutchman, Hubert van Es. The picture showed chaos and panic among many South Vietnamese who were in the employ of the Americans. They are desperately trying to secure a seat on one of the last American helicopters shuttling between Saigon rooftops and US navy ships off the coast of Vietnam ahead of the arrival of the communist North-Vietnamese troops. The ladder leading up to the roof already has more people on it that can fit on the helicopter. However, the helipad was not, UPI’s Tokyo bureau wrongly attributed, on the roof of the US embassy. It was on the Pittman apartment complex which housed the CIA. The helicopters belonged to Air America, a CIA cover organization.
Van Es was one of the few Western journalists who stayed in Saigon to meet the Vietcong guerrillas and North-Vietnamese regular troops as they conquered the capital of South Vietnam. As Van Es filed his pictures, more and more people gathered to wait for more helicopters to show up. None did. As the enemy entered the city, Van Es himself put on a helmet with the words “Boa Chi Hoa Lan” (Dutch press) on it, hoping this would give him some protection. The young North-Vietnamese soldiers turned out to be quite friendly. Probably they were just as amazed as Van Es to be finally facing the enemy. Van Es himself later escaped the post-war chaos on board a cargo plane.
His one famous picture didn’t make Van Es rich: all the royalties went to UPI, which owned the copyright to his pictures. Van Es died on 16th May 2009.