The Real Story Behind the Iconic ‘Fall of Saigon’ Photo

August 17, 2021Lauren Coontz
fall of saigon evacuation

Air America pilots land on the roof of a CIA safe house where the South Vietnamese prime minister and his family awaited evacuation. Refugees on the roof made a makeshift ladder for a last chance of escape from Saigon. Photo by Hubert Van Es, April 29, 1975.

Contrary to popular belief, the photo above does not show the US Embassy building in downtown Saigon.

Rather, the picture shows a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter landing on the roof of a CIA safe house in downtown Saigon at 22 Gia Long Street, April 29, 1975. Dutch photographer Hubert Van Es, who had been on assignment in Vietnam since 1969 for The Associated Press and United Press International, snapped the photo with a 300 mm lens from four blocks away.

South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and his family used the CIA safe house in the famous photo while they awaited evacuation from Saigon before the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong invaded the city. 

Van Es took what has become the most iconic photo captured during the fall of Saigon purely by chance. Along with a handful of other UPI journalists, Van Es worked in a top-floor office of the Peninsula Hotel in downtown Saigon, just four city blocks from where the CIA chief of station — Thomas Polgar — and other senior intelligence officials lived at the time. 

The US Embassy building, seen at center, has a profile very different from that of the Pittman apartments. Both are in downtown Saigon, where Hubert Van Es took his iconic photo. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In a 2005 article for The New York Times, Van Es wrote that everyone knew the evacuation of Saigon was coming. A coded message went out over the radio — the song “White Christmas” and a 105-degree Fahrenheit weather report. Then, at around 2:30 p.m. on April 29, 1975, Van Es captured the shot that came to symbolize the frenetic Saigon evacuation mission, known as Operation Frequent Wind.

“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!’” Van Es later recounted. “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.”

The misidentification of the photo’s location — actually the Pittman apartment building — began almost immediately after it was published.

“For the caption, I wrote very clearly that the helicopter was taking evacuees off the roof of a downtown Saigon building,” Van Es wrote in the Times article. “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.”

Air America — a passenger and cargo airline operated by the CIA — played a crucial role in the evacuation of Saigon. During early planning sessions of Operation Frequent Wind, military officials concluded that downtown Saigon rooftops could not support the full weight of a Chinook helicopter. Thus, the iconic Huey was the only practical option to evacuate key personnel from the city via rooftop extractions. US helicopter pilots — who usually flew in pairs — frequently made solo flights during the Saigon evacuation because of a shortage of qualified personnel. 

The roof of 22 Gia Long Street in downtown Saigon was reinforced a week prior to the evacuation with a steel plate over the elevator shaft so helicopters could land. Van Es was working four blocks away when he took his famous photo. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

O.B. Harnage, the CIA air officer at the US embassy, sent several choppers to evacuate the safe house on Gia Long Street. In an article from HistoryNet, the authors describe the scene Van Es captured from four blocks away.

“UPI photographer Hugh Van Es caught a dramatic shot of Harnage leaning down to help people up the ladder to a helicopter flown by Robert Caron,” the article reads.

Caron, a UH-1 pilot for Air America, was at the controls of the helicopter that landed on the Gia Long Street safe house.

He later recounted his iconic flight that day in 1975: “We were approaching the scene you see in the picture and I see 50 or 60 people lined up and I said to the other pilot, Jack ‘Pogo’ Hunter, and said ‘Pogo, that prime minister sure has a hell of a big family.’ Of course, like anything else, one person told two people who told more people. We made two flights off the rooftop, I had a briefing of some kind, and made a couple more flights and about 5 p.m. I flew out to the ships on the coast.”

Van Es, who died in 2009 at the age of 67, was in Afghanistan for the 1979 Soviet invasion. He took the first photos of Soviet tanks entering the country, marking the start of a decadelong war, the effects of which echo to this day.

The Taliban’s recent conquest of Kabul has drawn widespread comparisons to the 1975 fall of Saigon. Above all, images of US helicopters evacuating US personnel from the embassy in Kabul evoke the iconic image Van Es captured in 1975.

Read Next: The Taliban and the Mujahedeen — A Brief History

Lauren Coontz
Lauren Coontz

Lauren Coontz is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Beaches are preferred, but Lauren calls the Rocky Mountains of Utah home. You can usually find her in an art museum, at an archaeology site, or checking out local nightlife like drag shows and cocktail bars (gin is key). A student of history, Lauren is an Army veteran who worked all over the world and loves to travel to see the old stuff the history books only give a sentence to. She likes medium roast coffee and sometimes, like a sinner, adds sweet cream to it.

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