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 had more people on it that can fit on the helicopter.
The helipad was not, as UPI’s Tokyo bureau wrongly attributed and many today ‘know’, on the roof of the US embassy. It was on an apartment complex which housed the CIA. The helicopters belonged to Air America, a CIA cover organization. Van Es was in United Press International’s own offices across town when he spotted the evacuation and took photos with his long-distance lens; he was one of the last Western journalists to stay behind in Saigon; As he filed his pictures, more and more people gathered to wait for more helicopters to show up. None did. On an informative New York Times editorial, he remembered that fateful day:
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.
This picture didn’t make Van Es rich either. All the royalties went to UPI, which owned the copyright to his pictures. Van Es died on 16th May 2009.