When the North Vietnamese tank No. 843 broke down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon on April 30 1975 — just hours after the last American helicopters had left — it signaled the end of an era, and that of a long and bitter war. Most Western journalists had been evacuated from South Vietnam at this point, but that defining moment was captured on video and on camera film by two who stayed behind.
The first was made by Neil Davis, an unflappable Australian who waltzed back into his Saigon tailor’s to collect a Safari suit he had ordered before as the North Vietnamese were bearing down on the city. His video of the tank breaking through the gates was first broadcast on an NBC News Special Report: Communist Saigon, only nearly a month later on 26 May 1975. Davis died covering a coup in Thailand, his still-running camera recording his own death.
The photographic record of the moment was made by an equally intrepid figure — Francoise Demulder, who would later become the first woman to win the World Press Photo Award. A student of philosophy (and a model), Ms. Demulder travelled to South Vietnam with her boyfriend in the early 1970s. To cover their travelling expenses, the couple quickly became embedded with the U.S. military, she who had no formal training in photography taking war photos and her boyfriend driving her around, covering the fighting, and dropping off their photos at the AP office. She stayed behind to take the now-famous photo above.
Thus ended the two-decade long conflict in Vietnam; five million tonnes of bombs and 1.7 million tonnes of Agent Orange were dropped over both Vietnams. Alas, peace did not return to the region. Two weeks later, the Khmer Rouge took control in the neighboring Cambodia; by November, Laos too was in the hands of the communists. As for the long suffering Vietnamese (three million of whom perished during the war), there was little respite as their government would soon be involved in two other fratricidal conflicts with China and Cambodia.