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.
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.