The fall of Saigon: ‘Nobody wanted to be left behind’

The panic and distress of the final days of the Vietnam War were captured in a single photograph. Forty-five years later, Mick O’Hare revisits a tumultuous time in world history

Wednesday 29 April 2020 00:01
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Hubert van Es’ photograph depicting the evacuation of Saigon
Hubert van Es’ photograph depicting the evacuation of Saigon

Think of the fall of Saigon, and think of that photograph. The one of people scrambling to the tower atop the United States embassy, desperate to clamber aboard the helicopter perched there as North Vietnamese troops close in on the city. Except, of course, it wasn’t the US embassy, it wasn’t a military helicopter and they weren’t US personnel. But as an image that defines the desperate life-or-death scramble to depart the encircled city following the defeat of the United States and South Vietnam after 20 years of war, it still resonates today.

The photograph was taken 45 years ago today by Hubert van Es, a Dutch photojournalist working for United Press International. The following day Saigon was overrun and the Vietnam War was over. Panic had defined those final days and news reports had emerged of the wretched crush outside the US embassy. The CIA had been scouting rooftops for potential helicopter escape routes and the embassy was indeed selected. Which is probably how the myth grew that the photo was of embassy staff and Vietnamese refugees scrambling their way towards safety. But other sites were pickup points too and Van Es was close by an apartment block at 22 Gia Long Street. Somebody shouted to him that there was a helicopter on top of the apartment building and a snaking line of people climbing their way towards it. The Dutchman began to take photographs.

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