My research indicates that the man reaching out in this photograph is, most likely, Oren Harnage– a Senior Air Operations Officer for the CIA. PEOPLE’s magazine had an article published on April 8, 1985 about Oren Harnage, who played a large role in the evacuation of Saigon which took place April 29, 1975. Harnage’s story helped me to better understand the panic and fear captured in this photograph.
According to this article, the US had withdrawn combat forces in 1973 and aid to the Saigon government had been cut. This is why the US government was so hesitant to send money and troops on Ford’s request because they felt like they had just cut ties two years ago and they did not want to get back involved since the war was basically over. This photograph represents the very end and very final defeat in Vietnam.
The CIA had already started preparing for the evacuation, but plans were sped up due to a North Vietnamese attack on the US base at Tan Son Nhut, April 29th. Harnage actually witnessed the attack from a distance which was the same attack Ken Crouse lost friends to. The CIA used 13 Huey choppers, all which carried over double their passenger recommendations. The helicopters took passengers 15 minutes to Tan Son Nhut where larger helicopters made longer flights to the ships. These “secret” evacuation plans were known by the South Vietnamese who desperately tried to get a spot on a Huey. Harnage had to use a sub-machine gun to try and keep order as a mob of people pushed each other and even shoved babies into his arms. Harnage later realized he probably threw a million dollars worth of gold off the roof because he would not allow anyone to bring more than one small bag.
These Vietnamese feared the Communists very much and I feel that this same fear was once present in America, but prolonging the conflict for a decade caused Americans to become detached from Indochina and this war. In addition, Americans were given reasons to not believe everything the government told them which turned their fear into indifference and gave them a desire to leave Vietnam to the past.
The difference of this fear is that the South Vietnamese had an immediate threat as North Vietnamese troops outside the city could be seen from the helicopters which were within firing range. This oncoming danger gave the South Vietnamese a right to be scared and caused them to fight for a way out of Saigon. One soldier threatened Harnage for a spot on the Huey by pulling a pin from a grenade, but after replying by pointing a sub-machine gun at him, the pin was returned. Harnage even had to physically hit a different man to stop him from pushing his way into the helicopter.
Due to this panic and chaos, Harnage stated that there was no way he could know if the people he was loading onto his helicopter worked for the US or if they were bar girls. Even more chaos was taking place as embassy employees smashed equipment, and the embassy swimming pool was being used as a source of water since other water supplies were cut off.
Like mentioned above, I feel that American citizens were so far removed (physically) from the war, that they had a hard time relating to it, especially since America had been involved for many years without progress. This caused a decline of sympathy and fear of communism resulting in strong feelings against the war. Harnage mostly stayed quiet about his experience in the war and evacuation but once said, “I just feel that nobody in the world has the right to oppress another person’s freedom, and for everybody to have this freedom, somebody’s got to sacrifice for it. If you’ve never been there—if you’ve never seen it—you don’t understand it.”