In researching freelance photojournalist Hubert Van Es, I learned a lot by reading an article written by him that was posted in the Editorials/Op-Ed of the New York Times in 2005. Hearing his story helped me understand more of what the photograph reflected in the chaotic time of the evacuation.
Van Es explained that the “secret” evacuation code was the comment “the temperature is 105 degrees and rising” and then a few measures of White Christmas over radio tranmissions. Regardless of how conspicuous the code was, everyone was ready to line up to leave because as Van Es said, there were no secrets in Saigon and there had been rumors of the evacuation for weeks.
In one of my previous posts I commented that there were journalists who opted out of the helicopter ride home and stayed behind; Hubert Van Es was one of them. However, he felt like his risk was a lot less than others as the North Vietnamese were told to not hurt foreigners with cameras. He still took precautions by sporting Dutch press attire so they would not mistake him as American.
In regards to the feeling of abandonment by the US’s complete withdraw, Van Es saw and took pictures of many Vietnamese, who had ties to the US, burning paperwork that proved such. South Vietnamese soldiers even ditched their uniforms and weapons. Because the US had “abandoned” South Vietnam, many of South Vietnamese abandoned and detached relations from the US.
This famous and powerful photo was taken by happenstance as one of Van Es’s colleagues shouted to him while he was developing that a helicopter had arrived. Grabbing the best camera he had, Van Es took several photos of the line of people being pulled and shoved into the Huey. Although I have mentioned a lot about the hopeless represented in the picture in past posts, Van Es commented that the people who did not fit inside the helicopter waited on that roof for hours. They hoped for a helicopter that did not come.
Before, I had not mentioned much about how the photograph was mistakenly captioned by editors as the roof of the embassy instead of an apartment complex because I had not seen a lot of importance in this error. However, my opinion changed when Van Es said,
“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.”
After reading The Village as well as a specific letter to the editor of the New York Times, I realized how muddled and blurred the Vietnam War was. The soldiers couldn’t always tell who their enemy was or even where they were hiding. They couldn’t even tell how many enemies they had killed. Officials were unclear what was needed to win the war and they used words like “advisers” and “incursions” to mask reality. The US people didn’t understand our involvement and the government didn’t appear to know the nature of the conflict. This simple mislabel of a photograph represents the lack of clarity, honesty, and information present during this conflict.