discarding their uniforms and weapons along the streets leading to the Saigon River,
where they hoped to get on boats to the coast. I saw a group of young boys, barely in
their teens, picking up M-16's abandoned on Tu Do Street. It's amazing I didn't see any
Returning to the office, which was on the top floor of the rather grandly named
Peninsula Hotel, I started processing, editing and printing my pictures from that
morning, as well as the film from our stringers. Our regular darkroom technician had
decided to return to the family farm in the countryside. Two more U.P.I. staffers, Bert
Okuley and Ken Englade, were still at the bureau. They had decided to skip the morning
evacuation and try their luck in the early evening at the United States Embassy, where
big Chinook helicopters were lifting evacuees off the roof to waiting Navy ships off the
coast. (Both made it out that evening.)
If you looked north from the office balcony, toward the cathedral, about four blocks
from us, on the corner of Tu Do and Gia Long, you could see a building called the
|Christine Walker's Detailed Analysis
|If you have a picture you'd like us to feature a picture in a future quiz, please
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|If you enjoy our quizzes, don't forget to order our books!
1. The ladder used to evacuate people from
the roof of the Pittman Apartments in Saigon April 30, 1975.
2. The Gerald Ford Museum, Grand Rapids, MI.
3. Dutch photographer Hubert Van Es
|Answers to Quiz #361
July 22, 2012
|1. What role did this staircase have in American history?
2. Where is this exhibit located?
Bonus: Who took "the" famous picture that includes the staircase?
|Submitted by Sally Garrison.
|Congratulations to Our Winners!
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|MGySgt John J. Valdez
Staff Non Commission Officer in charge
American Embassy, Saigon, R. South Vietnam
Last off the roof of the embassy during the Fall of Saigon
President - Fall of Saigon Marines Association
This article was in Leatherneck Magazine in May 1975.
|I was transferred to Saigon in September
1974. I stayed there until April 30, 1975,
when the evacuation took place. I am single,
37 years old, six feet tall and weigh about 190
pounds. I am from San Antonio, Texas, and I
enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 1955.
I served a tour in Vietnam from August 1965
to September 1967 with "Bravo Company,
THIRTY years ago I was fortunate enough to take a
photograph that has become perhaps the most
recognizable image of the fall of Saigon - you know
it, the one that is always described as showing an
American helicopter evacuating people from the roof
of the United States Embassy. Well, like so many
things about the Vietnam War, it's not exactly what it
seems. In fact, the photo is not of the embassy at all;
the helicopter was actually on the roof of an
apartment building in downtown Saigon where senior
Central Intelligence Agency employees were housed.
It was Tuesday, April 29, 1975. Rumors about the
final evacuation of Saigon had been rife for weeks,
with thousands of people - American civilians,
Vietnamese citizens and third-country nationals -
being loaded on transport planes at Tan Son Nhut air
base, to be flown to United States bases on Guam,
Okinawa and elsewhere. Everybody knew that the
city was surrounded by the North Vietnamese, and
that it was only a matter of time before they would
take it. Around 11 a.m. the call came from Brian Ellis,
the bureau chief of CBS News, who was in charge of
coordinating the evacuation of the foreign press
corps. It was on!
The assembly point was on Gia Long Street, opposite
the Grall Hospital, where buses would pick up those
wanting to leave. The evacuation was supposed to
have been announced by a "secret" code on Armed
Forces Radio: the comment that "the temperature is
105 degrees and rising," followed by eight bars of
"White Christmas." Don't even ask what idiot
|Comments from Our Readers
|At first I thought it was from Operation Babylift, but pictures showed no stairs, so I
Googled Evacuation of Saigon. (My ex was involved in the baby lift one on the arrival
side.). [It's located] About 6 blocks from my house.
The Grand Rapids Historical Society meets in their auditorium, so yes, about 6 times a
year. I've only been through the exhibits upstairs once, however, on a free museum
This link tells the story, and also the story of Mr. Harnage who subsequently won a
CIA medal for his bravery that day. He is the man at the top of the stairs, helping people
up. This is a link with all the details: www.mishalov.com/Vietnam_finalescape.html
This one didn't take long: helicopters and staircases are not common companions;
however, it wasn't quite a one-shot wonder. A reminder of a grim time, of which there
is no shortage in our world.
After many years of riding in a Huey I would hope I could recognize it immediately,
which of course brought that picture of the embassy clearly into mind.
Wow, I instantly recognized this staircase and helicopter, as I am sure anyone who
remembers this era does, too.
I had had a look earlier in the week then forgot to do further research - I guessed
Iroquois and Fall of Saigon and even the escape steps. Then did that final research this
afternoon over a short space of time. One of my links gives that correct association!
I too believed it was a rescue by the USAF or USMC from the US Embassy. I can
recall the fall of Saigon as I was responsible for a special project with PMG which was
about to become Telstra and Australia Post. We were involved in providing
telecommunications aid to a site, perhaps a High School in South Vietnam at the time. I
had previously co-ordinated similar aid to Yong San High School in South Korea.
An Iroquois helicopter of the RAAF sits atop the Returned Services League Club in
Dandenong, an area in Victoria with a large South Vietnamese population. I think the
latest Catholic auxiliary Bishop of the Melbourne Archdiocese is Vietnamese.
I never remember seeing this picture or even hearing this story before, but it was really
interesting and I love the fact that they saved the staircase. Initially, I thought it
pertained somehow to space travel but that search got me nowhere - so I plugged in
"helicopter + staircase" and got a similar staircase image so I knew I had the right entry.
Very cool - have a great day!
If it was April 75, I was deep in study for prelims at MSU. That might explain why
this isn't embedded in my mind very well. It was tumulteous times. I remember
watching the Nixon resignation at a faculty gathering of students in my program. We
were all stunned.
I'll go with Hugh for my final answer. He should have gotten more money for that shot.
I had just had a baby on April 1st and remember watching it on TV. I wanted to adopt
a baby from the baby lift too. My husband asked if we could just have one at a time?
How interesting re the location from where the photo was taken. It does not surprise
me that the roof had to be reinforced for the helicopter as it does not look intended as a
I remember listening to news of the Fall of Saigon on the radio while my husband and I
making the 800-mile drive from the sheep property we managed in western Queensland
to Maroochydore (north of Brisbane) following a phone call re the sudden and
unexpected death of my father-in-law. Cheers,
|Marcelle Comeau and Christine Walker Comment
dreamed this up. There were no secrets in Saigon in those days, and every Vietnamese
and his dog knew the code. In the end, I think, they scrapped the idea. I certainly have
no recollection of hearing it.
The journalists who had decided to leave went to the assembly point, each carrying
only a small carry-on bag, as instructed. But the Vietnamese seeing this exodus were
quick to figure out what was happening, and dozens showed up to try to board the
buses. It took quite a while for the vehicles to show - they were being driven by fully
armed marines, who were not very familiar with Saigon streets - and then some
scuffles broke out, as the marines had been told to let only the press on board. We did
manage to sneak in some Vietnamese civilians, and the buses headed for the airport.
I wasn't on them. I had decided, along with several colleagues at United Press
International, to stay as long as possible. As a Dutch citizen, I was probably taking less
of a risk than the others. They included our bureau chief, Al Dawson; Paul Vogle, a
terrific reporter who spoke fluent Vietnamese; Leon Daniel, an affable Southerner; and
a freelancer working for U.P.I. named Chad Huntley. I was the only photographer left,
but luckily we had a bunch of Vietnamese stringers, who kept bringing in pictures from
all over the city. These guys were remarkable. They had turned down all offers to be
|The only way I can explain is.... one thing just leads to another and pretty
soon, its the history of April 29th, 1975 in Saigon!
OK! Some really cool links first:
The Last Men Out | Vietnam War | Command Posts
Picture and story of the last man out of the Embassy, Sgt. Valdez.
This is very nice .pdf on Air America from the CIA with a retro look.
Designed. Who knew.
Actual pilot reports
A VIDEO!!!! of the 204B helicopter landing on the roof of the Pittman on
April 29, 1975.
An absolutely wonderful archive of pictures from the VietNam era. Stuff I
never saw before, so I included it. Of course.
Links to sites about the US Helicopter pilots in VietNam. They were amazing
and arguably the best ever.
So the answer is: The last man from the Embassy in Saigon was Sgt. John J.
Valdez, a Marine non-comm. The last officer was Major Keane, who left
before Sgt. Valdez.
There were two helicopters landing at the Pittman on April 29th. One was a
Bell 205-N47004 and the other was a Bell 204B. The 205 was piloted by Bob
Caron and co-piloted by Jack (Pogo) Hunter, it was shown in the still photo
taken by Hubert van Ess. Less is known about the 204B, but is shown in the
video listed above.
Both were Air America copters and therefore non-military. Air America was a
"branch" of the CIA and their motto was "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime,
Professionally". OB Harnage was a CIA employee and he co-ordinated the lift
from the Pittman. Most of people from the Pittman were Vietnamese CIA
employees, however two high level Vietnamese officials, General Tran Van
Don and the head of the secret police, Tran Kim Tuyen were also air lifted
from there. There is no data that I can find about who was the last person off
of the Pittman, but because of OB Harnage pulling people into the 'copters and
then riding on the landing skids (or whatever they are called) after they loaded,
I think he would be a good candidate for the title.
The photo that Hubert Van Es took was
of the evacuation from the Pittman
Apartments (a CIA building where the
CIA station chief and many of his officers
lived); the location has been continuously
erroneously described as the U.S.
So, I don't know who took the photo of
the METAL staircase on display at the
Gerald Ford Museum (from the U.S.
Embassy evacuation) but it is Hubert van
Es who took the very famous photo of
the makeshift wooden ladder at the
evacuation at the Pittman Building.
I wasn't just saying the picture of the
Pittman has been circulated in error, I
think that the staircase is wrong. The
Ford museum has the wrong staircase, or
a wrongly labeled one anyway. [See] the
Embassy picture and their staircases,
actually ladders [to the left]. The Ford
Museum has the staircase from the
Pittman, or its twin.
evacuated and decided to see the
end of the war that had overturned
On the way back from the
evacuation point, where I had
gotten some great shots of a
marine confronting a Vietnamese
mother and her little boy, I
photographed many panicking
Vietnamese in the streets burning
papers that could identify them as
having had ties to the United States.
South Vietnamese soldiers were
|Climbing over the walls of the US Embassy
trying to escape the fall of Saigon
on 30 April 1975.
|3rd Amracs. That's what my MOS is, 1833. We were attached to
2/4. I was a platoon sergeant. I extended for a year and half over
The battalion (Marine Security Guard or MSG Battalion) was getting
away from having officers on post. That's the reason I went to
Saigon to relieve an officer.
During the last two weeks before the evacuation, it appeared that the
big exodus was on and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army
would settle for nothing short of unconditional surrender. About the
23rd of April, the Bien Hoa detachment from the American Consulate
there evacuated and joined us. There were five or six in the
Da Nang had folded up first. That was about six Marines. With those
Marines and my own from Saigon we had 45 men. Major James
Kean, our company commander, came in out of Hong Kong. He had
requested to come in to see if he could help us with anything.
Things were bad. The embassy processing section suddenly realized
there had been a serious miscalculation of American figures, which
up to this time had been based on 7,000 Americans to be evacuated.
It now seemed virtually impossible to estimate how many Americans
were living in Saigon and nearby Bein Hoa.
Americans trying to flee found themselves unable to get exit visas and
clearances for their wives and children unless they were willing to
pay bribes to Vietnamese officials, often running as high as $1,500. A
Vietnamese marriage certificate which, only a few months before,
had cost no more than $20, now cost up to $2,000.
Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, friends and
acquaintances worked their way into crowded lines to apply for or to
obtain visas outnumbered the Americans. Despite the efforts of local
|police and consulate staff to turn back
all Vietnamese at the gates who were
lacking proper papers, many slipped
into the embassy compound.
MSGs (Marines of the Security Guard)
had to be posted on all four entrances
and exits, including the consulate ate.
Crowds gathered outside daily and
Saigon police would begin breaking
them up by mid-day. A mood of panic
and a sense of fear of being left behind
began to develop during the last week.
Pittman Apartments, where we knew the
C.I.A. station chief and many of his
officers lived. Several weeks earlier the
roof of the elevator shaft had been
reinforced with steel plate so that it would
be able to take the weight of a helicopter.
A makeshift wooden ladder now ran from
the lower roof to the top of the shaft.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, while I was
working in the darkroom, I suddenly
heard Bert Okuley shout, "Van Es, get out
here, there's a chopper on that roof!"
I grabbed my camera and the longest lens
left in the office - it was only 300
millimeters, but it would have to do - and
dashed to the balcony. Looking at the Pittman Apartments, I could see 20 or 30 people
on the roof, climbing the ladder to an Air America Huey helicopter. At the top of the
ladder stood an American in civilian clothes, pulling people up and shoving them inside.
Of course, there was no possibility that all the people on the roof could get into the
helicopter, and it took off with 12 or 14 on board. (The recommended maximum for
that model was eight.) Those left on the roof waited for hours, hoping for more
helicopters to arrive. To no avail.
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.
LATER that afternoon, five Vietnamese civilians came into my office looking distraught
and afraid. They had been on the Pittman roof when the chopper had landed, but were
unable to get a seat. They asked for our
help in getting out; they had worked in the
offices of the United States Agency for
International Development, and were
afraid that this connection might harm
them when the city fell to the Communists.
One of them had a two-way radio that
could connect to the embassy, and Chad
Huntley managed to reach somebody
there. He asked for a helicopter to land on
the roof of our hotel to pick them up, but
was told it was impossible. Al Dawson
put them up for the night, because by then
a curfew was in place; we heard sporadic shooting in the streets, as looters ransacked
buildings evacuated by the Americans. All through the night the big Chinooks landed
and took off from the embassy, each accompanied by two Cobra gunships in case they
took ground fire.
After a restless night, our photo stringers started coming back with film they had shot
during the late afternoon of the 29th and that morning - the 30th. Nguyen Van Tam, our
radio-photo operator, went back and forth between our bureau and the telegraph office
to send the pictures out to the world. I printed the last batch around 11 a.m. and put
them in order of importance for him to transmit. The last was a shot of the six-story
chancery, next to the embassy, burning after being looted during the night.
About 12:15 Mr. Tam called me and with a trembling voice told me that that North
Vietnamese troops were downstairs at the radio office. I told him to keep transmitting
until they pulled the plug, which they did some five minutes later. The last photo sent
from Saigon showed the burning chancery at the top half of the picture; the lower half
were lines of static.
The war was over.
I went out into the streets to photograph the self-proclaimed liberators. We had been
assured by the North Vietnamese delegates, who had been giving Saturday morning
briefings to the foreign press out at the airport, that their troops had been told to expect
foreigners with cameras and not
to harm them. But just to make
sure they wouldn't take me for an
American, I wore, on my
camouflage hat, a small plastic
Dutch flag printed with the words
"Boa Chi Hoa Lan" ("Dutch
Press"). The soldiers, most of
them quite young, were
remarkably friendly and happy to
pose for pictures. It was a weird
feeling to come face to face with
the "enemy," and I imagine that
was how they felt too.
I left Saigon on June 1, by plane
for Vientiane, Laos, after having
been "invited" by the new regime
to leave, as were the majority of
newspeople of all nationalities
who had stayed behind to witness
the fall of Saigon.
It was 15 years before I returned. My absence was not for a lack of desire, but for the
repeated rejections of my visa applications by an official at the press department of the
Foreign Ministry. It turned out that I had a history with this man; he had come to our
office about a week after Saigon fell because, as the editor of one of North Vietnam's
military publications, he wanted to print in his magazine some pictures we had of the
"liberation." I showed him 52 images that we had been unable to send out since April
30, and said he could have them only if he used his influence to make it possible for us
first to transmit them to the West. He said that was not possible, so I told him there
was no deal.
He obviously had a long memory, and I assume it was
only after he retired or died that my actions were
forgiven and I was given a visa. I have since returned
many times from my home in Hong Kong, including for
the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the fall, at which
many old Vietnam hands got together and reminisced
about the "good old days." Now I am returning for the
30th anniversary reunion. It will be good to be with old
comrades and, again, many a glass will be hoisted to
the memories of departed friends - both the colleagues
who made it out and the Vietnamese we left behind.
Hubert Van Es, a freelance photographer, covered the
Vietnam War, the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines and
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.