'Old Hacks' Return to Vietnam
On April 29, 1975, the end of the long and bloody Vietnam War was finally at hand. American helicopters were descending on pick-up sites around Saigon in what would be the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
Hugh Van Es, a Dutch photographer working for United Press International, attached a 300-mm lens to his Nikon, steadied his hand and focused on a CIA-operated Air America Huey loading passengers on a rooftop four blocks away.
His photo, often mistakenly identified as being the roof of the U.S. Embassy, was to become the iconic image of the fall of Saigon. It was a photo that would bring him fame, but only a $150 bonus from UPI which owned the photo.
During his seven years of work in Vietnam, Van Es had photographed hundreds of battles, but he would be remembered most for his shot of the helicopter evacuation.
Five years ago at the 30th anniversary of the war’s end, I joined Hugh Van Es and a small group of veterans and journalists as we re-visited some battle sites that we had survived during the war years.
We climbed Dong Ap Bia, better known as Hamburger Hill, burned Joss sticks and drank half a bottle of Tequila to honor fallen friends. The other half we poured into the dry red clay at the summit of Dong Ap Bia.
In Hanoi, at the National War Museum, one of Hugh’s combat photos had been copied and was on display, but the caption said it showed U.S. troops of the 173rd Airborne as they retreated. Hugh offered to provide a new clear print from his original negative if the Museum would correct the cut line to indicate the paratroopers were “advancing.”
The Museum declined and Van Es refused to provide the clear copy.
“I shot that photo for posterity, for history,” he said. “I’m not going to allow them to distort that history with self-serving propaganda.” He added, “Wounds of war heal slowly. I’ll try again sometime.”
After the Vietnam War, Van Es settled in Hong Kong and applied his photographic skills to many other world hot spots, such as Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Philippines.
When not out covering a war, he could be found perched on a bar stool at the Foreign Correspondents Club with a mug of beer in one hand and a smoking Camel in the other, telling war stories in salty language.
In May 2009, at the age of 67, Van Es suffered a brain hemorrhage and lay unconscious for a week before he died in a Hong Kong hospital. His friend Derek Williams, a CBS sound man during the war, contacted old colleagues on the Internet. Condolences soon rolled in to Hugh’s widow, Annie.
That list of Van Es’s friends morphed into a members-only Google discussion group called “Vietnam Old Hacks” that now numbers 257 members. Anyone can view the group correspondence, but only members can post.
About six to 10 postings appear each day on a wide variety of subjects, but most reflect nostalgia for the Vietnam War years or the are inquiries about old friends: Who’s dead and who is still alive?
The passing of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite touched off weeks of reflections on their lives as well as the experiences that the “Vietnam Old Hacks” had with them.
Sometimes long-forgotten controversies will resurface and tempers will flare. Ex-Associated Press reporter Carl Robinson, an Australian, acts as group mediator and Web master, cautioning members to cool down and watch their language.
This year, the end of April will mark the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the war’s end. To mark the occasion, the Old Hacks are gathering in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this week and then traveling on to Ho Chi Minh City for three days of reunion and of remembrances of some 73 journalist friends who never came home.
Today, Ho Chi Minh City is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and many of the familiar buildings from the war years have been torn down. But some remain.
The Caravelle Hotel, where ABC and CBS News bureaus were located and where a correspondent could film a commentary from the roof with billows of smoke from air strikes in the background, is still in vogue. It will be the center of reunion activity.
For journalists, the Vietnam War provided the greatest battlefield access and the fewest restrictions of any modern conflict. In the wars I’ve covered since – from Central America to Kosovo to the Middle East – I never again experienced access to the battlefield that we had in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War also defined a generation of journalists and marked a golden age for war reporting. Michael Herr, who wrote Dispatches, observed that “instead of happy childhoods we journalists had the Vietnam War.”
Although many of us were only a few years out of childhood when we put ourselves through the often-harrowing experiences of Vietnam, many of us recall those dangerous years in a mostly positive light, as a great professional challenge.
And it sure beat covering City Hall at home.
Now, decades later, the shared experience of covering that war assures us of a lasting membership in one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. This reunion will be a return to the birthplace of so many of our life’s dreams – as well as many of our nightmares.
Don North started covering the Vietnam War as a freelancer in 1965 before becoming a staff correspondent for ABC News. In 1970, he returned to the war zone for NBC News. North also was producer on the television series “The Ten Thousand Day War”and is a frequent contributor to Vietnam Magazine and to Consortiumnews.com.
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