Fall of Saigon Lensman Dies

By Robert Harland
Hugh van Es' most famous photograph - the evacuation of  US citizens from Saigon in 1975

Hugh van Es' most famous photograph - the evacuation of US citizens from Saigon in 1975

Hubert Van Es, a Dutch photographer, who captured some of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War, has died in  Hong Kong after suffering a brain haemorrhage. He was 67.

His most famous picture, taken during the fall of Saigon in 1975, showed a group of US citizens scaling a ladder to a CIA helicopter on a rooftop during the city’s evacuation.

As North Vietnamese forces approached Saigon, hundreds of Vietnamese joined Americans fleeing the country, mostly by helicopters from the U.S. Embassy roof.

Hugh van Es in Macau in 1969

Hugh van Es in Macau in 1969

A few blocks away, others climbed a ladder on the roof of an apartment building that housed CIA officials and families, hoping to escape aboard a UH-1 Huey helicopter owned by Air America, the CIA-run airline.

From his vantage point on a balcony at the United Press International (UPI) office nearby, Van Es recorded the scene. The picture became a striking emblem of America’s failure in Vietnam.

According to his widow, Annie Van Es, he earned no royalties from the photograph other than a one-time bonus of $150 from UPI.

2008 photo of Hugh Van Es in Hong Kong

2008 photo of Hugh Van Es in Hong Kong

Van Es was born in Hilversum, in the Netherlands  He was known variously in his working life as ‘Hu’, the Anglicized ‘Hugh’ and the nickname ‘Vanes’.

He arrived in Hong Kong in 1967 and worked first as a freelancer and then moved to the colony’s South China Morning Post as chief photographer. He joined the Associated Press photo staff in Saigon in 1969 and covered the last three years of the war from 1972-75 for UPI.

He returned to Hong Kong after the war, and lived there for the rest of his life while photographing news events across Asia.

He covered the Moro rebellion in the Philippines and was among the journalists who flew into Kabul to cover the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Having evaded efforts to make him join an airlift out of Kabul, and arrest by Afghan police, Van Es was one of the first to photograph the invasion of Soviet tanks.

He was a stalwart of Hong Kong’s famous Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC). Sadly, I saw him at the FCC bar only a month ago.

He was regarded by colleagues to be fearless and resourceful. “He will always be remembered as one of the great witnesses of one of the enormous dramas in the second half of the 20th century,” said Ernst Herb, president of the FCC.

“He really captured the spirit of foreign reporting. He was quite an inspiration.”