Hugh Van Es, a Dutch photojournalist who covered the Vietnam War, capturing some of the most enduring images of the era, has died. Last week he suffered a brain hemorrhage and never regained consciousness. He died on Friday at the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong. Van Es was 67.
One of his most famous photos is that of the fall of Saigon in 1975, showing evacuees scaling a ladder onto a helicopter from a rooftop. The image, in no subtle way, became a metaphor for the United States’ profound policy failures in Vietnam.
Van Es arrived in Hong Kong as a freelance photographer in 1967, joining the South China Morning Post. After a stretch as a photographer for the Associated Press from 1969 to 1972, he covered the last three years of the Vietnam war for United Press International. His first celebrated photo was of a wounded soldier with a tiny cross gleaming against his dark silhouette taken in May of 1969 during the battle of Hamburger Hill.
But Van Es’ most lasting image was taken on the final day of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam on April 29, 1975. Van Es was in the Saigon UPI bureau offices when he saw a few dozen Americans climbing a ladder trying to board one of the CIA’s own Air American helicopters on a rooftop just a few blocks away at 22 Gia Long Street, which sat about a half a mile from the embassy. From his vantage point on the UPI balcony, Van Es captured the scene with a 300mm lens, the longest one he had. The building in the picture was an apartment that housed C.I.A. officials and families and not Saigon’s American Embassy as has been erroneously believed over the years.