“Hubert Van Es, a Dutch photojournalist working at the office of United Press International, took this photo on April 29, 1975, of a CIA employee helping evacuees onto an Air America helicopter that has become one of the best known images of the US evacuations from Vietnam.” UPI caption
Four consecutive shots from Van Es camera
While the name of the “CIA employee” was always known as O.B. Harnage, the identification of the two pilots in the Air America chopper has been a matter of conjecture.
The long time authority on all things Air America was the late Dr. Bill Leary, E. Merton Coulter Professor of History at the University of Georgia. In addition to writing the definitive book on Civil Air Transport, Air America’s predecessor, Leary authored several articles and gave numerous lectures on Air America activities.
As I was researching my Last Man Out book in the fall of 1993, I spoke with Leary at length at his home in Athens, Georgia, and the subject of the two pilots in that famous photo came up. He said from all he could gather, the captain was probably Bob Coran… but he just didn’t have enough proof to say it with absolutely certainty. [Coran, Leary may have reminded me, had graduated West Point.]
In the spring of 2015 in preparing to deliver a talk to an Air America assemblage, I revisited this mystery and wrote to an old trusted acquaintance, Alan Dawson, a UPI reporter who covered the war at the end.
This is his response:
“That may be the most heavily researched flight since (and including) the Wright brothers.
Hugh Van Es, the photographer, was a good friend (he died in 2009 in Hong Kong) and was working for me and we were together in the UPI office when he took that shot out the front window. Years in Vietnam, wounded multiple times and the photo that is his legacy was so easy for him.
He did a piece for the NY Times on the pic (not the flight), and wrote:
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 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.”
I wrote the following back to Alan: “That’s good stuff… seems to me there was a lot of speculation on who was driving that helicopter when the famous picture was snapped. Who you think – or who did Van Es think was flying that helicopter?”
Here’s his response:
“Of course everyone who flew for Air America that day wanted the picture to be him… this is what I have.
The guy helping people from the ladder to the helicopter is O.B. Harnage, a CIA employee you may have known?
The airplane in the photo is N47004. The specific mission given to the commander was to pick up a certain high-level Vietnamese agent and family. Harnage was in charge of that.
The pilot, pretty well everyone now agrees, was Robert “Bob” Caron. I found a book with some details on that, easily seen, thanks to Google.
And I now remember that People magazine of all sources had the original story that tracked down Caron and details, and here it is. Just two paragraphs on the details.
An anecdote on Caron: search for his name on this page
And a follow-up from CNN last week says:
At about 2:30 p.m., 41-year-old Caron unintentionally starred in one of the most famous photographs of the Vietnam War. It happened because CIA air officer Oren “O.B.” Harnage asked Caron and co-pilot Jack “Pogo” Hunter to pick up “the deputy prime minister and his family.”
United Press International’s Hugh van Es photographed Caron and Hunter’s chopper perched atop Saigon’s Pittman Building, about a half-mile from the embassy. In the picture, Harnage is seen standing on the roof, helping evacuees climb a ladder to get on board. The iconic photograph has come to symbolize the chaos and desperation of that day.
“I remember looking out there at the people coming up the ladder,” Caron told CNN. “And I turned to Pogo and said, ‘I tell you what, this prime minister has a pretty damned big family!’ It was 50 people. As you can imagine, as word spread, everyone they knew suddenly became ‘family.’ “
AAm pilot Izzy Freedman (L), UPI photographer Hubert Van Es (C) and AAm pilot Bob Coran (R) at Izzy’s bar on Pat Pong II in 2002.
So taken all together, I’m convinced the pilot was Bob Coran. Anyone got any persuasive evidence to the contrary, pls let me know.
So sayeth the Mule