HUBERT VAN ES, 67

Obituary: Hubert Van Es, 67, Dutch Photojournalist Shot Famous Vietnam Picture

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By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hubert Van Es, 67, a Dutch photojournalist who captured one of the most memorable but widely mischaracterized images of the Vietnam War, a U.S. helicopter taking on evacuees from a rooftop in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in on the South Vietnamese capital, died May 15 in Hong Kong of a brain hemorrhage.

Mr. Van Es was working for United Press International when he took the picture April 29, 1975. The next day, the communist forces captured Saigon, ending the Vietnam War and dealing the United States a humiliating defeat. The image taken by Mr. Van Es endured as a symbol of the desperate U.S. evacuation and the broader American debacle in Vietnam.

Because of an editor's error, the photo's caption said the helicopter was evacuating people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. The Air America UH-1 Huey chopper was actually perched atop a downtown apartment building where the CIA station chief and many of his officers lived, and when the overloaded craft took off, it left behind many distraught Vietnamese employees of U.S. government agencies.

Mr. Van Es said later that he tried for years to correct the record but that erroneous captions persisted for decades, and he eventually gave up.

"Thus one of the best-known images of the Vietnam War shows something other than what almost everyone thinks it does," he wrote in the New York Times in 2005 on the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Yet, he said, it was somehow fitting that, as with so many other things about the war, the photo was not exactly what it seemed.

Called "Hugh" by his friends and known for his gravelly voice and salty language -- it was said that he learned to swear so colorfully in English from hanging out with American GIs in Vietnam -- Mr. Van Es lived in Hong Kong for more than three decades after the end of the Vietnam War. He was a fixture at the bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club and served for many years on the club's board, becoming its institutional memory and one of the longest-standing active members.

Born in Hilversum, the Netherlands, on July 6, 1941, Mr. Van Es came of age in the aftermath of World War II and drew inspiration from combat photographer Robert Capa, who died in Vietnam in 1954. He once said he decided to become a photographer after seeing Capa's work on display in a photo exhibit in a Dutch museum. After college, he went to work in 1959 for a Dutch photo agency in Amsterdam, then headed to Hong Kong in 1967 as a freelancer.

He arrived in Vietnam the next year to work as a soundman for NBC News, then joined the Associated Press as a photographer based in Saigon in 1969. He worked for UPI in Saigon from 1972 to 1975 and chose to stay behind when a number of journalists joined the American evacuation from South Vietnam in late April 1975.

Returning to Hong Kong after the war, Mr. Van Es shot photos for U.S. and European newspapers and magazines. Among other events, he covered the Muslim rebellion in the southern Philippines and documented the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- after slipping out of the Kabul airport terminal and briefly eluding Afghan police.

Although he was best known for his photo of the helicopter on the Saigon rooftop, Mr. Van Es was proudest of his combat photography from the May 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, a mountain overlooking the A Shau Valley. One poignant photo shows a wounded U.S. soldier being supported by two comrades, a gleaming cross hanging from his neck.

According to his widow, Annie Van Es, Mr. Van Es earned no royalties from the helicopter evacuation photo apart from a one-time bonus of $150 from UPI.

"Even after seeing his picture used tens of thousands of times, year after year, the lack of any reward NEVER bothered him," she wrote in an e-mail to friends. "He only felt lucky that he was there, in the right place at the right time. . . . He was proud of the picture and the importance it had [attained] in history but . . . he was never one to sing his own praise."

Annie Van Es also disputed news reports that her husband felt "ripped off" by the use of his evacuation image in the hit musical "Miss Saigon." In fact, she said, he relished taking her to see the show and meeting the cast and the producer backstage. "The producer told Hugh he wished he had never taken that picture because it was extremely difficult to build the prop" and to reenact the scene in a musical, she wrote.

In addition to his wife of nearly 40 years, whom he met in Hong Kong, Mr. Van Es is survived by a sister in the Netherlands.


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