By Ralph Ellis
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. Wed April 28,2010
It is the most searing image from the fall of Saigon 35 years ago: a line of South Vietnamese clamoring up a ladder to reach a U.S. helicopter perched atop an apartment building elevator shaft.
Those who board leave behind their homes and families for destinations unknown. Those who don't face death or concentration camps.
Though the faces are too small to be identified, Dr. Tong Huynh recognizes himself as the second figure from the top of that ladder on April 29, 1975.
Just ahead of him, reaching for the hand of a man believed to be a CIA employee, is his friend Thiet-Tan Nguyen, he says. The tiny head next to Huynh is a teenage girl named Tuyet-Dong Bui, who he held as she struggled against the powerful wash of the chopper's blades.
"Every April 29th I remember that day almost every minute," Huynh said.
Now 69 with a family medical practice, he keeps a framed photo of the rooftop evacuation scene in the den of his suburban Atlanta home.
Shot by UPI staffer Hubert van Es, it's an enduring image of the Vietnam War and it inspired the closing scene of the musical "Miss Saigon."
"That was the day we lost our country," Huynh said. "It's not a joyous day. It's a painful day. We relive a little bit of our pain."
Memories spill out when Huynh talks about his last day in Saigon, the city where he grew up.
"The armed forces guys have a hard time forgetting," said Huynh, who was a captain in the South Vietnamese army. "No old soldier wants to lose a war."
With the North Vietnamese advancing, he had put his wife, sister and mother on a plane days earlier. Chaos filled the streets. His army commander told him, "If you have a chance to go, don't stay around."
With several friends and his father, he searched for a way to escape with no success. Crowds outside the U.S. Embassy were so thick they couldn't get inside. Another friend, a general's son, said he knew a spot where a helicopter would arrive. That connection would save his life.
"My father was so tired," Huynh said. "He said, 'You go.' We embraced and I said goodbye to him. I said, 'If I succeed, you won't see me anymore.'"
His father spent seven years in a concentration camp but later made it to the U.S., where he died.
Huynh and his friends drove to an apartment house on Gia Long Street, where CIA officials were housed. (One major misconception is that the photo was taken at the U.S. Embassy.) They climbed seven or eight flights of stairs and waited on the roof in the late afternoon heat.
"By the time I got to the top of the stairs I was so exhausted," said Bui, the girl in the photo with Huynh. She remembers the people on the roof were high-ranking South Vietnamese army members or their families.
When the helicopter landed, the scramble began. Huynh and his friends climbed on board. The eight-passenger chopper was loaded with 20 people. Some young men who didn't make it fought to climb aboard, but a large American man on the roof — probably a CIA employee — pushed them back.
Huynh said the copter was overloaded and had to land at the embassy, where the pilot ejected a dozen people before taking the evacuees to an American ship.
Huynh spent six months in relocation camps in Guam and Pennsylvania before reuniting with his wife in Montreal. Eventually they moved to Roanoke, Va., where a church sponsored the family. Though he'd been an ear, nose and throat specialist in Vietnam, in Virginia he could only get a job as a scrub nurse at the local hospital. He studied, passed his medical boards and moved to Atlanta in 1980.
Huynh stays in touch with his friends from that day in Saigon. Nguyen is also a doctor, living in California.
Bui is a resident of Mission Viejo, Calif., and a clinical scientist with a biotech company. She's related to Huynh by marriage and sometimes visits him in Georgia.
"That day reminds me of the biggest event of my life," she said.