FAMED VIETNAM COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHER
HUGH VAN ES DIES IN HONG KONG – TOOK “LAST
CHOPPER OUT OF SAIGON” PIX AS COMMUNIST
FORCES ENTERED THE CITY – WAS BELOVED
COLLEAGUE TO ALL WHO KNEW HIM – ANOTHER
“LEAF” FALLS FROM THE TREE – GOD BLESS
“ANNIE” HIS WIFE – WITH HIM FOR FORTY YEARS
By MAJ GLENN MacDONALD
U.S. Army Reserve (Ret.)
© 2009 MilitaryCorruption.com
“When I remember all the friends so linked together I’ve seen around me fall,
like leaves in wintery weather,
I feel like one who treads alone some banquet hall deserted,
whose lights are fled, whose garlands dead, and all but he departed.”
If you live as long as I have, you will see the “leaves” – our beloved friends and colleagues – fall, one-by-one, from the tree of life. It hurts just as much every time.
The Irish poet Thomas Moore, who wrote the words quoted above, knew the sorrow those of us who remain behind feel whenever another of our dwindling band of brothers dies and drops “like leaves in wintery weather.”
Hugh Van Es, famed Vietnam combat photographer, whose epitaph will always be the symbolic LAST CHOPPER OUT picture taken on the final day of that long and bloody war, passed away in Hong Kong of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 67.
It was a miracle that Hugh made it that far.
HE LIVED HARD AND PLAYED HARD – DANGER WAS AN
Besides the danger he faced, first as an ace Associated Press photographer, and later with United Press International in Saigon, Hugh’s steady diet of booze and cigarette butts would have put most other men into an early grave.
But the kindly Dutchman, whose gruff manner and ability to cuss in three languages – Dutch, English and Vietnamese – exceeded that of any “bao chi” I knew, was a loyal friend. He hid his gentle side from all but those who knew him best.
He loved his wife Annie and she adored him. No one could ask for a better mate when Van Es was stricken in the night by the stroke that ultimately killed him.
The high regard all of us held him in was shown by the sad band of employees of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, Hugh’s virtual “home,” where he held court and quietly lent a helping hand to anyone in need.
On the last day of his life, as he lay on a hospital bed, tubes hooked up to his body, the well-known white beard shaven off and his eyes closed, weeping waitresses crept up, clutched his hand and whispered a final “good-bye” into his ear.
MISSED BY MANY, VAN ES “ONE OF A KIND”
From the message traffic that I’ve seen in the past few days, I know many of us will shed a tear and smile as we remember a typical Hugh Van Es tale, whether it be from Phnom Penh, Saigon, Manila or Hong Kong. He was one of a kind.
As a youth, he had been inspired to become a photographer after seeing a photo exhibit by LIFE combat cameraman Robert Capa. Ironically, Capa didn’t meet death on the battlefields of Europe, but in Nam Dinh, North Vietnam, a decade or so after World War II ended.
MilitaryCorrupton.com‘s Chad Huntley, who came aboard here with the late Paul Vogle in 2000 when this site went online, told us he was with Hugh Van Es at the moment the famous “last chopper” pix was shot.
“We both were up on the sixth floor of the Peninsula Hotel when I spotted an Air America Huey (helicopter) coming in for a touch-down on the top of the Pittman apartment building. [CIA employees and their families lived there.]
“When I saw Vietnamese scrambling up a ladder to get aboard, I hollered to Hugh to grab the shot. I didn’t have a long lens myself. But Hugh did, and used his 300mm to get the photo. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Huntley also confirmed that someone at UPI wrote a mistaken caption for the prize-winning photograph. For years, Van Es tried to correct the inaccurate cut line, which claimed the chopper was landing on the roof of the U.S. Embassy. It did not.
FROM THE FCC CLUB BAR TO THE “BIG PRESS CAMP IN THE SKY”
For his outstanding efforts, Hugh got a $150 “bonus” from United Press International and not a dime more. Not only has that image been used on Broadway to advertise the smash hit MISS SAIGON, it’s been re-printed thousands of times in newspapers and magazines around the world.
Hugh wasn’t bitter. He just grinned and spouted his favorite four-letter word. You know, the one beginning with ” f .”
Now he is gone. But we have a feeling he’s already smiling down on us and “hoisting a few” with Paul Vogle (see related stories box below), Bert Okuley, Leon Daniel and other former UPI colleagues in that big “press camp in the sky.” There, the bar doesn’t close, the drinks don’t run out, and the stories never end.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this reminiscence was a U.S. Army combat correspondent and later accredited civilian freelance newsman and ABC RADIO NEWS correspondent between 1966 and 1974 in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other countries in the Far East. The last time he saw his friend Hugh Van Es was when they downed a few beers together on the rooftop of the Rex Hotel in Saigon in 2005. The memory of the Dutchman’s smiling face will always remain in MacDonald’s heart.]