Iconic Vietnam War Images Revisited

For as long as I can remember I had a desire to visit Vietnam. That goes back to my teen years and maybe even earlier. Since that was the Vietnam-American War era I am not sure what motivated that desire. It wasn’t until 2014 when I first visited Vietnam and now on my fourth and longest visit I know my desires were well placed.

During the war there were a number of well publicized images that helped mold public opinion that surrounded the war. Many of those were taken in Saigon and while I was there I was able to visit the locations of those images almost fifty years later.

These images have been etched in my mind forever. I am not sure when I first saw them but each one brings a bone-chilling reality to what was happening a world away back in the sixties and seventies. It is hard to see these images and not have them hit a deep emotional spot inside

The Execution of Nguyen Van Lem
The moment of the execution of Nguyen Van Lem by a south Vietnamese

Excecution of Nguyen Van Lem – AP photo/Eddie Adams

On February 1st, 1968 General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed Nguyen Van Lem in the streets of Saigon. There were reporters and photographers present and as the group walked down the street they stopped and in an instant Loan executed Lem. Lem was said to have been involved in the killing of military officials and their families.

After a handcuffed Lem slumped to the ground, blood spurting from the hole in his head, Loan quietly holstered his snub nose .38 and as he walked past the photographer, Eddie Adams, said “They killed many of my men and many of your people”.

Nguyen Ngoc Loan eventually moved to America where he ran a restaurant with his family in Northern Virginia. In 1978 the US government started proceedings to have him deported as a brutal murderer. He had support of the community and President Jimmy Carter intervened to put a stop to the deportation.

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The view of the location in 2018

Loan remained in America until his death in 1998. Eddie Adams felt that two people died that day. Lem from a bullet and Loan from the image that outraged Americans but also helped turn the tide of the people against the war.

There has been a lot of speculation about the exact location where this execution took place. The streets of Saigon now look nothing like they did back in 1968. The best research I have found puts the location at 197 Ngô Gia Tự. This is what that location looks like today.

The Self-Immolation of Buddhist Monk
This is the original image of the self immolation of a monk at a Saigon intersection in the 1960's.

Self Immolation of Quang Duc – AP photo/Malcolm Browne

On June 10, 1963 Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in protest of the Vietnamese governments’ treatment towards Buddhists.

The Venerable Thich Quang Duc Monument can be found at the intersection of Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street and Cach Mang Thang 8. Most of the street names have changed over the years after the reunification of Vietnam and these streets were previously known as Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet.

The monument is impressive and covers one corner of the very busy intersection. I have to say I was surprised at the sheer size of the monument. It was more like a park than a simple monument or statue I expected to find.

The Venerable Thich Quang Duc Monument

Photographer Malcom Browne tells his story behind the image here: http://time.com/3791176/malcolm-browne-the-story-behind-the-burning-monk/

The monument features a statue of Thich Quang Duc sitting in the lotus position engulfed in flames. Today the intersection is still chaotic with many people passing the impressive monument. I wonder how many people realize the significance of the intersection they are passing and who Thich Quang Duc was.

When I was in Hue, Vietnam I learned that the car in the original image can be seen at Thien Mu Pagoda. The car is housed near the back of the pagoda and there was a constant flow of interested visitors from around the world. The car has been repainted at some point. A picture of the burning monk and the car is positioned on the back wall above the car.

Helicopter Evacuation – 1975
A helicopter sits on top of a building in Saigon evacuating south Vietnamese people who aided the US in the Vietnam War.

Helicopter Evacuation at 22 Gia Long Street – Photo: Hubert van Es

As The fall of Saigon became inevitable people were scrambling to leave Vietnam. Fear of reprisal from the north motivated people to escape by any means possible.

A current view of the top of the building where the helicopter landed numerous times.

The ladder went up to the elevator shaft from this side.

This iconic image was taken the day before the fall of Saigon. The people were mostly Vietnamese people who worked for the US government.

The view from the Vincom building in 2014.

I was first able to go into the building and up to the roof in 2014. At that time the Vincom building was mostly complete but still had some open floors. I was able to make an image from the same orientation as the original but from a closer vantage point. Today you would need access to an office that faces the building.

On my current trip I was able to go up to the roof again but this time I was alone. The sense of history I felt as I was there can’t be described.

If these walls could talk.

Instead of taking the old elevator down I took the stairs. The stairway is narrow and curves around the elevator shaft. Dark and shadowed I imagine that this is what it looked like back in 1975.

As I touch the walls I can almost feel the extreme sense of urgency and fear that filled these stairs from top to bottom as men, women and children wondered what their futures held.

Turning around and walking down the stairs and out on to the street would mean certain death to many of them. Missing out on a helicopter ride quite literally could be a death sentence.

Not knowing if the helicopter was still going to be flying when they made it to the roof had to be excruciating. The thoughts of the family and friends that they were leaving behind and the uncertainty of their fates was surely adding to the pain and anxiety.

I stood alone on one of the steps wondering what it sounded like on that fateful day. Was there silence as people crammed themselves in the tight space? Were there tears as the fear of an unknown future weighed heavily on them? How long did it take to make it from street level to the roof as the helicopter sandwiched in as many people as possible.

In 2014 it seems that very few people took interest in this building. While it may have extreme significance to those who escaped and to most others this is just another office building in a big city.

The roof from the opposite side of the original photo.

Today as I walk by the Saigon Post Office just a block away I see many local tour people pointing to the structure peeking out in front of the massive blue Vincom building in the distance. Talk about the helicopters and the people and their quest for safety and freedom can be heard all around me.

It’s one thing to hear the talk but it is another to walk up the stairwell and stand where the ladder stood some forty-three years ago.

Tank Crashes the Gates of the Independence Palace
A north Vietnamese tank crashes through the gates of the Independence Palace in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War

North Vietnamese Tank – AP Photo

April 30, 1975 troops from the Vietnamese People’s Army crash through the gates of the Independence Palace marking the end of the war. This image is widely seen as symbolizing the fall of Saigon.

Today the gates remain in place but the name has been changed to the Reunification Palace. Nearby a similar tank can be seen although it is not the one seen in the image.

Throughout my life I have seen these images. I wonder if I saw them when they were first published. If I did, what was the impact they had on me? Did I look at them again and again trying to make sense of what was going on? I was only around ten years old during the height of the war. What was it back then that piqued my interest in this interesting and beautiful country?

Remnants of the war remain throughout the country and of course their recollection of those times differ from ours. But for the people of Vietnam that war is in the past. Even with the devastation left by the Americans in forms such as Agent Orange and land mines I have never seen or felt the least bit of animosity towards America or Americans.

Those are times that remain in the past. Not forgotten, but appropriately remembered for what they were.

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One Comment on “Iconic Vietnam War Images Revisited

  1. The history of Vietnam that you are living, is amazing. Prayers are with you on your journey.

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