Without question, one of the most iconic images of the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975, the last day of the Vietnam War, was a line of people trying to board a helicopter atop a building.
Taken by UPI photographer, the late Hubert Van Es, the famous photo sums up the desperation and panic felt in the city as the North Vietnamese forces closed in. Forty-four years later, Bangkok architect Geoff Morrison went insearch of the same Saigon building featured in countless stories, documentaries and movies about the Vietnam War.
Geoff knew that the building was not part of the former US embassy, as was initially reported by mistake in a UPI dispatch, but a private apartment block.
“As communist troops closed in on Saigon at the end of April 1975, shelling had rendered Tan Son Nhat Airport unusable. The evacuation of US personnel and Vietnamese officials had to be carried out by choppers. This seriously limited the scale of the evacuation and meant that many Vietnamese were left behind,” recalls the long-term Canadian expat. Geoff eventually located the building at 22 Ly Tu Trong (formerly Gia Long) in downtown Saigon. It was, says Geoff, the residence of Thomas Polgar, the Saigon station chief of the CIA.
“Today the site is unmarked, Tom Polgar’s 9th floor (top) apartment abandoned. I paid the guard, navigated the dark corridors and up the single lift, wandered the terrace, scrambled up the ladder...knocked on his door...all was empty and quiet.... as close as I could get to 1975,” says Geoff.
“Polgar had helped lead the evacuation effort at the embassy, lifting people over fences anddestroying files. Just before Mr.Polgar destroyed the cable-sending machine the agency had used to communicate, just before he boarded a helicopter himself, he took a moment and typed; “This will be the final message from Saigon station, It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost.” Geoff completed his mission and The BigChilli thanks him for the photos taken in Saigon recently.