On April 29, 1975, the largest airlift of refugees in the Vietnam War took place as the North Vietnamese Army overran Saigon with artillery, rockets, and mortars. Almost all of the American troops had long since departed. As the NVA moved in, civilians climbed walls to get into American installations in an attempt to escape. Tragedies were as common as boards on a picket fence, but spontaneous heroics occurred as well.
As ground fire became more intense, only helicopters were able to fly in and out of Saigon to aid in the evacuation. The Pittman building, the structure seen pictured, became one of the few landing areas Air America® Huey pilots could use with relative safety. Air America® was the CIA's covert paramilitary airline. The men and women of Air America® were an organized group of professionals who risked everything to aid the cause of freedom.
The story of this photograph is in many ways the story of Air America®. Hugh Van Es, of United Press International, took a quick snapshot of an interesting scene, refugees climbing a ladder on the side of a building to the helicopter waiting above. The man extending his hand to the refugees is O. B. Harnage, a CIA case officer. No one knows who the helicopter crew was, they didn't know they were being photographed nor would they have cared.
The men who flew these helicopters on the last day of Saigon were not there because of international economics or political issues. None of them ever received official commendation for his valor; in fact, very few people realize that the helicopter in the photograph that became famous around the world was an Air America® helicopter with a civilian crew.
Unheralded and unknown, these pilots were performing acts of heroism for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.
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