It is among the most searing images from the fall of Saigon 35 years
ago: a line of South Vietnamese people climbing 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 the 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, Huynh says. The tiny head
next to Huynh is a teenage girl named Tuyet-Dong Bui, whom 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
Now 69 with a family medical practice, Huynh keeps a framed photo of
the rooftop evacuation scene in the den of his suburban Atlanta home. He
says he called the Atlanta office of the United Press International
(UPI) office to talk about the photo and was given a copy.
Shot by UPI staffer Hubert van Es, a Dutch photojournalist, it's an
enduring image of the Vietnam War and inspired the closing scene of the
musical "Miss Saigon."
Huynh had a larger version made for the annual Remembrance Day
ceremony that will be held Sunday in a nearby Vietnamese community club.
The annual event marks April 30, 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks
rolled into Saigon, the government surrendered and the war officially
"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."
About 70,000 Vietnamese people live in Georgia, said Kim-Hanh Dang of
the Vietnamese Community of Georgia. Veterans groups say 8,000 to
10,000 of them served in the South Vietnamese army or police force.
"The armed forces guys have a hard time forgetting," said Huynh, a
captain in the South Vietnamese army. "No old soldier wants to lose a
war." < ="1.1" src="http://ad.doubleclick.net/adj/N3880.SeattleTimes.com/B4234593.25;dcove=o;sz=300x250;ord=92946406?">
Memories spill out when Huynh talks about his last day in Saigon, the
city where he grew up. 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
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
"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
His father, who spent seven years in a concentration camp, later came
to the United States, where he died.
Huynh and his friends drove to an apartment house on Gia Long Street,
where CIA officials were housed. (One of the misconceptions of the
Vietnam War is that the photo was taken at the U.S. Embassy.) They
climbed seven or eight flights of stairs and waited on the roof.
Bui, the girl in the photo with Huynh, 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
Some men who didn't make it fought to climb aboard, but a large
American on the roof, probably a CIA employee, pushed them back.
Huynh said the overloaded copter had to land at the embassy, where
the pilot ejected a dozen people before taking the rest to a U.S. ship.
He spent six months in relocation camps in Guam and Pennsylvania
before reuniting with his wife in Montreal.
Eventually, he and his wife 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 hospital
scrub nurse. He studied, passed his medical boards and moved to Atlanta
Huynh stays in touch with his friends from that day. Nguyen is also a
doctor, living in California. Bui, the girl in the photo with Huynh,
lives in Mission Viejo, Calif., and is a scientist with a biotech
company. She's related to Huynh by marriage and sometimes visits him in
She, too, remembers April 29, 1975 — "the biggest event of my life":
"By the time I got to the top of the stairs, I was so exhausted."