Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Bob Caron to Present at Museum Speaker Series

An image that’s become synonymous with the fall of Saigon and the final days of the Vietnam War features a lone helicopter on the rooftop of a building with dozens of people lining up to be evacuated.

The day that photo was taken, April 29, 1975, saw the Americans stage a mass evacuation in Saigon as North Vietnamese forces approached the city. Flying the UH-1 Huey featured in the iconic image was Air America pilot Bob Caron.

On Thursday, March 15, Bob will be presenting about his career and that infamous day as part of the EAA Aviation Museum’s Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.

Bob, a 1956 West Point graduate, flew helicopters for the U.S. Army early in the Vietnam War before resigning and taking a job with Air America late in 1967. Air America was a passenger and cargo airline covertly owned and operated by the U.S. government, performing military operations in areas U.S. armed forces couldn’t go to because of treaty restraints.

“A lot of times we would work for the U.S. Embassy, the State Department or the CIA directly, putting soldiers in to fight or picking up soldiers who were fighting in the war,” Bob said of some of his typical assignments with Air America. “We did our best moving people around and then of course it all hit the fan.”

During one mission in February of 1971, Bob was ordered to pick up a squadron of Laotians who were inserted in northern Laos near the Chinese border. As he was coming in to pick up the group, his helicopter was shot down and he needed to evade enemy forces on the ground for hours before he was finally rescued.

“I was shot down by a bunch of local people that had captured the squad that I was going to pick up,” he explained. “They had forced the squad to contact us by radio and tell us they were fine and ready to be picked up. As I approached the landing zone, they opened up with AK-47s and killed my engine. I had no engine, jumped out of the helicopter. … We ran around on the ground for four or five hours. The first hour or so I was scared to death. I knew I was going to die. … Eventually a couple helicopters came from CIA headquarters a hundred miles away, flying over all kinds of enemy territory, and picked us up. It was about 5:00 or 5:30 in the afternoon and we had about given up hope of getting picked up. But we did get picked up, thank God.”

While Air America’s true purpose was kept secret from the American public, Bob acknowledged that everyone working for the company knew they were operating under the orders of the U.S. government.

“We knew 100 percent,” he said. “We talked to the [Central Intelligence] Agency people all the time and we just called them the customer. … When a bunch of people get on your helicopter and they’ve got hand grenades strapped to their waist and you’ve got to check to make sure the pins aren’t pulled yet, you know they’re going to fight with some bad people. It was absolutely no secret.”

As the war slogged to a conclusion in 1975, Bob and the rest of the Air America pilots began preparations for an evacuation of Saigon.

“We knew the end was coming. The bad guys were getting closer and closer,” he said. “Some of our pilots checked out rooftops that would hold a chopper and allow pickups to be made.”

On the morning of April 29, just before the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese, Bob was ready for an evacuation order early in the morning but it didn’t come for hours precious time lost for thousands of people looking to leave the city.

“We knew that was the day. I don’t know how we knew that, but we did,” he explained. “We kept waiting and waiting for the signal to come (for evacuation). There were no plans to get people out (in the morning). They could have gotten thousands of people out people that worked with the Americans that were loyal, worked for the Agency. Finally at like 10:30 or 11 a.m., we get the word to go.”

Bob spent the rest of the day flying around Saigon, picking up Americans and Vietnamese and transporting them to the coast, where they were then flown to U.S. warships.

“The first helicopter I found, I jumped in it and started going to various rooftops and moving people,” Bob said. “On one of my stops, I went to the U.S. Embassy building and landed on top of it and this guy comes out, who of course turned out to be (CIA air officer) O.B. Harnage, and he says ‘I need you to do something for me.’ I said ‘What do you need?’ He said ‘I need you to go over to a special place to pick up the deputy prime minister of Vietnam and his family.’ I said ‘No problem. Jump on and show me where to go.’

“We were approaching the scene you see in the picture and I see 50 or 60 people lined up and I said to the other pilot, Jack “Pogo” Hunter, and said ‘Pogo, that prime minister sure has a hell of a big family.’ Of course, like anything else, one person told two people who told more people. We made two flights off the rooftop, I had a briefing of some kind, and made a couple more flights and about 5 p.m. I flew out to the ships on the coast.”

After the end of the war, Bob and the rest of his fellow pilots were cut loose from Air America and he rejoined the Army.

It wasn’t until many years later that Bob finally saw the famous photo of the rooftop evacuation. In 2000, he was contacted by People Magazine, which was looking to identify who was in the photo. Not long after that, Bob met the Dutch photographer who shot the photo, Hubert van Es, in Bangkok. While much has been made of the photo over the years, Bob never really viewed it that way.

“I didn’t see that photo for a long time,” he said. “I have no idea how soon after it was when I first saw it. I knew it was myself and Pogo Hunter because I talked to Pogo and we talked together about it. … It really wasn’t a big deal to me, it was what it was.”

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