Robert Hedrix, Aviator, Nha Trang, 1975

Builders,

Below is one of the most famous photos from the Vietnam war, taken in 1975. This week, almost 39 years later, it is being widely circulated on the internet in a collection of “20 iconic photos.” The fact it is being circulated with a complete bullshit caption on the internet comes as little surprise to me. What does bother me is having people I know in aviation send this as a forward, lending credibility to the completely fabricated story that this is an “American Agent in a Helicopter in Saigon” If someone sent this to you, they don’t know aircraft, history, pilots, nor how to research anything.

Above is the image, published in 1975. The man was not identified until 10 years later. I remember reading the interview with him in 1985. I have reprinted it below. It took me ten minutes of looking on the internet to find it.

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While I was looking I came across a site where retired journalists claimed this was a C-47 they personally saw. Really? Does that look like a tail dragger being loaded? I also read several people who claimed it was the head of World Airways, Ed Dailey, who they claimed to know personally (it isn’t Dailey). There were also several claims it was a Bell UH1, in spite of the fact no Huey has a door like that. All of these claims are outright lies, perpetuated this week by a new generation of people allegedly ‘informed’ by the internet. I have little expectation that most people think critically, but I would like to think that aviators do. Maybe not this week.

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Below is the exact same moment photographed from a different angle. It took me 60 seconds to find this image, although I have never seen it before, and I am pretty sure it was never published in conjunction with the one above. All that was required to find it was to search “DC-6 Vietnam Nha Trang images” on Google. Maybe I should have been a research journalist….oh wait, that wouldn’t have worked, I’m too concerned about what the truth is to earn a living like that.

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Does this look like a DC-3 or a Huey to anyone? A big part of what I am moved by in aviation is history. In 1985 I was 22 years old, yet I only needed to read this story once to remember it, because the man in the photo is part of the pantheon of humans who have done something extraordinary in aviation.

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I don’t give a damn for the crap in Flying magazine , the National Business aviation show, nor any to the turboprops advertised in our home building magazine, because those planes and the people who use them have nothing to contribute to the human endeavor of flight They are transportation and toys for the wealthy, people who would only have you at their country club as a servant, yet for some reason we tolerate having them at our homebuilding convention, Oshkosh. There are countless people who wander through or play in aviation with zero respect for the history of human courage in flight. It is their loss, and they have shallow perspectives to go with their shallow lives.

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If you are reading this, and you are producing a plane with your own hands, then you are in the arena of flight. You will know it’s great challenges and rewards. You will struggle to make it right, to learn, to keep going when most others quit; You will feel fear, and overcome it before your first take off. The hours you spend aloft in your own creation will mark special days in your life long remembered when most are forgotten. Homebuilt planes can be very modest, but they are direct access to the human endeavor of flight, and through it you can understand some kinship with a man who’s “crowded hour” in the arena of flight came in April of 1975.

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Obituary of Robert Hedrix; pilot linked to last days of Vietnam War

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times  |  November 9, 2006

LOS ANGELES — One of the most arresting images from  the last days of the Vietnam  War shows an unruly crowd rushing the door of a plane in Nha Trang, a rural seaside city north of Saigon. The  focal point of the photograph is a balding, middle-aged American who is  landing a jab to the head of a Vietnamese man desperate to board. The American is all grim determination; his jaw is clenched as he lunges  right, extending his arm like a ramrod in the face of the intruder.  Resolute in the crush of bodies, he is a bulwark in the bedlam of a  turbulent era’s violent finale. The caption accompanying the   United Press International photo identified him only as an American  official, but he was actually a charter pilot hired by the US State  Department to relocate Americans from the countryside to Saigon. In 1985, after People magazine ran the photo with a story about the 10th  anniversary of Saigon’s fall, some of his war-era buddies identified  him: He was Robert D. Hedrix, a North Dakota native and veteran of World War II and Korea who spent most of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in and  around Southeast Asia as a pilot for the Air Force, the CIA, and various commercial outfits. “He was a real warrior. He felt it was his  calling to fight on behalf of America,” his son-in-law, Phil Hernandez,  said  last week. Mr. Hedrix, who returned to the United States in  1977 and flew planes for the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest  Service, died of a heart attack last month at 81, according to his  family. He had been dead for a few days when his landlord found his body Oct. 25 in his Lafayette, Colo., home. Mr. Hedrix rarely talked  about his Vietnam experiences, even though the photograph in which he  played a starring role was widely reprinted over the years. It was taken on April 1, 1975, when South Vietnam’s capitulation was only a  matter of time. The North Vietnamese army was sweeping south to Saigon,  and Nha Trang was among the cities falling. Mr. Hedrix had been  hired to transport Americans, but if room allowed he also evacuated  Vietnamese  people  — the sick, the elderly, and children. In Nha Trang that day, one mother handed him her twins, only a few weeks old, and  begged him to take them. “The sacrifice was heartbreaking,” he told  People magazine in 1985. With defeat imminent, soldiers were  deserting the South Vietnamese army in droves, disguising themselves in  civilian clothes and joining the panicked exodus. Mr. Hedrix was alert  to their presence. Referring to the famous photograph, he told People:  “I’m pretty sure the guy I’m throwing off is a deserter because I could  see a pistol stuffed under his belt.” Mr. Hedrix’s plane, a DC-6,  took off amid gunfire with 264 passengers, almost 150  more than the  official capacity. He would log more than 100 flights that month before  he left Vietnam for good on April 30, the day Saigon collapsed. Years later, he told an interviewer that the photograph brought one word to his mind: security. “These people didn’t have it; people walking down the streets of America do,” he said. As for the man he slugged outside that plane, he said: “I feel sorry for those guys now.” Mr. Hedrix was buried Friday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in  Minneapolis. He  leaves a daughter, Mary Hernandez; two sons, Mike and  John; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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Text of People magazine article in 1985:

“Robert D. Hedrix, now in his 60s, was working as a charter pilot based in Singapore when South Vietnam’s defeat became imminent in the spring of 1975. Hired by the State Department to transport Americans from the countryside into Saigon, he logged more than 100 flights in the month before the final collapse. “I was there for the money,” Hedrix says. “But I also had a commitment to help the Vietnamese people and our guys fighting there.” During a hectic mission in Nha Trang in early April, he was photographed sorting out a volatile mob (above, left) and socking a South Vietnamese Army deserter (right) who tried to force his way onto the pilot’s overcrowded DC-6. PEOPLE ran the first photo five weeks ago as part of our Vietnam “Where Are They Now?” series, and several of Hedrix’s war-era friends telephoned to identify him.

A native of North Dakota, Hedrix joined the Navy during World War II and later saw action in Korea. Working variously for the Air Force, the CIA—which he will not discuss—and as a charter pilot, he spent most of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in and about Southeast Asia. He now lives near Denver and flies for the U.S. Forest Service. He douses fires from the air, and also checks for acid-rain damage as well as occasionally scouting for marijuana crops. Hedrix talked about his Vietnam experience with correspondent Mary Chandler.

It was the first week of April and we were up north around Nha Trang boarding passengers for the customer [the State Department]. We were there to pick up the Americans, mostly journalists—we called Americans “round-eyes”—as well as some of the Vietnamese sick, children and old people. Our State Department was very generous about space available. I made four or five flights to Saigon daily. During the evacuation we had to be very careful because some of the people getting on board were Vietnamese military guys who had dressed up in sports clothes and were deserting. In the second picture, I’m pretty sure the guy I’m throwing off is a deserter because I could see a pistol stuffed under his belt. I feel sorry for those guys now.

I was asking for children at the door. The bare-bottomed child in the first picture made it aboard. Later a mother handed up her twins, maybe 3 weeks old. These people wanted to get their children out and hoped to catch up with them later. The sacrifice was heartbreaking. Someone told me later that we took off with 264 souls, which could be a record for a DC-6. Normally it was set up for about 118 adults.

Just before we taxied I heard a gunshot, but I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was told later that a Vietnamese airport guard had shot a guy who tried to open the door after we had shut it. I understand the guy died.

My first association with Vietnam was in 1955, and I left there April 30, 1975.1 was flying over the China Sea in the late ’50s when I heard John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State, talking about the demilitarized zone. I had a tear in one eye and laughter in the other because it was nonsensical. He was talking about how, if the North Vietnamese crossed the DMZ, we would retaliate. And they were already across! It was public knowledge throughout Southeast Asia that they’d infiltrated, that they had an active insurrection going in South Vietnam. And yet our Secretary of State was talking to the American public about how great we were doing down there.

To start with, I was against our involvement. Every one who knew the area—the French, early American advisers—warned us to stay out. But once we pledged our aid, I wholeheartedly supported our effort. I still think it was a terrible mistake to get involved without the full intent of winning.

We didn’t lose the war over there militarily; we lost it politically. There were so many over there doing difficult, even valiant work, and there were a few people over here just destroying it. The stateside protesters were ill-informed. I was involved in events over there that I could barely recognize when I read about them in U.S. newspapers. I’ve become very jaundiced about how news is reported.

Once we became involved I felt we had as much moral right to be in Asia as we had to be in Europe in World War II. These people are entitled to as much liberty and pursuit of happiness as the Europeans.

As a civilian pilot, I flew a lot of supply-type missions for the Air Force and Army. We went over there for pay. But while we were there, we did things you can’t pay for—rescuing wounded, coming under fire. I was shot down over Laos. If someone said I was a hero, I’d have to say I was a low-grade hero. There are lots of guys with marks on their bodies to prove they’re heroes. But I was fortunate. All the mercenaries over there: They came for money, but they worked for valor. Oh, we had a lot of excitement. Sometimes, say during mortar attacks, your tongue would stick in your mouth, your mouth would hang open. There was nothing to do but wait till the shells went by because you didn’t know if the plane was going to get hit. Sometimes it was so close that you kind of looked around to see if you were hit.

The one word I’d use to sum up the photos taken at Nha Trang is “security.” These people didn’t have it; people walking down the streets of America do. That’s why we need a strong defense. The chaos in this picture could happen in the United States. The only thing that stands between us and the confusion and the lawlessness and the murder in that picture is the Defense Department. Whether it’s managed right or wrong, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying what the difference is.”

About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

4 Responses to Robert Hedrix, Aviator, Nha Trang, 1975

  1. Dan Branstrom says:

    While Robert Hendrix was trying to keep order, he was also doing something that every pilot tries to do: keep his plane within weight and balance limits. He was a hero because he took everyone he could.

    Yes, he did have many more passengers aboard than what the plane was designed for, but I’m willing to bet that most were well under the FAA designated 160 lbs and he was probably as light on fuel as possible. He probably loaded people forward to keep the plane stable.

    I’m sure his takeoff was a white knuckle affair, but he obviously knew what he was doing, because he made it safely.

    There is a story that a DC-3 had something like 64 aboard, mostly Chinese, during WWII in a similar situation. As I remember it, there were a number of children on the flight.

    We, as pilots, have no such urgency to overload or put things into our planes so they are incorrectly loaded. We have no such urgency to leave the ground, and we should use the all the time necessary to make sure we have a safe flight.

    Weight and balance is a big part of it. Do it right.

    • Dan,

      When I read the story originally in 1985 Hedrix said he had more than 180 people too many on the flight. He said he put them 3 and 4 deep in the seats to get the weight located. He also said he did not retract the gear on the 200 mile flight back to Ton San Nhut, as he was sure people were clinging to the gear hiding in the wheel wells.

  2. Tom Graziano says:

    William,

    Absolutely no surprise. The mainstream media, journalists, and internet commandos are definitely not concerned about the truth…

    Tom

    • Tom,
      The story touches a nerve with me; Here we have a guy who fought in 3 wars, the last one without a weapon, who obviously did his last 100 flights as a humanitarian, each under conditions almost no pilot will ever face. He anonymously and quietly returns home, only gives one interview about it when he is ‘discovered’ 10 years later. Goes back to basic flying, retires, Dies alone in a rented home. Flying in service to the cause of human freedom made he neither wealth nor famous. As his fellow countrymen and aviators, perhaps the least we can do is correctly caption a photo of him, and take a moment to consider how few people would fly100 unarmed missions into a crumbing country in hopes of evacuating civilians so desperate they would give their children away.–ww.

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