Vietnam vet’s Saigon story crops up in iconic photo
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — It’s not unusual for a student to bring in a poster, picture, letter or some other prop to bring a moment in time closer to reality for a history class.
Middlebury Union High School student Evelyn Hill last week brought her uncle to class — a man who not only experienced the Vietnam War, but whose self-professed greatest contribution is etched in history in one of the most iconic photographs of the fall of Saigon.
Michael Frappier was a surveillance equipment specialist with the United States Air Force and was temporarily stationed in Thailand on Tuesday, April 29, 1975, when he was ordered to participate in the final evacuation of U.S. personnel and a few fortunate Vietnamese civilians from Saigon, the capital of a crumbling South Vietnam. He came to learn that his contribution that day is frozen in time as part of a famous picture, taken by U.P.I. photographer Hubert Van Es. The picture features a helicopter waiting on a pad and Frappier extending his arm to the first in a long line of evacuees clogging the frail stairway leading to the roof of a Saigon apartment complex where CIA officials had been headquartered.
Frappier was the evacuees’ link to what they perceived was their ticket to salvation as North Vietnamese forces tightened their noose around Saigon: the helicopter ready to whisk them to U.S. ships ready to depart from the South China Sea.
“I would have to say it’s my proudest accomplishment,” Frappier said of the evacuation, details of which he shared with MUHS students in Hills history class last Thursday.
Frappier’s mission into Saigon was the culmination of many missions in war-town Southeast Asia during the early- and mid-1970s.
Though not a fan of the war, Frappier, a Vermont native, walked in to the Air Force recruiting station in Rutland in 1971 to enlist, of all things. While the Nixon administration at the time had begun ramping down the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, Frappier and many other young men of the day were concerned about being drafted into the conflict and assigned combat duty.
Frappier decided to enlist in an effort to have more control over his wartime destiny.
“I dodged the draft by volunteering,” Frappier said with a wry smile. “But I had no idea what to expect.”
After completing basic training and attending military school in Colorado, Frappier was assigned to the USAF’s 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing and stationed at Swanson Air Force Base in Arizona. He was informed that he would be developing and maintaining aerial reconnaissance equipment, including radar, cameras and unmanned “drones.” The drones — less sophisticated than the ones now used in conflict in the Middle East — had to be launched and captured in mid-air.
Frappier found his work to be a nice challenge.
“The job I had was very interesting,” Frappier said of his role as a sensor systems specialist. “In fact, I have to say I loved my Air Force job. It was very technically challenging and very interesting.”
An interesting job, but not one that would keep him out of harm’s way.
Turned out that Frappier’s skills would be in big demand in — and above — Vietnam, where more sophisticated technology and weaponry were coming into play in the early 1970s. The war had begun to involve more aerial activities, particularly massive bombing runs designed to break the will of the North Vietnamese. Beginning in December of 1972, Frappier received regular calls to head into the war zone to assist with equipment that could photograph enemy locations and/or listen to conversations.
“(The Strategic Reconnaissance Wing) had operating locations throughout the world,” Frappier noted, including Thailand and Vietnam.
His stints abroad would range from 60 to 179 days. He had top-secret security clearance.
A lot of his work couldn’t be performed within the relatively safe confines of a South Vietnamese military base — he had to be airborne. Ultimately, he flew around 225 missions, often in a C-130 aircraft and helicopters specially fitted to handle surveillance drones — a precursor to today’s cruise missiles.
“We would launch the drones, they would fly off and get shot at, but not us,” Frappier recalled. “They’d fly 500 feet off the ground, take nice close-up pictures and turn around and fly back. They would deploy a parachute and float down, and we would hook them with a helicopter.”
While Frappier did not participate in direct combat operations, he and his colleagues made attractive targets for North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries.
He still carries shrapnel in his right leg from enemy fire, and vividly recalls the little peepholes of daylight that bullets and shrapnel would suddenly carve into the interior of a helicopter.
“We would sit on our flak jackets,” Frappier said. “There was so much noise in the helicopter that you didn’t notice (incoming fire) until the holes started appearing. You tried not to pay too much attention; it would bother you too much.”
He recalled what he said was his most harrowing experience — which he did not fully process until his helicopter landed in Da Nang.
“We were coming just outside of the air base, 400 or so feet up, making our approach, when we heard a ‘thump,’” he recalled. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What was that?’”
After they landed, they looked under the helicopter and saw a rocket propelled grenade round sticking out of the helicopter. It was an armor piercing round and the skin of the helicopter was fortunately too soft and thin to cause it to detonate.
“It would have blown us right out of the sky if it had gone off,” Frappier said.
It wasn’t a lot safer on the ground, either.
“I spent many a night in the bunker during a rocket attack telling the new guys, ‘Don’t look over the side,’” Frappier said, alluding to shrapnel fragments, which he noted “could easily take a body part off.”
CALLED TO SAIGON
One of his last missions under hostile fire was the one in Saigon, recorded by Van Es, who died last month. Frappier’s date with history was quite unexpected.
“I happened to be 150 miles away in southern Thailand, and they said, ‘The computer spit your name out,’” Frappier said. “They were looking for helicopter crew members, and I happened to fit the bill. That’s how it happened; it was completely random.”
For the better part of two days — April 29 and 30 — Frappier and his colleagues buzzed through sniper fire to pluck American military personnel and desperate Vietnamese refugees from Saigon rooftops, primarily those of the French and U.S. embassies. The Air America helicopter had a normal capacity of eight passengers, though they ferried back upwards of 12 per trip to the USS Midway (an aircraft carrier) and the USS Blue Ridge (helicopter carrier).
It was a harrowing mission marked by acts of bravery and near-acts of cruelty.
Frappier remembered a specific instance in which a Vietnamese teenager grabbed onto his helicopter’s landing base as it left.
“The co-pilot wanted me to throw him off the helicopter (while it was still moving), but I said, ‘I don’t think so!’” Frappier told the MUHS students. He punctuated his refusal by pointing his M-16 rifle at the officer who gave the order, an action for which he received a reprimand from the Air Force.
“I got a very bad slap on the wrist,” Frappier said with a smile, noting the man was pulled to safety.
It was not long after the incident that Frappier said he got a call from Van Es.
“He said, ‘I think I got a picture of you,’” Frappier said. “I told him ‘it could be me.’”
The timing of the photo, coupled with the attire and shape of the man assisting people to the helicopter, led Frappier to become fairly certain it was he.
His family had no doubts.
“It was him,” his brother, Chris Frappier of Middlebury, said emphatically of his reaction when first seeing the photo. “We were clear on that. We looked at the photo and said, ‘Hey, it’s Mike.’”
Frappier left the Air Force as a sergeant in 1975, moving to the private sector as an engineer working for a couple of welding companies that made plasma cutting and welding equipment. He currently lives in West Hartford, Vt. He now relies on a wheelchair to get around — not as a result of his wartime injuries, but due to the effects of Multiple Sclerosis.
He remains pleased to have helped his country and those who needed an extra hand on April 29, 1975. He does not think the Vietnam War accomplished much.
He feels fortunate to have survived his four-year stint in the Air Force.
“I did my tour; I averted death,” Frappier said. “You make it through another day, you’re golden.”
Evelyn Hill was proud to have her uncle speak to her peers about a time in his life he had never really publicly discussed previously.
“It was the first time he had shared (his story) out in the open; it was a moving thing,” Hill said.
Hill’s teacher, Susan Arenson, was as captivated as her students by Frappier’s stories and his presence in the Van Es photograph. Because of copyright laws, the Addison Independent is not republishing the photo, which can nonetheless be accessed numerous places online, including at www.mishalov.com/Vietnam_finalescape.html. The link features an accompanying New York Times account, by Van Es himself, explaining the circumstances under which he took the photo. It’s an image that has resurfaced in the public’s consciousness in wake of Van Es’s death this past May.
“I’m floored he’s not better known,” Arenson said of Frappier. “It’s an iconic photograph.”
Even if he is not world-famous in person, Frappier is certainly now well known among history students at MUHS.
“I think it was great for the kids,” Arenson said. “Any time you have a living voice of history, it makes history come alive.”