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.
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.