Manchester man helped with Saigon evacuation in 1975
Vermonter believes he may be the man in the iconic photo
BENNINGTON — A Manchester man, now a resident of the Vermont Veterans' Home, was part of the massive airlift in Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War.
Michael Frappier, who graduated from Burr and Burton Seminary in 1971 and joined the Air Force that August, served as a crew member aboard a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter evacuating Americans and others from the American Embassy to awaiting ships at sea during the fall of Saigon.
But at one point during Operation Frequent Wind, he was tapped to fly aboard the much smaller UH-1 Huey helicopter that plucked people off of roofs at locations around Saigon. Frappier said during one mission, they evacuated five attaches from the roof of the French embassy. But he said he flew several more missions in that Huey, and one, he believes, made him famous although almost nobody knows his name.
The man in the photo
Frappier believes he is the one atop the elevator shaft helping desperate Vietnamese board the Huey at 22 Gia Long St. That's where an apartment building run by the United States Agency for International Development housed American employees. On the top floor of that building was the CIA's deputy chief of station.
It's also where the iconic photo was taken showing a helicopter sitting atop an elevator shaft barely big enough to hold it as a man aids people who have climbed a long ladder from the roof of the building to board the helicopter.
A UPI photographer, Hubert van Es, was set up just down the street and took the photo that became one of the most famous of the war.
Frappier said the man in that photo is him and said he was told by van Es himself that it was him.
Frappier has always believed it was him in the photo. His family and friends believe it's him.
He even appears in a video shot a few years ago in which he talks with Al Faxon, the CEO of the Vermont Veterans' Home about the photo. The only problem is there is no proof. Frappier is one of several men who has publicly claimed to be pictured in the famous photograph, but the subject's identity remains unconfirmed.
Either way, Frappier's service in those two days as Saigon fell into enemy hands, ending the United States' involvement, is the stuff of legends.
Frappier may never be identified as the man in the photo, but he remembers the scene well.
"Chaos," Frappier said. "It was terrifying."
He said that he had to beat back desperate people who knew that getting on a helicopter was the only thing standing between life and death.
Many of those lined up on those rooftops had been helping Americans and they knew the North Vietnamese soldiers who had surrounded the city knew it as well.
But the Hueys had very limited capacity although they often loaded double the number it was rated to carry and Frappier said he had to fight people to keep them from overloading the choppers.
On top of that, he was randomly shot at by people angry they couldn't get on board. He said he was never hit, but quite a few times heard the unmistakable sound of a small arms round whizzing past.
Frappier said he made many trips that day, beginning in the larger Sea Stallions from the U.S. Embassy, and then later, in the Huey from rooftops.
But few know his story or how he ended up being part of Operation Frequent Wind.
One of the problems with confirming aspects of Frappier's record is that while he was officially in the Air Force, his work was also connected to the CIA "unofficially."
Ask him if he worked with the CIA, and he'll look you in the eye and say, "nope." Then wink and smile.
But, Frappier had a top secret clearance and worked directly with the CIA on missions that remain classified, Frappier said.
In fact, some of the problems with verifying details about Frappier's time in the military is because much of it remains unavailable.
At one point, he was also trained for and flew on the U-2, a plane the CIA used to spy on the North Vietnamese. Frappier was assigned to the 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where he trained for reconnaissance drones and recon aircraft and systems.
In 1974, he attended contractor training on systems specific to the U-2 in California.
He remembers flying in what is nearly an orbit and said he had to wear a pressurized suit for the flights.
It was while based in U-Tapao, Thailand, serving on the U-2 that he was asked to volunteer for Operation Frequent Wind to help evacuate Saigon.
His top secret clearance also worked against him as he tried to obtain benefits he was due for his service.
Frappier is currently living with Multiple Sclerosis and the advanced stage of his disease is making it hard for him to fully remember everything that happened at times.
Much of his time in the service was spent flying reconnaissance missions photographing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other locations as well as launching and controlling reconnaissance drones in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
It was in March 1973 during one of those flights over Cambodia to surveil North Vietnamese Army supply routes that Frappier's DC-130 was hit by ground fire from a missile battery.
The missile damaged one of the plane's four engines and sent shrapnel through the fuselage hitting three of the four men aboard.
The co-pilot was seriously injured and Frappier's fellow crew member was killed.
Frappier ended up with fragments in his right leg, right arm and in the right side of his chest.
Frappier said he tried to help his crewmate and then helped the pilot control the plane. During the flight, he realized how bad he had been hit. He bandaged the wound and injected himself with morphine to fight the pain.
Once on the ground, he opened the crew hatch and passed out.
When he woke up, he was in a hospital in Tachikawa Japan and surgeons were discussing amputating his leg.
He chose another procedure and they were able to save his leg. He still has shrapnel in his body.
Not everyone is convinced Frappier is the man in the photo. Others including the New York Times and New York Daily News have identified the man in the photo as O.B. Harnage, a CIA employee.
Whether or not they got it right, however, is debatable. After all, for decades the location of the photo was said to be the American Embassy and the people on the ladder identified as Americans — neither of which was true.
The one person who could put the question to rest is gone. Van Es died in 2009.
Frappier said the Huey he was flying on during those evacuations was a CIA operated Air America chopper and he was one of at least 13 that were evacuating people.
Harnage believes it was him on that elevator shaft but he said in an interview a decade ago he honestly doesn't know if it was him or not.
Thurston Clarke, a historian and author, however, believes he's settled the issue.
Clarke's book, "Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War," was just released April 30 on the 44th anniversary of the evacuation.
In an interview, he said that he has confirmed the man in the photo to be Harnage, although he said there were other Hueys that landed at 22 Gia Long St. that day and took evacuees out.
He said he's matched tail numbers from the Van Es photo to the chopper Harnage was flying in.
"Other Air America helicopters did land on the 22 Gia Long Street roof earlier in the afternoon," Clarke said in an email. "So it is possible that it was [Frappier's]. However, the tail numbers on the helicopter in the Van Es photograph match."
That would seem to be the end of it. Case closed.
Clark, however, could not discount that Van Es might have taken another photo of Frappier.
"It is possible that Van Es took a photograph of another Air America helicopter that also had a man in a white shirt aboard who helped people board it," Clarke said. "It is possible that another Air America helicopter landed on that particular roof and the Vermont man was aboard."
Today, Frappier is living at the Vermont Veterans' Home in Bennington. He'll be 67 this year. He's confined to a wheelchair and has limited movement. He tires easily and struggles to get out more than a few words at a time.
But he still has his sense of humor as witnessed during a recent visit in which he swapped barbs and laughs with fellow Vietnam veteran Garry DuFour.
The pair talked about their service and remembered details of their time spent there.
One thing they shared was the disgust they both felt for the conflict when they returned home.
Frappier said he remembers well the things people said to him and the way he was treated. There was no hero's welcome for most Vietnam vets when they returned from the unpopular war.
He said it's taken some time, but slowly the pride of serving his country has returned and today, he remembers it more fondly than he did 44 years ago.
"It took a while," Frappier said.
That's a long way from his days in the Northshire.
He had grown up in Rutland but he moved to Manchester his junior year to live with his aunt and uncle and attend Burr and Burton Seminary, graduating in 1971.
He said they lived just off Depot Street near where Aubuchon Hardware is located with the Battenkill running behind his house.
About a year ago, Frappier was awarded his Purple Heart medal for a second time in a private ceremony. He threw his first one away.
He's also hoping he might be in line for another medal.
There is paperwork to be filled and records checked, which DuFour is pursuing for him.
DuFour has been in contact with Sen. Patrick Leahy about whether Frappier might be in line for a medal for his actions in Saigon on April 29-30, 1975.
As far as anybody knows, he was never honored for his service in those hectic days.
After all this time, Frappier said it would be nice to be recognized.
"I'd like that," he said.
Contact Darren Marcy at email@example.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.
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