Robert Hedrix, 81; symbol of the collapse of South Vietnam

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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 into 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 UPI photo identified him only as an American official, but he was actually a charter pilot hired by the State Department to move Americans from the countryside to Saigon.

In 1985, after People magazine ran the photo with a story on 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 the Korean War 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.

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