‘Napalm Girl’ at 50: The defining photo story of the Vietnam War
The terrifying photograph of children fleeing a deadly napalm attack has become a defining image not only of the Vietnam War, but of the 20th century as well. Black smoke billowing behind them, the faces of the young subjects are painted with a mixture of terror, pain and confusion. Soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army’s 25th Division helplessly follow.
The girl, since identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, eventually survived her injuries. That’s partly thanks to Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who helped the kids after snapping his now-iconic image. Fifty years after that fateful day, the two men are still in regular contact and using their story to spread a message of peace.
“I will never forget this moment,” Phuc said in a video call from Toronto, where she is now based.
Phuc and his family had taken refuge with other South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers in a Buddhist temple. Hearing their own army planes overhead, the soldiers urged everyone to flee, fearing an attack. Tragically, the group was mistaken for the enemy.
“I turned my head and saw the planes, and saw four bombs landing,” Phuc said. “Then suddenly there was fire everywhere, and my clothes were burned by the fire. At that time, I didn’t see anyone around me, just fire.
“I still remember what I was thinking,” she added. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I got burned, I’m going to be ugly and people will see me differently. But I was so terrified.’
Another of Ut’s images from that day shows a Vietnamese grandmother carrying her badly burned grandson. Credit: Nick Ut/AP
Phuc ripped off what was left of his clothes and ran down the Route 1 highway, Vietnamese photographer Ut, who was 21 at the time, was among several reporters positioned outside the village anticipating further conflict that that day.
“I saw Kim running and she (shouted in Vietnamese) ‘Too hot! Too hot!” he said in a video call from Los Angeles. “When I took the picture of her, I saw that her body was so burned, and I wanted to help her right away. I put all my camera equipment on the highway and I I put water on his body.”
Ut then put the injured children in his van and drove them for 30 minutes to a nearby hospital. But when he arrived, the hospital told him there was no room and he should take them to Saigon.
“I said, ‘If she stays another hour (without treatment), she will die,’ he recalled, adding that he had initially feared that Phuc had already died in his vehicle during the journey.
Seen around the world
From the hospital, Ut went to the Associated Press office in Saigon to develop the photos. His footage told much of the day’s story: a bomb captured mid-air beneath a Skyraider, thick black smoke billowing from Trang Bang, a victim being carried on a makeshift stretcher. A lesser-known image shows South Vietnamese television crews and soldiers gathered around Phuc, the skin on his back and arms scorched by the flammable jelly that has made napalm such a controversial weapon.
But the photographer immediately knew that one image stood out among the others.
“When I returned to my office, the (darkroom technician) and everyone who saw the photo immediately told me that it was very powerful and that the photo would win a Pulitzer.”
Phuc, meanwhile, spent 14 months in hospitals treating her injuries. Two of his cousins had been killed in the bombing. But she tried to push past the attack – and the image that was seen around the world.
“As a kid, I was so embarrassed, to be honest,” she said. “I didn’t like that picture at all. Why did he take my picture? I never wanted to see it.”
She dreamed of being a doctor, but the communist government of Vietnam quickly pulled her out of medical school to use her in propaganda campaigns. She remembers reporters coming from abroad to hear her story, but she struggled to get attention.
“It really affected my private life,” she said, saying she sometimes wanted to “disappear.”
“I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t achieve my dreams. And so, I kind of hated it.”
A symbol of hope
Last month, she and Ut – who she still affectionately calls “uncle” – presented a copy of the photograph to Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.
“I realized that, ‘Wow, this photo has become a powerful gift for me – I can (use it) to work for peace, because this photo hasn’t let me go,” he said. she declared.
“Now I can look back and embrace it…I’m so grateful that (Ut) was able to record that moment in history and record the horror of war, which can change the whole world. And that moment has changed my attitude and my belief that I can keep my dream alive to help others.”
Nick Ut and Kim Phuc pictured together last month in Milan, Italy. Credit: Marco Tacca Pier/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
After years of operations and therapy, Phuc is still suffering from the ill effects of the burns he suffered that day. She recently underwent laser treatments in the United States, although she is in continuous pain from her injuries.
But, now with her two children, Phuc credits her Christian faith with helping her “move on”.
“Now, 50 years later, I’m so grateful and I’m no longer a victim of war. I’m a survivor and I have the opportunity to work for peace.”
“When I was taking photos in Vietnam, things were so much slower and we didn’t have social media,” he said. “Now you have an abundance of photos, but it’s so instantaneous – in terms of telling the truth and letting the world know it – that it’s also incredibly powerful.”