“Napalm Girl” at 50: The Story of a Defining Photograph of the Vietnam War

Written Oscar Holland, CNN

At Snap, we look at the power of a single photo, telling stories about how both contemporary and historical images were created.

The horrifying photograph of children fleeing a deadly napalm attack became a defining image not only of the Vietnam War, but of the 20th century. Behind them, black smoke billows, the young men’s faces painted in a mixture of horror, pain and confusion. Soldiers of the 25th division of the South Vietnamese army helplessly follow them.

A picture taken outside the village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, captured the trauma and indiscriminate violence of a conflict that claimed, by some estimates, a million or more civilian lives. Although officially titled The Horror of War, the photo is better known by the nickname given to the badly burned naked 9-year-old girl in the center: “Napalm Girl”.

The girl, who was identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, ended up surviving her injuries. This was partly due to Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who helped the children after he took his iconic picture. Fifty years after that fateful day, the couple are still in constant contact and use their history to spread the message of peace.

“I will never forget this moment,” Fook said in a video call from Toronto, where she now lives.

Less than 30 miles northwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), her childhood village of Trang Bang was occupied by communist forces from the north. According to the New York Times report since then, the South Vietnamese army has spent three days trying to drive them out and reopen the nearby highway. That morning, the Southern Air Force sent Skyraider propeller planes to drop napalm, a substance that causes severe burns and sticks to targets, on enemy positions.

Phuc and her family, along with other civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers, took refuge in a Buddhist temple. Hearing the plane of their army overhead, the soldiers urged everyone to run, fearing an attack. Unfortunately, the group was mistaken for the enemy.

“I turned my head and saw the planes and also four bombs that had landed,” Phuc said. “Then, all of a sudden, fire broke out everywhere, and my clothes were burned in the fire. At that moment, I did not see anyone around me, only fire.

“I still remember what I was thinking,” she added. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I got burned, I’ll be ugly and people will see me differently. But I was so scared.”

Another picture of Uta taken that day shows a Vietnamese grandmother carrying her badly burned grandson. Credit: Nick Ut/AP

Phuc ripped off what was left of her clothes and ran down Route 1. Vietnamese photographer Ut, aged 21 at the time, was among several journalists outside the village expecting further conflict that day.

“I saw Kim running and she (shouting in Vietnamese) “Too hot! Too hot!” he said during a video call from Los Angeles. “When I took a picture of her, I saw that her body was so badly burned, and I immediately wanted to help her. I put all my cameras on the highway and poured water on her body.”

Ut then put the injured children in his van and drove them for 30 minutes to the nearest hospital. But upon arrival at the hospital, he was told that there were no places available and that he needed to take them to Saigon.

“I said, ‘If she drives for another hour (without treatment), she will die,'” he recalls, adding that he initially feared Phuc had already died in his car during the trip.

Ut eventually persuaded the doctors to accept them by showing his press pass and telling them that the next day the picture of the children would be published in all the world’s newspapers. (In a conversation with Vanity Fair in 2015, he remembered his exact words to the hospital: “If one of them dies, you’ll be in trouble.”)

Seen all over the world

From the hospital, Ut went to the Associated Press office in Saigon to develop the photographs. His images told much of the day’s story: a bomb caught mid-air under a Skyraider, thick black smoke rising from Trang Bang, a victim being transported on a makeshift stretcher. A lesser-known image shows TV people and South Vietnamese soldiers gathered around Phuc, the skin of her back and arms scorched by the flammable jelly that made napalm such a controversial weapon.

But the photographer immediately realized that one image stood out from the rest.

“When I got back to my office, (the darkroom technician) and everyone who saw the photo immediately told me that it was very powerful and that this photo would win a Pulitzer Prize.”

They were right: in 1973, Uth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for news photography. over 20 leading US daily newspapers.
File photo taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut on June 8, 1972, of a Skyraider dropping a napalm bomb over the village of Trang Bang.

File photo taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut on June 8, 1972, of a Skyraider dropping a napalm bomb over the village of Trang Bang. Credit: Nick Ut/AP

There is no evidence to support the apocryphal claim that the “napalm girl” hastened the end of the Vietnam War, which lasted until 1975, when the Communists eventually took control of the US-backed south of the country. This does not seem to have much effect on American public opinion, which is already turned against U.S. involvement in the conflict by the late 1960s (the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam, nearly two decades later, had been almost completely eliminated by the time Ut captured his image). Nevertheless, the photograph has become a symbol of anti-war sentiment.
His depiction of the horrors of napalm was so poignant that Richard Nixon privately asked if it was a “fix”. In White House memos released decades later, the US president suggested that the painting was staged, an accusation that Ut said “made him so upset.”

Phuc, meanwhile, spent 14 months in hospitals recovering from her injuries. Two of her cousins ​​died in the explosion. But she tried to get away from the attack – and the image that the whole world saw.

“To be honest, I was so embarrassed as a child,” she said. “I didn’t like this photo at all. Why did he take my photo? I never wanted to see her.”

She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but the Vietnamese communist government quickly expelled her from medical school to use in propaganda campaigns. She recalls how journalists came from overseas to hear her story, but she struggled with the attention.

“It really affected my personal life,” she said, saying that sometimes she felt like “disappearing.”

“I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t fulfill my dreams. And so I kind of hated it.”

Symbol of hope

It wasn’t until Fook was granted political asylum by Canada in 1992 that she felt inspired to use her personal tragedy for good. She wrote a book about her experience and established International Kim Foundation, a charitable organization that helps children of war. In 1997, she was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and speaks around the world about her life story and the power of forgiveness.

Last month, she and Ut, whom she still affectionately calls “uncle,” gave a copy of the photograph to Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.

“I realized, ‘Wow, this picture has been a powerful gift for me – I can (use it) to work for the good of the world, because this picture did not let me go,'” she said.

“Now I can look back and accept it… I am so grateful that (Ut) was able to capture this historic moment and capture the horror of a war that could change the whole world. And that moment changed my attitude and my faith. that I can keep my dream to help others.”

Nick Ut and Kim Phook were photographed together last month in Milan, Italy.

Nick Ut and Kim Phook were photographed together last month in Milan, Italy. Credit: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

After years of surgery and treatment, Phook is still suffering from the burns he sustained that day. She recently received laser treatment in the US, although her injuries have left her in constant pain.

But now that she has two children of her own, Fook credits her Christian faith with helping her “move on.”

“Now, 50 years later, I am so grateful that I am no longer a victim of war. I survived, and I have the opportunity to work for the sake of peace.”

Ut, now retired, still believes in the power of conflict photography. Referring to the war in Ukraine, he said that discipline “is as important now as it was in Vietnam.” And while today’s readers are bombarded with images from a variety of sources, the cumulative effect can be as impressive as individual iconic newspaper images from past generations, he said.

“When I was photographing in Vietnam, everything was much slower and we didn’t have social media,” he said. “Now you have a ton of photos, but they’re so instant – in terms of telling the truth and getting it out to the world – that it’s also incredibly powerful.”

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