Vietnam War 'Napalm girl' photo turns 40

2012-06-01 09:54
Crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places as South Vietnamese forces from the 25th Division walk behind them. (Nick Ut, AP)

Crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places as South Vietnamese forces from the 25th Division walk behind them. (Nick Ut, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Trang Bang - In the picture, the girl will always be 9-years-old and wailing "Too hot! Too hot!" as she runs down the road away from her burning Vietnamese village.

She will always be naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.

She will always be a victim without a name.

It only took a second for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years ago. It communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.

But beneath the photo lies a lesser-known story. It's the tale of a dying child brought together by chance with a young photographer. A moment captured in the chaos of war that would serve as both her saviour and her curse on a journey to understand life's plan for her.

"I really wanted to escape from that little girl," says Kim Phuc, now aged 49. "But it seems to me that the picture didn't let me go."

Orange flames

It was 8 June 1972, when Phuc heard the soldier's scream: "We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will be dead!"

Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke bombs curling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had sheltered for three days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village.

The little girl heard a roar overhead and twisted her neck to look up. As the South Vietnamese Skyraider aircraft grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end.

"Ba-boom! Ba-boom!"

The ground rocked. Then the heat of a hundred furnaces exploded as orange flames spit in all directions.

Fire danced up Phuc's left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing pain bit through skin and muscle.

Too far gone

"I will be ugly, and I'm not normal anymore," she thought, as her right hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm. "People will see me in a different way."

In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind her older brother. She didn't see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran toward them, screaming.

Then, she lost consciousness.

Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer who took the picture, drove Phuc to a small hospital. There, he was told the child was too far gone to help. But he flashed his American press badge, demanded that doctors treat the girl and left assured that she would not be forgotten.

"I cried when I saw her running," said Ut, whose older brother was killed on assignment with the AP in the southern Mekong Delta. "If I don't help her - if something happened and she died - I think I'd kill myself after that."

Back at the office in what was then US-backed Saigon, he developed his film. When the image of the naked little girl emerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the news agency's strict policy against nudity.

Pain and fear

But veteran Vietnam photo editor Horst Faas took one look and knew it was a shot made to break the rules. He argued the photo's news value far outweighed any other concerns, and he won.

A couple of days after the image shocked the world, another journalist found out the little girl had somehow survived the attack. Christopher Wain, a correspondent for the British Independent Television Network who had given Phuc water from his canteen and drizzled it down her burning back at the scene, fought to have her transferred to the American-run Barsky unit. It was the only facility in Saigon equipped to deal with her severe injuries.

"I had no idea where I was or what happened to me," she said. "I woke up and I was in the hospital with so much pain, and then the nurses were around me. I woke up with a terrible fear."

Thirty percent of Phuc's tiny body was scorched raw by third-degree burns, though her face somehow remained untouched. Over time, her melted flesh began to heal.

"Every morning at 8 o'clock, the nurses put me in the burn bath to cut all my dead skin off," she said. "I just cried and when I could not stand it any longer, I just passed out."

Unknown

After multiple skin grafts and surgeries, Phuc was finally allowed to leave, 13 months after the bombing. She had seen Ut's photo, which by then had won the Pulitzer Prize, but she was still unaware of its reach and power.

She just wanted to go home and be a child again.

For a while, life did go somewhat back to normal. The photo was famous, but Phuc largely remained unknown except to those living in her tiny village near the Cambodian border.

Ut and a few other journalists sometimes visited her, but that stopped after northern communist forces seized control of South Vietnam on 30 April 1975, ending the war.

Life under the new regime became tough. Medical treatment and painkillers were expensive and hard to find for the teenager, who still suffered extreme headaches and pain.

She worked hard and was accepted into medical school to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. But all that ended once the new communist leaders realised the propaganda value of the 'napalm girl' in the photo.

Black heart

She was forced to quit college and return to her home province, where she was trotted out to meet foreign journalists. The visits were monitored and controlled, her words scripted. She smiled and played her role, but the rage inside began to build and consume her.

"I wanted to escape that picture," she said. "I got burned by napalm, and I became a victim of war ... but growing up then, I became another kind of victim."

She turned to Cao Dai, her Vietnamese religion, for answers. But they didn't come.

"My heart was exactly like a black coffee cup," she said. "I wished I died in that attack with my cousin, with my south Vietnamese soldiers. I wish I died at that time so I won't suffer like that anymore ... it was so hard for me to carry all that burden with that hatred, with that anger and bitterness."

One day, while visiting a library, Phuc found a Bible. For the first time, she started believing her life had a plan.

Then suddenly, once again, the photo that had given her unwanted fame brought opportunity.

Boy meets girl

She travelled to West Germany in 1982 for medical care with the help of a foreign journalist. Later, Vietnam's prime minister, also touched by her story, made arrangements for her to study in Cuba.

She was finally free from the minders and reporters hounding her at home, but her life was far from normal. Ut, then working at the AP in Los Angeles, travelled to meet her in 1989, but they never had a moment alone. There was no way for him to know she desperately wanted his help again.

"I knew in my dream that one day Uncle Ut could help me to have freedom," said Phuc, referring to him by an affectionate Vietnamese term. "But I was in Cuba. I was really disappointed because I couldn't make contact with him. I couldn't do anything."

While at school, Phuc met a young Vietnamese man. She had never believed anyone would ever want her because of the ugly patchwork of scars that banded across her back and pitted her arm, but Bui Huy Toan seemed to love her more because of them.

The two decided to marry in 1992 and honeymoon in Moscow. On the flight back to Cuba, the newlyweds defected during a refuelling stop in Canada. She was free.

Phuc contacted Ut to share the news, and he encouraged her to tell her story to the world. But she was done giving interviews and posing for photos.

"I have a husband and a new life and want to be normal like everyone else," she said.

Mother of two

The media eventually found Phuc living near Toronto, and she decided she needed to take control of her story. A book was written in 1999 and a documentary came out, at last the way she wanted it told.

She was asked to become a UN Goodwill Ambassador to help victims of war. She and Ut have since reunited many times to tell their story, even travelling to London to meet the Queen.

"Today, I'm so happy I helped Kim," said Ut, who still works for AP and recently returned to Trang Bang village. "I call her my daughter."

After four decades, Phuc, now a mother of two sons, can finally look at the picture of herself running naked and understand why it remains so powerful. It had saved her, tested her and ultimately freed her.

"Most of the people, they know my picture but there's very few that know about my life," she said. "I'm so thankful that ... I can accept the picture as a powerful gift. Then it is my choice. Then I can work with it for peace."


- AP
Read more on:    vietnam  |  media
NEXT ON NEWS24X
SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
17 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 

Five wrapping hacks you have to know before Christmas

Five gift wrapping hacks that will save Christmas for you!

 
 

I love summer.24

Sexiest Instagrams of 2014
Joburg hot spots for cocktails, craft beer, tapas and wine!
Summer Survey!
Great ideas for the best summer sandwiches!

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Grand Theft Auto 5

Now available on PS4, Xbox One and PC from R649. Buy now!

Festive gifts!

Check out our awesome range of festive gifts to make everyone’s wishes come true. Shop now!

Save on Samsung

Cameras, mobile phones, TVs, Tablets and more. While stocks last. Shop now!

Save up to R2200 on electronics! – As seen in the catalogue

Wishing for tech gadgets this festive? Save up to R2100 on hot tech products at kalahari.com. While stocks last. Shop now!

30% off the bestselling books

Save big on the most captivating reads of 2014. While stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

The energy today is serious, materialistic and hardworking. You may find you get a new outlook on things and you may want to spend...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.