Vietnam Napalm Girl
This photo of Kim Phuc (full name Phan Thị Kim Phúc) was taken just after South Vietnamese planes bombed her village. She had only lived because she tore off her burning clothes. AP Photographer Nick Út and NBC cameraman Le Phuc Dinh filmed her and her family emerging from the village, after the air strike, running for their lives. This photo has become one of the most famous and memorable photos of Vietnam and won Nick Út the Pulitzer prize in 1972.
Air Strike on Trang Bang
AP reporter Nick Út was among a number of reporters sent to the small village of Trang Bang along Route 1, the highway that leads from Saigon towards the Cambodian border. Travelling with Nick was ITN correspondent, Christopher Wain, North Vietnamese troops had taken control of the Highway there and Nick was sent to cover the South Vietnamese soldiers from the 25th Army Division who were ordered to retake Trang Bang and open the Highway. When Nick arrived he and other reporters also on assignment stood with South Vietnamese soldiers just outside the village watching the action.
The South Vietnamese commander of the unit requested an air strike and propeller driven Skyraiders, Korean-war vintage planes from the 518th Vietnamese Airforce Squadron, dropped Napalm on the village. When the smoke cleared villagers from the Trang Bang ran screaming from the village to the soldiers and reporters up the road. Taking pictures with two cameras, his Leica and a Nikon with a long lens, Nick Út remembers seeing Kim Phuc running naked down the street:
As soon as she saw me, she said: “I want some water, I’m too hot, too hot,” – in Vietnamese, “Nong qua, nong qua!” And she wanted something to drink. I got her some water. She drank it and I told her I would help her. I picked up Kim and took her to my car. I ran up about 10 miles to Cu Chi hospital, to try to save her life. At the hospital, there were so many Vietnamese people – soldiers were dying there. They didn’t care about the children. Then I told them: “I am a media reporter, please help her, I don’t want her to die.” And the people helped her right away.
Christopher Wain also remembers the event after the napalm struck:
There was a blast of heat which felt like someone had opened the door of an oven. Then we saw Kim and the rest of the children. None of them were making any sound at all – until they saw the adults. Then they started to scream. We were short of film and my cameraman, the late, great Alan Downes, was worried that I was asking him to waste precious film shooting horrific pictures which were too awful to use. My attitude was that we needed to show what it was like, and to their lasting credit, ITN ran the shots.
Nick quickly released that without help Kim would die and so drove her and other injured family members to the hospital. Kim already thought she was doomed and while reporters and soldiers tried to treat her horrible wounds she told her brother Tam, “I think I am going to die.” Driving an hour to the provincial Vietnamese hospital in Cu Chi, halfway up the highway to Saigon, Kim passed out from the pain.
The hospital was used to war injuries, and after years of civil war knew that Kim’s chances of living were slim to none and tried to triage her, or put her aside so they could treat other wounded who had better chances of living. Only at Nick’s urging that the girl had been photographed and her picture would be shown all over the world did the hospital staff agree to operate. Nick didn’t leave to develop his film until she was put on the operating table. At first his editors refused to run it because she was naked but when nick explained that she had no clothes because they had been burned off her body they changed their minds and sent it around the world.
Life after the napalm
On June 12, 1972 then American President Richard Nixon was recorded talking to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, discussing the Vietnam War. Among other things he was recorded saying they should use the Atomic bomb in Vietnam and talking about Kim’s photo said, “I’m wondering if that was fixed,” Haldeman replied, “Could have been.”
While Nixon debated with his staff about whether she was a fraud Kim defied all expectations and after a 14 month hospital stay and 17 surgical procedures, she returned home to the napalm bombed village of, Trang Bang. Nick continued to visit until the fall of Saigon three years later, in 1975, when he along with other American media employees were evacuated.
As Kim grew up there was a lot of pressure from government and anti-war groups who forced her to be used as an anti-war symbol. She requested and was eventually granted permission to move to Cuba to study pharmacy. In was in Cuba that she meet her future husband, Bui Huy Tuan. They were married and a Korean friend paid for a vacation to Moscow in 1992. On the return flight their plane stopped over in Gander, Newfoundland, a province in Canada. As it was refuelling she and her husband walked off and defected to the Canadian government.
The two live in Ajax, Ontario Canada and have two children, Thomas and Stephen. In 1997 she established the Kim Foundation a non profit charitable organization that funds medical care for child victims of war around the world. For her charity work she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law from York University in Toronto, Ontario, in 2002, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002, and the Order of Ontario in 2004.
These days find her touring the world and giving speeches at churches and schools talking about her story, the Kim Foundation and her hopes for peace:
I should have died
My skin should have burned off my body
But I’m still beautiful, right?
…Don’t see a little girl crying out in fear and pain
See her as crying out for peace.
Who ordered the Strike
The picture has since became a powerful anti-war piece and symbolizes everything wrong with American involvement in Vietnam. This is ironic considering a South Vietnamese commander ordered an airstrike carried out by the South Vietnamese Airforce which was flown by Vietnamese pilots. By June 1972 the “Vietnamization” (The handing over of American duties to their South Vietnamese counterparts) in the country was in full swing and most Americans had been withdrawn back to the States.
But did America have any involvement in the air strike? In 1996 Kim gave speech at the United States Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Veterans Day where she said that we cannot change the past but can work for a peaceful future. After the speech, Vietnam war veteran John Plummer, now a Methodist minister, talked to some of his old buddies and got them to ask if she would like to meet him for he stated that he was the one who ordered the bombing. She accepted and they met briefly and Plummer remembers that, “as I approached her, she saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow. She held out her arms to me and we embraced. All I could say was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry’ over and over again. And I heard her saying to me “It’s all right. It’s all right. I forgive. I forgive.” He also claims that later in the day, they knelt together (Kim had converted to Christianity in Vietnam) and prayed together. Plummer said, “Finally, I was free. I had found peace.” .
Plummer claimed that he received a call from an American military adviser working with a South Vietnamese army unit, who requested an air strike on the village of Trang Bang. He relayed the request for a strike to U.S. Air Force personnel, who asked the South Vietnamese air force to launch it. Later, he saw the photo in Stars and Stripes, and recognized the bombing as one in which he was involved.
His version of events sparked a quite a bit of controversy as he originally was quoted as saying he ordered the attack. His former superior, retired Maj. Gen. Niles J. Fulwyler, was quoted as saying that Plummer didn’t have the authority to order the attack and that, “He did not direct that Vietnamese aircraft in that attack,”. In response to outraged Vietnam vets claiming he exaggerated his role in the bombing Plummer has since said that while he didn’t order the attack he definitely relayed the orders to others in the military machine.
Nick Ut (born March 29, 1951 as Huynh Cong Ut) is a Vietnamese photographer born in the town of Long An, then part of South Vietnam. On January 1, 1966 when Ut was only 14 he began to take photos for the Associated Press after his older brother Huynh Thanh My, another AP photographer, was killed in Vietnam. While covering the war Ut was wounded three times. When the South Vietnam fell Ut moved and worked for the Korean, and Japanese branches of AP before settling in Los Angles, America in 1977. Ut and his wife, Le Tuyet Hong, live in Monterey Park, California, with their two children.
In LA he became a celebrity photographer and in 2007 famously captured Paris Hilton being forced back to prison exactly 35 years after taking the Napalm Girl photo. When New York Daly News asked about the Paris Hilton shot Ut replied, “I was lucky to get the shot I did, I focused on her blond hair when she got out.” when asked about celebrity versus war photography, he only said, “It’s very different.” The Paris Hilton shot gained even more media controversy when it emerged that standing beside Ut was photographer Karl Larsen who took a similar shot. Many media outlets used Larsen’s picture and credited it as Ut’s. Larsen ended up having to sue stations like ABC for lost revenue.