Behind the camera: Larry Burrows Where: Close to Hill 484, near the DMZ in South Vietnam Photo Summary: Wounded Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Purdie reaching out to a fellow Marine near Hill 484. On the far left is 19-year-old, Navy corpsman Ron Cook and the man whose hand is touching Purdie’s shoulder is 18-year-old Private Dan King. Picture Taken: October 5, 1966
On the far left of the picture is, then 19-year-old, Navy corpsman Ron Cook (Gary Landers photo)
In September of 1966, American Marines were ordered to two granite peaks, Hill 400 and Hill 484, in the forested region of Quang Tri Province, just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The North Vietnamese forces were crossing the border and the Marines were sent to engage them.
Ron Cook a corpsman assigned to Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment remembers how much his unit struggled not just against the enemy but the infamous non-combat horrors of Vietnam. Disease-carrying mosquitoes, huge leeches, poisonous snakes were always a danger and all the while the rain meant that everything was wet all the time. At just 19 he struggled with caring for so many wounded.
I think any corpsman that served in Vietnam will say we were kids taking care of kids. We were put under the most stressful situations. I mean, when you’re an 18-year-old kid and they hand you 56 Marines and say, “Here, keep them alive if you can; the ones you can’t, we’ll just tag and bag and send them home to their mothers,’ it’s a lot of responsibility for a kid.
After days of fighting Hill 400 was secured and the engineers carved out a landing pad between Hill 400 and 484, an area that was called Mutter’s Ridge. While other units pushed on, Ron Cook’s Kilo company stayed to evacuate the wounded and regroup. It was here that the quiet English journalist, Larry Burrows, was able to take some pictures of the men.
LIFE editors didn’t initially publish this image, instead printing other pictures Burrows had taken. It wasn’t until February 1971, that LIFE published the image in an article commemorating the photographer who had recently gone missing in Laos.
He never got in the way. He never imposed, He blended into the background. He was very quiet. That’s why they called him ‘the compassionate photographer.’ – Ron Cook
Born in 1926 London Burrows dropped out of school to take a job at LIFE when he was just 16. He worked in the British photo labs during WWII and it is often rumored that it was he who was responsible for destroying Robert Capa’s D-Day negatives. After the war he became a photojournalist and arrived in Vietnam in 1962. He hoped to cover the Vietnam War until there was peace.
On February 10, 1971, four journalists (Kent Potter 23, Keisaburo Shimamoto 34, Henri Huet 43, Larry Burrows 44) were flying in a helicopter over Laos when they were shot down. After an extensive search, they were thought lost to the jungle. LIFE’s Managing Editor, Ralph Graves, wrote about the missing pilots who he thought had surely died in the crash:
I do not think it is demeaning to any other photographer in the world for me to say that Larry Burrows was the single bravest and most dedicated war photographer I know of. He spent nine years covering the Vietnam War under conditions of incredible danger, not just at odd times but over and over again. We kept thinking up other, safer stories for him to do, but he would do them and go back to the war. As he said, the war was his story, and he would see it through. His dream was to stay until he could photograph a Vietnam at peace.
It took until April of 2008 before the helicopter wreckage and the bodies were found.
Born March 22, 1931, in Newport News Jeremiah Purdie was the baby of seven children and lost his mother, Annie Purdie, due to childbirth complications when he was only 3 weeks old. At just 17-years-old he joined the Marines and even fought a few weeks in the tail end of the Korean War. He served in Vietnam until he was forced out.
I was over there three times and I won three Purple Hearts, so they had to take me out, That’s the law — three Purple Hearts and you’re out.
He died from heart failure at the age of 74 on May 06, 2005. In early May of 2014 former U.S. Postal Service member and 66 years-old Dan King was able to visit Purdie’s grave to his goodbyes, something he always dreamed of doing. Purdie’s family and members of his local Lumbee Warriors Association were able to join him.
Behind the camera: Huber Van Es Where: 22 Gia Long Street (now Ly Tu Trong Street), downtown Saigon where senior Central Intelligence Agency employees were housed. Photo Summary: South Vietnamese refugees fleeing communist forces Picture Taken: Tuesday, April 29, 1975
1975 saw the crumbling of the country of South Vietnam under the final North Vietnamese push to unite the two countries under Communist rule. Under the January 1973 Paris peace accords, America agreed to a near-total withdrawal of US forces in early 1973. The only Americans left in Saigon in 1975 were some private contractors and government officials there to back up the South Vietnamese government. However, a number of spectacular defeats of the South Vietnamese forces in central Vietnam led to a total rout of the South Vietnamese army. As Northern forces closed in on Saigon thousands rushed to escape the communists. Since the airport was vulnerable to communist forces the Americans initiated Operation Frequent Wind a helicopter evacuation of Saigon. This picture, on top of the CIA building, is a shot of one of those evacuations.
Taking the Picture
More from the series
Huber Van Es a dutch press agent was working at the UPI office which was in the penthouse of Saigon’s Peninsula Hotel. He was processing pictures from earlier in the day, shots of the evacuation of Foreign personal from Saigon. The “secret” code that was to signal the start of the evacuation was a quote on Armed Forces Radio: the comment that the temperature is rising, followed by eight bars of White Christmas. (Japanese journalists were concerned that they would not recognize the tune and had to get someone to sing it to them). The code was compromised and Van Es had a number of chaotic shots of Marines trying to keep crowds of Vietnamese at bay while only allowing foreigners on the evacuation buses.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon one of the journalists started shouting that there was a helicopter on the roof of another building. Van Es quickly ran to the penthouse balcony and observed that around four blocks away there was indeed a helicopter on a place called the ‘Pittman Apartments’. It was well known that the CIA and its officers lived there and it was revealed that several weeks earlier the roof had been reinforced with steel plates so that it could take the weight of a helicopter. Van Es recalls what happened next:
..I grabbed my camera and the longest lens left in the office — it was only 300 millimetres, but it would have to do — and dashed to the balcony. Looking at the Pittman Apartments, I could see 20 or 30 people on the roof, climbing the ladder to an Air America Huey helicopter. At the top of the ladder stood an American in civilian clothes, pulling people up and shoving them inside.
Of course, there was no possibility that all the people on the roof could get into the helicopter, and it took off with 12 or 14 onboard. (The recommended maximum for that model was eight.) Those left on the roof waited for hours, hoping for more helicopters to arrive, to no avail.
After shooting about 10 frames, I went back to the darkroom to process the film and get a print ready for the regular 5 p.m. transmission to Tokyo from Saigon’s telegraph office. In those days, pictures were transmitted via radio signals, which at the receiving end were translated back into an image. A 5-inch-by-7-inch black-and-white print with a short caption took 12 minutes to send.
Hubert didn’t want to evacuate with the other foreigners instead choosing to see the war play out. He remembers that, “As a Dutch citizen, I was probably taking less of a risk than the others.”. He stayed in Saigon until he was invited by the new regime to leave on June 1, 1975. He has since returned a number of times to Vietnam but is based out of Hong Kong where he died on May 15, 2009. His wife said that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage a week earlier and never regained consciousness. He was 67 years old.
Operation Frequent Wind
Another color picture
North Vietnamese artillery shells and rockets had been pounding the Tan Son Nhut airport forcing it to shut down for a time on April 28. The next day a U.S. C-130 transport was hit by a rocket on the runway and burst into flames as the crew escaped. When the airport at Tan Son Nhut was deemed unsafe by the man in charge of American personal, Graham Martin the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, advised President Ford to start Operation Frequent Wind. At 10:45 p.m. April 29, the President ordered Operation Frequent Wind to commence. During the operation, some 6,236 passengers were removed to the safety of American ships offshore, despite severe harassing fire. To some, however, it seemed that the DAO area and the evacuation process itself were deliberately spared by the North Vietnamese.
On April 29 and 30, 662 US military airlift flights took place between Saigon and ships 80 miles away. Ten Air Force HH/CH-53s flew 82 missions, while 61 Marine Corps CH-46s and CH-53s flew 556 sorties. There were 325 support aircraft sorties by Marine, Navy, and USAF aircraft. Air America, the CIA private “mercenary” airline, joined in, even though having flown 1,000 sorties in the previous month.
The Rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street, Saigon in 2002
On April 30, 4:58 a.m. a CH-46 helicopter, call sign “Lady Ace 09,” flown by Capt. Jerry Berry transported ambassador Martin from the embassy roof to the waiting US fleet. All that was left in the embassy was a group of Marines left to provide security for Martin’s take-off. Due to a miscommunication, it was assumed that the marines left on this flight. It wasn’t until the Ambassador had landed on the USS Okinawa that the mistake was discovered. Almost three hours after ambassador Martin’s helicopter lifted off, at 7:53 a.m., the last flight of Operation Frequent Wind took the Marine personnel who had been defending the embassy to the waiting USS Okinawa. They abandoned around 300 South Vietnamese in the embassy and hundreds more outside the embassy who had been promised a way out.
Behind the camera: Slava ‘Sal’ Veder Where: Travis Air Force Base, in California Photo Summary: The Stirm family running to their father, Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm. In the lead is 15 year old Lorrie followed by Robert Jr., Cindy, Roger and wife Loretta. Picture Taken: March 17, 1973
With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973 American involvement in the Vietnam was over. Through a series of diplomatic negotiations a deal was reached with the North Vietnamese government that allowed the return of 591 American POWs held by the communists. In Operation Homecoming from February 12 to April 4 there were 54 flights out of Hanoi, North Vietnam to bring the POWs home. One of these runs was the plane with Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm. After giving a short speech Stirm’s family ran across the tarmac to greet their father who they hadn’t seen in six years. Slava “Sal” Veder who was working for the Associated Press caught this image. It went on to win the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for photography.
Taking the photo
The March 17th flight bringing 20 POWs home from Vietnam had a lot of press come out with a large crowd of around 400 family members and supporters. 46 year old Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder on assignment saw that after Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm finished his speech his family had appeared on the runway. “You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air,” he said. He snapped off a couple of shots and then rushed to the makeshift AP darkroom that had been set up in the Air Base ladies’ bathroom (United Press International were in the men’s). He and another AP photographer, Walt Zeboski, picked six to develop. Sal picked his favorite, titled it Burst of Joy and sent it out over the wire. It was published across the country and because Lt. Col. Stirm’s had his back turned towards the camera the anonymous image came to represent all the Vietnam homecomings.
Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm
Robert Stirm was born in San Francisco, California, in 1933. In 1953 he joined the Aviation Cadet Program and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force on November 3, 1954. He served as a fighter pilot in Holland before getting training in the F-105 Thunderchief and going to Vietnam in August 1967. On October 27, 1967 Stirm was leading a flight of F-105Ds over Canal Des Rapides Bridge, Hanoi when he was shot down and captured that night. Before October 27th he had flown 33 combat missions. Throughout his six years as a POW he was held in several camps including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He endured starvation, torture and a total of 281 days in solitary confinement. For part of his imprisonment he shared a cell with future politician John McCain. Robert Stirm remained in military service after his return retiring as a colonel in 1977. He lives in Foster City, California.
The Stirm family
Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, a recently released prisoner of war, greets his family upon his arrival at Travis Air Force Base.
While in the Air Force Robert Stirm married his wife Loretta on February 6, 1955. They had four children Lorrie Alynne, Robert L. Jr., Roger David and Cynthia “Cindy” Leigh. Lorrie was only 9 when her father was shot down. After 6 long years he finally came home. While her Dad gave a speech on behalf of the 20 POWs on their flight the family was stuck in the Stirm’s station wagon on the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base. Minutes passed that seemed like hours but finally with the formalities over, the children jumped out of the car and ran to their father. Lorrie remembers that she “just wanted to get to Dad as fast as I could, We didn’t know if he would ever come home … That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true.”
The happiness of the reunion didn’t last long. Three days before Stirm returned to America a chaplain had handed a Dear John letter from his wife. When he returned they tried to keep the marriage alive. Lorrie remembers “So much had happened—there was so much that my dad missed out on—and it took a while to let him back into our lives and accept his authority.” Robert and Loretta Stirm divorced within a year. His wife remarried in 1974 moving to Texas with her husband. Robert Stirm also remarried but this marriage too ended in divorce.
The oldest Robert became a dentist and the younger Robert, like his father, joined the Air Force rising to the rank of Major. Lorrie the oldest is an executive administrator and the youngest daughter Cindy is a waitress. Except for pilot Robert, who lives in Seattle, they all live in California. All four keep the picture mounted in their houses. “We have this very nice picture of a very happy moment,” Lorrie says, “but every time I look at it, I remember the families that weren’t reunited, and the ones that aren’t being reunited today—many, many families—and I think, I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Slava J. Veder was born on August 30, 1926 in Berkeley, California. An alumni of Modesto Junior College, Pacific College and Sacramento State. After working in several jobs such as fireman, sportswriter for the Richmond Independent and staff on the Oakland Hockey Club in 1949 he joined the Almeda Times-Star before moving to the Tulsa World were he got work as an editor. In 1956 he left the Tulsa World and worked for a number of papers around America working as an editor. In 1961 he returned to California to work for the AP in Sacramento before transferring to the AP San Francisco office. It was in San Fran that he took Burst of Joy and a year later won the Pulitzer.
Behind the camera: Associated Press photographer Nick Út (Also known as Huynh Cong Út), ITN news crew including Christopher Wain and cameraman great Alan Downes. Also there was NBC cameraman Le Phuc Dinh who filmed Kim running towards the reporters. Where: On the Vietnamese highway (Route 1) that leads from Saigon towards the Cambodian border just outside the village of Trang Bang, about 25 miles WNW of Saigon. Photo Summary: Kim Phuc (aged 9) running naked in the middle with her older brother, Phan Thanh Tam (12), crying out to the left. Her younger brother, Phan Thanh Phuoc (5), to the left looking back at the village and to the right are Kim Phu’s small cousins Ho Van Bo, a boy, and Ho Thi Ting, a girl. Picture Taken: June 8, 1972
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 airstrike, 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 airstrike 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 become 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 airstrike? In 1996 Kim gave a 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 airstrike 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 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 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.
Behind the camera: Eddie Adams Where: In Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, Vietnam Photo Summary: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem Picture Taken: Feb 1, 1968
After Nguyen Ngoc Loan raised his sidearm and shot Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem in the head he walked over to the reporters and told them that, “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.” Captured on NBC TV cameras and by AP photographer Eddie Adams, the picture and film footage flashed around the world and quickly became a symbol of the Vietnam War’s brutality. Eddie Adams’ picture was especially striking, as the moment frozen is one almost at the instant of death. Taken a split second after the trigger was pulled, Lem’s final expression is one of pain as the bullet rips through his head. A closer look of the photo actually reveals the bullet exiting his skull.
Nguyen Ngoc Loan
“Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan” – Eddie Adams. Nguyen Ngoc Loan was one of 11 children born to an affluent family in the ancient city of Hue. He finished university at the top of his class and trained as a jet pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force. It was in the air force that he meets, Nguyen Cao Ky, the flamboyant pilot who once flew a helicopter into the courtyard of his girlfriend’s house to impress her. Ky would later become Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, and then Vice President until his retirement from politics in 1971. When in power Ky Surrounded himself with trusted men including his friend, Nguyen Ngoc Loan who he put in charge of the national police. As police chief Loan immediately gained a reputation among reporters for his anger and hair-trigger temper when the Vietcong struck civilian targets.
Nguyen Van Lem
The guy killed one of … Loan’s officers and wiped out his whole family
The prisoner whose last instant is captured in Adam’s shot was Nguyen Van Lem. A Viet Cong operative, who like other Viet Cong agents went by the secret name of Captain Bay Lop (Lop was his wife’s first name). His wife, who still lives in Saigon (Now Ho Chi Minh City), confirms that Lem was a member of the Vietcong and that he disappeared shortly before the Tet Offensive never to return. Lem’s role in the Viet Cong is murky. Most reports give him the role of a Captain in a Viet Cong assassination and revenge platoon responsible for the killing of South Vietnamese policemen and their families. Eddie Adams was told by Loan that Lem had killed one of Loan’s friends and his family, “They found out that [Lem] was the same guy who killed one of his —uh—Loan’s officers and wiped out his whole family.” Yet facing international pressure when the picture and footage aired Vice President Ky, said the prisoner had not been in the Viet Cong but was “a very high ranking” communist political official. History hasn’t clarified Lem’s role in the Vietcong and the Vietnamese government has never acknowledged his role in the war. Lem’s widow and children lived in poverty for years before being discovered by a Japanese TV crew living in a field. It was only then that the Vietnamese government provided her shelter.
Taking the picture
He was a hero … very well loved by the Vietnamese
-Eddie Adams on General Loan
Adams, the man who captured Lem’s final instant was a former Marine photographer in the Korean War. Working for AP, he had arrived in Vietnam a few weeks before the Tet Offensive. This was his third tour; the first was when marines initially touched down in Vietnam in 1965. On the second day of the Tet Offensive Eddie heard reports of fighting near the Cholon, the Chinese section of the capital. The AP and NBC were office neighbors and often pooled resources when reporting the war. So Eddie teamed up with one of NBC’s cameramen, Vo Su, and went to check out the location where the fighting was reported.
The two shared a vehicle but as they got closer started to proceed on foot. Hal Buell, Eddie’s boss, tells what happened next:
Adams watched as two Vietnamese soldiers pulled a prisoner out of a doorway at the end of the street. The soldiers then pushed and pulled what appeared to be a Viet Cong in a plaid shirt, his arms tied behind his back. They escorted the man toward the spot where Adams and Vo Su were located.
“Eddie Adams said, ‘I just followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. When they were close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture – the threat, the interrogation. But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.’ “The prisoner fell to the pavement, blood gushing,” Buell, quoting Eddie. “After a few more pictures of the dead man, Adams left.
NBC also acquired film footage of the incident, thanks to the South Vietnamese journalist with Adams, Vo Suu, a cameraman for NBC correspondent Howard Tuckner. The color footage of the execution filmed by Vo Suu was shown to a stunned America already shocked by images of a supposed “defeated” on the offensive during the Tet attack.
After the picture and footage flashed across the world there were cries for Loan to be charged with War Crimes for his summary execution of Lem. Loan’s execution would have violated the Geneva Conventions for captured soldiers or Prisoners of War (POWs) if Lem had been wearing a military uniform. Since Lem was caught wearing civilian clothes, a plaid shirt and black shorts, Loan was only restricted by the laws of the South Vietnamese government, which allowed the use of such harsh measures.
After the War
His Vietnam execution shot won Eddie Adams the Pulitzer Prize for the Associated Press in 1969. He has always felt guilty over his role in demonizing Loan. After the picture was released in 1969 the AP assigned Adams to follow Loan around Vietnam. In this time Adams remembers, “I . . . found out the guy was very well loved by the Vietnamese, you know. He was a hero to them . . . and it just saddens me that none of this has really come out.”
Adams would later do a series of shots of 48 Vietnamese boat people who had managed to get to Thailand in a small 30ft boat, only to be towed back out to sea by Thai military officials. His reports and picture convinced President Jimmy Carter to grant asylum to over 200,000 Vietnamese boat people. “I would have rather won the Pulitzer for something like that. It did some good and nobody got hurt.”
General Loan Taken out of Action
The guy was a hero. America should be crying
-Eddie Adams on hearing of Loan’s death
In May 1968 only a few months after the execution picture, now, Brigadier General Loan was seriously wounded. While leading the charge against a Viet Cong strong point a machine gun burst had ripped off his leg. Once again a photograph captured Loan. This time the general was bleeding profusely while the broad-shouldered Australian war correspondent, Pat Burgess, carried him back to his lines.
Loan was taken to Australia for treatment but when it was discovered who he was there was such an outcry from the Australian public he was moved to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. After recovering from his injuries the one-legged Loan returned to Saigon where because he had been relieved of his command due to his injuries devoted his time to set up hospitals and the helping Vietnamese war orphans.
General to Pizza Cook
When South Vietnam fell to the north in 1975, Loan at almost the last moment made it out of the country on a South Vietnamese plane after being denied help by the fleeing Americans. He settled in the United States eventually opening a pizzeria in northern Virginia. He lived a quiet life until he was forced to close his restaurant in 1991 when his identity was discovered. In 1998, at 67, he died of cancer but is survived by his four children his wife, Chinh Mai; and nine grandchildren. “The guy was a hero. America should be crying,” Eddie Adams response when he learned of Loan’s death.
I won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for a photograph of one man shooting another … The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still, photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?” General Loan was what you would call a real warrior, admired by his troops. I’m not saying what he did was right, but you have to put yourself in his position.
…This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. I had kept in contact with him; the last time we spoke was about six months ago when he was very ill.
I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”
Life After the Picture
Eddie Adams born on June 12, 1933, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania has covered 13 wars but has also become famous as a magazine cover photographer. His pictures have been seen on magazines and newspaper covers around the world including Time, Newsweek, Life, Paris Match, Parade, Penthouse, Vogue, The London Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, Stern and Vanity Fair. (Yes Penthouse! He shot a number of “Pets” in the 70s) He has shot cover shots for some of the most famous people in the world, presidents Richard Nixon to President Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Anwar Sadat, Deng Xiaoping, Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II. In 1988 he started an annual photo event, Barnstorm: The Eddie Adams Photojournalism Workshop. For four days the workshop brings together newbies and seasoned pros in the Photojournalism field for photography, editing tips and networking.
Eddie Adams himself lived to 71 when on September 18, 2004, he died from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The Vietnam war correspondent who carried the wounded Loan to safety, Pat Burgess, also died from painful sclerosis of the nervous system, similar to the type Eddie Adams had.
The North Vietnamese failed to achieve any of their goals with the Tet Offensive. The attack was a military disaster for the Vietnamese and Vietcong forces where never able to return to the pre-Tet strength. However, in the eyes of the American pubic, it seemed like America had been the one that had been dealt a serious blow. The Offensive contradicted the message from the White House that the USA was winning. The execution photograph was a part of the media presentation of the Tet Offensive and seemed to present a battle that had been reduced to desperation and savagery. Yet for all the emotional impact that the film and picture had, the event had little effect on the presence of American soldiers in Vietnam. American G.I.s stayed for another five years. The American government still continued funding the South Vietnamese for another seven years, until 1975; the same year South Vietnam fell.
The copyright for this image is handled by AP Images.
Behind the camera: Ronald L. Haeberle Where: Sơn Mỹ village, Sơn Tịnh district of South Vietnam Photo Summary: Victims of the My Lai massacre Picture Taken: March 16, 1968
In the early 70s, a poster was created to protest the Vietnam War. It combined photos taken by U.S. Army combat photographer Ronald L. Haeberle and a quote from a Mike Wallace CBS News television interview. Due to the ambiguous copyright status of the photo, it has appeared in numerous media including newspapers, magazines, poster runs, etc.
Creating the poster
In 1970 a group of Vietnam War activists called the Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC) created the And babies poster. AWC members Irving Petlin, Jon Hedricks, and Fraser Dougherty took text from an ABC interview, “And babies? And babies” and overlaid it onto the Haeberle’s photo. Peter Brandt donated enough paper for fifty thousand copies of the poster. While printing the printer staff showed intense hostility towards the AWC as the blue-collar workers were patriotic to the core and viewed any attack on government policy as an attack on the country. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) initially agreed to distribute the poster as a political statement that it was outraged by the My Lai massacre. Another obstacle encountered was when it went to MoMA directors William S. Paley and Nelson Rockefeller vetoed distributing it under the policy that the MoMA could not commit, “to any position on any matter not directly related to a specific function of the museum.” While they refused to fund the distribution they relented to allow independent distribution but the MoMA name could be used as the source of the creation. The poster was quickly snapped up and was spread and reproduced all over the world.
Exposing the photo
Only one week from finishing his tour of duty Ronald Haeberle was an Army photographer (31st Public Information Detachment) when on March 16, 1968, he accompanied Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division on an operation to the Sơn Mỹ village, Sơn Tịnh district of South Vietnam. On that day the Americans killed around three to five hundred villagers in what would become known as the My Lai Massacre. Haeberle later testified that he personally saw about 30 different American soldiers kill about 100 civilians. He recalled that he saw “Guys were about to shoot [the villagers]. I yelled, ‘hold it’, and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M16s open up. From the corner of my eye, I saw bodies falling, but I didn’t turn to look.” In another interview, he remembers that he ” didn’t make it to certain parts of the village where other things were going on, the rapes and the cutting of tongues and scalping and all that stuff. I didn’t see any of that.
The massacre would go unnoticed by the public until Haeberle haunted by his role in the event started to publish his pictures and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh took up the story after collaborating Haeberle’s pictures with the interviews from those involved in the massacre. Hersh tried to get his story published but most refused to believe that the event actually happened. Then a small publication the, The Plain Dealer, the major daily newspaper of Cleveland, Ohio was approached by Haeberle. Mike Roberts, a Plain Dealer Washington bureau reporter remembers that “No one believed [Hersh’s story] Bill Ware, the [Plain Dealer’s] executive editor, called; he wasn’t sure if we should go with it. Almost simultaneously, this kid comes forward with these pictures — Haeberle’s photographs legitimized the story.” In the course of verifying Haeberle story an Army prosecutor named Aubrey Daniel called and in strong language suggested that the paper halt publication of the photos. Another reporter at the paper remembered “Daniel told us, ‘You have no right to run those photos because [Haeberle] was using an Army camera,… And we told him he’d had his own camera, too.”
Eventually, 20 months after Charlie Company had mowed down hundreds of Vietnamese Hersh’s story was published and was picked up on the wire by over 30 publications. Around the same time, Haeberle got his gory photos published in LIFE magazine for $20,000. The media coverage combined with the efforts of soldier Ron Ridenhour exposed the massacre to the world. Ridenhour had found out about the event through other soldiers and when he returned to America started a letter campaign that was mostly ignored until Congressman Morris Udall (D) started to investigate. For his persistence in trying to get the story published Seymour Hersh received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.
On December 14, 1969, Mike Wallace, with CBS News, did a television interview with one of the soldiers, Paul Meadlo, who participated in the massacre. The text for the poster was taken from this interview:
Q:How many people did you round up?
A:Well, there was about forty, fifty people that we gathered in the center of the village. And we placed them in there, and it was like a little island, right there in the center of the village, I7d say … And …
Q:What kind of people – men, women, children?
A:Men, women, children.
A:Babies. And we huddled them up. We made them squat down and Lieutenant Calley came over and said, “You know what to do with them don’t you?” And I said yes. So I took it for granted that he just wanted us to watch them. And he left, and came back about ten or fifteen minutes later and said, “How come you ain’t killed them yet?” And I told him that I didn’t think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them. He said, “No, I want them dead.” So-
Q:He told this to all of you, or to you particularly?
A:Well, I was facing him. So, but the other three, four, guys heard it and so he stepped back about ten, fifteen feet, and he started shooting them. And he told me to start shooting. So I started shooting, I poured about four clips into the group.
Q:You fired four clips from your …
Q:And that’s about how many clips – I mean, how many –
A:I carried seventeen rounds to each clip.
Q:So you fired something like sixty-seven shots?
Q:And you killed how many? At that time?
A:Well, I fired them automatic, so you can’t know hom any you killed ’cause they were going fast. So I might have killed ten or fifteen of them.
A:Men, women and children?
Q:Men, women and children.
Copy right status
Ronald L. Haeberle took the photo while in the American military as a US army combat photographer. As such any work, he did as a government employee should fall into the public domain. However, Haeberle used multiple cameras; the first was his black and white Army issued camera and the second was his personal camera that used color film. Therefore the copyright is uncertain as he used his own camera to take the, “And babies”, poster photo. Further clouding the status of the photo is that text is overlapped over of the photo making it an altered original work of art, much like the more modern Fairey Obama Poster. Regardless of the poster status, just the photo was published by Time/Life and Haeberle granted reproduction rights to the AWC without charge on December 16, 1970.
John Morris, the photo editor for The New York Times at the time remembers:
In late morning, we received word that London papers, copying the photos from The Plain Dealer, were going ahead without payment, ignoring the copyright. The New York Post followed, in its early afternoon edition. Rosenthal decreed that it would now be ridiculous for The Times to pay. We would publish “as a matter of public interest.” The next day, November 22,  The Times ran one My Lai picture on page three—downplayed to avoid sensationalism.
Behind the camera: Art Greenspon Where: Ashau Valley near Hue, Vietnam Photo Summary: Soldier with hands raised directing a medical evacuation helicopter to remove wounded men of A Company, 101st Airborne Division Picture Taken: April 01, 1968 3:00 PM
Art Greenspon, who was then 26-years old, had travelled to Vietnam and was promptly hired as an AP stringer. While stationed with American 101st Airborne Division near Hue he captured this picture of a man with his hands raised directing a medical evacuation helicopter to remove wounded men of A Company, 101st Airborne.
The Ashau Valley near Hue, Vietnam was one of the main thoroughfares of the Ho Chi Ming Trail, a supply line that provided weapons and supplies to the Vietcong fighting Western-backed forces in South Vietnam. As such South Vietnamese forces often backed by American units frequently patrolled the valley seeking to stop the flow of war material.
During one such American 5-day patrol a firefight between communist fighters and the 101st Airborne troops resulted in a number of wounded. While covering the evac Art Greenspon took this picture.
When the image was sent back to the States and hit the wire famed photographer Douglas Duncan proclaimed that it was a “masterpiece” and the best picture of the war yet.
Greenspon’s shot is, of course, anchored upon the solider – head thrown back arms reaching toward the heaven … and help .. silhouetted against the dust of battle deep in the Vietnam Forest. He represents all soldiers in every war: the fact that he is guiding a rescue chopper is irrelevant … I salute this masterpiece. –Douglas Duncan
While covering the war, on May 5, 1968, later a bullet passed through a LIFE photographer’s hand before hitting Greenspon between the eyes. He returned to New York to recover from the shoot.
A few days later during this battle Tim Lickness, from the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division was handling medical evacuations. After a helo was hit by enemy fire and crashed he organized a rescue mission to get the surviving crew members. As he did participate in medical evacuations after April 1st, he might be one of the people in this picture.
Movie still from Platoon and the Greenspon shot
Movie Director Oliver Stone created one of the most iconic Vietnam War movies, Platoon. A veteran of the war himself Oliver Stone struggled to recreate his experiences in Vietnam. He was inspired by Greenspon’s image and created a memorable scene where Willem Dafoe’s character, Elias Barnes, is hit by enemy fire and throws his hands in the air, Christ-like, as he collapses in death. David Parsons a professor of the University of New York describes Stone’s effort of replicating this scene as trying to change the image of the American GI from aggressor to victim of the Vietnam War.
As the immediate politics of the war waned in the 1980s, American popular culture began to explore its human costs in different terms, most often locating the war’s tragedy in the experiences and suffering of American combat troops. In this version of the Vietnam War narrative, Americans themselves become posed (both literally and metaphorically) as victims, helpless to even comprehend the scope of the tragedy that has befallen them.
Behind the camera: Horst Faas Where: Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam Photo Summary: 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion member Larry Wayne Chaffin on guard duty at the Phouc Vinh airstrip Picture Taken: June 18, 1965
the unidentified Army soldier picture was shot June 18, 1965, and the soldier was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam.
All match-up with Chaffin’s war record and where he was deployed. According to the 173rd’s records on June 18, 1965, the units were sent to the town of Dong Xoai north of War Zone “D” after reports of Viet Cong activity. There was no contact and so they returned to their base but that the deployment was successful as the Americans were able to deploy a battalion task force within hours.
Later when Chaffin was discharged from the army his wife, Fran Chaffin Morrison, met him at the airport. She remembers that after getting off his plane he showed this portrait in a Stars and Stripes publication to which he joked that this “picture is going to make me rich sometime.”
Like a lot of Vietnam Vets, he had trouble adjusting to life back home and died at the age of 39 from complications that arose from diabetes. The family is convinced that diabetes was a result of his exposure to the infamous Agent Orange, a defoliant agent used in Vietnam and linked to multiple health issues. He died December 3, 1985, and is buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.
War is hell. The army defended the country and contributed greatly to its peace. Chaffin was among many soldiers who sacrificed their health and even their lives during the war. Our respect for them and our honor for them should be most sincere.
Are you going to pay tribute to them in any way? We can support and donate to their families. We can also make their photos or names into custom Army Challenge Coins. Because in military culture, challenge coins are a symbol of honor. The custom army challenge coins are a great way to remember their honor and sacrifice and to show our appreciation for them. Additionally, the governments should try their best to keep war and hell away from soldiers who are serving, as well as the peaceful life of today.
Fass was born in Germany and started his photography career at 21. During the Vietnam War, he was a photo-editor as well as a photojournalist. He was instrumental at getting two of the most famous Vietnam War pictures published the Vietnam Execution and the shot of naked Vietnamese girl running down the road. He 1967 an injury after he was hit by an RPG almost ended his life and left him with serious injuries to his legs. As chief photographer for the Associated Press (AP) in Saigon he won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize and then in 1972 Faas won a second Pulitzer Prize for his pictures of torture and executions in Bangladesh.
Behind the camera: Malcome Browne Where: Phan-Dinh-Phung St. Photo Summary: Thich Quang Duc igniting himself on fire to protest South Vietnamese religious policy Picture Taken: June 11th, 1963
On June 11th, 1963 a Buddhist protest march was making its way down one of Saigon’s busiest arteries, Phan-Dinh-Phung St. The procession of around 400 Buddhist monks and Nuns moved through the city until they hit Le-Van-Duyet St where a light blue Austin that was part of the procession, the car is seen in the background of the picture, stopped. The hood was raised as if the car had engine trouble while the nuns and monks in the parade quickly surrounded the car forming a circle of some seven monks deep. Thich Quang Duc a 66-year-old monk calmly got out of the car and walked to the center of the circle sitting on a cushion provided for him. His religious brothers removed a jerry can of fuel from the car and proceeded to pour it over Quang-Duc who was now meditating in the lotus position. Quang-Duc with his Buddhist prayer beads in his right hand, then opened a box of matches, lit one and was instantly engulfed in flames. He did not move while his body was incinerated, while Malcome Browne the only western reporter present snapped the picture of the monk on fire.
Malcome Browne’s image, that would later get him the Pulitzer prize that year, was on news covers around the world including the desk of American President, JFK. When Kennedy saw the image he was heard to remark, “Jesus Christ … This sort of thing has got to stop.” Marking the beginning of the end of American support for the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.
For many, the story was their first introduction to religion not then common outside of Asia, Buddhism. Time, in its article “Faith that Lights” article attempted to introduce a faith that would inspire it’s followers to light themselves on fire. When describing the Eightfold Path Time told it’s readers that Buddhism was “full of pitfalls,” and that “in many Western ways, Buddhism is socially useless. It has only a limited tradition of good works,”.
Thich Quang Duc
Thich Quang Duc
Thich Quang Duc, real name Lam Van Tuc, was born in rural Vietnam in 1897. At the age of seven, he entered the religious life becoming a disciple of the Zen master Hoang Tham. At twenty he officially became a monk spending the next decade and a half in the remote Ninh Hoa Mountains. In 1932 he came out of isolation and started teaching Buddhism and also spending time rebuilding Buddhist pagodas. By 1942 he had rebuilt 20 pagodas and the same year moved to Saigon where he settled into the Quan The Am temple eventually becoming the Head of rituals Committee of the United Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation.
During Vietnam’s time as a French colony, Catholicism spread throughout with the colonial government favoring Catholics for key positions in the government, army, and police. By 1963, South Vietnam was ruled by a dictatorial leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. Under Diem, most of South Vietnam’s power was held in the hands of Catholics. Diem’s regime oppressed the Buddhist majority, who made up some 80% of the country. Most high-ranking government figures were Catholic, and Buddhists were being discriminated against in Universities and government jobs. Government policy followed a strict Catholic morality such as, “bans on dancing, contraceptives, divorce, and polygamy, [that ran] counter to customs and beliefs of the majority.“ Buddhists were not allowed to teach or practice their own religion, and protesting monks and nuns were being beaten, detained and tortured by Diem’s secret police. Even in the fight against the communists, it was only the Catholics who were given weapons with which to fight the Viet Cong. It was this intense religious persecution that Thich Quang Duc was protesting against, not the ongoing guerrilla war with the Vietcong.
The ancient city of Hue is arguably the heartland of Buddhism in Vietnam. Hue is also the birthplace of Diem, South Vietnam’s leader. Ruled by Diem’s two brothers — one as a major/warlord, the other ruled as the Catholic archbishop. In May 1963 Diem celebrated the anniversary of his brother’s promotion to the archbishop in a ceremony where the gold and white Catholic flag flew next to Vietnam’s national flag. The two raised flags were a direct violation of South Vietnam Law prohibiting any flag but the national flag to be flown. Only days later, Hue’s Buddhist community attempted to fly its own five-colored flag to celebrate the 2,587th anniversary of Buddha’s birthday. The government said no and when people took to the streets in protest, 9 people were killed by government forces firing into the crowd. Diem tried to blame the deaths on the communists but the damage was done.
The car seen in the background has been saved and still be viewed
People spilled onto the streets demanding change. The Buddhist monks disregarded as meditating, out of touch, holy men proved surprisingly knowledgeable on how to use the modern media, calling reporters, using English signs, in an effort to get their plight to the outside world. The monks strived to push a common message making the following request of the Diem regime: “Lift its ban on flying the traditional Buddhist flag; Grant Buddhism the same rights as Catholicism; Stop detaining Buddhists; Give Buddhist monks and nuns the right to practice and spread their religion; and Pay fair compensations to the victim’s families and punish those responsible for their deaths.” Reporters who had been slugging it out in the rice paddies covering the fight against the Vietcong quickly moved back into the cities to cover this urban civil unrest. Foreign journalists soon had their phones ringing off the hook as they received tip after tip telling them about the next demonstration.
Taking the photo
Present day picture of the Intersection. Located at Phan Dinh Phung Boulevard and Le Van Duyet Street in HCMC
As early as the spring of 1963, Western reporters knew of Buddhist plans to use staged suicides as a form of protest. These plans were never taken seriously as no one could imagine that the priests of a religion that was regarded as nonviolent would condone suicide. Even after the deaths from the flag incident, the Buddhists followed a policy of non-violent marches and peaceful rallies. When June rolled around it was painfully obvious that the strategy wasn’t working. The protests, “were having no impact on the general populace,” and the foreign news media had “lost interest completely.” So the monks moved to Plan B and escalate the protest. In secret experiments, they discovered that gasoline burned too fast risking horribly burning the protester and prolonging the agony. They solved the problem by creating a diesel and gas mix that would burn hot yet burn long enough to guarantee death. By early June the foreign media started ignoring the phone tips that told them where the next protest was. That is everyone but Malcome Browne:
…So while other correspondents got tired of the endless Buddhist street demonstrations that were going on all that summer, I stuck with them, because I had the sense that sooner or later something would happen. [The night before the Quang-Duc protest, a message was sent] to half a dozen other American correspondents, but they all ignored it. I did not. That morning a Buddhist monk went out and sat down in a main intersection in downtown Saigon. Two of his fellow monks poured gasoline over him, and he set himself on fire [at 9:22 AM] and died [13 min later]. I was there, the only western correspondent present and taking pictures. I suppose I took six or eight rolls of 35-millimeter film … [By 10:45AM he had the film en route to Tokyo]
It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end. At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed, but you could see from his expression that he was exposed to intense agony and that he was dying on the spot … I’ve been asked a couple times whether I could have prevented the suicide. I could not. There was a phalanx of perhaps two hundred monks and nuns who were ready to block me if I tried to move. A couple of them chucked themselves under the wheels of a fire truck that arrived. But in the years since, I’ve had this searing feeling of perhaps having in some way contributed to the death of a kind old man who probably would not have done what he did — nor would the monks, in general, have done what they did — if they had not been assured of the presence of a newsman who could convey the images and experience to the outer world. Because that was the whole point — to produce theater of the horrible so striking that the reasons for the demonstrations would become apparent to everyone.
The heart refused to burn after Thich Quang Duc was cremated
Browne would later recount that the monks at the protest had trouble getting Thich Quang Duc horribly burnt corpse into a casket, “because he was splayed out in all directions.” After the protest, Duc’s body was burned again when his fellow monks cremated him. The monks claim that his body was reduced to ashes except for his heart which while singed was still intact. The organ was declared Holy and is still kept as a holy artifact by the monks. Before Duc died he composed a letter to explain his actions and asked people to unite and work towards the preservation of Buddhism in Vietnam and around the world. This became known as the Letter of Heart Blood.
Diem’s regime handled the burning badly. He quickly tried to pass off the whole protest as a Buddhist plot with monks working somehow with the communists. He tarred Browne with the same brush claiming that the enemy had bribed him. Things were made worse when Madame Nhu a famous outspoken relative of Diem was quoted as saying, “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbeque show…” After this quote, Madame Nhu became known and feared as the “Dragon Lady”.
The regime was so outraged over the whole incident, and in a later protest, the secret police cornered and beat Browne and some reporter colleagues, including Peter Arnett. Browne, the actual target was able to half climb a pole while Arnett took the brunt of the blows. He was eventually pulled down and his camera smashed but not before he snapped off a few pictures with the same Minolta camera that captured Duc’s burning body. One of the pictures Browne salvaged from the camera was of famous Vietnam correspondent David Halberstam brawling with the police while trying to pull Arnett to safety.
Thich Quang Duc’s suicide was the first of many other self-immolations around Vietnam. The Buddhist protest exposed the hypocrisy of the American policy in Vietnam. The question of how could the white house claim to be protecting freedom by supporting Diem when the government practiced such severe religious persecution was not answered. After a crackdown on the Buddhist protests began, America cut off aid and the White House became hostile after more and more monks and nuns doused themselves in fuel and lit themselves on fire. When American intelligence learned of a plot to assassinate Diem in a coup attempt, US officials contacted the conspirators and assured them that the U.S. would not interfere. On Nov 2, 1963, Diem and his younger brother were killed.
The Photographer – Malcolm Browne
On April 17, 1931, Malcolm Wilde Browne was born in New York. He left Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with a degree in chemistry and was quickly drafted and almost served out his enlistment as a tank driver but instead worked for the military newspaper which jump-started his interest in journalism.
Malcolm Browne spent forty years documenting world events thirty of which he worked for the New York Times. Much of that time was spent in war zones and he has been shot at, thrown out of over a dozen countries and for his work in South Vietnam even put on a death list. While in Vietnam he met his wife Le Lieu and the two have been together ever since. It was Le Lieu who notified the world that at 81, on August 27, 2012, Browne lost his fight against Parkinson’s disease. He was survived by his wife, a son, Timothy; a daughter, Wendy, from a previous marriage; a brother, Timothy; and a sister, Miriam.