‘Napalm Girl’ at 50: The story of the Vietnam War’s defining photo

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

In Snap, we look at the power of a single photograph, chronicling stories about how both modern and historical images have been made.

The horrifying photograph of children fleeing a deadly napalm attack has become a defining image not only of the Vietnam War but the 20th century. Dark smoke billowing behind them, the young subjects’ faces are painted with a mixture of terror, pain and confusion. Soldiers from the South Vietnamese army’s 25th Division follow helplessly behind.

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

The girl, since identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, ultimately survived her injuries. This was thanks, in part, to Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who assisted the children after taking his now-iconic image. Fifty years on from that fateful day, the pair are still in regular contact — and using their story to spread a message of peace.

“I will never forget that moment,” Phuc said in a video call from Toronto, where she is now based.

Her childhood village of Trang Bang, less than 30 miles northwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), had then been occupied by communist forces from the country’s north. According to a New York Times report from the time, the South Vietnamese army had spent three days trying to drive them out and reopen the nearby highway. That morning, the south’s air force dispatched propellor-driven Skyraider planes to drop napalm — a substance that causes severe burns and sticks to targets — on enemy positions.

Phuc and her family had been sheltering with other civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers in a Buddhist temple. Upon hearing their own army’s aircraft overhead, the soldiers urged everyone to flee, fearing an attack. Tragically, the group was mistaken for the enemy.

“I turned my head and saw the airplanes, and I saw four bombs landing down,” said Phuc. “Then, suddenly, there was the fire everywhere, and my clothes were burned up by the fire. At that moment I didn’t see anybody around me, just fire.

“I still remember what I thought,” she added. “I thought: ‘Oh my goodness, I got burned, I will be ugly, and people will see me different way. But I was so terrified.”

Another of Ut's images from that day shows a Vietnamese grandmother carrying her severely burned grandson.

Another of Ut’s images from that day shows a Vietnamese grandmother carrying her severely burned grandson. Credit: Nick Ut/AP

Phuc ripped off what remained of her clothes and ran down the Route 1 highway. Vietnamese photographer Ut, who was 21 years old at the time, was among several journalists positioned outside the village anticipating further conflict that day.

“I saw Kim running and she (screamed in Vietnamese) ‘Too hot! Too hot!'” he said on a video call from Los Angeles. “When I took the photo of her, I saw that her body was burned so badly, and I wanted to help her right away. I put all my camera gear down on the highway and put water on her body.”

Ut then put the injured children in his van and drove them for 30 minutes to a nearby hospital. But upon arrival, the hospital told him there was no space, and that he would need to take them to Saigon.

“I said, ‘If she goes one more hour (without treatment), she will die,” he recalled, adding that he initially feared Phuc had already died in his vehicle during the drive.

Ut eventually convinced doctors to take them in by producing his press pass and telling them the children’s image would be seen across the world’s newspapers the next day. (Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2015, he recalled his exact words to the hospital as: “If one of them dies you’ll be in trouble.”)

Seen around the world

From the hospital, Ut went to the Associated Press office in Saigon to develop the photos. His images told much of the day’s story: A bomb captured in mid-air beneath a Skyraider, thick black smoke rising from Trang Bang, a victim being transported on a makeshift stretcher. A lesser-known image shows TV crews 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 knew that one image stood out among the rest.

“When I went back to my office, the (dark room technician) and everyone who saw the picture told me right away it was very powerful, and that the photo would win a Pulitzer.”

They were right: Ut was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography in 1973. His image was also named World Press Photo of the Year after it appeared on the front pages of more than 20 leading US daily newspapers.
A file photo taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut on June 8, 1972 of a Skyraider dropping a napalm bomb over Trang Bang village.

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

There is no evidence to support the apocryphal claim that “Napalm Girl” accelerated the end of the Vietnam War, which continued until 1975 and saw the communists eventually take control of the country’s US-backed south. Nor did it appear to greatly impact American public opinion, which had already turned against US involvement in the conflict by the late 1960s (American military presence in South Vietnam had, after almost two decades, been almost entirely withdrawn by the time Ut captured his image). But the photo became a symbol of anti-war sentiment nonetheless.
Its depiction of the horrors of napalm was so poignant that Richard Nixon privately queried whether it was “a fix.” In White House recordings released decades later, the US President speculated that the picture had been staged — an accusation that Ut said had made him “so upset.”

Phuc, meanwhile, spent 14 months in hospitals being treated for her injuries. Two of her cousins had been killed in the bombing. But she tried to move on from the attack — and the image that was seen around the world.

“As a child, I was so embarrassed, to be honest,” she said. “I didn’t like that picture at all. Why did he take my picture? I never wanted to see it.”

She dreamed of being a doctor, but Vietnam’s communist government quickly removed her from medical school to use her in propaganda campaigns. She recalls journalists traveling from overseas to hear her story, but she struggled with the attention.

“It really affected my private life,” she said, saying that she sometimes wanted to “disappear.”

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

A symbol of hope

It was only after Phuc was granted political asylum by Canada in 1992 that she felt inspired to use her personal tragedy for wider good. She wrote a book about her experiences and established Kim Foundation International, a charity that provides aid to children of war. She was named a United Nations goodwill ambassador in 1997 and gives speeches around the world about her life story and the power of forgiveness.

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

“I realized that, ‘Wow, that picture has become a powerful gift for me — I can (use it) to work for peace, because that picture has not let me go,” she said.

“Now I can look back and embrace it… I’m so thankful that (Ut) could record that moment of history and record the horror of war, which can change the whole world. And that moment changed my attitude and my belief that I can keep my dream alive to help others.”

Nick Ut and Kim Phuc pictured together last month in Milan, Italy.

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

After years of operations and therapy, Phuc still suffers adverse effects from the burns sustained that day. She recently underwent laser treatments in the US, though she experiences ongoing pain because of her injuries.

But, now with two children of her own, Phuc credits her Christian faith for helping her “to move on.”

“Now, 50 years later, I am so thankful and I’m not a victim of war anymore. I am a survivor and I have the opportunity to work for peace.”

Ut, who is now retired, still believes in the power of conflict photography. Referencing the war in Ukraine, he said the discipline is “just important now as it was in Vietnam.” And while today’s readers are bombarded with images from various sources, the cumulative effect can be just as impactful as the single, iconic newspaper images of generations past, he said.

“When I was taking photos in Vietnam, things were so much slower, and we didn’t have social media,” he said. “Now, you have an abundance of photos, but it’s so instantaneous — in terms of telling the truth and bringing it to the world — that it’s also incredibly powerful.”

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