A veteran photo editor and critic delves into the stories—and the men—behind the greatest photographs from the war.
Guerrilla war in Vietnam was frustrating. The fighting was every- where and nowhere—and it was photographed like no war before or since. There was no censorship as the military willingly took photographers to battles in progress. For more than a decade, daring photographers exposed millions to the reality of the war, and to this day many of their images remain fixed in our memories. Of dozens of great photographers who braved the battlefields of Vietnam, six won the ultimate recognition of the best in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize, more than from any other conflict ever.
Great picture taking combines instinct, insight, anticipation, technical proficiency, visual awareness and the ability to express the mood or an understanding of the subject—all finely honed by experience. Each of the award-winning photographers brought those qualities to their subjects in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s Pulitzer photographers shot for the Associated Press and United Press International, wire services that competed intensely for space in newspapers and magazines worldwide. But fierce battlefield competition was leavened by the shared bond of those who face ultimate dangers each day. Of the six Pulitzer winners, Kyoichi Sawada was killed and Horst Faas and Nick Ut seriously wounded. Three of the Pulitzer winners—David Kennerly, Faas and Ut— remain active in picture journalism. Toshio Sakai and Eddie Adams had brilliant careers after Vietnam. Sakai died in 1999, Adams in 2002.
The reasons they sought to practice their craft in the midst of brutal war are as varied as the men themselves. Civil War photographer Mathew Brady explained the attraction of war to photographers as well as anyone: “A spirit in my feet said go, and I went.” And so, with cameras in hand, went photographers to Vietnam.
In this issue, we present the Vietnam Pulitzer pictures together for the first time as a single portfolio. Along with their backstories, we describe how the photos were made and their impact on those who saw them.
All of the Vietnam Pulitzers are in black and white. The legendary Eddie Adams put his preference this way: “I believe all war should be shot in black and white. It’s more primitive. Color tends to make things look too nice. It makes the jungle in Vietnam look lush, which it was. But it wasn’t nice.”
DAVID HUME KENNERLY 1972 United Press International
David Kennerly was a young but seasoned wire service photographer when he was assigned to the Washington bureau in 1971 to cover politics and the chaotic antiwar movement. Vietnamization was in full swing but hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops remained in Vietnam.
Kennerly sought an assignment to Vietnam but was first blocked because he was a member of the Army Reserves. Once his reserve status was altered so he could go to war, UPI brass told him that all the Vietnamese pictures had been taken. They weren’t far from wrong; 10 years of war had delivered thousands of compelling photographs, and four Pulitzers. Finally, UPI gave the go ahead and Kennerly was off to Vietnam to try to make the best pictures yet of the war.
Quick to get the hang of war coverage, Kennerly was soon jumping on choppers taking supplies in or wounded out of outposts under attack to get close to the action.
“But,” Kennerly recalled, “I wanted to show the periphery of the war and depict the people who lived there.” Kennerly’s portfolio that won the Pulitzer—pictures made in his first year in Vietnam—consisted mostly of the feature side of the war—children caught in the crossfire, refugees, the wounded seeking alms in the street. Nevertheless, the picture from his prize-winning collection that caught the greatest attention was made on a remote hillside near a site called Firebase Gladiator. It showed a U.S. soldier carefully moving through a shattered landscape that resembled a devastated field of World War II Europe rather than the jungles of Vietnam.
In 1972 Kennerly joined Life, then worked for Time. When Gerald Ford became president after the 1974 Nixon resignation, Kennerly was hired as his personal photographer. His intimate pictures brought a new insight into the workings of the White House.
NICK UT 1973 Associated Press
Things were tough for 14-year-old Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s family in 1966. The boy’s brother, AP staff photographer Huynh Thanh My, had been slain months earlier while covering a Viet Cong assault. So Nick’s mother took him to the AP bureau and told them the boy needed a job.
Ut was put to work in the photo lab and soon learned how to make prints. Within a year, he was shooting pictures in Saigon, but photo boss Horst Faas was reluctant to send him to a war zone for fear he, too, would be killed. Ut showed his stuff during Tet in 1968, and by 1972 he was a staff photographer. Faas’ fears were well founded, however; Ut was seriously wounded three times.
Vietnam was hot on June 8, 1972. Ut relished the relief in the air-conditioned AP van as he drove toward Trangbang 25 miles south of Saigon on Highway 1. The South Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong had fought for days around the village.
Ut and several other photographers positioned themselves on the highway in sight of the village as South Vietnamese air force planes swooped over the battle scene. Ut saw the napalm canisters drop and could feel the heat of their fiery explosions.
In minutes, screaming civilians ran away from the napalm fires toward the photographers. The attack hit the villagers instead of the Viet Cong. Among them was a young naked girl, her back seriously burned from the jellied, fiery substance. In that instant Ut made the picture that became a lasting image of the horror of war.
Ut knew the child, Kim Phuc, needed serious medical care immediately and stopped taking pictures, got the girl into his van and raced to the nearest hospital, demanding that doctors treat her. Ut then rushed to the AP bureau, and within hours his picture was flashed around the world.
Ut’s photo compels an almost instant visceral reaction and is often credited with contributing to the conclusion of the war. So powerful was the image in the supercharged atmosphere, there were serious attempts to discredit it. In a recorded Oval Office meeting, President Nixon even asked aide H.R. Haldeman, “I’m wondering if this was fixed.” Haldeman replied, “Could have been.”
Kim Phuc slowly healed but her story continued. The North Vietnamese used her fame as the “Napalm Girl” for propaganda purposes. Long after the war, she defected to Canada, where she is a peace activist today. Ut’s photo remains one of picture journalism’s all-time icons.
HORST FAAS 1965 Associated Press
The first photo Pulitzer from Vietnam was awarded to Horst Faas, who joined AP in Germany and sharpened his skills in the Congo and Algeria in the late 1950s. With conflict in South Vietnam growing, AP sent him there in 1962 when it was still primarily a war between the government and the Viet Cong.
Faas accompanied South Vietnamese troops to wherever the mounting conflict erupted in serious battle. His fearlessness coupled with precision camera work often produced a kind of picture seldom seen from any war. He captured angry individuals in violent, face-to-face encounters, the toll on civilians caught in fiery exchanges between government troops and the Viet Cong. This January 1964 photo shows the terrifying interrogation of a suspected VC being threatened by a South Vietnamese ranger with death by knife.
Faas wrote of his uncensored access, “Photographers could crawl to the forward trenches of a besieged outpost, wait beside riflemen in night ambushes, witness brutal interrogations and executions and merciless street fighting, while the enemy—the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese— operated in secrecy. American and allied troops and government civilians performed almost always under the probing eyes and lenses of newsmen.
“We worked hard to be truthful. We avoided pictures of the bizarre and atypical. But when torture became commonplace in the field, we photographed it and distributed the photos.”
Faas’ prize-winning portfolio showed the many aspects of the conflict, from countryside battles to the city streets of Buddhist demonstrations and terror bombings.
Faas suffered a serious wound that nearly cost him a leg, and, by the time he left in 1972, had seen more action than most soldiers with two or three tours. After Vietnam, he went on to head AP photo operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. His second Pulitzer Prize, in 1972, was shared with Michel Laurent, for their pictures of a public execution and torture in Dacca.
TOSHIO SAKAI 1968 United Press International
Toshio Sakai arrived on the scene just as American combat troops entered Vietnam in force in 1965. Sakai, and Kyoichi Sawada, the 1966 Pulitzer winner, were close colleagues who joined UPI one year apart. Sakai was awarded the very first Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, a category established in 1968.
In June 1967, Sakai flew to Phuc Vinh, an important base on the edge of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the site of an airport and sizable contingent of the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division. The base had been under attack off and on for weeks.
When Sakai arrived the weather was heavy, hot and muggy—monsoon weather. “There was a commotion in the forest,” Sakai recalled, “birds stopped chirping, and insects quieted. My heart was beating fast. A tense atmosphere filled the air.”
Everyone knew something more than insects and mist was in the air, and their instincts were confirmed when an unexpected gunshot unleashed total chaos. Shells exploded overhead. AK-47 gunfire added to deafening sound. Mortar shells crashed all around.
The Americans responded with fierce firepower. The exhausting exchange raged on for several hours until, suddenly, the heavens opened and a heavy monsoon downpour drenched the area. Shooting stopped and only the storm’s gentle sounds swept across the camp. The rain fell steadily for hours. The battle drifted away in the deluge. Weary GIs hunkered down.
Sakai eyed one soldier who had wrapped himself up in a poncho to protect him from both wet and red ants. He was curled up atop a pillbox bunker falling fast asleep in the pouring rain. Meanwhile, in the background, another GI with his rifle at the ready watched for possible attacks. But, for that day, there would be no more fighting.
“The sleeping soldier must have dreamed of better times,” Sakai mused later, “and I clicked the shutter.” Sakai’s picture struck an unusual chord—a surreal, quiet moment in counterpoint to a cacophonous, violent war that was all too real.
KYOICHI SAWADA 1966 United Press International
It was a big step for Kyoichi Sawada when he left his job as a camera clerk in a U.S. military post exchange to join UPI in 1961. While covering typical assignments in the Tokyo bureau as a picture editor and photographer, he saw the stream of war photos flow through the bureau and yearned for assignment to Vietnam, but his requests were repeatedly denied.
Undaunted, Sawada flew to Vietnam on his vacation time and at his own expense, obtained press credentials and began shooting the war. When he returned to Japan with his pictures, they so impressed bureau managers that they granted Sawada his wish and assigned him to cover the war as a staff photographer in 1965.
Sawada soon earned a reputation as a daredevil photographer—on one occasion dashing into a field salted with enemy mines so he could be in front to photograph advancing American troops.
In September 1965, he accompanied U.S. Marines attacking a known Viet Cong village. As American aircraft softened up the village with bombing, the villagers, knowing the Marines were nearby and would soon attack, fled across a river. Sawada photographed two mothers guiding their children through the river’s swirling waters, a photo that became the centerpiece of his Pulitzer portfolio.
The picture generated worldwide sympathy for Vietnamese civilians, caught as they were between the Viet Cong and combined forces of the South Vietnamese government and American firepower. After Sawada made his evocative picture, he put down his camera and helped the civilians onto the riverbank. About a year later, he tracked down the families and divided his Pulitzer Prize money with them, keeping none for himself.
In 1969 Sawada was reassigned to Hong Kong to manage UPI’s Southeast Asian operation. He did his job but he desperately missed being a photographer and soon returned to the Vietnam battlefront.
In October 1970, then 34 years old, Sawada drove into Cambodia with a newly arrived UPI correspondent, visiting Phnom Penh and then driving south. There was alarm when they failed to contact the Saigon bureau that night, and a search the next day by UPI staffers found their vehicle. Their bodies were then soon discovered in a wooded area nearby. Each had been shot several times in the chest; their press credentials scattered about in the dust.
Close friend and fellow Pulitzer-winner Toshio Sakai returned Sawada’s ashes to his wife. Sawada was the only Vietnam Pulitzer photo winner killed in Vietnam.
EDDIE ADAMS 1969 Associated Press
Vietnam frustrated Eddie Adams. He made good pictures, but his obsession was to make the all-telling picture that captured the essence of the war in perfect composition and content. It was an elusive ambition.
A Marine Corps photographer in Korea, Adams was on the beaches when the first Marines went ashore in Vietnam near Danang in 1965. But he returned to New York in late 1966 and from there watched the war unfold in pictures coming across the wire. That, too, frustrated him. He went back to Vietnam in early 1968, just before the Tet Offensive erupted.
On the second day of Tet, Adams and an NBC TV crew were looking for action in Saigon’s Cholon section, an area rife with Viet Cong infiltrators. They saw only sporadic fighting and were preparing to leave just as Vietnamese troops emerged from a building with a handcuffed man wearing a checkered shirt.
“It was a perp walk,” Adams recalled. “They walked the man down the street and I followed them.” Click…click…click…several pictures of the guards and the prisoner walking. Then they stopped about five feet from Adams.
“A man walked into my frame from the left and held a pistol to the head of the prisoner,” Adams said. “It was a frequent method of intimidating prisoners during interrogation. I raised my camera and made a photo, and the same time the man pulled the trigger and sent a bullet into the head of the Viet Cong. He fell to the street dead.
“The Vietnamese shooter—we later learned he was Colonel Ngoc Loan, head of the metropolitan police—walked up to me and said, ‘He killed many of my people, and your people,’ and he walked away.”
The photo was a sensation, an instant icon, hitting newspaper front pages—and protester placards—around the globe.
But pictures can lie, Adams would say. Because the picture didn’t tell the whole story— of Loan’s aide killed alongside his wife and children earlier by the same Viet Cong—it haunted Adams, who would ask, “What would you do under those circumstances?”
Among the 20th century’s most recognized images, it was said to have helped end the war— a war that ground on for seven more years.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.