The saga of Kim Phuc will forever be a clarion to the consequences of war and the resilience of the human spirit.
Forty years ago, a 9-year-old girl severely burned by napalm ran screaming down a highway in Vietnam, her clothes torn off to escape the searing heat. Kim Phuc’s terror was captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut and became an instant icon of the horror so often inflicted on the innocent in war. The photograph and Ut’s action to save Kim Phuc bonded the two together even as their lives followed different paths far from their Vietnam homeland.
IT’S 5:30A.M., JUNE 8, 1972, and the early light, dimmed by a sky that threatens monsoon rains, filters through the trees lining Saigon’s boulevards. Nick Ut, a seasoned war photographer despite his youth, checks his gear. Flak jacket. Cameras. Lenses. Film. Snacks. Uniform to match that of South Vietnamese troops. With the overnight curfew lifted, Ut climbs into a van outside the AP bureau and tells the driver to head toward Highway 1. Their destination is Trang Bang, 25 miles from the capital. Ut settles in, appreciative of the air conditioning that eases the mugginess of a Vietnamese spring turning to summer.
In Trang Bang, three days of fighting had left enemy troops holding portions of the town and blocking the highway, which South Vietnamese forces were now attempting to reopen. Ut had not the slightest idea that before the day was over, he would experience the defining moment of his life.
The 21-year-old Huynh Cong Ut was born in the Mekong Delta’s Long An Province, the youngest of eight brothers and a sister. By the early 1960s, fighting was heavy in the Delta, so when Ut was 14, his older brother Huynh Than My took him to live in the relative safety of Saigon. A former actor and CBSTV sound man, My was an AP photographer at the time, mostly covering the Mekong Delta. In October 1965, My was wounded, and as he awaited evacuation, he was killed by Viet Cong.
A few weeks later, Ut’s mother visited the AP bureau in Saigon, seeking a job for Ut. She explained that the family had lost a second soldier-son to the war and was in financial straits. Bureau Chief Ed White and photo boss Horst Faas were reluctant to put another son in harm’s way. But White eventually relented and hired Ut on January 1, 1966, as a darkroom assistant. Faas laid down the law to Ut and told him that his youth and inexperience, and his family’s need, closed the door on any field work.
Ut learned photography in the darkroom and started shooting street scenes after work. He eventually made pictures to go with a Peter Arnett feature on Saigon’s street urchins. The article was published widely, and before long he was shooting other city stories.Among Ut’s mentors was photographer Henri Huet, who began calling the lad “Nic-Nic,” a Vietnamese phrase for a family’s youngest child. Others picked it up and soon Huynh Cong Ut was—and would always be—Nick Ut.
While Ut wasn’t sent to war, war came to him. When Saigon became a battleground during Tet in February 1968, Ut earned his spurs as a combat photographer. By June 1972, he had been wounded once and was among the AP’s best photographers.
BY 7:30 ON THE SULTRY JUNE morning, Ut’s van slowed to a halt near Trang Bang. Route 1 was cluttered with cars, carts, buses, bicycles, trucks, military vehicles and refugees, all stalled by fighting near the village. Shouldering his cameras, Ut hiked toward Trang Bang under a gentle mist. At a barrier of concertina wire strung across the road, he joined fellow journalists and some soldiers to size up the situation. As they talked, they were interrupted by intermittent gunfire from where the towers of a Cao Dai temple rose above a tree line, about 150 yards away.
Nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc was huddled inside the temple, with no idea that June 8 would mark her life’s defining moment. She lived in the outskirts of Trang Bang’s business district, where she went to school, played with her siblings, helped with chores at the family’s noodle shop and cared for their few barnyard animals. In recent weeks, however, Viet Cong (VC) agents had begun turning up at night, insisting that villagers carry messages for them to their operatives in the area. Fighting had broken out nearby, and the sounds of rockets and heavy machine gun chatter alerted villagers that North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops were involved. When Route 1 was closed and parts of the town fell into enemy hands, many of the villagers had fled, but Kim’s family remained to protect their business and care for their animals.
On June 5, South Vietnamese soldiers had advised Kim’s family and other villagers to take shelter in the temple, and for the next three days they could hear the fighting come closer as South Vietnamese troops drove the NVA out of town and into a wooded area behind the temple. The assembled villagers, about 30 men, women and children, felt protected, believing that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would not attack a religious site. Some South Vietnamese troops had joined the villagers in the temple.
Ut and his colleagues watched and listened to on-again-off-again gunfire near the temple, as NVA and VC held a position on one side of Route 1, facing South Vietnamese regulars on the opposite side. At 1 p.m., while the newsmen debated whether to stay or return to Saigon, an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officer told them that A-1 Skyraiders of the 518th Squadron of the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) had been called for an airstrike to precede a major assault. The planes approached and fired phosphorous rockets at the NVA position to mark it with white smoke. Instantly, colored smoke rose from the ARVN position near the temple. Planes then flew low over the treetops in the direction of the correspondents.
The first Skyraider dropped some bombs—closer to the ARVN positions than the NVA—but they failed to explode. Ut and his fellow newsmen knew that a napalm attack would follow. A second plane arrived and dropped tumbling canisters that hit the highway close to the temple. When the napalm exploded, its fiery orange splashed across the highway and smoke billowed skyward. Ut captured the frightful scene with a long lens as a wave of intense heat washed over him seconds later.
When the first plane had dropped its bombs close to the temple, the soldiers inside realized that something was terribly wrong and immediately urged the villagers to get away. The civilians, including Kim Phuc and some of her family, rushed out and began running down the highway—just as the second VNAF plane swooped in low, dropping its deadly napalm package. Flames swept the area, swallowing up several soldiers in the inferno. The perimeter of the fire burned others as they ran. Kim felt the greasy napalm hit her body at her left shoulder and back. Her clothes ignited and she tore them off. Naked, she ran away from the hellish scene, screaming in shock.
Reporters and soldiers at the concertina wire watched helplessly as children, men, women and soldiers emerged from the fire and smoke. An elderly woman held a badly burned infant in her arms.Kim,screaming“Too hot! Too hot!” ran toward the group, her arms outstretched. As other photographers reloaded their cameras, Ut reached into a side pocket and pulled out a reserve camera and captured the horror.
By 2 p.m., the badly burned Kim stood naked, surrounded by photographers and reporters trying to help her. They poured water on her wounds. Flaps of skin on her shoulder and arm peeled off. Someone tried to cover her with a poncho, but she screamed in pain. A relative pleaded for help. Ut lifted the girl into his arms and carried her to the AP van. Several of her family, some also burned, climbed in, and they headed for a hospital in Cu Chi. Kim fainted from the pain.
At the hospital, the staff began routine procedures, but doctors told Ut that Kim’s chances were slim. Pulling one of the doctors aside, Ut told him that the child had just been photographed and her picture would surely be published around the world in a matter of hours. The doctor ordered Kim’s treatment be expedited and care elevated.
Ut checked on the rest of Kim’s family members before racing for Saigon.At the bureau, his film was processed and edited, and several photos were printed.As staffers in the newsroom debated whether the pictures were too dreadful to transmit or if the child’s nudity would prohibit publication, Horst Faas walked in. He took one look at the images and ordered them transmitted to Tokyo and New York. Faas then sent a message to New York, alerting AP about the pictures that were on the way.
In minutes, Ut’s images of Kim Phuc appeared in newsrooms around the world. The reaction was sensational. The burned and helpless Kim communicated the pain and horror of war with terrible clarity, fostering intense sympathy and identification among the public.
How the ARVN attack occurred remained a mystery. Some said it was a simple mistake; others believed that the plane’s pilot assumed the people he saw fleeing on the highway were VC.
ALTHOUGH UT’S PICTURE is often credited with“ending the war,” the Vietnam War raged on for another three years. Iconic images seldom prompt specific action, but they can influence the undecided and sustain the already committed. The photo had such an impact on public opinion that President Richard Nixon and his aide H.R. Haldeman had a recorded conversation about it in the Oval Office. Nixon asks,“Do you think it could have been fixed?”“It’s possible,” Haldeman replied.
Whatever the global implications of the photo, it profoundly altered the lives of Nick Ut and Kim Phuc. Ut won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize, plus every other major photo award that year and was feted at AP headquarters in New York. He visited Kim often during her months of surgery in Vietnam, and they became fast friends. Kim credits “Uncle Nicky” with saving her life.
At the end of the war, Ut was evacuated and took an AP job in Japan. He was then assigned to AP’s Los Angeles bureau.
Kim also became famous as a result of the photo. After the war, the Communist government used the picture as propaganda and trotted her out for important visitors. In 1986 Kim received permission to go to Cuba to study pharmacy. Learning she was there, the Los Angeles Times arranged a visit by Ut in 1989, the first time they had seen each other since 1975. In Cuba, Kim married another Vietnamese student, and in 1992 the couple took their honeymoon in Moscow. On the return trip, they got off the plane in Gander, Newfoundland, and sought asylum. They eventually became Canadian citizens.
Ut visited Vietnam several times after the end of the war. He and former AP Saigon Bureau Chief George Esper went to the DMZ on a goodwill trip in 1989. Then in 1994, Ut and Esper opened the first postwar AP bureau in Hanoi. On a later trip with his old boss Horst Faas, Ut visited Kim Phuc’s family, who were still living in Trang Bang and still operating a noodle shop.
Nick Ut, now 62 and based in Los Angeles, continues to be among the leading news photographers for the Associated Press. He has covered many big stories, including the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. His famous picture of a weeping Paris Hilton leaving court was made on June 8, 2007, the 35th anniversary of the Kim Phuc photo.
Kim Phuc, exposed to eternal notoriety by war, has become an unassailable voice for peace as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Culture of Peace. Realizing that her war experience could impact present and future generations, she organized the Kim Foundation International to help heal the wounds suffered by innocent child victims of war.
Hal Buell was photo editor for Associated Press in Asia and NewYork and has written and lectured widely on combat photography.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.