Remember This Photo??
Saturday, June 2, 2012
Posted by John MacHaffie at 3:09 PM
FILE – In this June 8, 1972 file photo, crying children,
- including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, run down Route 1
- near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack
- on suspected Viet Cong hiding places as …more
FILE – In this June 8, 1972 file …
In this March 29, 2012 photo, Associated …
TRANG BANG, Vietnam (AP) — In the picture, the girl will always be
9 years old and wailing “Too hot! Too hot!” as she runs down the road
away from her burning Vietnamese village.
She will always be naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted
through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.
She will always be a victim without a name.
It only took a second for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong
“Nick” Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years ago. It
communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never
describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.
But beneath the photo lies a lesser-known story.
It’s the tale of a dying child brought together by chance with a
A moment captured in the chaos of war that would be both her
savior and her curse on a journey to understand life’s plan for her.
“I really wanted to escape from that little girl,” says
Kim Phuc, now 49. “But it seems to me that the picture didn’t let me
It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard the soldier’s scream:
“We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will be
Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke bombs
curling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had sheltered for three
days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village.
The little girl heard a roar overhead and twisted her neck to look
up. As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped
down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end.
The ground rocked. Then the heat of a hundred furnaces exploded as
orange flames spit in all directions.
Fire danced up Phuc’s left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes
evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing pain bit through
skin and muscle.
“I will be ugly, and I’m not normal anymore,” she
thought, as her right hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm.
“People will see me in a different way.”
In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind her older brother.
She didn’t see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran toward them,
Then, she lost consciousness.
Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer who took the picture,
drove Phuc to a small hospital. There, he was told the child was too far gone
to help. But he flashed his American press badge, demanded that doctors treat
the girl and left assured that she would not be forgotten.
“I cried when I saw her running,”
said Ut, whose older brother was killed on assignment with the AP in the
southern Mekong Delta. “If I don’t help her — if something happened and
she died — I think I’d kill myself after that.“
Back at the office in what was then U.S.-backed Saigon, he
developed his film. When the image of the naked little girl emerged, everyone feared
it would be rejected because of the news agency’s strict policy against nudity.
But veteran Vietnam photo editor Horst Faas took one look and knew
it was a shot made to break the rules. He argued the photo’s news value far
outweighed any other concerns, and he won.
A couple of days after the image shocked the
world, another journalist found out the little girl had somehow survived the
Christopher Wain, a correspondent for the British Independent
Television Network who had given Phuc water from his canteen and drizzled it
down her burning back at the scene, fought to have her transferred to the
American-run Barsky unit. It was the only facility in Saigon equipped to deal
with her severe injuries.
“I had no idea where I was or what happened to me,” she
said. “I woke up and I was in the hospital with so much pain, and then the
nurses were around me. I woke up with a terrible fear.”
Thirty percent of Phuc’s tiny body was scorched raw by
third-degree burns, though her face somehow remained untouched. Over time, her
melted flesh began to heal.
“Every morning at 8 o’clock, the nurses put me in the burn
bath to cut all my dead skin off,” she said. “I just cried and when I
could not stand it any longer, I just passed out.”
After multiple skin grafts and surgeries, Phuc was finally allowed
to leave, 13 months after the bombing. She had seen Ut’s photo, which by then
had won the Pulitzer Prize, but she was still unaware of its reach and power.
She just wanted to go home and be a child again.
For a while, life did go somewhat back to normal. The photo was
famous, but Phuc largely remained unknown except to those living in her tiny
village near the Cambodian border. Ut and a few other journalists sometimes
visited her, but that stopped after northern communist forces seized control of
South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, ending the war.
Life under the new regime became tough. Medical treatment and
painkillers were expensive and hard to find for the teenager, who still
suffered extreme headaches and pain.
She worked hard and was accepted into medical school to pursue her
dream of becoming a doctor. But all that ended once the new communist leaders
realized the propaganda value of the ‘napalm girl’ in the photo.
She was forced to quit college and return to her home province,
where she was trotted out to meet foreign journalists. The visits were
monitored and controlled, her words scripted. She smiled and played her role,
but the rage inside began to build and consume her.
“I wanted to escape that picture,” she said. “I got
burned by napalm, and I became a victim of war … but growing up then, I
became another kind of victim.”
She turned to Cao Dai, her Vietnamese religion, for answers. But
they didn’t come.
“My heart was exactly like a black coffee cup,” she said.
“I wished I died in that attack with my cousin, with my south Vietnamese
soldiers. I wish I died at that time so I won’t suffer like that anymore … it
was so hard for me to carry all that burden with that hatred, with that anger
One day, while visiting a library, Phuc found a Bible. For the
first time, she started believing her life had a plan.
Then suddenly, once again, the photo that had given her unwanted
fame brought opportunity.
She traveled to West Germany in 1982 for medical care with the
help of a foreign journalist. Later, Vietnam’s prime minister, also touched by
her story, made arrangements for her to study in Cuba.
She was finally free from the minders and reporters hounding her
at home, but her life was far from normal. Ut, then working at the AP in Los
Angeles, traveled to meet her in 1989, but they never had a moment alone. There
was no way for him to know she desperately wanted his help again.
“I knew in my dream that one day Uncle Ut could help me to
have freedom,” said Phuc, referring to him by an affectionate Vietnamese
term. “But I was in Cuba. I was really disappointed because I couldn’t
contact with him. I couldn’t do anything.”
While at school, Phuc met a young Vietnamese man. She had never
believed anyone would ever want her because of the ugly patchwork of scars that
banded across her back and pitted her arm, but Bui Huy Toan seemed to love her
more because of them.
The two decided to marry in 1992 and honeymoon in Moscow. On the
flight back to Cuba, the newlyweds defected during a refueling stop in Canada.
She was free.
Phuc contacted Ut to share the news, and he encouraged her to tell
her story to the world. But she was done giving interviews and posing for
“I have a husband and a new life and want to be normal like
everyone else,” she said.
The media eventually found Phuc living near Toronto, and she
decided she needed to take control of her story. A book was written in 1999 and
a documentary came out, at last the way she wanted it told. She was asked to
become a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador to help victims of war. She and Ut have since
reunited many times to tell their story, even traveling to London to meet the
“Today, I’m so happy I helped Kim,” said Ut, who still
works for AP and recently returned to Trang Bang village. “I call her my
After four decades, Phuc, now a mother of two sons, can finally
look at the picture of herself running naked and understand why it remains so
powerful. It had saved her, tested her and ultimately freed her.
“Most of the people, they know my picture but there’s very
few that know about my life,” she said. “I’m so thankful that … I
can accept the picture as a powerful gift. Then it is my choice. Then I can
work with it for peace.”
Emitte lucem et veritatem
Send out light and truth
HOW MUCH BETTER WOULD LIFE BE WITHOUT WAR? WHO ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?