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.
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.
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. 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.
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.”
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
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. 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.”
“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.”