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

ByDavid M. Conte

Jun 9, 2022

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

In Snap, we examine the power of a single photograph, telling stories of how modern and historical images were created.

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

Taken outside the village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, the photo captured the trauma and indiscriminate violence of a conflict that has claimed a million or more civilian lives by some estimates. Although officially titled ‘The Terror of War’, the photo is better known by the nickname given to the naked 9-year-old girl with severe burns in her center: ‘Napalm Girl’.

The girl, since identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, eventually survived her injuries. That’s partly thanks to Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who helped the kids after snapping his now-iconic image. Fifty years after that fateful day, the two men are still in regular contact and using their story to spread a message of peace.

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

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

Phuc and his family had taken refuge with other South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers in a Buddhist temple. Hearing their own army planes 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 planes, and saw four bombs landing,” Phuc said. “Then suddenly there was fire everywhere, and my clothes were burned by the fire. At that time, I didn’t see anyone around me, just fire.

“I still remember what I was thinking,” she added. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I got burned, I’m going to be ugly and people will see me differently. But I was so terrified.’

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

Phuc ripped off what was left of his clothes and ran down the Route 1 highway. Vietnamese photographer Ut, who was 21 at the time, was among several reporters positioned outside the village, anticipating further conflict That day.

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

Ut then put the injured children in his van and drove them for 30 minutes to a nearby hospital. But when he arrived, the hospital told him there was no room and he should take them to Saigon.

“I said, ‘If she stays another hour (without treatment), she will die,’ he recalled, adding that he had initially feared that Phuc had already died in his vehicle during the journey.

Ut eventually convinced the doctors to take them in by producing her press card and telling them that the children’s picture would be seen in newspapers around the world the next day. (Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2015, he reminded his exact words in the hospital like, “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 footage told much of the day’s story: a bomb captured mid-air beneath a Skyraider, thick black smoke billowing from Trang Bang, a victim being carried on a makeshift stretcher. A lesser-known image shows South Vietnamese television crews and soldiers gathered around Phuc, the skin on his back and arms scorched by the flammable jelly that has made napalm such a controversial weapon.

But the photographer immediately knew that one image stood out among the others.

“When I returned to my office, the (darkroom technician) and everyone who saw the photo immediately told me that it was very powerful and that the photo would win a Pulitzer.”

They were right: Ut received the Pulitzer Prize for News Photography in 1973. His image was also named World Press Photo of the Year after it appeared on the front pages of over 20 major American newspapers.
A file photo taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut on June 8, 1972 of a Skyraider dropping a napalm bomb on the village of Trang Bang.

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

There is no evidence to support the apocryphal claim that “Napalm Girl” hastened the end of the Vietnam War, which continued until 1975 and saw the Communists finally take control of southern country supported by the United States. Nor does it seem to have had a significant impact on American public opinion, which had already turned against US involvement in the conflict in the late 1960s (US military presence in South Vietnam had, after almost two decades, been almost entirely withdrawn by the time Ut captured his image). But the photo nevertheless became a symbol of anti-war sentiment.
His description of the horrors of napalm was so poignant that Richard Nixon privately asked if it was “a solution”. In White House tapes released decades later, the US president speculated that the photo had been staged – an accusation that Ut said had made him “so upset”.

Phuc, meanwhile, spent 14 months in hospitals treating her injuries. Two of his cousins ​​had been killed in the bombing. But she tried to push past the attack – and the image that was seen around the world.

“As a kid, 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 the communist government of Vietnam quickly pulled her out of medical school to use her in propaganda campaigns. She remembers reporters coming from abroad to hear her story, but she struggled to get attention.

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

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

A symbol of hope

It was only after Phuc was granted political asylum in Canada in 1992 that she felt inspired to use her personal tragedy for a greater good. She wrote a book about her experiences and established International Kim Foundation, a charity that helps 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 – who she still affectionately calls “uncle” – presented a copy of the photograph to Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.

“I realized that, ‘Wow, this photo has become a powerful gift for me – I can (use it) to work for peace, because this photo hasn’t let me go,” he said. she stated.

“Now I can look back and embrace it…I’m so grateful that (Ut) was able to record that moment in history and record the horror of war, which can change the whole world. And that moment has 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: Marco Tacca Pier/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

After years of operations and therapy, Phuc is still suffering from the ill effects of the burns he suffered that day. She recently underwent laser treatments in the United States, although she is in continuous pain from her injuries.

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

“Now, 50 years later, I’m so grateful and I’m no longer a victim of war. I’m a survivor and I have the opportunity to work for peace.”

Ut, who is now retired, still believes in the power of conflict photography. Referring to the war in Ukraine, he said discipline was “just important now, like it was in Vietnam”. And while readers today are bombarded with images from a variety of sources, the cumulative effect can be just as impactful as the 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 letting the world know it – that it’s also incredibly powerful.”