‘Napalm Girl’ at 50: The Story of the Vietnam War’s Defining Photo

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

In Snap, we look at the power of a single photo and tell you how both modern and historic images were created.

The horrifying photo 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. Dark smoke billowing behind them, the young subjects’ faces are painted with a mixture of fear, pain and confusion. Soldiers of the 25th Division of the South Vietnamese army follow helplessly.

The photo, taken outside the village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, captured the trauma and indiscriminate violence of a conflict that, according to some estimates, cost a million or more civilian lives. Although officially titled “The Terror of War”, the photo is better known by the nickname given to the badly burned, naked 9-year-old in the middle: “Napalm Girl”.

The girl, who has since been identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, ultimately survived her injuries. This was partly thanks to Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who helped the kids after snapping his now iconic photo. Fifty years after that fateful day, the two are still in regular contact — and use 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.

Her children’s village, Trang Bang, less than 48 kilometers northwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), was then occupied by communist troops from the north of the country. According to a New York Times report from the time, the South Vietnamese military had spent three days trying to evict them and reopen the nearby highway. That morning, the South Air Force sent propeller-driven Skyraider planes to drop napalm — a substance that causes severe burns and sticks to targets — onto enemy positions.

Phuc and her family, along with other civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers, had found shelter in a Buddhist temple. When they heard the plane of their own army, 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 I saw four bombs land,” Phuc said. “Then suddenly there was fire everywhere and my clothes were burned by the fire. At that moment I saw no one around me, only fire.

“I still remember what I was thinking,” she added. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I got burned, I’ll be ugly and people will see me differently. But I was so terrified.”

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

Phuc tore what was left of her clothes and ran down the Route 1 highway. Vietnamese photographer Ut, then 21 years old, found himself among several journalists who stood outside the village waiting for further clashes that day.

“I saw Kim run and she (screamed in Vietnamese) ‘Too hot! Too hot!'” he said during a video call from Los Angeles. “When I took the photo of her, I saw that her body was so badly burned, and I immediately wanted to help her. I put all my camera gear on the highway and put water on her body.”

U then put the injured children in his van and drove them to a nearby hospital for 30 minutes. But upon arrival, the hospital told him that there was no room and that he had to take them to Saigon.

“I said, ‘If she goes another hour (without treatment), she will die,'” he recalls, adding that he initially feared that Phuc had already died in his vehicle during the ride.

Ut eventually convinced doctors to include them by showing his press card and telling them that the picture of the children would appear in the world’s newspapers the next day. (When speaking to Vanity Fair in 2015, he recalled his exact words to the hospital as, “If one of them dies, you’re in trouble.”)

Seen all over the world

From the hospital, Ut went to the Associated Press office in Saigon to develop the photos. His images told much of the story of the day: a bomb caught in mid-air under a Skyraider, thick black smoke billowing 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 photo stood out from the rest.

“When I went back to my office, the (dark room 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 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography in 1973. His image was also named World Press Photo of the Year after it made the front pages of more than 20 leading US daily newspapers.
A file photo taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut on June 8, 1972, of a Skyraider dropping a napalm bomb over 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 over the village of Trang Bang. Credit: Nick Ut/AP

There is no evidence to support the apocryphal claim that “Napalm Girl” accelerated the end of the Vietnam War, which lasted until 1975 and the Communists eventually took control of the US-backed south of the country. Nor did it seem to have much of an impact on American public opinion, which had already turned against US involvement in the conflict in the late 1960s (the US military presence in South Vietnam had almost completely withdrawn after nearly two decades by the time the US entered the conflict). ut captured his image). But the photo nevertheless became a symbol of anti-war sentiment.
The depiction of the horrors of napalm was so poignant that Richard Nixon personally wondered if it was “a solution.” In White House footage released decades later, the US president speculated that the photo had been staged — an accusation that Ut said made him “so upset.”

Phuc, meanwhile, spent 14 months in hospitals to be treated for her injuries. Two of her cousins ​​had died in the bombing. But she tried to move forward with the attack — and the image that was seen around the world.

“As a kid I was so ashamed, to be honest,” she said. “I didn’t like that photo at all. Why did he take my photo? I never wanted to see it.”

She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but the communist government of Vietnam quickly expelled her from medical school to use her in propaganda campaigns. She remembers journalists traveling from abroad to hear her story, but she struggled with the attention.

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

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

A symbol of hope

It was only after Phuc was granted political asylum from Canada in 1992 that she felt inspired to use her personal tragedy for a greater good. She wrote a book about her experiences and founded Kim Foundation International, a charity that provides aid to war children. She was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in 1997 and speaks 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 photo to Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.

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

“Now I can look back and embrace it… I am so grateful that (Ut) could capture that moment in history and capture the horror of war, which can change the whole world. And that moment changed my attitude and my faith that I can keep my dream alive to help others.”

Nick Ut and Kim Phuc were photographed together in Milan, Italy last month.

Nick Ut and Kim Phuc were photographed together in Milan, Italy last month. Credit: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images Europa/Getty Images

After years of surgery and therapy, Phuc still suffers from the burns suffered that day. She recently underwent laser treatments in the US, although she is experiencing persistent pain from her injuries.

But now that she has two children of her own, Phuc credits her Christian faith with helping her “move on.”

“Now, 50 years later, I am so grateful and not a war victim anymore. I am a survivor and have the opportunity to work for peace.”

The now retired Ut still believes in the power of conflict photography. Referring to the war in Ukraine, he said discipline is “as important now as it was in Vietnam.” And while today’s readers are bombarded with images from a variety of sources, the cumulative effect could be just as impactful as the single, iconic newspaper photos from generations past, he said.

“When I was shooting in Vietnam, it was so much slower and we didn’t have social media,” he said. “Now you have a plethora of photos, but it’s so immediate — in terms of telling the truth and bringing it out to the world — that it’s also incredibly powerful.”

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