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 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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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. 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.”
“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.”