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Vietnam War photographer Nick Ut recalls Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of girl running from napalm strike

May 7, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Forty years ago, a shocking photo from the Vietnam War incensed the world. It was a vulnerable 9-year-old girl running naked toward the camera, horribly injured, her peaceful life shattered by war. What is it about that photograph that draws us in? A frozen moment that allows us to immerse ourselves in that split second. We can study it, live it and feel it, a split second where everything comes to a halt.

The photograph of Kim Phuc, taken June 8, 1972, won the Pulitzer Prize and sent an unprecedented message about what war is. Its impact is immeasurable.

Los Angeles Associated Press photographer Nick Ut took the picture. He's been working in L.A. for more than three decades, but he is from Vietnam. On that day, he was standing on Highway 1 outside a small village called Trang Bang, and snapped the photo of Phuc with her clothes burned off her body by napalm.

To mark the 40th anniversary, I accompanied Ut back to Trang Bang. We were joined by Christopher Wain, a former British TV reporter who also was there recording the incident on film. This will be his first time back since that day.

Innocent victims have always been a part of war. But never before had such a vivid example been captured. What happened that day to that small village had happened a thousand times before in the Vietnam War, but this time there was somebody there to shoot it and show the world.

The reunited journalists noticed much has changed. However, walking through the village, memories came back to them in vivid detail, and the two slowly pieced together the events that unfolded that day.

The North Vietnamese troops were trying to take control of the town as the South Vietnamese were defending it. The villagers were caught in the middle.

The temple, which still stands today, was the focal point of the incident. Phuc and her family, along with other villagers, were inside the temple, thinking they were safe from the conflict. Then Vietnamese planes starting moving in, dropping napalm bombs on the village. That set off a panic. Villagers started thinking the temple was being targeted, so they ran out the doors, through a gate and kept running down Highway 1.

"We could see them pouring out of the temple and running towards us," Wain said. "That was when the second plane came in and it dropped these four canisters of napalm straight across them."

"The effect was like somebody opening an oven door," Wain continued. "We were a good 400 yards away and we felt this heat. It was one of the worst things I've ever seen."

Out of the smoke, a horrific scene unfolded: villagers running in terror.

Two women carrying babies appeared and were desperate for help. Both children were terribly burned. One appeared to have charred clothes hanging off its body, but it was actually skin. Neither child survived.

"The thing that I always remember was they were absolutely silent," Wain said. "There was no sound from them until they saw us. When they saw us, then they started to cry and shout. But until that point they were, I suppose, in shock."

Two minutes went by and then Ut spotted the silhouette of a young girl.

"Then I look in black smoke and saw little Kim Phuc naked," Ut added. "I keep shooting, shooting pictures of Kim running. Then when she passed my camera, I saw her body burned so badly, I said, 'Oh my God, I don't want no more pictures.' She was screaming and crying, she just said, 'I'm dying, I'm dying, I'm dying' and 'I need some water, bring water.' Right away (I) run and put water on her body. I want to help her. I say no more pictures, I want to help Kim Phuc right away."

Even though the South Vietnamese army dropped the bombs on their own villagers, it made no effort to help the injured. Journalists were all that was left who could help.

"I gave her a drink of water," Wain recalled.

In one photo Wain can be seen kneeling in front of Phuc doing what he can to help, while other members of the media look on in disbelief. Ut would then drive her to the hospital.

Even though Ut had a strict deadline, all he could think of was saving the little girl. He didn't know he had already taken a photo that would have an enormous impact, creating a firestorm of outrage over Vietnam. His picture would force the rest of the world to finally see the innocent victims of war, victims who now had a face.

For Ut, it meant the Pulitzer Prize. For history, it meant one of the most iconic and powerful images of 20th century.

Phuc had a long, difficult fight ahead of her, but survived. She now calls Ut her "Uncle Nick."

See photos of our visit to Trang Bang.


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