'Napalm Girl' photo from Vietnam War turns 40: David Ono hosts special, 'Witness: Power of a Picture'
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A shocking photo from the Vietnam War sent an unprecedented message across the world about what war is. It was a vulnerable 9-year-old girl running nude toward the camera, badly injured, her peaceful life shattered by war.
What is it about that black-and-white, grainy 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 the little girl, Kim Phuc, was taken on June 8, 1972. It won the Pulitzer Prize, but its impact is immeasurable.
Los Angeles Associated press photographer Nick Ut took that picture. He's been working in Los Angeles for more than three decades, but he is from Vietnam. Forty years ago, the young photographer 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.
I accompanied Ut back to Trang Bang to mark the 40th anniversary. We were joined by Christopher Wain, a former British TV journalist who also was there recording the incident on camera.
Innocent victims have always been a part of war. But never before had such a vivid example been captured. It even shocked President Richard Nixon, who on a secret tape said he thought it might be fake.
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, the focal point of the incident, is still there today. That's where Phuc and her family, along with other villagers, were inside, thinking they were safe from the conflict. Then Vietnamese planes starting moving in over the village, dropping napalm bombs. 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.
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. As the journalists watched, Wain said he clearly remembers giving her a drink of water. Ut would then drive her to the hospital. It was an agonizingly long and difficult trip, but all he could think of was saving the little girl.
Ut didn't know he had 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.
Ut's brother an inspiration for iconic photo
Ut's brother, Me Thanh Huynh, was his idol, his mentor. Ut called him "Bi-ee," which means seven. Huynh was the seventh born.
Before the war, Huynh was a Vietnamese movie star who quit acting to become a photographer for the Associated Press. Huynh was always searching for that magic picture that would turn the world against the war and stop the killing. He was talented and brave, perhaps to a fault.
In 1965, he was shot in the Mekong Delta in southwest Vietnam. He was receiving aid in a field hospital, when it was overrun by the Viet Cong. Huynh was executed.
Ut was 14 when he attended his brother's funeral.
"I cried a lot after that," Ut said. "He loved me so much and I loved him too. He always took care of me and he asked me and always wanted me to become a photographer."
Ut went to his brother's boss looking for work. They gave him a job in the dark room. He constantly studied the pictures coming in, learning the craft and eventually becoming a combat photographer, just like his brother.
After leaving the hospital, Ut began to pray to his brother.
"I didn't pray to God, I just prayed to my brother," Ut said. "I said, 'Brother, please, I remember you telling me you want to stop this war, I want a picture. Maybe this one will stop this war.'
When he developed his film, he couldn't believe what he found. He sifted through his negatives, then took a good look at number seven, his brother's nickname. It turned out to be the prized photo. Ut said it was Bi-ee speaking to him.
"I cried and said, 'Oh my God, that's my brother's same number.' Unbelievable. You can see on the picture right now. No. 7," Ut said.
The photo would be printed in newspapers and magazines around the world, having an enormous impact and creating a firestorm of outrage over Vietnam.
For Ut, it meant the Pulitzer Prize. For history, it meant one of the most iconic and powerful images of 20th century.
'Napalm Girl' discusses life after photograph
For most of the world, Phuc is simply known as the "Napalm Girl," a 9-year-old running naked in Vietnam after having her clothes burned off her body by a napalm strike.
The photo of Phuc is famous around the world, but few know her name or whether she even survived.
Phuc, 49, has matured with grace and charm. She is a goodwill ambassador who is now comfortable telling her story.
Upon meeting her, I noticed she is always at ease, smiling and remarkably open. Our conversation started with the memory of that painful day four decades ago in her small village.
"When I ran out of that temple, I saw the airplane so quick, so close and so loud," Phuc said. "I saw four bombs and I heard sounds, 'Boom, boom, boom, boom,' and suddenly fire everywhere around me and then the fire burnt off my clothes."
She said the pain is still a daily part of life. It never goes away. Her left arm, entire back and neck are all disfigured. There's horrible scarring to her skin, but even more so to her self esteem.
"Every time I touch it, I scare myself to death," she said. "That's why I thought I'd never have a boyfriend, get married or even have a baby - normal life."
As she candidly revealed, that world-famous photo only added to her misery.
"First time when I saw that, I wish that picture not taken because that little girl, I feel ugly and embarrassed," Phuc said.
As she grew into an adult, her embarrassment gave way to conviction. The picture took on a whole new meaning. She realized there was a greater good she can serve.
"I learned that I'm so thankful that he took that picture," Phuc said. "I can use that suffering to help other people because I know as you know there are so many people in this world suffering.
Today, she is married and a mother of two. She travels the world, speaking on behalf of innocent victims of war. Even though she is famous all over the world, she has not used her image for profit. She lives a modest life with little money.
"I live very humble," she said. "I don't have much, but I feel very rich because I help people with my love."
Phuc's story draws thousands to her speeches, hanging on every compelling detail. It gives her an opportunity to teach about adversity, faith and forgiveness. After years of feeling shame over that photograph, she's discovered its invaluable purpose.
On Sunday, June 3, Phuc will appear at Liberty Baptist Church at 1000 Bison Ave., Newport Beach. She was scheduled to speak at 10 a.m.
Students learn hard lessons of Vietnam War
How do you teach a lesson about war? Not memorizing the facts from the pages of a history book, but truly understanding the consequences of war, where there is seldom right and wrong, only that grey area between.
Alethea Paradis knows how. She runs Friendship Tours World Travel, a unique opportunity for high school students from all over to visit historically important locations.
I traveled with her students from Santa Barbara to Trang Bang, where the photo of Phuc was taken. Visiting Trang Bang gave the young Southern Californians a much deeper understanding of what Phuc and her family had to live through in the war.
In nearby Ho Chi Minh city, they visited a war museum where Phuc's photograph hangs along with many other images of the war. As they stared at Phuc's picture, its importance was much clearer.
"I have seen this picture countless times before we came on this trip, but the first time I saw it today I stared at it for 10 minutes because it was like a whole new picture after hearing Kim's story," said 16-year-old student Mica Zimmerman. "I had a whole new perspective of it. It's like a completely different picture."
As the students sat in a park, they reflected on what they had experienced. Their words spilled out onto their pages like magic.
"One question I have is, did this picture capture the war or shape it?" Zimmerman wrote.
Phuc's photo brings haunting memories for Vietnam War vet
Vietnam War veteran Jim Nolan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Teaching a unique class at the University of California, Santa Barbara, however, is his therapy. The course was the first of its kind in the country, where actual veterans tell their stories.
"The reason I've never talked to my children about this - and they are in their 40s now - I don't want them thinking that their daddy is a killer," Nolan said. "That's not the image I want them to have of me, as someone who goes around killing people. But I did."
Talking about his shame, his trauma, his role in a war few can understand, has helped him deal with his sadness.
As a 19 year old, Nolan saw some brutal violence in the nine months he spent as a Marine in the jungle. He admits to killing many, losing close friends and being wounded three different times. But one action in particular is what wrecked him. He was ordered to clear out a hole on the side of a hill, in case enemy soldiers were hiding in it, as they often did. He took the grenade and yelled at them to come out.
"I didn't hear anything and just threw the grenade in," Nolan said. "What was actually in the hole was a young 17- or 18-year-old girl and maybe a 4-or 5-month-old baby and they were hiding from the Americans. They've been told stories by the Viet Cong that the Americans were going to rape their women and eat their children, so they were afraid of us and she and her child were just in there hiding from us.
"She was just hiding from the Americans. There's no saying, 'I'm sorry.' There's no do-overs. She was dead and the baby was dead. And I have to live with it."
When Nolan returned from the war, he was met by angry crowds of college-age students calling the troops "baby killers," a term especially painful to him. He crawled into an emotional shell and stayed there for decades.
"I see those bodies all the time," Nolan said.
When the photo of Phuc hit the world, it was like reliving a nightmare. Nolan, like many veterans, couldn't bear to look at it. It revealed everything that was wrong with the war. They went there to fight the Viet Cong, known as the VC, but so often, that's not what happened.
"To me personally, it's a reminder of the horror and of the collateral damage, the woman and her baby," Nolan said. "The fact that a lot of the villages we shot into didn't just have VC in them, they also had women and children and that there was a lot of civilian casualties. We would just count their bodies as VC. This picture just brings back a lot of those memories of the chaos of war. "
Ironically, young adults have gone from being Nolan's hell to his salvation. The empathy he sees in their eyes is cathartic. Those emotions he tucked away so long ago are slowly resurfacing. Phuc's picture will always torment him. But at least now he can look at it, talk about it and even use it in his classroom. To the world, the picture is a dark truth so many were ignorant to. But to our troops who were there, it's simply a reminder of something they spend the rest of their lives trying to forget.
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