(CNN) – The harrowing image of children fleeing a deadly napalm attack has become a defining image not only of the Vietnam War but of the 20th century. Dark smoke billowed from behind them, the children’s faces dyed with a mixture of horror, pain and confusion. Soldiers from the 25th Division of the South Vietnamese Army helplessly follow.
Taken outside the village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, the photo captured the shock and indiscriminate violence of a conflict that, by some estimates, has killed a million or more civilians. Although the photo is officially called “Terror of War”, it is best known by the nickname of the 9-year-old girl who appears naked and burns hot in the middle: “Napalm Girl”.
The girl, who has since been identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, eventually survived her injuries. This was thanks in part to Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who helped the kids after their now famous photo was taken. Fifty years after that fateful day, the couple are still in regular contact and use their story to spread a message of peace.
“I will never forget that moment,” Fock said on a video call from Toronto, where he is now staying.
His childhood village, Trang Bang, less than 45 kilometers northwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), was occupied by Communist forces from the north of the country. According to a New York Times report at the time, the South Vietnamese Army spent three days trying to dislodge them and reopen the nearby highway. That morning, the Southern Air Force sent propeller-driven Skyraiders to drop napalm, a substance that causes severe burns and sticks to targets, on enemy positions.
Phuc and his family had taken refuge with civilians and other South Vietnamese soldiers at a Buddhist temple. Hearing their army planes flying in the sky, the soldiers urged everyone to flee, fearing an attack. Tragically, the group was confused with the enemy.
“I turned my head and saw the planes, and I saw four bombs landing,” Fock said. Then all of a sudden there was fire everywhere, and my clothes burned with fire. At that moment I didn’t see anyone around me, only fire.
“I still remember what I was thinking,” he added. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I got burned, I’d be ugly and people would see me differently. “But I was so terrified.
Phuc tore off what was left of his clothes and ran down Route 1. Vietnamese photographer Yut, who was 21 at the time, was among the many journalists stationed outside the village who were anticipating more conflict that day.
“I saw Kim running and she[shouted in Vietnamese]’It’s so hot!'” he said on a video call from Los Angeles. it is very hot! “.help her right away. I put all my camera equipment on the road and water put her body.”
So he put the injured children in his van and drove them for 30 minutes to a nearby hospital. But upon his arrival, the hospital told him that there was no room, and that he would have to take them to Saigon.
“I said, ‘If another hour passes (without treatment), he will die,'” he recalls, adding that he initially feared that Focke had already died in his car during the trip.
Ott eventually convinced the doctors to take them in by showing her press pass and telling them that the picture of the babies would appear in newspapers around the world the next day (she spoke to Vanity Fair in 2015, remembering her exact words to the hospital like: “If one of them dies, they’ll be in trouble”). .
The picture spread around the world
From the hospital, Yote went to the Associated Press office in Saigon to develop the images. His photographs spoke volumes about that day in history: a bomb caught in the air under the Skyraider, thick black smoke billowing into the sky above Trang Bang, a victim being carried on a makeshift stretcher. A lesser known photograph shows television crews and South Vietnamese soldiers huddled around the Phuc, the skin on their backs and arms tweeting the flammable gel that made napalm a controversial weapon.
But the photographer immediately knew that one of the photos stood out from the rest.
“When I got back to my office,[the darkroom technician]and everyone who saw the picture immediately told me that it was too powerful and that the picture would win a Pulitzer.”
They were right: Ott was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for news photography in 1973. His photo also received this year’s World Press Photo Award after grabbing the covers of more than 20 major US dailies.
There is no evidence to support the fabricated claim that “Napalm Girl” precipitated the end of the Vietnam War, which lasted until 1975 and saw the communists finally take control of the US-backed south of the country. Nor does it seem to have had much influence on American public opinion, which had already turned against America’s involvement in the conflict in the late 1960s (the US military presence in South Vietnam, after nearly two decades, had almost completely regressed when Ott his image). Nevertheless, the picture 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 recordings released decades later, the US president speculated that the photo had been manipulated, an accusation Ott said “made him very angry.”
Meanwhile, Focke spent 14 months in hospitals to receive treatment for her injuries. Two of his cousins were killed in the bombing. But he tried to overcome the attack and the image that was seen around the world.
“When I was a kid, I was very 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 was soon taken out by the Vietnamese communist government for use in propaganda campaigns. She remembers journalists who traveled from abroad to hear her story, but she struggled to gain attention.
“It really affected my private life,” he said, saying that at times he wanted to “disappear.”
“I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t fulfill my dreams. So, I kind of hated it.”
symbol of hope
Only after Canada granted Phuc political asylum in 1992 was she inspired to use her personal tragedy for greater good. He wrote a book about his experiences and set up the Kim Foundation International, a charity that provides aid to children of war. She was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in 1997 and speaks worldwide about her life story and the power of tolerance.
Last month, she and Ott, who still refers affectionately as “Uncle,” presented a copy of the photo to Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square.
He said, “I realized that this photo has become a powerful gift for me. I can (use) it to work for peace, because that photo did not let me go.”
“Now I can look back and hug her… I am so grateful that (Ott) was able to record that moment in history and record the horror of war, which can change the whole world. And that moment changed my attitude and my attitude of faith.” I can keep my dream alive to help others.
After years of operations and treatment, Focke still suffers from the ill effects of the burns he sustained that day. He recently underwent laser treatments in the US, although he has been in constant pain due to his injuries.
But now with two children, Fock credits her Christian faith with helping her “move forward.”
“Now, 50 years later, I am so grateful I am no longer a victim of war. I am a survivor and have the opportunity to work for peace.”
Ute, now retired, 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 various sources, he said, the cumulative effect can be just as shocking as the unique and distinctive newspaper images of generations past.
“When I was taking pictures in Vietnam, things were much slower and we didn’t have social media,” he said. “Now, you have a lot of images, but it’s so immediate, in terms of telling the truth and showing it to the world, it’s also incredibly powerful.”