Vietnam’s ‘Napalm Girl,’ 50 years later: ‘Everyone can live with love, with hope, and forgiveness’

When Kim Phuc first saw the now famous photo of herself — a little girl in Vietnam running in agony after she was burned by napalm — she said she was embarrassed.

She was naked, as the napalm had burned her clothes.

“Oh, I don’t want to see that. I didn’t like it,” she recalled in a recent interview.

Decades later, after she was granted asylum in Canada and gave birth to her son, she began to see the so-called “Napalm Girl” picture taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut in a different light.

She realized the photo can provide hope to many others.

Because the little girl in the picture survived.

It’s that message of hope that Phuc wants to continue sharing with the world as the photo marks its 50th anniversary on June 8.

The anniversary comes as conflicts continue to rage around the world, including in Ukraine.

“Based on that picture, I did want to tell people, ‘Look how horrible war is,’” said Phuc in a Zoom interview from her home in Ajax, Ont. Former AP photographer Ut joined the call from Los Angeles.

“But, look, right now, my life, how beautiful the world can be … Everyone can live with love, with hope, and forgiveness. If everyone can learn to live like that, we absolutely don’t need war.”

Phuc and Ut have stayed in touch and speak regularly. Phuc calls him “Uncle Ut.” The photographer says he thinks of Phuc as a daughter.

Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1972 photograph, in which nine-year-old Phuc is seen running toward the camera with other children, and soldiers behind them, after South Vietnamese forces mistakenly dropped napalm bombs on their own troops and civilians during the Vietnam War.

Ut said he can remember hearing Phuc screaming “too hot, too hot.” He applied water to her burning body then took her to hospital, where he had to plead with the doctors and nurses, who claimed there was no space to treat her.

He took out his press pass and said he had just taken her photo, that it would be in the newspaper the next day, and that their faces would also be published if they didn’t treat her.

They agreed to let her in.

“They worried, they take Kim inside right away, but before they take Kim inside, they said ‘Do you know why she’s still alive? I think that she will die,’” Ut said.

At that point, Phuc interjected on the Zoom call to say, “Thank you, Uncle Ut,” and she described him as her hero.

“He bugs me all the time. He calls me all the time,” Phuc said with a laugh. “I consider Uncle Ut as my hero, and I owe him, big …. Right now, our relationship, really, (it’s a) bond. I consider him as part of my family.”

The photo became one of the most famous images of the Vietnam War. It had its detractors: U.S. president Richard Nixon was among those who doubted its authenticity; he said he believed that Phuc had actually been burned with cooking oil.

The photo faced controversy for its depiction of nudity; in an infamous move, Facebook censored it in 2016, only to reinstate it, after the social media platform received widespread backlash for its decision.

“That photo represents the war and I’m very proud of it,” Ut said through a translator. He said he would “absolutely” take it again.

“That photo that I took of Kim Phuc really changed the conditions of the war and how people saw the war in Vietnam.”

Fifty years ago, nine-year-old Kim Phuc ran directly toward AP photographer Nick Ut’s camera – and into history as a symbol of the torment inflicted on innocents in all wars. (June 7 / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Fifty years later, the world is watching as another war rages, this one in Ukraine which was invaded by Russia.

Journalists again document the atrocities.

“I hope, just like I did with my photo, that they will also bring up photos and images that will stop the war,” Ut said.

Phuc spent 14 months in hospital and underwent numerous surgical procedures. She talked of spending so much time in “darkness,” suffering from nightmares and low self-esteem.

The emotional and spiritual pain was harder to deal with than the physical pain, she said.

Phuc said it was after she converted to Christianity that she began to see the world differently. “My faith, it’s helped me a lot …. That faith has helped me to move up.”

Phuc says she doesn’t keep the photo on her wall, but she shares it often. She says she wants to help people overcome life’s challenges “so we can be a blessing to others.”

She spoke of being in a burn unit when she visited Uganda, a difficult experience as it brought back memories of her own treatment. There, she met a woman who she said just wanted to give up.

“I have my picture and I show her, ‘Look, look, I got burned like you before, and even I was just nine years old, and now I’m here,’” said Phuc, who became emotional. “ ‘Please don’t give up. Just have a little bit of hope and you will be much better.’”

She said soon after, the nurses told her the woman got up and began talking and drinking water again.

It was “because of that moment, just 10 minutes, that I share with her my picture, (and) what I had been through,” Phuc said, “and give her hope.”

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