Published 7th June 2022
Credit: Nick Ut/AP
‘Napalm Girl’ at 50: The story of the Vietnam War’s defining photo
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
The horrifying photograph of children fleeing a deadly napalm attack has become a defining image not only of the Vietnam War but the 20th century. Dark smoke billowing behind them, the young subjects’ faces are painted with a mixture of terror, pain and confusion. Soldiers from the South Vietnamese army’s 25th Division follow helplessly behind.
Taken outside the village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, the picture captured the trauma and indiscriminate violence of a conflict that claimed, by some estimates, a million or more civilian lives. Though officially titled “The Terror of War,” the photo is better known by the nickname given to the badly burned, naked 9-year-old at its center: “Napalm Girl”.
The girl, since identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, ultimately survived her injuries. This was thanks, in part, to Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who assisted the children after taking his now-iconic image. Fifty years on from that fateful day, the pair are still in regular contact — and using 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.
Her childhood village of Trang Bang, less than 30 miles northwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), had then been occupied by communist forces from the country’s north. According to a New York Times report from the time, the South Vietnamese army had spent three days trying to drive them out and reopen the nearby highway. That morning, the south’s air force dispatched propellor-driven Skyraider planes to drop napalm — a substance that causes severe burns and sticks to targets — on enemy positions.
Phuc and her family had been sheltering with other civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers in a Buddhist temple. Upon hearing their own army’s aircraft overhead, the soldiers urged everyone to flee, fearing an attack. Tragically, the group was mistaken for the enemy.
“I turned my head and saw the airplanes, and I saw four bombs landing down,” said Phuc. “Then, suddenly, there was the fire everywhere, and my clothes were burned up by the fire. At that moment I didn’t see anybody around me, just fire.
“I still remember what I thought,” she added. “I thought: ‘Oh my goodness, I got burned, I will be ugly, and people will see me different way. But I was so terrified.”