It was 40 years ago on June 8th, 1972, that Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut snapped the iconic black-and-white image of the young girl running down the road naked and burning from napalm. I was seven years old when this photo was taken, and I cannot recall when I saw it for the first time. But this image is one that I grew up with – almost as though it has always been in my memories. Whenever I see this photo, I have often wondered what happened to this poor child – I always assumed that she had died from her burns. Not so. Today I was pleasantly surprised to read about how she survived and what she has endured the past 40 years.
It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard the soldier’s scream: “We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will be dead!”
Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke bombs curling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had sheltered for three days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village.
The little girl heard a roar overhead and twisted her neck to look up. As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end.
The ground rocked. Then the heat of a hundred furnaces exploded as orange flames spit in all directions.
Fire danced up Phuc’s left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing pain bit through skin and muscle. “I will be ugly, and I’m not normal anymore,” she thought, as her right hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm. “People will see me in a different way.”
In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind her older brother. She didn’t see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran toward them, screaming.
Then, she lost consciousness.
Phan Thi Kim Phuc was born and raised in the village of Trang Bang, 30 minutes north of Saigon. During the Vietnam War, the strategic Route 1 that runs through the village became the main supply road between Saigon and Phnom Penh. On June 8, 1972, an American military advisor coordinated the napalm bombing of Kim’s village by the South Vietnamese. Nine-year-old Kim fled from a pagoda, where she and her family had been hiding. Two of her infant cousins did not survive the attack, and Kim was badly burned.
Kim was photographed running down the road, screaming from the burns to her skin. Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer who was there to cover the siege, took the photograph of young Kim. Moved by her pain, he rushed her to a South Vietnamese hospital. She then spent 14 months recovering in Barsky Hospital, the American hospital in Saigon, where her care was paid for by a private Foundation. Ut’s photograph of Kim remains one of the most unforgettable images of the Vietnam War.
Kim Phuc was not expected to live. Third degree burns covered half of her body, and she would require many operations and years of therapy. After two years, against all odds and with the help of doctors who were committed to her care, she was able to return to her village, where she and her family began to rebuild their lives.
In 1982, 10 years after the famous photograph was taken, a German photographer located Kim. In the interim, the Vietnamese Government had subjected her to endless interviews, communist officials had summoned her to Ho Chi Minh City to be used in propaganda films, and Kim had been forced to leave school [where she was studying to be a doctor] and move back to her province where, as a “national symbol of war”, she was supervised daily.
In 1986, Kim seized the opportunity to study in Cuba, but once again her studies were cut short. She was beset with physical problems, including diabetes, which blurred her vision. While in Cuba, she met a fellow Vietnamese student, Bui Huy Toan. They married in 1992, and spent their honeymoon in Moscow. Returning to Cuba, the couple defected when their plane stopped to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland. They settled in Canada with the help of some Quakers. Her husband, a computer specialist, was able to find employment as a nurse’s aid working with the disabled.
In 1996, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund invited Kim to attend the Veterans Day ceremonies at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Kim spoke to a group of several thousand Vietnam War veterans about her experiences after the napalm attack on her village. She used that opportunity to share with the verterans about how she finally found happiness and freedom after years of pain and suffering; she spoke about pain and suffering. She even met a pilot who coordinated the air strike on her village – she forgave him!
During her visit to Washington, DC, she met Ron Gibbs, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Board of Directors for the Memorial Fund. They shared their experiences from the war and their hopes for the future. The idea for the Kim Foundation International was born out of that meeting.
Now Mrs. Kim Phuc lives in the Toronto area of Canada with her husband and two sons, Thomas and Stephen. In 1997 UNESCO named her a Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. She is also an Honorary Member of Kingston Rotary, an Honorary Member of St. Albert Rotary, a member of the Advisory Board for the Wheelchair Foundation, an Honorary Member of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, a Member of the Advisory Board of Free Children’s Foundation in Canada, and the World Children’s Center in Atlanta Ga., USA. Kim is also a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and the 2004 “Order of Ontario”.