How "Napalm Girl" shocked the world — and ended up a motivational speaker in Canada.
The most influential photos always have a story attached to them. Napalm Girl, caught in a moment of desperation in 1972, encapsulated the terror of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The legend of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl in question, was simple and gratifying to opponents of the war.
According to an article published by NPR in 2012 to mark the photo’s 40th anniversary:
“Whatever your age, you’ve probably seen this photo.
It’s a hard image to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin.
That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when she was photographed, screaming in pain, after a U.S. commander ordered South Vietnamese planes to drop napalm near her village.”
Except for the part where none of that narrative is true, the story of Napalm Girl is indeed very powerful. And the story of what happened to Kim Phuc after her brush with history is just as powerful a reminder that human beings are far more complex than a single photograph can ever convey.
A War Of Pointless Brutality
Standing in a puddle of water that has been poured over her burns, Phan Thi Kim Phuc is filmed by an ITN news crew.
One thing the narrative got right is that America’s war in Vietnam was coarse and brutal, even by the standards of 20th-century warfare. By 1972, the U.S. had been meddling in Vietnam’s affairs for decades, and half of that time had seen three times the munitions used in all theaters of World War II dropped over an agrarian country the size of New Mexico.
For a decade, the world’s most powerful air force dropped every explosive and incendiary known to man, along with a hefty dose of dioxin-based herbicide, on (mostly) South Vietnamese targets. On the ground, armed troops ranging from greenhorn Marines just doing their jobs to throat-slitting commandos in the Studies and Observations Group that killed an estimated 2 million indigenous people.
What made Vietnam uniquely horrible was the sheer pointlessness of it all.
As early as 1966, senior war planners at the Pentagon knew there was no focus and no plan for victory. By 1968, many Americans knew it too. By 1972, U.S. leadership had had enough: President Nixon’s plan of “Vietnamization” of the war effort had steadily shifted much of the burden of defense onto the government in Saigon, and the end was finally in sight.
The year after the Napalm Girl photo was taken, the United States and North Vietnam came to a shaky ceasefire that gave America all the excuse it needed to cut and run. The war continued, however, between Saigon and Hanoi, and there hangs a tale.
The Battle For Trang Bang
A tactical airstrike douses the area near the Buddhist temple in Trang Bang with napalm.
On June 7, 1972, elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) occupied the South Vietnamese town of Trang Bang. They were met by ARVN and the Vietnamese Air Force (VAF). In the three-day battle that followed, NVA forces entered the town and used the civilians for cover. This was an old tactic for the NVA, as it usually kept them from getting blasted by airstrikes and artillery.
Kim Phuc, her brothers, several cousins, and many other civilians took shelter in the Buddhist temple on the first day. The way the battle unfolded, the temple developed into a kind of sanctuary, where both ARVN and the NVA avoided fighting. By the second day, the temple area was clearly marked so that VAF strikes outside of town could avoid it.
On the second day of fighting, most of the action had shifted to an area near the temple. ARVN was holding in place outside the town, while NVA fighters were shooting from cover inside and between civilian buildings. VAF tactical strike aircraft were working under strict rules of engagement and operating with colored smoke markers on the ground to guide their attacks.
Despite the reports that ARVN or VAF units were “ordered” to strike the village by an American officer, no attempt was made to bomb the town itself, nor were any American officers present to give orders.
At the time of the battle, there were exactly two American servicemen in Tay Ninh Province, one of whom was miles away and another who arrived at Trang Bang as an observer with zero authority over air and ground forces.
Nobody, except for the NVA, ever attacked the village and no Americans within radio range had the power to issue such an order. From start to finish, Trang Bang was a Vietnamese operation.
Phan Thi Kim Phuc Becomes Napalm Girl
It was on day two, as fighting got close to the temple, that some of the adults decided to flee. Led by a monk, a small group of townspeople, including nine-year-old Kim Phuc, ran into the open toward ARVN forces.
Many of the people were holding bundles and other equipment in their hands, and some were dressed in ways that could be mistaken from the air for either NVA or Vietcong uniforms.
As bad luck would have it, an airstrike happened to be inbound just as Kim’s group broke into the open. The pilot of a strike aircraft, flying in at around 2,000 feet and 500 mph, had seconds to identify the group and decide what to do.
He seems to have assumed that the group running toward his side’s lines were armed NVA, and so he dropped his ordnance on their position, dousing several ARVN soldiers with burning napalm and killing Kim Phuc’s cousins. Kim was ahead of the affected area, but some napalm did make contact with her back and left arm. It set her clothes on fire, and she stripped them off as she ran.
According to an account that Kim later gave in an interview, Phan Thi Kim Phuc ran naked down the road screaming: “Nóng quá, nóng quá” (“too hot, too hot”), until she reached a makeshift aid station where several photographers were stationed.
One of them, a Vietnamese national named Nick Ut, snapped the famous Napalm Girl photo immediately before Kim reached the station. There, aid workers poured cool water over her burns and transported her to Barski hospital in Saigon.
Burns covered roughly 50 percent of Kim’s body, and doctors at the hospital were grim about her odds of survival. Over the next 14 months, Kim would get 17 surgeries, but she was left with serious restrictions in her range of movement that would last for ten years, until she got reconstructive surgery in West Germany in 1982.
Ut’s Napalm Girl photo appeared in The New York Times the next day and later won a Pulitzer for outstanding photojournalism.
A Career In Propaganda
Kim displays her lingering scars from the incident that set the course for her life.
By the time Kim was released from the hospital, the war was reaching its end. Early in 1975, North Vietnamese forces surged across the DMZ for one last push against the South Vietnamese government.
In part due to images like Napalm Girl, the US Congress spurned the South’s desperate plea for assistance. That April, Saigon fell for good and the country was finally unified under the Communist government of the North.
A few years later, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to crush the Khmer Rouge. After that, peace mostly prevailed in Vietnam, though an uneasy relationship developed between Hanoi and its nominal ally, China. Vietnam remained a militarized state that was prepared for war at any time and very interested in propaganda victories over its many enemies.
In the early 1980s, the Hanoi government discovered Kim in her native town. She and her family had recently converted from their traditional shamanistic religion to Christianity, but the officially atheist government opted to overlook the small thought crime for a propaganda coup.
Kim was brought to the capital for meetings with high-level government officials and made a few television appearances. She even became a sort of protégé of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng.
Through his connections, Kim got the treatment she needed in Europe and permission to study medicine in Cuba. Throughout this period, she made frequent public statements and appearances on behalf of the Hanoi government and very carefully avoided mentioning that the plane that dropped the bombs had nothing to do with American forces.
By leaving that detail unsaid, Kim (and her handlers) managed to reinforce the narrative that the United States had deliberately bombed her helpless village.
New Beginnings In Canada
Kim Phuc today.
Kim met a fellow Vietnamese university student, Bui Huy Toan, in Cuba. The two became a couple and eventually married.
In 1992, the 29-year-old Kim and her new husband were granted permission to spend their honeymoon in Moscow. During a layover in Gander, Newfoundland, the pair simply walked out of the international transit area and asked for political asylum in Canada. After a decade of working for the communist government of Vietnam, Napalm Girl had defected to the West.
Almost as soon as Kim received permission to stay in Canada as a political refugee, she demonstrated a keen appreciation of market economies by booking paid appearances as Napalm Girl. Instead of giving carefully worded denunciations of the imperialist US aggression forces, she offered equally carefully worded missives about peace and forgiveness.
Again, she very deliberately avoided blaming the United States for her injuries, but the implication was heavy in the air anytime she spoke, not least because that was what most people in her audiences assumed had happened and she never went out of her way to correct the false narrative.
All Is Forgiven
In 1994, Phan Thi Kim Phuc was named a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. In this capacity, Kim traveled around the post-Cold War world giving speeches in what was becoming her trademark vague style.
In 1996, during a speech at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Kim spoke about forgiveness – again, with no mention at all about the identity of the pilot who had dropped the bombs – and got massive applause from the gathered crowd.
During the event, a “spontaneous” note was passed to her on stage, which read: “I am the one,” referring, apparently, to the “American pilot” in the audience who supposedly felt so moved that he had to confess to flying the fatal mission.
Newly ordained Methodist minister John Plummer then stepped forward, gave Kim a hug, and was “forgiven” for ordering the bombing of the Trang Bang temple that day. Later, the pair met in a Washington hotel room for an interview with a Canadian documentary crew.
In reality, the entire event was staged by Jan Scruggs, founder and President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which had raised the money to build the Wall.
John Plummer, the American who allegedly ordered the airstrike, didn’t plan on meeting Kim at the wall, but had in fact met with her a few days prior to the fundraising event.
It was later conclusively demonstrated that Plummer had been over 50 miles away from Trang Bang on the day of the bombing, and that he never had any authority over VAF pilots, but by the time the Canadian film crew had the footage it needed – and Scruggs had the donations he needed, it was too late for anybody to care.
The End Of The Road
Now in her 50s, Phan Thi Kim Phuc continues to give speeches, almost always as “the Girl In the Photograph.”
Kim Phuc, once the little girl with a burned-up back, has now settled into a comfortable middle age with her husband in Ontario. In 1997, she passed the Canadian citizenship test with, reportedly, a perfect score. Around the same time, she started a nonprofit to promote world peace and help children affected by conflict.
Kim herself continues to forgive vaguely not-American-exactly forces for what happened to her, and she is the subject of an adoring hagiography by Denise Chong: The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photographer and the Vietnam War published by Viking Press in 1999.
Jan Scruggs has mostly left the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and now he travels between cities raising money for a projected $115 million Vietnam Veterans Education Center, which is also planned for the National Mall in Washington.
Nick Ut has recently retired from journalism after 51 years and multiple awards. Like Kim, he has also relocated to the West and now resides peacefully in Los Angeles.
Many members of Kim’s family, some pictured in the photograph that made her famous, still live in the People’s Republic of Vietnam, though nobody has been able to find them.