by Alisha Rosas
photography by Natalie Fowle
Rain had been washing the sins of war into Vietnam’s soil for hours. For the living, the thick, smothering humidity managed to stimulate all sweat glands. Bombs could be heard near and in the distance, yet something more distinct wailed nearby. It was a piercing sound, one that still vibrates years later for all who hear the name “Vietnam.” It was the sound of a screaming child. The outline of her tiny body through the dense, black smoke could barely be comprehended until, like a ghost, she emerged out of the darkness, her arms outstretched, reaching out toward salvation. She wore no clothes, and on this dark day, her nakedness is shocking. The entire world remembers the girl in the napalm photograph, but few acknowledge the man behind the camera.
He is photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut (pronounced “oot”), a self-effacing man who captured in a moment, a photograph that later became an icon of the Vietnam War, perhaps the one that even ended it.
He was born in Saigon on March 29, 1951, the year that marked the end of the war with the French. As a young child, he remembers nothing of war. “It was such a beautiful country,” he says. “Everything felt so peaceful.” But by age 11, Ut realized that the war was indeed starting. More and more “unofficial” Americans were walking in uniforms throughout Saigon. “I was young when the Americans soldiers came into my country,” he says. “I remember men walking around carrying guns, some giving bubble gum to the children, others hugging and kissing them.”
Ut also remembers when his older brother Huynh Thanh My went into combat to take photographs for the Associated Press in Saigon. It was when his brother was killed by the Communists in the Mekong Delta in 1965, that Ut decided to become a photographer. “At first, I did not want to live anymore because my brother had died,” he says. But with no training or classes on photography, he began practicing photography daily. “I shot everything,” he remembers. A few months later, Saigon bureau officials of the Associated Press hired him as a combat photographer; however, it was not until after the 1968 Vietnamese New Year and the surprise attack of the Tet Offensive that Ut began to heavily cover the war.
Two years later, when the Americans and South Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Ut was hit twice, once in the stomach and then again under his right arm, both by rocket shrapnel. He recalls how his boss at the AP did not want him to die. “‘Nicky,’ he say, ‘we don’t have insurance for you yet.’ But he was not joking; he was afraid I would get killed like my brother.” Comparing himself to a cat with nine lives, Ut remembers when a rocket grazed over his hair. “I remember touching my hair, and it would fall off in my hands. I was very lucky,” he says. “A taller man would have lost his head.”
After spending less than a week at home recovering, Ut was back at work. There was a fear factor involved. “I was scared sometimes,” he smiles, “but when you’re a combat photographer, you always go back out there. We lost hundreds of photographers in Cambodia alone. That is why so many photographers died. They would get shot like me and go out to work again.
“You want to get out there to get the picture to tell the story,” he says. “I took pictures because I wanted everyone everyday to know what was happening in my country.” He accomplished that goal time and time again, but never like he did on June 8, 1972.
The hamlet of Trang Bang in Tay Ninh province is about 30 miles northwest of Saigon. The province had become a major base for South Vietnamese communist troops and served as a link for the North Vietnamese soldiers to send supplies into the South. It quickly became the most fought over, bombed and napalmed area in South Vietnam.
Early June was when the North Vietnamese began hiding in the village of Trang Bang, and fighting between the north and south increased in the province. On June 8, journalists drove to the area to photograph the battle. Ut remembers the napalm. “It was 1 p.m. when South Vietnamese Skyraiders dropped four bombs and four drums of napalm. I could tell what it was because napalm drops slowly,” he says, gesturing his hand in a downward motion. “People say it [the dropping of the napalm] was an accident, but, for me, it was clearly not an accident.” As the bomb danced throughout the gray sky, Ut was there with his Nikon 200, capturing every second of its air travel. When it impacted on Vietnam soil and blew through Trang Bang, Ut at the age of 21, was watching everything through his viewfinder. “It was all red, all red morning. It was such a different color, like fire,” he says. “I told my friends, ‘Oh my gosh, what a good color picture!’ It would have been so good in color, but I was using black and white film,” he recalls. “When we saw the napalm drop, we didn’t think at the time, that people lived there. There was no one there.”
Behind the black smoke and heat, however, were people. Approximately 100,000 people resided in the Trang Bang hamlet, 10 of whom died as a result of the napalm strike. One by one, people emerged out of darkness and into the light of media shutter releases. Photographers stood “click, click,” capturing images of war victims. Ut describes an elderly woman holding a 1-year-old baby. “That baby died in my camera,” he says sadly, remembering how from one 35 mm proof picture to the next, the baby died.
Like little ghosts, he heard the children emerging from the napalm’s black cloud. “I heard children yelling in my ears. I could hear them in my ears,” Ut remembers with a wince-“All of them crying and screaming. I looked through the black smoke and saw the girl. I thought, ‘Oh my God, the girl has no clothes,’ as I shot the picture. She was screaming ‘nong qua, nong qua’ [‘too hot, too hot’],” Ut remembers. “I didn’t know what had happened to her; I just knew that something had happened.
“After I shot the picture, I knew that she was kept in my camera; however, I knew that the girl would die soon,” he says and explained how he left all of his camera and recording equipment on the ground – except the camera with Kim Phoc’s exposed image – and asked a colleague to gather them up. Ut then poured water over 9-year-old Kim Phoc’s body, ushered her to his car and drove her to the hospital. “She kept crying in my car, ‘I’m dying, I’m dying,'” Ut recalls. “I worried that she would die in my car. The ride was more than 30 minutes long, and she cried the whole way. I didn’t take anymore pictures because I was worried about her. No more pictures for me.” His quick thinking saved her life.
From the hospital, Ut took his film to the AP office. “Photo editors ask me, ‘Why doesn’t the girl have clothes?’ I tell them that the napalm burned off her clothes, and that she was running from it,” he says. The photo was not sent out immediately because of a fellow AP staff member who said that the picture could not run in the United States due to it showing a young girl naked and in pain. The AP editors overruled that decision and demanded that it be sent out over the wire anyway.
On June 9, 1972, the image of Kim Phoc running from the napalm strike printed front page on every newspaper in the world and won Ut the 1973 Pulitzer Prize, the top award in journalism, along with other magazine awards. “New York officials told me that they had never seen a picture like that of the Vietnam War,” Ut says.
“I tried to send a message of the Vietnam War,” he explains. “Everyday, I would cry to myself after seeing the people I would wonder, ‘How much longer will this war be?'” he says, sighing. “I covered the war for 10 years. For 10 years, I saw people die everyday. Children, old people, Vietnamese and American soldiers. I wanted people to ask, ‘What are they doing over there?'”
Ut remembers people’s responses to his photograph. “They tell me, ‘Your picture stopped the war,'” he says, smiling. “I ask, how could a picture stop a war? But they say, ‘Yes! Your picture stopped the war because I didn’t join the army because of your picture. It is because of your picture that the war is over.’ They even kissed my hand,” Ut recalls and remains silent for a moment, “Do I think it stopped the war?” he asks himself. “I think it did.”
Despite his photographic talent and strong will, Ut also should be recognized for his kind heart. “I feel good because I won a Pulitzer Prize, and I saved a live person. I didn’t want to walk away and let the girl die, and someday have somebody say, ‘Nicky, your picture was famous, why did you let the girl die?’ I would have been very angry with myself.
“I didn’t want another person to die,” he whispers, “The picture I shot showed how children died in my eye; people died everyday. But I had never seen four or five children run on a highway and one be in my eye right away. I had never seen children burning like that so very bad.”
Years later, after the war and after the photograph, Ut remains employed with the AP. “It’s been 34 years now,” he says. “Sometimes, it is very boring work; other times it is a very exciting story to cover.”
Recently, Ut traveled to Vietnam to identify the children in his photograph; he provides help to them whenever he can.
Now living in Monterey Park with his wife and two children, 18-year-old Bettina and 20-year-old Michael, Ut remembers Vietnam when he thinks of how lucky his family is to not know anything about war.
“I have nightmares of the Vietnam War. Sometimes I wake up yelling, and my wife asks, ‘Why do you yell?’ I get up and tell her that it’s a nightmare about the war,” he says and pauses. “Even now, when I see something burning, I think of the napalm,” he says, looking down at his hands. “When something is burning, my brain thinks, ‘Oh my God, it’s napalm.'”
A huge picture of the little girl running is displayed in Ut’s dining room.
“Sometimes I just want to forget everything about Vietnam,” he says. “But I see the picture everyday in my house. It’s like I see her everyday, and I feel so sad for her.
“Sometimes when my wife is not there, and my kids are not there, I look at her in the picture, and I cry to myself. I just look at the picture and see how the children died in Vietnam, and I cry to myself so bad.”