June 7, 2012

40 Years Ago in News History: Napalm Girl

On June 8, 1972, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut was covering a battle between North and South Vietnamese forces near Trang Bang, west of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), when a South Vietnamese plane missed its target and dropped napalm on civilians.

"I saw hundreds of Vietnamese refugees running in the highway," Ut said. "Then, I saw two South Vietnamese jets — one bomber, one skyraider — flying overhead. I picked up my camera and took a picture of four bombs coming down. A bombed exploded — a napalm explosion."

Out of the chaos, Ut saw a young girl running toward him, arms outstretched, eyes shut in pain and her clothes burned off by napalm.

"Too hot, please help me!" she screamed.

In a second, Ut took a photograph that would help change the perception of the Vietnam War.

"I cried when I saw her running," he said.

Ut took nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc to a nearby American hospital, where he was told she wouldn't survive. Thirty percent of her body suffered from third-degree burns, except for her face. Ut, who lost his older brother to the war, insisted that Phuc be treated. She lived, and Ut never lost touch with her. Today, Phuc, 49, lives in Toronto with her husband and two sons.

Ut initially thought the photo of the "napalm girl" would be rejected — AP had a strict policy against nudity. But Horst Faas, AP's chief of photo operations in Southeast Asia during the war, recognized the photo's news value and transmitted it across the wires. Faas died May 10, 2012.

Ut won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for spot news for the photo. It is currently on display in the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery.

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