Napalm Girl from Vietnam War image reflects on 50th anniversary

Napalm Girl 50 years on: Woman from iconic Vietnam war image reveals her life as a grandmother living in Toronto and how burns scarred a third of her body but says: ‘I’m no longer a victim of war’

  • Kim Phuc was immortalized as the face of the Vietnam War after she was photographed after napalm attack
  • She ran naked and screaming towards photographer Nick Ut who she credits with saving her life
  • She is now a grandmother in Toronto and works helping child war victims around the world 

Fifty years ago today, a nine-year-old girl was happily playing with her cousins in a temple courtyard as planes swooped overhead loaded with lethal chemical weapons.

Little did Kim Phuc know that moments later she would become known around the world, immortalized as the tragic face of the Vietnam War when she ran naked and screaming towards a photographer after being doused in napalm in Trang Bang in the south of the war-ravaged country.

The searing and unforgettable image taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut shocked all who saw it, apart from US President Richard Nixon, who believed it had been ‘fixed’ to sway public opinion against his brutal campaign.

The haunting black-and-white photo ran on the front page of the New York Times the following day, by which time Ut had rushed Kim to hospital with third-degree burns from which she was not expected to survive.

On the anniversary of one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Kim is still alive in Toronto and says she is ‘no longer a victim of war’, despite still suffering scars and saying the pain lasts a lifetime.

On June 8, 1972, a South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on its own troops and civilians. Nine-year-old Kim Phuc ran naked and screaming as the napalm burned her body in one of the most iconic images of all time

Kim meets up with the photographer from that fateful day, Nick Ut, fifty years on after she became immortalized as a symbol of the Vietnam War

Kim is still alive in Toronto and says she doesn’t want to be remembered as the ‘Napalm Girl’ and insists she is ‘no longer a victim of war’

Now 59, Kim still has scars on her back and says she has chronic pain after the chemical attack by South Vietnamese forces

She was granted asylum by Canada and later had a son there, and kept up a relationship with photographer Ut, who she credits with saving her life and speaks on the phone with him every week. She calls him ‘Uncle Ut’ and he thinks of her as a daughter.

Kim wrote in the New York Times: ‘Yet I also remember hating him at times. I grew up detesting that photo. I thought to myself, “I am a little girl. I am naked. Why did he take that picture? Why didn’t my parents protect me? Why did he print that photo? Why was I the only kid naked while my brothers and cousins in the photo had their clothes on?” I felt ugly and ashamed.’

The napalm had been dropped by US-backed South Vietnam accidentally against its own forces and civilians, shedding Kim’s clothes as she desperately ran for help, screaming ‘too hot, too hot’.

It killed two of Kim’s cousins and two other villagers, and she would stay in hospital for 14 months, undergoing 17 surgical procedures including skin transplants. 

The napalm had been dropped by US-backed South Vietnam accidentally against its own forces and civilians, shedding Kim’s clothes as she desperately ran for help

She was granted asylum by Canada and later had a son there, and kept up a relationship with photographer Ut, who she credits with saving her life

The attack that day killed two of Kim’s cousins and two other villagers, and she would stay in hospital for 14 months, undergoing 17 surgical procedures including skin transplants

Ut said he initially had to plead with the doctors and nurses to treat her after they said there was no space, and told them her photo would be in newspapers around the world the next day and he would publish their faces too if they did not take her in. 

The burns scarred a third of Kim’s body and caused chronic pain and she admits she felt embarrassed by her ‘disfigurement’, trying to hide her scars under her clothes as she underwent spells of anxiety and depression.

She added: ‘Children in school recoiled from me. I was a figure of pity to neighbors and, to some extent, my parents. As I got older, I feared that no one would ever love me.’

Kim said it was only after moving to Canada and converted to Christianity that she found peace, feeling she could become something more than a mere symbol of war.

She now travels around the world offering medical and psychological assistance to child war victims, drawing from her own gruesome experiences.

The burns scarred a third of Kim’s body and caused chronic pain and she admits she felt embarrassed by her ‘disfigurement’

Kim said it was only after moving to Canada and converted to Christianity that she found peace, feeling she could become something more than a mere symbol of war

Ut’s photo won a Pulitzer Prize and came at a time when public opinion against the war in the US was near its strongest

A Vietnamese mother carries a child along the street in Trang Bang after the horrific napalm attack, which killed four civilians

The war survivor says she recognises the horrors now in Ukraine, where many civilians are dying at the hands of merciless Russian forces.

She said: ‘You don’t grow out of the scars, physically or mentally. I am grateful now for the power of that photograph of me as a 9-year-old, as I am of the journey I have taken as a person. My horror — which I barely remember — became universal. I’m proud that, in time, I have become a symbol of peace.’

Ut’s photo won a Pulitzer Prize and came at a time when public opinion against the war in the US was near its strongest, coming just six months before the signing of the Paris Peace Accords which in effect removed all remaining US Forces.

The photo proved controversial for its depiction of nudity, even as recently as 2016 when it was censored by Facebook.

But Ut told The Toronto Star: ‘That photo represents the war and I’m very proud of it. That photo that I took of Kim Phuc really changed the conditions of the war and how people saw the war in Vietnam.’

Kim said last month: ‘Fifty years later, I am no longer a victim of war. I am a mother, a grandmother and a survivor calling out for peace.’

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