Phan Thi Kim Phuc
Phan Thi Kim Phuc
Trang Bang, South Vietnam
Vietnamese woman who appeared in a famous photograph that showed young victims of a U.S.-ordered napalm attack; became a symbol of forgiveness and healing after she laid a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1996
"Behind that picture of me, thousands and thousands of people, they suffered—more than me. . . . Their whole lives were destroyed, and nobody took that picture."
In 1972 a nine-year-old Vietnamese child named Phan Thi Kim Phuc was photographed running naked down a country road after suffering terrible burns from a U.S.-ordered napalm attack on her village. The photograph received a Pulitzer Prize and became one of the most enduring images of the Vietnam War's violence and cruelty. Twenty-four years later, however, Kim Phuc also became a symbol of reconciliation when she laid a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in memory of the U.S. soldiers who died in the war.
Growing up in wartime
Phan Thi Kim Phuc was born in the early 1960s near the village of Trang Bang in South Vietnam's Central Highlands region. Kim Phuc's family and other members of the Trang Bang community were farmers who led a simple existence. But during Kim Phuc's early childhood, war engulfed the Central Highlands and all of South Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was a grim conflict between the U.S. supported nation of South Vietnam and the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its guerrilla allies—known as the Viet Cong—who operated in the South. The war began in the mid-1950s, when Communists first initiated efforts to take over South Vietnam and unite it with the North under one Communist government. But the United States strongly opposed the Communist maneuvers because of fears that a takeover might trigger Communist aggression in other parts of the world. As a result, the United States provided military and financial aid to South Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1965 the United States escalated its involvement in the Vietnam War. It sent thousands of American combat troops into the South and executed hundreds of air raids against Communist targets. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the joint Viet Cong-North Vietnamese forces. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate that eventually claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and caused bitter internal divisions across America. The United States finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. Two years later, Communist forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to bring the war to a close.
Suffers terrible wounds in napalm attack
Kim Phuc received her wounds in June 1972, when a battle between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese troops erupted on the outskirts of Trang Bang. As the fight continued, U.S. military officers who were leading the South Vietnamese forces received reports that the village had been abandoned by civilians. With this information in hand, an American commander ordered South Vietnamese planes to attack the village. He ordered this assault because he thought that enemy forces might be hiding in the abandoned village.
In reality, however, some Vietnamese civilians remained in Trang Bang. As the fighter planes approached, young Kim Phuc and the other villagers took refuge in a small religious temple called a pagoda. When a bomb hit the building, the frightened villagers fled out into the open. But as they looked around for other shelter, another plane flew over the village and dumped a load of napalm on them. Napalm was often used by American forces to destroy areas held by enemy forces during the Vietnam War. It is a gasoline-like chemical that sticks to surfaces—including skin—and burns nearly anything it touches.
When the South Vietnamese fighter plane dumped its cargo of napalm on Trang Bang, Kim Phuc and several other villagers were struck. The attack killed some of the villagers and maimed others. Kim Phuc was one of those who were mutilated by the napalm. The substance fell on her back, chest, and arms and quickly burned her flesh away. "I saw my hand, my arm burning," Kim Phuc recalled in Maclean's. "I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, I become ugly girl, not normal like before.'" Frightened and in tremendous pain, she tore off her burning clothing and ran blindly down a nearby road, where she was joined by several other terrified children.
The air attack was witnessed by several journalists, who rushed to the roadway to meet the frightened children. One of the journalists—a twenty-one-year-old South Vietnamese photographer with the Associated Press named Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut—took a picture of Kim Phuc just before she reached the reporters. In the photo, she is naked and screaming in pain, her arms held away from her horribly burned body.
Kim Phuc collapsed a few minutes later. Ut and other journalists poured water over her wounds. Ut then carried her to a car and rushed her to a hospital fifteen miles away. Afterward, he sent his photograph to the Associated Press, which published it in newspapers and magazines around the world.
The photograph immediately triggered a storm of angry reaction from the American people, most of whom had come to see the Vietnam War as a terrible and tragic event. The picture also won the Pulitzer Prize. In the years since its first appearance, it has remained one of the most frequently reproduced images of the entire Vietnam conflict. As the Christian Century noted, "the instantly famous photograph was used again and again to symbolize the horror of war."
A long and painful recovery
After she was hospitalized, Kim Phuc was near death for several days. She then regained some of her strength, and it became clear that she would survive her wounds. But the napalm attack still left her horribly disfigured. Her chin had been fused to her chest by scar tissue, and burns covered much of her small body. The pain she suffered was so great that she lost consciousness whenever nurses washed and bandaged her wounds. "That is a terrible time for me," she remembered in Maclean's.
Kim Phuc was not forgotten, however. Ut organized a fund-raising drive to help pay for her care, and American surgeons working in Vietnam repaired her damaged body the best they could. In August 1973, fourteen months after she was first admitted to the hospital, Kim Phuc was finally released.
Life was difficult for Kim Phuc in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She remained in constant pain because of her injuries, and like many other Vietnamese, she had difficulty adjusting to life under Communist rule. But her circumstances improved in the early 1980s. At that time, the Vietnamese government began using her injuries to criticize the United States, which remained a bitter political foe. At first, Kim Phuc liked the renewed attention, for it reassured her that she had not been forgotten. But interviews and other government-sponsored activities interfered with her studies, and after a while she began resisting her role as a propaganda tool. ("Propaganda" refers to methods used by a government or group to spread a political message or point of view.)
In 1986 Kim Phuc received permission to go to Cuba—another Communist nation—to study pharmacology (the science of drug composition and use). During her time there, she fell in love with Huy Toan, another Vietnamese student who had relocated to Cuba to pursue his studies. When the couple married in 1992, they were given a trip to Moscow for their honeymoon. On their return flight, however, their plane stopped in Canada to refuel. At that time, Kim Phuc and her husband quietly left the plane and requested political "asylum" (protection from one's native government).
The couple's decision to make a new life for themselves in Canada was a very brave one. Kim Phuc recalled in the New York Times that they had "no clothes, no money, no family, no friends, no knowledge—nothing at all [in Canada]." But they received housing and legal assistance from Nick Ut and Nancy Pocock, a member of Canada's Quaker Committee for Refugees. A short time later, their request for refugee status was approved by the Canadian government. This ruling allowed them to begin building a new life for themselves in Canada. Kim Phuc and Huy Toan eventually settled in Toronto, where they had a son, Thomas.
Kim Phuc visits the Wall
When Kim Phuc first arrived in Canada, she was reluctant to talk about her wartime experiences. But she also hated the fact that wars continued to rage in many parts of the world. After a while, she became convinced that her story might help people understand the horrible nature of war and convince them to work harder for the cause of peace. As a result, she began making herself available for interviews once again. "I wanted to share my experience with people so that they feel better," she explained in the New York Times. "Behind that picture of me, thousands and thousands of people, they suffered—more than me. They died. They lost parts of their bodies. Their whole lives were destroyed, and nobody took that picture."
In 1996 the leadership of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund invited Kim Phuc to attend Veterans' Day ceremonies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial, commonly known as "the Wall," pays tribute to the 58,000 American men and women who died during the Vietnam War. Kim Phuc accepted the invitation. On November 11, 1996, she joined Norm McDaniel, a former Vietnam POW (prisoner of war), in laying a wreath at the Wall in memory of America's fallen soldiers. She then delivered a brief speech to the assembled crowd, which gave her two standing ovations. "I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain," she told the gathered audience. "Sometimes I could not breathe. But God saved my life and gave me faith and hope. Even if I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him, 'We cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace.'"
American Vietnam veterans who attended the ceremony expressed deep appreciation and admiration for Kim Phuc's presence. "It important to us that she's here, part of the healing process," said one veteran. They also agreed that her appearance had a tremendous emotional impact on them. "When we realized who she was, we all started bawling," one veteran told the New York Times.
Meets the American who ordered the bombing
The most emotional moment of Kim Phuc's appearance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, however, was her meeting with John Plummer, the U.S. commander who ordered the 1972 attack on her village. After leaving the U.S. military in 1982, Plummer had become the pastor of a Methodist Church in Virginia. But the memory of the bombing attack on Trang Bang and the death and pain it caused remained with him, even though he had ordered the attack in the mistaken belief that the village had been abandoned. "[Kim Phuc's] photograph was indelibly burned into my heart and soul and was to haunt me for many, many years," Plummer told the Christian Century.
Shortly before the 1996 Veterans Day events, Plummer learned that Kim Phuc was scheduled to take part in the ceremonies at the Wall. He decided to attend the ceremony in the hope that he might have a chance to apologize to her for his role in the bombing. But as the ceremony progressed, he learned that Kim Phuc's one- and three-year-old cousins had been killed by the napalm attack. "Being in a pretty precarious emotional state already, this just pushed me over the edge," he recalled in Christian Century. "I began to shake all over as wracking sobs were torn from my body."
After the ceremony, Plummer's friends and family members told Kim Phuc that he was in the crowd. She quickly agreed to meet him, and in a matter of moments they had an emotional meeting. "She saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow," Plummer recalled in Christian Century. "She held out her arms to me and embraced me. All I could say was 'I'm sorry; I'm so sorry; I'm sorry' over and over again. At the same time she was saying 'It's all right; It's all right; I forgive; I forgive.'" Plummer later said that Kim Phuc's comforting words finally gave him a sense of peace about his experiences in the Vietnam War.
Since the 1996 Veterans' Day services at the Wall, Kim Phuc has remained very busy caring for her family and speaking about her wartime experiences. In 1997 she was named goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She continues to correspond with both Nick Ut and John Plummer, and she regularly sends money to her parents, who still live in Vietnam.
Chisholm, Patricia. "An Extraordinary Capacity to Forgive." Maclean's, February 10, 1997.
Chong, Denise. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War. New York: Viking, 2000.
"A Picture of Forgiveness." The Christian Century, February 19, 1997.
Sciolino, Elaine. "A Painful Road from Vietnam to Forgiveness." New York Times, November 12, 1996.