Frozen in time

Frozen in time

Frozen in time

The photo of fleeing children, known famously as ‘The Napalm Girl’, recorded the horror of Vietnam war, and changed the life of the photographer as well as the photographed girl, writes Giridhar Khasnis

Napalm is a powder, which when mixed with gasoline, becomes a lethal weapon. Once a napalm bomb is set off, its victims will find it hard to breathe; they could pass out and burn. People hit with even a small splash of napalm suffer intense pain and burning sensation. Napalm has an adhesive property that makes it cling to the skin and burn.

When napalm ignites, it rapidly deoxygenates the available air, and creates a deadly localised atmosphere.

Developed at Harvard University in 1942-43 by a team of chemists led by Prof Louis F Fieser, napalm was meant for use in bombs and by flame throwers by mixing a powdered aluminium soap of naphthalene with palmitate (a 16-carbon saturated fatty acid).

“Military experts consider napalm particularly effective against fortified positions, like bunkers, caves and tunnels, as well as vehicles, convoys, small bases and structures,” says Jacob Silveman, contributing writer, “The 1980 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons outlawed the use of napalm on civilians. Protocol III of the convention forbade the use of incendiary weapons like napalm on civilians. The United States ratified the convention but isn’t party to Protocol III and has used napalm in many conflicts since the substance’s invention.”

Attack on Trang Bang

Now for the main story. It happened 40 years ago — on June 8, 1972 to be exact — when a village near Trang Bàng, about 25 miles west of Saigon, in southeastern Vietnam, came under an aerial napalm assault.

Among the terrified and screaming children who ran down Route 1 was nine-year-old Kim Phuc whose body was badly burnt by napalm. Unable to bear the heat and pain, she had torn off her burning clothes and was running naked. By then, the bombing had killed two of her cousins and two other villagers.

Associated Press photographer Nick Ut and journalist Christopher Wain were among the news reporters who witnessed the horrifying scene. Instinctively, Nick raised his Leica M-2 with a 35 mm Summicron lens to his eye and clicked photographs of the wailing children.

As soon as she saw them, Kim cried: “Nong qua, nong qua!” (meaning, “I want water, I’m too hot, too hot”). Wain and Nick gave her water to drink and poured some over her skin.
Nick then wrapped her in a soldier’s jacket, and drove the badly burned girl and other children to Cu Chi Hospital in Saigon which was already crowded by scores of wounded civilians and soldiers. The staff took one look at Kim with third-degree burns over 65 per cent of her body and gave her no chance of survival.

But Nick insisted on treatment and left the hospital only after medical attention was assured. Miraculously, the girl survived. She remained in the hospital for over a year; 17 surgical procedures were performed on her back and arms before she returned home.  Nick kept visiting her several times in Trang Bàng.

The photograph

Nick’s Kodak 400 ASA black and white films were developed in the lab of the Saigon AP office; and dried in a special cabinet with hairdryers. When the editors of AP saw the selection of eight 5x7 inch prints, the photo of fleeing children was rejected because it showed frontal nudity. But Horst Faas, then head of the Saigon photo department, argued by telex with the New York head office that an exception must be made. Finally, the New York photo editor, Hal Buell, agreed that the news value of the photograph overrode any reservations about nudity.

The photo was then electrically transmitted, line by line, in 14 minutes, first to the Tokyo photo bureau of AP; from Tokyo the radio signal coming from Saigon was auto-relayed on AP-controlled land and submarine wire communications circuits to New York and London, and from there to AP offices and newspapers around the world.

That is how Nick’s photograph — which became famous as ‘The Napalm Girl’ — made it to the front page of New York Times on 12 June 1972. The iconic work symbolised the horrors of the Vietnam War. It went on to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize; it was also chosen as the World Press Photo of the Year, 1972.

“Perhaps no other photograph from the Vietnam era has had the same lasting emotional connection, and for reasons that reach beyond that moment frozen in time,” observes Prof Paul Martin Lester, author of Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach. “Its impact comes more from the story of Kim Phuc, and her message of redemption.”

Today, Kim lives in Canada, with her husband and children. Nick, a resident of Los Angeles, keeps in touch with ‘The Napalm Girl’ on telephone every week.

Bombing by accident

There is a touch of irony to the whole story. Many people believe that the napalm attack in Trang Bàng was triggered by American forces on Vietnamese, but it was not so. The napalm bomb was dropped on the village by a Vietnam Air Force plane. Just before dropping it, soldiers (of the South Vietnamese Army) even yelled at the children to run, but it was too late. 

When President Richard Nixon saw it in the New York Times on 12 June 1972, he wondered whether the photograph which contributed to growing anti-war sentiment among the US public was in fact fixed.

“Could have been,” said his trusted aide and White House Chief of Staff, H R Haldeman. “Because they got that picture of the little girl without any clothes. It made a hell of a bounce out of that one, but, it was South Vietnamese bombing South Vietnamese by accident. They thought they were hitting the enemy but they got their own refugees, apparently…Napalm bothers people.”  
For Nick, the photograph could not have been more real. “The photo was as authentic as the Vietnam War itself. The horror of the Vietnam War recorded by me did not have to be fixed. That terrified little girl is still alive today and has become an eloquent testimony to the authenticity of that photo. That moment will be one Kim Phúc and I will never forget. It has ultimately changed both our lives.”

Curiously, Nick also had a good word for Nixon who, in his opinion, was trying to protect the South Vietnamese from Communists. “You know, he was a good president. I like Nixon very much.”

Today, Nick continues to work with AP; he often gets to snap the pictures of celebrities. “When I look at my photograph of Kim and my photograph of Paris Hilton, I think they are both good pictures, in their way,” he said in a recent interview. “I suppose the big difference is that I grew to love Kim, whereas… well, frankly, I don’t give a damn about Paris Hilton.”

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