Kim Phuc, girl in iconic Vietnam War photo, speaks of love and forgiveness

Kim Phuc

Photo: Nick Ut/AP

To see her picture once is to have seen it a thousand times; the image is just as sobering today as it was in June of 1972 when it appeared in newspapers around the globe. The children fleeing the fire of napalm bombs in South Vietnam, running down the road from their village and, in the middle, a nine year old girl, completely naked, running, screaming, burning.

The photo, rated by some as the photo of the 20th century, was taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut. It won a Pulitzer Prize and at once became the iconic image of the Vietnam War. Sunday, February 21, Kim Phuc, “the girl in the picture,” stood three times at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and told her story of pain and redemption.

Kim narrated her enjoyable life as a child with a loving family, a mother who operated a well-known restaurant in the village of Trang Bang and her love of school. Life changed when soldiers began descending on their village, knocking on doors and carrying out inspections.

June 8, 1972, the North Vietnamese were entrenched outside of Kim’s village (I believe to the north) when an air-strike, coordinated by the American Air Force, was called in. The adults and some of the children in the village had taken refuge in a nearby pagoda awaiting the end of the bombing. For fear of all the children being in the same place, Kim, an aunt and her grandmother with others of her young relatives were sent out, walking through a cemetery and along a road.

Video shot by a British film crew shows a low flying aircraft, on the wrong side of the village, dispensing four napalm bombs, which upon landing, created a wall of fire which engulfed Kim and her fleeing family. The British journalist recounted in a documentary about Kim’s life that one young child was carried by them with what appeared to be tattered clothing hanging from his body.

It was his skin.

One young cousin was killed immediately while another died within days; Kim’s clothes were burned from her body and her upper left arm was severely burned. She later learned that napalm burns at greater than 800 degrees Celsius. Napalm also burns beneath the skin so the water poured on her by assisting soldiers increased her pain so drastically that she passed out. She was taken to the hospital by Nick Ut the photographer who had moments before snapped her photo.

She endured 17 surgeries over the years the last one being in 1984. She ultimately married and defected to Canada with her new husband in the midst of a re-fueling stop in Newfoundland on their honeymoon. They, their two sons and her parents now call Toronto home.

Kim Phuc listens to her introduction at North Avenue Presbyterian Church. Photo: Marty Duren

Phuc recounted a number of things that she has learned through her trials: growing through pain, the importance of love (especially that of family and friends), that freedom is to be valued and that, as she learned the hard way, life is tough.

Phuc also shared how she grew to forgive those who had caused her so much pain. After becoming a Christian in 1982 she noted, “My situation did not change one bit, but my heart was filled with joy!” Her life verse became Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”

After reading Luke 6:27, 28 (“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”) she added all the people who had caused her pain to her prayer list. When her church in Saigon was closed by the communist government, she read her Bible and prayed daily.

Phuc,who speaks so softly one could not hope to hear her without a mic even from just a few feet away, still speaks with vitality, humor and purpose.

Kim Phuc is now an advocate for child victims of war, but had to reconcile her own life before being able to intercede for others. As she put it, “Before we can give hope we have to learn to forgive.”

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Warren Griffin

    I still have the Atlanta newspaper from that day with the headline “SAIGON SURRENDERS”. I was a nine year old kid at the time but recognized the historical significance of it and saved the paper. I also have the ’74 paper with the headline “NIXON RESIGNS”.

    • Marty Duren

      I think my first one was when Reagan was shot, though I have a bunch since then. I really started focusing more at the end of the first Iraq war and have bought multiple copies since then. My kids now have copies of some important ones in the last ten to twenty years.

      When we stopped taking daily delivery of the AJC, I kinda fell off the wagon. I think my last one was Obama’s inauguration.

  • I am crying
    Since How long
    Mother will be raped
    By “Little Boy”!
    By Dr. K.K. Bonia
    “Forgive” will not serve the purpose if One to whom one forgive will not
    not realize oneself rather continuing negative bossiness against human civilization or own mother.

  • Dr.K.K. Bonia

    “My soul”
    I’m already
    Hanged by God;
    What’s left
    Is my soul,
    What’s left
    To do on it
    Except Thy
    Control and over power me
    Making my tear rolling down
    As small glittering diamonds!!

  • Dr. K.K. Bonia

    Have you not seen rubbish, through-back activities of certain human communities alarming to this beautiful planet and super animal acting like made monkey jumping here to there on fruitful tree knocking, plucking, making wastage and destroying which could have calm burning stomach at least. Are acting blind like drama. If Stephan Hawkins can think and express about the facts of time and universe being most “invalid” what capablest are doing? Are you not selfish? Still I’m not able no express my feelings. Will you clarify all these negative happening in positive way?
    Dr.K.K. Bonia, Assam, India

  • Dr. K.K. Bonia

    Last Saturday of May, 2011 was Mother day which was celebrated throughout the world. If so, to every mother irrespective of skin colour and excluding international border whole mother earth why not present human civilizations stile not showing any respect? I have every put such question being member of human community. It is seen that “Mother’s Day” seems to be celebrated cosmetically announced by whomever it be, as it felt that present human civilization not taking care of mother earth; though some one seems to be mocking “Care Taker” of this planet for his/her own interest what present history depicting. One effeminate bad elements to the earth but has no right attack single living part of the earth what ever he or she may give justification of his or her own. I hope, people will review anti planet activities.

    Dr. K.K. Bonia

  • Dr. K.K. Bonia

    Recasting: Sorry for commuting my personal feeling incorrect sentences.
    Last Saturday of May, 2011 was Mother day which was celebrated throughout the world. If so, to every mother irrespective of skin colour and excluding international border whole earth is also “Earth Mother” why not present human civilizations stile not showing any respect to “Mother”?I have every right to put questions being member of human community. It is seen that “Mother’s Day” seems to be celebrated cosmetically announced by whomever it be, as it felt that present human civilization not taking care of mother earth; though some one seems to be mocking “Care Taker” of this planet for his/her own interest what present history depicting. One may eleminate bad elements to the earth but has no right attack single living part of the earth what ever he or she may give justification of his or her own. I hope, people will review anti planet activities.

  • Dr. K.K. Bonia

    I want response from Kim phuk herself on my views already passed as on her life struggle as I was too born as fatherless and also have to struggle for self existence and self philosophy well fare of human being since childhood in spite of my own poverty beyond my capacity as think about past and also power corruption of my bosses against my philosophy working life style ( although I had many welsher at top levels at various positions ). Still I am continuing welfare human beings. Along with Kim Phuk I want answers from others too.
    Honestly, I can write self auto-biography for welfare human personalities.

    Dr. K.K. Bonia

    • Marty Duren

      Dr. Bonia-
      As Kim is not the author of this post, nor is it likely she even knows it exists, it is hardly reasonable to “want a response from Kim phuk herself” to your thoughts.