Vietnam Napalm Pulitzer Photograph 1972 Communism Defections
The Story of
Phan Thi Kim Phuc
by Roy Berger
The Montreal Review, August, 2010
I first saw Kim in the summer of 1972. I didn't know her name then. June, 1972 is not a difficult time for me to remember. I turned sixteen. After school finished for the summer myself and a few tens of thousands of others took to the road and hitch hiked through county, country and province until all maps were worn and every penny long exhausted on the path to find ourselves, to challenge truths, to think about what we'd seen and heard.
The context of the times was filled with rock and roll legends, banner headlines and a four channel universe. Draft dodgers clogged coffee houses. Golf balls lay still on the moon. Singular events stopped hearts and ceased breaths. Such an event would be caught in a photograph by Nick Ut which would gain the Pulitzer prize after being splashed across every screen and newspaper in the world. It was a photo that would make a difference about a woman who would make a difference. Still life would cry for explanation just by being real. I didn't meet Jim Morrison or Janice Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. I met the girl in Nick Ut's photograph. Kim Phuc whose name we never knew, whose life touched so many, came to the Trinity Anglican church in Cornwall Ontario and spoke some thirty six years later on October 18, 2008. Kim stood at the front near a projector screen and spoke to an intimate local audience.
"Everyone has a story to tell but this is my moment. I'm thankful for my life. Many believe in miracles. Thirty six years ago I grew up in Trambam in South Vietnam. There were fruit trees and animals. War came to our village. Soldiers pounded on doors. On June eighth in nineteen seventy two everybody was hiding in the temple. Suddenly the soldiers heard airplanes coming. The soldiers shouted, 'Run. Run. Get out.' We ran."
A slide show showed close up photos of a village being napalmed while she spoke.
"The children running with me in the photo are my brothers and cousins. The next day that photo ran around the world. It changed my life forever Nick the photographer won the Pulitzer but put down the camera and rushed me to the hospital."
An eight millimeter colour film is shown on a projector screen. It shows a country road in Vietnam lined with soldiers. Four kids between eight and twelve are running down the middle of the road towards the camera. One, a little girl is naked. They are all screaming and on fire. The camera follows their movements as they run by. Now we see the white cooked flesh falling and bouncing off their backs, arms and legs as they run.
Kim continued talking.
"Sometimes terrible things happen in our lives and sometimes we can learn from the experience. Sometimes I had fallen off my bicycle and know that pain. Napalm burns at eight hundred to twelve hundred Celsius. It burns deep under the skin. My parents found me three days later in the hospital.
"The pain was unbelievable. I would pass out. Fourteen months in hospital with seventeen generations. Somewhere I found strength in Saigon. I could move my neck thanks to an operation in Germany in nineteen eighty four. The pain continues. I use massage, cream, distracting mind, phone, sing a song."
Kim sings a song. "Jesus loves, I know so." She sings it in English then Vietnamese. The church audience of seventy sings and claps.
"I never concentrate on pain. I see pain as a normal way for people who are wounded and move on. I met the challenge. The importance of love and working together. Compassion of the nurses and doctors. My family. Everyone was there to help me.
My skin was so tight on my body. The shower was my favorite place.
"I wanted to wear short sleeve blouses like other girls. Why me? Why did I have to suffer? What did I do wrong? I thought I would never have a boyfriend.
"Now I have a husband and eleven and eighteen year old sons. We live in Ajax Ontario.
"Love is not always easy and gentle, sometimes it's tough. My mom made me do exercises while I suffered with pain and scars.
"After the war the house was destroyed and nothing left. We had our family and everybody worked together as a team. We had everything.
"I learned the importance of education. The first thing I wanted to do was go to school and become a kid again. I studied very hard.
"At nineteen I was accepted to medical school in Saigon. They thought I should be a war symbol for the State. They tried to control me. I wanted to be left alone to study medicine. We were not free to make our own choice.
"The Vietnamese Prime Minister arranged for me to study in Cuba in nineteen eighty six. Six years I remained in Cuba. Sometimes our dreams change. Health problems. I switched studies to English and Spanish. I was not a free person. I was a bird in a cage. It was a low point in my life. I was scared to say the truth. Sometimes I wanted to die. Sometimes it filled me with hatred and everyone around me. I didn't know where to ask for help. God is love. Christmas nineteen eighty two was a turning point in my life and I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. I should over come my physical and emotional problems and find my own way for myself and others like me.
"I learned the importance of freedom. There were always government watching me twenty four hours a day. I could never go anywhere alone. I was determined to escape to freedom. In 1992 I married Tom.
"We asked permission for Honeymoon in Moscow. At first permission was granted to my husband only."
"Friends said it was possible to defect on the return flight to Cuba from Moscow in Gander Newfoundland. I had to learn to speak Newfie. They told Tom on the return flight it was our chance for freedom. We kept it secret.
"During the one hour fueling stop passengers were free to disembark and walk around the airport terminal. We hid in the toilet. We counted the minutes and wondered what to do. We closed our eyes. I prayed I wanted to stay in Canada. What can I do?
"We saw a group of people from Cuba so young they should be students. 'What are you doing here?' They said, 'We want to stay in Canada.' They said, 'Just bring your passport to that office there. Two passports in my hand. He took the passport and he checked it.
"Ok." He said.
"That is easy like that?" I said
"Ten minutes later I went for another interview. Another door. Passengers returned to the airplane.
"I'm proud I'm a Canadian now. Last year I returned to Newfoundland and met initial officers who interviewed us. We were in the office for one hour. All our luggage continued on the plane to Cuba. I only had a purse and camera. How to defect? What to do?
"The students, my husband and I were the last group to defect. Six weeks later the immigration law was changed. October fifteenth 1992 we had nothing.
"How to forgive. Before you can have hope you have to forgive. Love your enemies. Bless them. I stopped asking 'Why me?' I started saying, 'Help me.'
"When the four bombs fell I should have died with the others. My face is beautiful and a blessing for all of you too. God forgave my sins. I prayed for my enemies until my heart got soft. It wasn't easy.
"The person saved by a doctor still has pain, bitterness and anger. The power of his love. Value of my suffering helpful to others. Knowing war I know the value of peace. Having known control I know values of freedom. The power of learning to forgive. Faith and forgiveness is more powerful than napalm.
"I can not hold hatred in my heart. Free from hatred. I forgive. I do not forget.
"In 1996 I was asked to speak at the Vietnam memorial in Washington. There I met the coordinator of the bombing of my village. He cried and asked for forgiveness. "Yes." I said We both cried. We remain friends. Forgiveness is more powerful then any weapon of war.
"Patience. Good things come in good time. Years ago I was a child of war. Today I help the children in East Timor, Kenya, Cuba, Uganda, Guiana. I help innocent children because of war. Let children be children again. Peace is my wish and cause.
"I learned to take control of that picture and lead a normal quiet life. That picture didn't want to let me go because that picture controlled me. If I couldn't escape that picture I would take it for good. The picture is a symbol of war but my life is a symbol of love. UNESCO gives me the ability to travel around the world. I talked to Queen Elizabeth for five minutes. "Now that little girl isn't running any more she's flying." The audience clapped. Kim met well wishers for tea and cookies in the kitchen.
Roy Berger's articles and short stories appeared in
and Powder Burn Flash literary website. Berger lives in the legendary artists colony of Cornwall, Ontario, where the palm trees bloom in the winter and a cool breeze blows in the summer.