Kim Phuc, the little girl set afire by napalm bombs during the Vietnam War, described to students, parents and teachers May 10 in Ahmanson Lecture Hall the horrors of being a nine-year-old engulfed by four napalm bombs.
A photo taken that day in 1972 by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, then 19 years old, became an iconic image of the war.
Phuc and Ut were both at Harvard-Westlake to screen an award-winning 26-minute ABC documentary, “The Power of a Picture.” The film tracks the impact of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Phuc screaming and running naked down a road in Trang Bang, Vietnam, just after having her clothes scorched off.
Ut’s picture has received a variety of reactions. According to the documentary, which has won the Edward R. Murrow Award, upon seeing the picture for the first time, President Richard M. Nixon’s first response was to question its credibility. Visual Arts Department Head Cheri Gaulke said the photograph is often attributed to having ended the war.
Sarah McAllister ’15 did not initially have much of a response to the photograph, but this changed after a trip to Laos spring break through the Friendship Tours World Travel Program.
“I live a safe and sound life in the suburbs of California, but that photo gives me a doorway into a very different point of view, where past and current aid is not enough” McAllister said. “People are still in pain.”
Ut recalled photographing Phuc until she ran past him in tears, her back severely burned. After this, Ut, who Phuc calls her hero, ceased taking pictures and rushed her to the hospital.
“The hospital gave up hope on me, but [God] wasn’t finished with me,” Phuc said.
Assuming Phuc had no chance at survival, the hospital placed her in the morgue. Three days later, her parents discovered her alive. Her father transferred her to a clinic where she endured 14 months and several operations. Phuc underwent 17 surgeries in 12 years and still has scarring on her arms, back and neck.
“I envied my friends who wore short-sleeve blouses,” Phuc said. “I didn’t feel pretty.”
Phuc was so grateful to her doctors that she wanted to follow in their footsteps. In 1982 she was accepted to medical school in Saigon, but the Vietnamese government had other plans for her as a symbol of war for the state.
“They tried to control me,” Phuc said. “I became a victim all over again.”
In 1986, Phuc’s dream of studying medicine was met with a bittersweet compromise. She was permitted to study at the University of Havana, a school in a Communist country, in which Phuc said she would still be controlled. Although it was in Cuba that she discovered she could not become a doctor due to her own health issues, Phuc’s experience in the nation was not all disappointing. It was there that she met her husband, whom she married on Sept. 11, 1992. The newlyweds were allowed to honeymoon only in Moscow. During a one-hour layover in Newfoundland on their return to Havana, the couple defected and eventually became Canadian citizens. Phuc said they had neither money nor friends in Canada, they “had nothing but faith.”
Phuc struggled with forgiving those who hurt and exploited her. She said that she considers forgiveness to be the hardest part of her life and originally wanted her tormenters to suffer as much as she had. Phuc’s mentality turned around at age 19 when she realized she had to “change or die from the hatred,” she said. She credits the transformation to her conversion to Christianity.
“I imagined a picture of a cup full of black coffee and my heart being just like that,” Phuc said. “I poured out hate a little bit at a time.”
Phuc’s revelation and experiences with the Vietnam War led her to create The Kim Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps children victimized by war. After her presentation, books and other merchandise pertaining to Phuc were sold to benefit the foundation.
Although she initially hated Ut’s photograph because she felt “embarrassed and ugly,” Phuc now “travels around the world following it,” she said. She has spoken all around the globe promoting her message of peace.
“I came from war,” Phuc said. “Now I work for peace.”