The photograph is one of the most well known photographs of this era. That of a little girl fleeing the horror – she is running naked on a road after being severely burned by the South Vietnamese napalm attack. On June 8, 1972, Kim’s village of Trang Bang came under attack by South Vietnamese planes, which mistakenly dropped napalm on a Buddhist pagoda in an area where the North Vietnamese were infiltrating.
This photo (feature image credit: AP Photographer Nick Ut) was featured on the front page of The New York Times the next day.
I got to hear the girl in Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph at a speaking engagement. Kim Phúc whose name I never knew when I saw those photos as a teen, but whose life touched so many, came to speak at my daughter’s high school, Père-René-de-Galinée in Cambridge, Ontario about her journey.
Phan Thi Kim Phúc stood on stage, at the front of the audience, near a projection screen and spoke to an intimate group of high schoolers and parents who came to hear her story of survival, tragedy, strength and perseverance. After hearing her saga and story, I was so impressed by her courage and determination. She talked of her struggle, her physical and emotional pain and that of forgiveness.
She spoke of how she was told that her burns were so severe that she probably would not survive; third degree burns covered half of her body. After a 14-month hospital stay and 17 surgical procedures including skin grafts, she was able to return home. It was only after treatment at a renown special clinic in Ludwigshafen, Germany, in 1982, that Kim was able to properly move again.
She tells us that the other children in the photo running with her are her brothers and cousins. Phan Thanh Tam her younger brother, lost an eye. Phan Thanh Phúc, her youngest brother and Kim’s cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. Behind them are soldiers of the Vietnam Army 25th Division.
She also tells us that they were burning and that she thought her clothes were hanging off of her only to realize that it was her flesh falling and bouncing off her back, arms and legs as she ran. She spoke of the tremendous amount of pain. “The pain was unbelievable. I would pass out”. Napalm burns at eight hundred to twelve hundred Celsius and it burns deep under the skin.
She talked about her skin being so tight on her body and that she found some relief in the shower. She talked about how she wanted to wear short sleeve blouses like other girls and that she thought she would never have a boyfriend.
I recall her talking about being accepted to medical school in Saigon. Her government thought she should be a war symbol for the State and said that they tried to control her. She went to Cuba in 1986 to study and where she remained for 6 years, all the while being watched by the gov’t, she was never free and compared herself to a bird in a cage who longed for freedom.
While studying in Cuba, she met Bui Huy Toan (Tom). In 1992 they married. They honeymooned in Moscow. They made a secret plan to defect. Friends said it was possible to defect on the return flight to Cuba from Moscow in Gander, Newfoundland. They hid in the bathroom during a routine refuelling stop in Gander, and were granted political asylum to remain in Canada. They had nothing, all of their luggage continued on the plane to Cuba, she only had a purse and camera, but she was free.
She spoke of forgiveness and of releasing the anger/emotional pain. In the article The Story Of Kim Phuc, Napalm and Vietnam by Roy Berger, October 25 2015, she is quoted as saying “ … before you can have hope you have to forgive. Love your enemies. Bless them” and “I cannot hold hatred in my heart. Free from hatred. I forgive. I do not forget”. That is very much what she expressed at her speaking engagement to us, in Cambridge.
With this the crowd comes to its feet in applause. What an amazing story, and what an amazing woman! I am so happy that I got to hear and meet this most courageous woman, her story was truly inspiring!
Footnote: Kim started the Kim Foundation International as a way for her to give something back in return for all the help she received. It also provides a means for her to promote peace and forgiveness.