Massive explosion and wall of fire from napalm

Kim Phuc Phan Thi, known as ‘Napalm Girl,’ receives final burn treatment 50 years after iconic image

Fifty years ago, Kim Phuc Phan Thi appeared in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo. She was nine-years-old at the time, running naked after a napalm attack in Vietnam on June 8, 1972. The photo was titled “The Terror of War” but it had become better known as “Napalm Girl.” It became a symbol of not just the Vietnam War, but the horrors of all wars. 

The Story Behind the Photo of “Napalm Girl

In the devastating photo, Thi is screaming and running out of the fire. The napalm had burned her clothes off. “We just kept running and running and running for a while,” she explained. “And I cried out ‘Too hot! Too hot!’ The soldiers tried to help me. They tried to pour the water over me, and at that moment, I lost consciousness.”

However, Thi did not like the photo after its initial release. “The first time I saw my picture, after 14 months being in hospital, oh my goodness. The first time I saw it, I said, ‘What!’ and ‘Why did he take my picture like that?’ I felt so ugly and ashamed because I was naked… I hated that picture … and I feel like, ‘Does anyone understand my pain?‘”

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At the time, the photographer Nick Ut captured the image before he noticed how bad Thi’s burns were. “He put down the camera and took me to the nearest hospital, and I thought he saved my life,” Thi said. “I owe him. He’s my hero. Not only did he do his job as a photographer but also, he did extra as a human being. He helped. Now, I feel like he’s a part of my family. That’s why I call him Uncle Ut.” [1]

Ut even went as far as to threaten the doctors, who claimed there was no space in the hospital for the injured children. When they told him to drive them to Saigon, he showed his press badge and said a picture of these kids will be in the newspapers the next day and “if one of them dies, you’ll be in trouble.” [2]

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“I did not want to be that little girl in the famous picture.”

Thi suffered from severe burns after the attack. She spent over a year in the hospital and afterward, she struggled with limited mobility and chronic pain. But earlier this month, she underwent her 12th and final round of laser treatment at the Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute. What the famous picture does not show is her back, which was deeply scorched from the napalm. [3]

Thi’s torment wasn’t just physical. Ten years after the photo was taken, the communist Vietnamese government began to use her as “a voice for propaganda” for journalists from other countries. “The government took me out of school and asked me to work with them. They did not want to listen to me. At that time, I hated that picture. I did not want to be that little girl in the famous picture. I just thought the more that picture got famous, the more it would cost my private life.” She began to think about suicide at this time, between her unwanted status as a “war symbol” and her constant pain and mental trauma.

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Eventually, she was able to move to Canada and established Kim Foundation International, an organization that provides medical assistance and psychological support to children affected by war. Today, she stands behind that famous photo and what it represents. “I am not a victim of war any more, I am a survivor. I feel like 50 years ago, I was a victim of war but 50 years later, I was a friend, a helper, a mother, a grandmother and a survivor calling out for peace.”

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The Current War in Ukraine

When asked about the war in Ukraine, she replied, “My heart is broken. My heart is broken for all people who lost their lives, especially children… My mom and I, we cry out every moment thinking what happened to me and my family 50 years ago.” During Thi’s own childhood, war destroyed their home and left her family destitute. “I had to deal with all the scars and the ugliness and the pain. Not just the deformity but the pain. Also nightmares, traumatized, fearful.”

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Thi plans to go to Ukraine to speak to the people there, but in the meantime, she has a message for the children affected. “Hang on there. Don’t lose your hope. Don’t lose your dream. There are so many people around who will help you. And whatever they say, children can say from the heart, but they need help.”

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Keep Reading: Why Did Norwegian Teachers Wear Paper Clips During World War II?

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Sources

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  1. “50 years later, ‘Napalm Girl’ has a message for children in Ukraine.” CBC News. Sylvia Thomson. June 11, 2022
  2. “’Napalm Girl’ at 50: The story of the Vietnam War’s defining photo.” CNN. Oscar Holland. June 9, 2022
  3. ‘Napalm girl’ Phan Thi Kim Phuc receives final burn treatment after 50 years.The Guardian. Rebecca Ratcliffe. July 1, 2022
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.
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