The True Story Of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, The “Napalm Girl”

Published June 6, 2017
Updated September 23, 2019

How "Napalm Girl" shocked the world — and ended up a motivational speaker in Canada.

Napalm Girl

AP/Nick Ut

The most influential photos always have a story attached to them. Napalm Girl, caught in a moment of desperation in 1972, encapsulated the terror of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The legend of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl in question, was simple and gratifying to opponents of the war.

According to an article published by NPR in 2012 to mark the photo’s 40th anniversary:

“Whatever your age, you’ve probably seen this photo.

It’s a hard image to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin.

That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when she was photographed, screaming in pain after a U.S. commander ordered South Vietnamese planes to drop napalm near her village.”

Except for the part where none of that narrative is true, the story of Napalm Girl is indeed very powerful. And the story of what happened to Kim Phuc after her brush with history is just as powerful a reminder that human beings are far more complex than a single photograph can ever convey.

A War Of Pointless Brutality

Napalm Girl From Behind

AP/Nick UtStanding in a puddle of water that has been poured over her burns, Phan Thi Kim Phuc is filmed by an ITN news crew.

One thing the narrative got right is that America’s war in Vietnam was coarse and brutal, even by the standards of 20th-century warfare. By 1972, the U.S. had been meddling in Vietnam’s affairs for decades, and half of that time had seen three times the munitions used in all theaters of World War II dropped over an agrarian country the size of New Mexico.

For a decade, the world’s most powerful air force dropped every explosive and incendiary known to man, along with a hefty dose of dioxin-based herbicide, on (mostly) South Vietnamese targets. On the ground, armed troops ranging from greenhorn Marines just doing their jobs to throat-slitting commandos in the Studies and Observations Group that killed an estimated 2 million indigenous people.

What made Vietnam uniquely horrible was the sheer pointlessness of it all.

As early as 1966, senior war planners at the Pentagon knew there was no focus and no plan for victory. By 1968, many Americans knew it too. By 1972, U.S. leadership had had enough: President Nixon’s plan of “Vietnamization” of the war effort had steadily shifted much of the burden of defense onto the government in Saigon, and the end was finally in sight.

The year after the Napalm Girl photo was taken, the United States and North Vietnam came to a shaky ceasefire that gave America all the excuse it needed to cut and run. The war continued, however, between Saigon and Hanoi, and there hangs a tale.

The Battle For Trang Bang

Napalm Girl Airstrike

Wikimedia CommonsA tactical airstrike douses the area near the Buddhist temple in Trang Bang with napalm.

On June 7, 1972, elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) occupied the South Vietnamese town of Trang Bang. They were met by ARVN and the Vietnamese Air Force (VAF). In the three-day battle that followed, NVA forces entered the town and used the civilians for cover. This was an old tactic for the NVA, as it usually kept them from getting blasted by airstrikes and artillery.

Kim Phuc, her brothers, several cousins, and many other civilians took shelter in the Buddhist temple on the first day. The way the battle unfolded, the temple developed into a kind of sanctuary, where both ARVN and the NVA avoided fighting. By the second day, the temple area was clearly marked so that VAF strikes outside of town could avoid it.

On the second day of fighting, most of the action had shifted to an area near the temple. ARVN was holding in place outside the town, while NVA fighters were shooting from cover inside and between civilian buildings. VAF tactical strike aircraft were working under strict rules of engagement and operating with colored smoke markers on the ground to guide their attacks.

Despite the reports that ARVN or VAF units were “ordered” to strike the village by an American officer, no attempt was made to bomb the town itself, nor were any American officers present to give orders.

At the time of the battle, there were exactly two American servicemen in Tay Ninh Province, one of whom was miles away and another who arrived at Trang Bang as an observer with zero authority over air and ground forces.

Nobody, except for the NVA, ever attacked the village and no Americans within radio range had the power to issue such an order. From start to finish, Trang Bang was a Vietnamese operation.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc Becomes Napalm Girl

Napalm Girl Photograph

AP/Nick UtNick Ut’s original, uncropped photo shows ARVN soldiers and several journalists walking alongside the children. Canadian journalist Peter Arnett was also present at the aid station.

It was on day two, as fighting got close to the temple, that some of the adults decided to flee. Led by a monk, a small group of townspeople, including nine-year-old Kim Phuc, ran into the open toward ARVN forces.

Many of the people were holding bundles and other equipment in their hands, and some were dressed in ways that could be mistaken from the air for either NVA or Vietcong uniforms.

As bad luck would have it, an airstrike happened to be inbound just as Kim’s group broke into the open. The pilot of a strike aircraft, flying in at around 2,000 feet and 500 mph, had seconds to identify the group and decide what to do.

He seems to have assumed that the group running toward his side’s lines were armed NVA, and so he dropped his ordnance on their position, dousing several ARVN soldiers with burning napalm and killing Kim Phuc’s cousins. Kim was ahead of the affected area, but some napalm did make contact with her back and left arm. It set her clothes on fire, and she stripped them off as she ran.

According to an account that Kim later gave in an interview, Phan Thi Kim Phuc ran naked down the road screaming: “Nóng quá, nóng quá” (“too hot, too hot”), until she reached a makeshift aid station where several photographers were stationed.

One of them, a Vietnamese national named Nick Ut, snapped the famous Napalm Girl photo immediately before Kim reached the station. There, aid workers poured cool water over her burns and transported her to Barski hospital in Saigon.

Burns covered roughly 50 percent of Kim’s body, and doctors at the hospital were grim about her odds of survival. Over the next 14 months, Kim would get 17 surgeries, but she was left with serious restrictions in her range of movement that would last for ten years, until she got reconstructive surgery in West Germany in 1982.

Ut’s Napalm Girl photo appeared in The New York Times the next day and later won a Pulitzer for outstanding photojournalism.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.