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Vietnam napalm strike: the myth of Kim Phuc

The Myth Of The Girl In The Photo © Ronald N. Timberlake November 1997 All rights reserved. May not be reprinted except in total. Photo © 1972 Nick Ut

By Ronald Timberlake

Anyone who read a newspaper over last Veterans Day weekend is likely to have seen one of the many articles about the American bombing of the village of Trang Bang, Viet Nam, with the naked and terrified little girl running toward the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Again this Veterans Day, at least one network aired a documentary on the story. It is a heart-wrenching photo, and is published with a heart-wrenching story, but if a picture speaks a thousand words, most of the words associated with this photo are misleading. What is not true, is the story itself. It is a misrepresentation that has become a myth, that is repeated each Veterans Day.

Kim Phuc Myth: Americans bombed Trang Bang, Viet Nam, and burned Kim Phuc, the girl in the famous photo.

Fact: As stated by the photographer himself, Nick Ut, and clearly shown on film, the Viet Nam Air Force (VNAF) dropped the bombs that hurt Kim. This was witnessed and reported by UPI television correspondent Christopher Wain, and also reported at the time, by noted correspondent Peter Arnett. Other journalists who were not there, through assumption, sloppy work, or malice, have since reported that the attack was by US aircraft, and have further embellished the story with time. Most of the commercials for the recent A&E documentary, and indeed, the host on the broadcast, said that the documentary would show "the American commander who ordered the bombing". That statement is not true.

Myth: The bombers attacked the village of Trang Bang.

Fact: The fighters were actually striking outside the village, hitting the fortifications of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops that had been prepared just before and during the three day battle. The village itself was not the target of the air strike.

Myth: Kim and her family were hurt when the Buddhist pagoda in which they took refuge was bombed, and took a direct hit.

Fact: Kim herself has stated that they left the pagoda, to run along the road, when they were hit. The pagoda was not targeted, and was not hit. The "colored markers" she has mentioned were smoke grenades, used to identify the friendly positions. When Kim and the others, including ARVN soldiers, ran from the pagoda and away from the village, they were spotted by the pilot of a Vietnamese fighter. The pilot saw people with weapons running toward the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) positions, where the journalists and photographers were also located. In a split-second decision to protect the ARVN troops from what he saw as a threat, the Vietnamese pilot diverted from his target and dove to attack the group, as reported by eyewitness UPI television correspondent Christopher Wain.

Myth: The fighting was conducted by or included American forces.

Fact: Trang Bang, in June of 1972, was an all-Vietnamese fight, with ARVN troops fighting their former and future countrymen, and requesting support from their own air force. American aircraft probably assisted with air support at some time during the three-day battle, but Vietnamese were fighting Vietnamese at Trang Bang, and when Kim was burned, it was they who called for help from Vietnamese flown aircraft. Even the photographer was Vietnamese, although he later became a US citizen. The only Americans involved were two advisors, one an infantry officer with the troops at the scene of battle, and the other in an assistant coordination assignment more than 80 kilometers away. Both officers were in positions with absolutely no command authority.

Myth: A recent report stated that nerve gas was used in the attack.

Fact: American or South Vietnamese forces never used Nerve gas. The canisters dropped by the VNAF fighter that injured Kim and her countrymen were napalm, a type of jellied gasoline bomb that was developed by our British allies in WWII, to knock out enemy troops in trenches and fortifications.

Myth: Kim's two brothers and two cousins were killed by the bombs.

Fact: Two of Kim's cousins died from the bombs that injured Kim, but her brothers were not killed. The same bombs that burned Kim, also hit and burned ARVN soldiers.

Myth: The American commander ordered the bombing.

Fact: There was no American commander at the scene of the fighting, no American commander involved in supporting the battle, and no American commander in the entire country who ordered that strike. It was an all-Vietnamese fight, conducted and controlled by Vietnamese. The Methodist minister who came forward to accept Kim Phuc's forgiveness at the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day 1996, is a former American officer, but was not a commander, and had no command authority. He was a low level staff officer on the staff of the American advisors, in an assignment without authority even to directly coordinate actions with VNAF, much less command, order, or direct any activity. As the battle raged, he was working in a bunker more than 80 kilometers from the fighting. His own Commanding General and the Operations Officer of the unit, both now retired General Officers, have clarified that he had no authority, capacity, or capability to order any Vietnamese aircraft to do anything. In fact, no one on the staff, or even the actual commander, could order the VNAF to take any action whatever. The staff officer who now grasps responsibility for the air strike was involved in a superficial manner, his participation consisting of no more than administratively releasing some sorties of VNAF aircraft back to VNAF control. This was essentially a clerical response to the VNAF command. This action included absolutely no command or control, nor did he have the authority not to release the sorties back to VNAF control, once the need had been established, and safety checks accomplished.

Myth: That famous photo stopped the war.

Fact: While it became an icon for the peace movement, by the time of the photo in June of 1972, almost all US ground forces had already been brought home from Viet Nam. Nine months later, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accord, all US combat forces were out of Viet Nam. The photo was embarrassing to the US government, but extremely damaging to the South Vietnamese government. It was a great propaganda tool for the Communists, and may have done more than any other photo to prevent the US Congress from allowing assistance to the South Vietnamese government when North Viet Nam launched the full scale invasion of that country in 1975.

Why does the myth continue? Because it is a dramatic photo, but for more than any other reason, because the woman whom the little girl has become, went to the Viet Nam Veterans' Memorial on Veteran's Day of 1996, looking to forgive. Did she know that the pilot who bombed her was one of her own countrymen, and not an American? Yes, she did. Did she ever say that the pilot was American? She does not have to. She was introduced as having been burned in an American ordered air strike. If you listen to her words, she is careful not to say the pilot was American, but most people assume that since she went to our nation's capitol to forgive him, the pilot must be American. She herself never says that Americans bombed her, but she does not correct the impression given by introductions, or narration during the documentaries, or previous interviews and broadcasts.

The story of the Methodist minister, who tearfully passed the message, "I am the one.", certainly encourages that myth.

This "feel good" message of peace and forgiveness plays well to the American willingness to forgive and forget, and it justifies and soothes the collective conscience of those who were against American involvement in that war. It appears to be a politically sound strategy, which has resulted in Ms. Kim Phuc being appointed an ambassador of goodwill for UNESCO, and the formation of a foundation to solicit money on her behalf. One might do well to ask for the rest of the story, before sending a check of gratitude for her forgiveness. Ms. Kim's statements may be lovely, but must be viewed with the realization that while she is free to insinuate anything she pleases about the countries which give her refuge and support, she cannot freely criticize the Communist government of her former homeland. Although a political refugee in Canada, her relatives still live in Viet Nam.

Because of that, Ms. Kim and the Kim Foundation cannot place blame for the misplaced bombs on the Communists, who assaulted the village, and used civilians for cover. Nor would the Communists donate money, for they care little about this kind of forgiveness. It is imprudent to offer to forgive the government of South Viet Nam, whose air force conducted the strike, because that government no longer exists, and cannot contribute anything for the forgiveness. Only the people of the Western Democracies, and the US most of all, are in a position to feel enough gratitude for this unselfish "forgiveness", because of public perceptions of the myth surrounding this story, to respond with their donations and support. According to the producers of one documentary, the donations flow in each time the story is aired.

Times have also improved for the Methodist minister. During the year since he came forward to share what he grasped as his responsibility for the agony of the little girl, this minister of a small church has addressed more people than he had addressed in his entire life, prior to that day at The Wall.

The minister has stated that he has never sought publicity, but that publicity sought him. That seems odd, since he and Kim were involved in setting up the meeting far in advance of Veterans Day. It would seem that since Kim Phuc knew that she would be meeting him that day, a man not seeking publicity would choose to meet in a less public place than the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. Instead, while appearing not to want the publicity, they chose to meet near the cameras and microphones of the media representatives there to record Kim's offer of forgiveness, to the country and the men who did not burn her. It was left to the media to seek out and "uncover" the story.

Personal guilt is something borne sooner by some than others, and few could deny the right to feel whatever personal responsibility one might care to feel for having been even remotely involved in any way with this incident. But personal responsibility entails a personal forgiveness, and not a contrived public confession that implies that the Myth Of The Girl In The Photo is true.

To some, this seems to be a story where everyone wins. For certain people, perhaps, but not for the memory of the men who fought and died in Viet Nam, and certainly not for the well being of the ones who fought and tried to come back home. For the dead, it is only their memories that suffer. For those yet alive, Veterans Day now brings the reminder that no matter how well and honorably they served their country, they have to continue to live with the myth of the little girl in the photo.

The world press once again says, through stories that rely on hyped-up reports exaggerated for a quarter of a century, that these veterans and their country did that terrible thing to the cute little girl. A small-town minister accepts the blame for all of us, when he cries, "I am the one responsible for the girl's agony." So all veterans have to see her pain, and feel her pain, and know that the people of their own country, and the people of the world, are once again being told, erroneously, that they are the ones who did that terrible deed.

Who is being wronged now?

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