Everybody has seen the picture of Kim Phúc, the girl in the most famous photograph from the Vietnam War. But what everybody doesn’t know is her story, and how she made it out of Vietnam.
We had hired a guide and a driver for the day to take us to some of Saigon’s most famous sites. We spent the morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and then went to a Cao Dai religious ceremony that afternoon. It had been a long day and we were on our way back to our hotel when we decided to make a stop in the small village of Trang Bang, the home town of Kim Phúc. We assumed that we would just drive through the town and have the guide point out some of the memorable landmarks. Instead, we were taken to her family’s restaurant that has been around for generations. Her sister-in-law still lives above the restaurant, working there even after her husband (the boy on the left side of the famous photo) died.
Inside the restaurant were childhood pictures of the Phúc family on the wall and photo albums on a shelf. Also on the shelf, was the documentary of Kim Phúc that we were fortunate enough to get to watch. It was in this small restaurant with Kim’s sister-in-law, that we finally learned the story behind the girl in the picture.
On June 8, 1972, the villagers of Trang Bang huddled in a Cao Dài temple, seeking protection from the war. Suddenly, everyone was told to flee as the temple was about to be bombed. This information was, in fact, wrong. As the women and children ran for safety a South Vietnamese plane dropped napalm, instantly covering the village in fire.
The South Vietnamese were unaware that the civilians were still living in the city, and meant to bomb the Viet Cong who had taken camp there, not the villagers who they thought had already vacated the area.
Nine-year old Kim Phúc and her older brother were among the children fleeing the town trying to escape the fire. As she runs, her clothes catch fire and she rips them off yelling “too hot, too hot,” just as war photographer Nick Ut snaps the picture that will change people’s view of the war around the world.
Quickly after, Ut helped get Kim and the other injured children to a hospital in Saigon.
With third-degree burns covering much of her body, nurses predicted Kim’s death would be in a matter of days. Miraculously, she survived after a 14 month stay in the hospital and 17 operations.
After the captivating picture of Kim Phúc made the front cover of the New York Times, everyone around the world craved to know this little girl’s story. Many journalists begged her to tell her story, but she was hesitant, worried about what the now communist government would make of this.
The Communists wanted to feature Kim as propaganda to show the world how awful the South Vietnamese were, being so cruel to an innocent child. Kim, however, did not want to be a puppet for the government and yearned for them to allow her to continue her education and attend medical school.
Eventually they did.
In 1986, Kim moved to Cuba where she continued her studies. Prior to leaving Vietnam, Kim converted from Cao Dài to Christianity. While in Cuba, she met her future husband, Toan, who she would marry six years later.
Kim and Toan married in 1992 and flew to Moscow for their honeymoon. On the way home, however, the plane landed in Canada to refuel before taking off again. It then hit Kim that this may be their only chance at true freedom. So, with only the clothes on their backs and Kim’s small purse, they left their belongings on the plane and requested political asylum.
The Canadian government granted their request.
Kim now lives in Canada as an official citizen with her husband and two sons.
Even though Vietnam and the war are behind her, the memories will remain with her forever. Today, she promotes peace and forgiving others. Kim has met with the surgeon who saved her life and is forever thankful to him. She has also met with Vietnam veteran Rev. John Plummer, who believes he might have been part of the air strike on her village. Kim holds no grudge toward him and believes that everything in the past is in the past, and has no anger toward anyone.
Kim Phúc has changed the way many people look at life and war. She knows that she cannot change the past and works to make sure the future is a better place. “The Girl in the Picture” is still an inspiration to those around the world. She continues to touch lives while sharing her stories of hardship, triumph, faith and forgiveness.
Hearing her story really opened my eyes to what war does: it tears a country apart and destroys families. It’s hard to always know which side is the good side because both sides tell their own version of the war–trash talking the enemy because of the evil they did, while lying about the awful acts they have committed themselves. This picture showed me the cruelty of war and how both sides are to blame. I know the concept of “peace on Earth” seems impossible, but with amazing people like Kim Phúc these goals might just become more possible.