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Photographer Revisits Vietnam Scene
By RICHARD PYLE
.c The Associated Press
TRANG BANG, Vietnam (AP) - A lot has changed around this fork in the road
since the day in 1972 when napalm exploded next to the Cao Dai temple and Phan
Thi Kim Phuc fled, blistered and screaming, into photographic history.
The highway has been widened, the temple is larger and has a fresh coat of
yellow paint. Kim Phuc's brother, Phan Thanh Tam - the one with his mouth in a
crescent of agony in the famed photo that encapsulated the war's horrors - is
now 41 and has a paunch. He runs an open-air coffee shack on the very spot
where a South Vietnamese bomb hit on June 8, 1972.
Tam says he still has nightmares about the incident, in which two children,
ages 1 and 4, were killed and 20 other people were injured, including Tam and
But he was all smiles Tuesday when Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong
``Nick'' Ut returned to the village of Trang Bang, 25 miles northwest of Ho
Chi Minh City, for a visit.
Ut, 21 at the time, was one of several journalists covering a battle at Trang
Bang when he took the picture of 9-year-old Kim Phuc that won a Pulitzer
Prize, news photography's highest honor.
On Tuesday, he walked down the blacktop highway to the spot where he stood,
cameras ready, on that day 28 years ago.
Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops had invaded the small district town
overnight and thrown a roadblock across the highway to Tay Ninh. All morning
the rice paddies echoed with mortar and small arms fire as South Vietnamese
soldiers tried to drive them out.
About noon came the airstrikes.
``First an A-37 dropped a bomb behind the temple where some people were
hiding, and a cloud of black smoke rose up. Then a Skyraider dove in and let
go a napalm bomb,'' Ut recalled.
His long lens caught the slender canister tumbling, the huge blast of liquid
fire across the highway in front of the temple. Two minutes later, people
materialized out of the smoke, fleeing down the road away from the stricken
``The girl was running, with her arms out. She was crying, `Nong qua! Nong
qua!' (Too hot! Too hot!). She had torn off all her clothes,'' Ut said. ``When
I saw she was burned, I dropped my camera beside the road. I knew I had a good
picture. I got her into our van and took her and the family to the Cu Chi
The picture, and that act of mercy, established a bond between Ut and Kim
Phuc, who was successfully treated for her burns in West Germany, later
studied and married in Cuba, and in 1992 defected to the West. She now lives
Ut, still an AP photographer and now based in Los Angeles, often visits her
and her family in Toronto. Back in Vietnam to cover the 25th anniversary of
the end of the ``American war'' on April 30, he also made a sojourn back to
``I always feel very sad when I come back here - I feel sad for Kim Phuc, her
family and the other people who got hurt,'' he said.
Tam's earnings from the small roadside restaurant are so meager that he
recently had to disconnect his phone, relying on letters to keep in touch with
his sister in Canada. But he continues to draw a kind of pride from the
tragedy of 1972.
``Many people come here to hear the story,'' Tam said, holding up a
Spanish-language magazine spread of Ut's pictures, and thumbing into his
wallet for the business cards of recent journalist-visitors - People magazine,
the Toronto Star, some Japanese media.
``When I think about the war,'' he added, speaking through an interpreter. ``I
think about Kim Phuc, and about the picture.''
EDITOR'S NOTE: Richard Pyle covered the Indochina war for five years for The
Associated Press and was Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news
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without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. All active
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My task is to comfort the tormented;
torment those too comfortable;
learn what I know, and to teach what I cannot learn.