A Lauded War Photographer Rediscovers Vietnam
Just after noon on June 8, 1972, a South Vietnamese Skyraider dropped napalm on Trang Bang, a village 25 miles northwest of Saigon. The payload, meant to hit occupying North Vietnamese forces, struck civilians instead, many of whom then rushed down the highway toward 21-year-old Associated Press photographer Nick Ut. His photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc, naked and screaming as smoke filled the sky, galvanized international opinion against the war. The shot, which almost went unpublished because of the child’s nudity, helped Ut become the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for photography at the time.
In 1975, Ut escaped Saigon for a camp in San Diego with only a couple of cameras. “I was a refugee,” he says. “At the camp, I always had my camera.” He’s worked for the AP for decades, and now returns annually to Vietnam. This spring, to celebrate Liberation Day and the release of AP’s new book Vietnam: The Real War, Ut visited the former Saigon for the festivities, including a military parade. Ut, who has a historian’s breadth of knowledge and as keen a photographic eye as ever, shared these photos of his trip.
Moment of Respite
At a lush highway rest stop in the Mekong Delta, Ut snapped these restaurant workers before ordering breakfast of hot soup with rice noodles.
In the Zone
After his older brother, AP photojournalist Huynh Thanh My, was killed by the Vietcong in 1965, 16-year-old Ut began showing up daily and developing film at the bureau, until he got his brother’s job. “My brother said he was going to take a picture that would stop the war,” says Ut, pictured here at a combat base in January 1971. “When I took the picture of Kim Phuc, I thought, ‘I have it for you.’ ”
A Village Reborn
Trang Bang 43 years later. The site of the bombing is directly behind the Cao Dai temple, seen here.
This crocodile lurks on Con Phung Island in the Mekong Delta, an area Ut covered. During the war, peace activist Ong Dao Dua (or the Coconut Monk) lived nearby. There’s now a temple in his honor.
On the Move
Like a paparazzo on the prowl, Ut asked his driver to speed up then slow down so that he could capture this family traveling along the highway to Ho Chi Minh City.
Ut’s room at the Sheraton Saigon, where he sometimes stays on his annual visits, looks out on this swimming pool. During the war, the hotel was an apartment building where Ut’s journalist colleagues Tim Page, John Steinbeck IV (son of the novelist), and Sean Flynn (son of Errol), all lived.
Ut captured an aerial view of the anniversary celebration. Even after 40 years, he’s still on the AP clock day and night.
Signs of Life
“During the war, there were lots of Vietcong here,” Ut says, gazing out on the Mekong. “They were hiding under these plants and bombing American navy boats. That’s why American soldiers shot so many Vietcong in this area. John Kerry was right around here.”
Ut spotted these red tilapia at a fishmonger in Sa Dec. Though he was in the French-colonial town to visit the famous setting of the 1992 film The Lover, he skipped the official tour to wander through the nearby open-air market.