Military affairs beat: Iconic Vietnam photo is real thing

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2012 - 7:05 PM
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This Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by AP photographer Nick Ut shows terrified children, including Kim Phuc, center, fleeing down a highway June 8, 1972, near Trang Bang, Vietnam, after an aerial napalm attack. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes.

Photo: Nick Ut, Associated Press

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The letter to the newspaper was typewritten. That should have been the first clue these days. But with absolute certainty and in amazing detail, the writer recounted how an iconic photo of the Vietnam War, known universally as "the napalm girl," had been staged and her family paid the exact sum of $150 to allow photographer Nick Ut to shoot her running naked toward him outside the village of Trang Bang in 1972.

If she had been napalmed "she would have been cooked to a crisp," wrote the author, who identified himself as a Marine from 1960 through 1964. Besides, he contended, her hair had been combed, probably by a mother who wanted her daughter to look good in any photograph.

The letter writer then "fast forwarded" 35 years and claimed there had been a front- page retraction in the New York Times and that Ut, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the picture, had apologized to all Vietnam vets for the damage the image had done. The letter writer wondered why there had been no retractions in other papers, such as the Star Tribune.

Trouble is, none of what he wrote is true. What the letter is, in effect, is a testament to the conspiracy-theory-of-the-day world in which we live. The day Ut shot the photo has been widely documented. The girl was badly burned in the attack, and Ut actually abandoned journalistic "neutrality" to get her to medical help.

But it is such a powerful image, like Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon in 1968, that it not only changed the world but emboldened those who would deny its authenticity. Richard Nixon, in taped conversations with aide H.R. Haldeman, wondered whether it had been staged.

Ut now lives in Los Angeles and continues to work for the Associated Press. Exactly 35 years to the day later, another Ut photo of another young woman in distress got worldwide attention: a crying Paris Hilton, learning she would serve 23 days in jail for a traffic violation.

mbrunswick@startribune.com 612-673-4434

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