This piece by journalist and author William T. Dowell was first published by The Essential Monday, 18 June, 2012.
As David Burnett points out in the story below this one, iconic news photography and reporting is often as much about luck as it is about skill. Every now and then an image captures the public’s imagination and comes to symbolize a turning point in history. Nick Ut’s prize-winning photograph of Phan thi Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack against the village of Trang Bang during the Vietnam war is that kind of photograph.
Nick’s photograph captured the general horror of war and its effect on innocent children so powerfully that it still grips our emotions. In a sense, the picture is as much about us as it is about the subjects experiencing the cataclysm that has just taken place. It confirms graphically, and too powerfully to
ignore, what we already knew to be true, that this kind of horror should never have been allowed to take place, and moreover that it should never have been sanctioned by the authorities governing the country that we as Americans thought of as home.
David Burnett missed the photograph partially because of the difficulty of loading a fresh roll of film into his Leica. I missed the story simply because I did not want to be in Trang Bang. At the time in the summer of 1972, I was working for NBC News as a radio correspondent, and trying to shoot news film with an old 16-mm, wind-up Filmo camera that was made out of pig iron and weighed a ton. I used to
take a jeep and drive out from Saigon into the surrounding countryside in the mornings to judge the temperature of what was happening. The day before Nick Ut took his photograph, I arrived at Trang Bang and felt that something was not right with the village. It was too quiet.
I parked the jeep near the town square and headed off behind the houses on foot. Behind a stone cottage next to a pile of new coffins, I encountered a South Vietnamese soldier who looked very nervous. I asked him, whispering in my limited Vietnamese, if he knew where the VC were. He put a finger to his mouth to signal silence and then pointed around the corner. No one fired a shot, but I had
the feeling that enemy and friendly forces were standing within a few feet of each other. I walked back to the jeep and drove to the edge of town away from the half that was still occupied. I got out of the jeep and crouched in a ditch by the side of the road.
South Vietnamese dive bombers–ancient propeller planes from World War II–made several passes and dropped their bombs. I tried to capture the plane in the viewfinder of my Filmo as it seemed to fly straight at me, and then the black losing of a bomb dropped from under its fuselage and fluttered crazily towards the ground. This was, I thought, a very unhealthy place. What had impressed me most
about it, though, was the incongruity of two combatants circling each other silently in a silent village waiting for a small apocalypse to erupt. By then, I had already spent five years in Vietnam. The chaos of the war had begun to seem normal. I exhausted three or four rolls of film, climbed back into the jeep and drove back to Saigon. I went back to the NBC office in the Eden building to file my story. NBC’s office was next to the AP office on the same floor. Nick Ut was just stepping into the hallway as I passed by. “Any suggestions on where to
go tomorrow?” he asked. I said that I thought that something was about to happen at Trang Bang. What I did not say is that I did not want to be there when it happened.