Armed not with a rifle, but rather a camera, Nick Ut spent 10 years on the front lines covering the Vietnam War as an Associated Press photographer.
Ut visited Clarinda from Sept. 8-12 as he attended a reunion for members of the United States Army’s 61st Assault Helicopter Company organized by Clarinda resident Mike Zogleman and his sister, Deb Elliott. During a dinner held Sept. 9 as part of the reunion, Ut shared a slide show of his photographs from the war taken between 1966 and 1975.
Also attending the reunion with Ut were Gary Counihan of McHenry, Ill., who served as a helicopter pilot with Zogleman in the 61st Assault Helicopter Company; Chuck Theusch of Milwaukee, Wis., who served as an infantryman during the Vietnam War; and Mike Dixon of Ann Arbor, Mich., who served with the United States Army in Somalia.
In 1973, Ut was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in spot news photography and the World Press Photo of the Year for his image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc, and several other children, as they fled their village amidst a napalm bombing. Ut shot his iconic image, titled “The Terror of War,” June 8, 1972, and said that single image summed up the atrocity of the war in Vietnam.
“I have so many pictures of the Vietnam War, but that picture is the best picture of my life,” Ut said Sept. 9 during his visit to Clarinda. “I saw the same pictures almost every day of soldiers fighting, dead bodies - I don’t like dead body pictures anyway -- carrying wounded soldiers, shooting or refugees running. I have tons of pictures, but this picture is different for me because of the children.”
Prior to the bombing, Ut said he saw an estimated 5,000 people running from the village. As a result, he didn’t think anyone was left in the village when the napalm bombs struck.
However, he then saw a group of children running from the white smoke of the bombs. Next, Ut said he saw two people carrying two dead bodies.
Standing amongst a group of media personnel, Ut said he took a picture of a young boy as he died from the affects of the napalm.
“The trouble with napalm is twofold: First, it’s sticky nature causes it to adhere in unrelenting fashion to anything and everything it touches - including human skin; and second, once it adheres, it burns to dust whatever that target once was,” according to the book “Fire Road” in which Phuc tells of the bombing and how that horrific day has impacted the rest of her life.
As Phuc initially fled, she said in her book she was dressed in a tunic-style blouse made of cotton and cotton pants. What the napalm adhered to first were her clothes, and once they had fully burned away, it seared deeply into her skin.
“My skin had burned away as though it were simply a swimsuit peeling off,” according to Phuc’s account in “Fire Road.”
As a result, Ut said the first time he saw Phuc she was running down the roadway naked.
“I saw her running with her arm. I thought to myself, ‘Why isn’t she wearing clothes?’ As she came closer and I took the picture, I saw her arm burning and her body burning,” Ut said. “I knew she would die in minutes. That’s why I wanted to help her.”
Ut stopped taking pictures, covered her body in a raincoat and put Phuc, and some of the other children, in his vehicle. Ut and his driver then made the 20 minute trip to the nearest hospital as Phuc screamed in agony throughout the trip.
Once arriving at the hospital, Ut ran inside and begged a Vietnamese doctor and nurse for assistance. However, the hospital initially refused to treat Phuc and the other children, and told Ut he would need to take them on to a hospital in Saigon.
“I knew if I took the children to the Saigon hospital they would die because their bodies were burnt so badly. Then, I held (up) my media pass and said, ‘if she dies my picture will be in every newspaper in the world.’ (The nurse) looked at my media pass and said take her right away inside,” Ut said.
Thanks to the quick actions and determination shown by Ut that day, Phuc survived her injuries. She became known as “The Napalm Girl” because of the photo taken by Ut, and now lives in Canada. She serves as a good will ambassador for the United Nations. Phuc and Ut still remain in close contact.
“Because of a simple picture that was taken, and what you did afterwards, led to a whole new future, not only for you, but for Kim,” Counihan said to Ut.
A native of Vietnam, Ut became a photographer for the Associated Press in 1966 at the age of 16. He was following in the footsteps of his brother, Huynh Thanh My, who had also served as a photographer for the Associated Press. Ut said his brother was shot and killed Oct. 15, 1965, while photographing events in the Mekong Delta.
“I lost my older brother. He was an amazing guy and helped our family a lot. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was too young at that time. I was only 15,” Ut said. “I went to the AP office for a job. The first time I asked them they said, ‘No, you’re too young. Go home and go to school.’ Two weeks later I tried again and they said, ‘Okay Nicky, welcome to AP.’ I was so happy to have a job.”
Ut covered the Vietnam War until 1975 when he came to Los Angeles. He then spent two years in Tokyo, Japan, before returning to Los Angeles. He then spent more than 40 years covering events in Hollywood.
“I was so happy to work in Hollywood. I saw all the big movie stars in their films, but I never talked to them. Now, I was taking pictures of them and talking to them,” Ut said.
Following a 51 year career as a photo journalist, Ut retired from the Associated Press in 2017. On Jan. 13, Ut was presented the National Medal of Arts by President Donald Trump during a ceremony at the White House. Ut was the first journalist to receive the honor.
“I retired from AP. I did not retire as a photographer,” Ut said.
In fact, a week after receiving the National Medal of Arts from Trump, Ut was on hand to photograph the president as he departed the White House.
Ut’s life has been chronicled in an Associated Press book entitled “From Hell to Hollywood” that was published in March. The book has also been made into a documentary that is set to be released Oct. 28. Earlier this year, the film was honored as the Documentary of the Year at the Kansas City Film Festival.
Ut presented copies of both “From Hell to Hollywood” and “Fire Road” to the Lied Public Library during his visit to Clarinda. The visit to the library was especially important to Ut, Theusch, Counihan and Dixon because they were each involved in the construction and continued support of the Bong Son Library in Vietnam.
The Landing Zone the 61st Assault Helicopter Company operated from during the Vietnam War was located just north of Bong Son. Theusch coordinated the Library of Vietnam Project that led to the construction of the library in December of 2009. He was joined by Zogleman, and fellow pilot Ken Embers, in Vietnam to get the project underway.
A dedication ceremony for the finished library was held Dec. 9, 2011, and the 10th anniversary of the opening of the facility was celebrated as part of the reunion in Clarinda. Theusch said Zogleman played a major role in raising funds for the library. The reunions continue to raise funds to support the library and provide scholarships to local students in Vietnam.