The picture has been seared into America’s collective memory since 1972. A nine-year old girl running naked down a road in South Vietnam after her village was napalmed by a South Vietnamese Air Force jet. The photo is almost always accompanied by the story of how Nick Ut, a Vietnamese Associated Press photographer, captured the Pulitzer Prize-wining image, which brought him international acclaim and propelled the young girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, onto the world stage.
In 2017, with Ashley Wiersma, Kim Phuc wrote a soulful, deeply religious account of that June 1972 day and the years that followed. In Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness & Peace (Tyndale House, 336 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper), she writes about that jet screeching overhead as she ran from the village of Trang Bang on soldiers’ orders:
“Falling from that underbelly were four ice-black bombs. The bombs softly made their way to the ground, landing one by one, somersaulting end over end—whump-whump, whump-whump. These were not the bombs that fell heavily from the sky; no, these bombs all but floated down. There was something sinister in those cans.”
Later, the communist government paraded Kim Phuc before international journalists, all of whom wanted to know how the “Napalm Girl’ was faring. The government repeatedly robbed her of the education she wanted, and her desire to be a medical doctor as a way of repaying doctors the world over who had done their best to alleviate her constant pain.
By a stroke of luck, during a trip to Hanoi, she was introduced to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, one of Ho Chi Minh’s former lieutenants. He took a fatherly interest in her and arranged to send her to Cuba. At first, she felt that being on a Caribbean Island far away from Vietnam would provide solace and a respite from being a propaganda puppet. She would soon be proven wrong. Even thousands of miles away from Vietnam, it seemed that she would never be able to be free of the country’s grip.
“Although Bac [Uncle] Dong had assured me that I would be free from oppressive `minding’ by Vietnamese officials in Cuba, an embassy man had been assigned to me, visiting me in the hospital almost daily, checking in on my goings-on, gathering details to take back to his superiors.”
It was in Cuba that Kim Phuc met the man who would become her husband, Bui Huy Toan, a fellow student. They married and she soon expressed her frustrations to Toan over what the Vietnamese government had put her through since 1972.
On their return flight after their honeymoon in Moscow, the idea of defecting began to fester. Her husband at first resisted, but Kim Phuc stood her ground and, at a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, both announced their desire to seek political asylum.
Recent years have found her traveling the world in the cause of peace as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO, and also for her Kim Foundation. She has opened her heart internationally to those less fortunate than she, and Fire Road sheds a wonderfully bright light on her valiant struggle to survive and the peace and love that she found in doing so.
–Marc Phillip Yablonka.
The reviewer is a military journalist and author whose latest book is Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film