From Hell to Hollywood by Hal Buell

One would be hard pressed to find a journalist, Vietnam War veteran, or Baby Boomer who does not know the work of the Vietnamese-born war photographer, Nick Ut, especially his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Kim Phuc, known as “the Napalm Girl.”

Fellow photojournalist Hal Buell’s new book, From Hell to Hollywood: The Incredible Journey of AP Photographer Nick Ut (Associated Press, 216 pp. $35, paper; $11.49, Kindle), younger generations can learn about what a profound impact his photography had on an entire generation—whether they served in Vietnam, reported and photographed the war, or protested it at home.

The book contains 198 pages of photographs Nick Ut shot for the Associated Press in Vietnam from 1965 until he retired from the AP in 2017. There are many stirring photos he shot during the war, in which he was wounded twice.

What makes From Hell to Hollywood even better is Hal Buell’s fine prose, which details Nick Ut’s guarded entry into photography after his older brother, Huynh Thanh My, a well-known actor, CBS cameraman, then AP photographer, was killed photographing an ARVN operation near Can Tho in 1965. He’d been wounded and was killed by Viet Cong soldiers after they overran the battlefield.

“In that moment, the worlds of Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut and Arlette, My’s wife, collapsed. She was now a 21-year-old widow with a 5-month-old daughter,” Buell writes. “He was now a teenager whose mentor, the central foundation of his life, was taken away.”

Nick Ut’s sister-in-law pleaded with AP photo bureau chief Horst Faas to put him to work because his family needed a new bread winner. He was only 16 years old. Faas resisted at first; didn’t want to be responsible for the demise of two people in one family. But Faas relented and put the young man to work in the Saigon bureau’s darkroom.

It was there that Nick Ut became fascinated with the entire photographic process, and soon yearned to go out in the field as his brother had done. AP correspondent Peter Arnett helped make that happen and Nick Ut soon was doing what his brother had done in Vietnam and in Cambodia.

The photo he took for which he remains best known to this day was an image of then 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she was running down a road, naked, after her village was napalmed by a South Vietnamese Air Force plane on June 8, 1972. I interviewed Nick Ut about that fateful day for News Photographer Magazine in 2006.

“I saw a little girl running,” he told me. “She had torn off all her clothes. She was yelling, `Nóng quá! Nóng quá!’ [Too hot! Too hot!]. Her body was burned so badly. I didn’t want her to die, so I poured cold water on her.”

He didn’t know that cold water actually spread the napalm gel, exacerbating her pain.

“Then I borrowed a poncho from an ARVN 25th Division soldier because I did not want her to be naked,” he said. “She kept saying, `Chắc con sắp chết! Chắc con sắp chết!’ [I think I’m dying! I think I’m dying!].”

Ut said that Kim Phuc was in shock when he and other AP staffers got her to a hospital in Cu Chi. ARVN soldiers were mostly milling about. In a fit of exasperation, he showed his media pass and screamed: “If she dies, I will tell the story of this hospital.” Thanks to Nick Ut, Kim Phuc did not die.

In exacting, masterful prose Hal Buell tells the story of a photojournalist extraordinaire who went from capturing the horrors of war for the Associated Press to photos of American baseball (as foreign to him as cricket is to Americans), and countless movie stars.

According to Buell, when Nick Ut retired in 2017, he was constantly asked what he would do with his life now. His response? “I will always take pictures. Taking pictures is my doctor, my medicine. My life.”

From Hell to Hollywood will appeal to Vietnam War veterans, journalists, journalism students, and Baby Boomers.

–Marc Phillip Yablonka

Yablonka’s books include Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film, profiles of 35 American military journalists who plied their trade during the Vietnam War.