Remembering Trang Bang
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.
David Burnett, one of the best young photographers to emerge from covering the war, later admitted to missing the photograph partially because he was focused on trying to load a fresh roll of film into his notoriously difficult Leica. I missed the story simply because I did not want to be in Trang Bang.
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 opn 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.