Nick Ut's Napalm Girl Helped End the Vietnam War. Today in L.A., He's Still Shooting 

Thursday, Jul 17 2014
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Ut expressed interest in going to the first Gulf War. "I asked AP," he says. But they declined to send him. He also considered covering the second war in the Middle East. But photographers have become fair game. That kind of danger gives him pause.

"Viet Cong didn't target journalists. Mostly they killed them by accident — they didn't know who you are, or you look like a soldier." In April, for instance, Afghan police deliberately shot and killed AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus in her car, Pulitzer Prize be damned. Ut shakes his head. "She was a nice lady. I don't know why they kill journalists there. You see all journalists, we work so hard, don't make any money."

He will not push his luck with this war. It's too dangerous for a family man. "When I was single, I didn't care if I died. But now that I'm married? Very difficult."

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY BORJA DE LA LAMA/EPA/NEWSCOM - Kim Phuc in 2007, holding Ut's The Terror of War
  • Kim Phuc in 2007, holding Ut's The Terror of War

The Vietnam War defines not only Ut's consciousness but also his subconscious. The nightmares started when he got to L.A. In Saigon, he never dreamed. Here, he dreams about bombs. The rumble of an airplane or helicopter passing over his house can set him off. "Incoming!" he'll yell, startling himself out of sleep, body covered in sweat. Once he jumped up on the bed and scared his wife. "I didn't tell her my story," he says.

While he sleeps, his home in suburban Monterey Park becomes the Mekong River Delta of his youth, dark and menacing. The plots and characters of various near misses resurface. "Lots of close calls," he says. "Lots of dreams."

There was the time he ran over a landmine on a highway. He was in a jeep. Luckily, the vehicle wasn't heavy enough to trigger the anti-tank mine.

There was the time he was eating lunch with a colleague. They were talking, but when Ut looked back, midsentence, the guy was already dead. He'd been shot by a sniper.

"Those are in my dreams a lot, too," Ut says now. He points to a hill, thick with vegetation. "Coconut trees. Viet Cong hide at the top of the trees and shoot down." U.S. soldiers shoot up into the trees. Dead bodies tumble down like coconuts.

Parked in a patch of shade beside the Silver Lake Reservoir, MacBook Pro open on his lap, Ut uploads photos to AP's servers. He scrolls through the day's catch. "I like this one," he says. It's one from the fountain downtown. A slender little girl in a bathing suit, walking with arms held aloft like a gymnast, like Kim Phuc.

There is one close call he dreams about over and over again. It was morning, some five months after he'd shot Napalm Girl. He and a couple American soldiers were walking down a river path when, suddenly, a guy jumped out of the water. He'd been hiding in the mud. Ut was wearing an army uniform, "same as any soldier." The guy was a young Viet Cong, around Ut's age. Except where Ut carried a camera, the VC carried an AK-47.

Ut dove face forward into the water as the guy fired.

But he missed. He killed the soldier behind Ut instead. "I'm lucky," Ut says. "He was a bad shot."

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com


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