Nick Ut photographed a group of children, all related, fleeing their village after it was napalmed in 1972. Phan Thi Kim Phuc, ripped off her own clothes and, in the picture, is screaming out that’s she’s on fire. Nick Ut said:  “Even though it has become one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century, President Nixon once doubted the authenticity of my photograph when he saw it in the papers on 12 June 1972… The picture for me and unquestionably for many others could not have been more real. The photo was as authentic as the Vietnam War itself. The horror of the Vietnam War recorded by me did not have to be fixed. That terrified little girl is still alive today and has become an eloquent testimony to the authenticity of that photo. That moment thirty years ago will be one Kim Phúc and I will never forget. It has ultimately changed both our lives.”

I was 19 years old in 1968, raging at Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, when the Monash University Student Union announced a competition that involved placing a fundraising charity flag in the most challenging location possible. Within hours, anti-Vietnam War flags (and a few charity flags) appeared across Melbourne in all the prominent spots, including the radio mast at Russell Street police headquarters that in the final week of the competition was in the winning position. With 48 hours still to run, I was on the hunt for something better.

Across the road from the Flinders Street railway station, the busiest place in Melbourne, were the Princess Gate Towers: twenty-story featureless stacks of bricks that blocked the view from the city to the botanical gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance. They’d been commissioned by Sir Henry Bolte, the State’s authoritarian Premier, who in 1968 was as brutal as the buildings he had created.

For Melbourne’s residents, the Princess Gate Towers symbolised all that was wrong with the country: Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, conscription, state-sanctioned executions, police corruption, rampant insider trading, political gerrymanders and brutal, Le Corbusier architecture. Some years after he left office, the buildings were torn down, erasing his unwanted visual legacy. Sadly, they reappeared soon after, positioned either side of his names-sake, Bolte Bridge, like two fingers from the grave.

Directly across the road from the towers, where I planned to install my anti-Vietnam War Flag, stood four uniformed police officers on the lookout for students attempting to flag Flinders Street station. It was a time when anti-war demonstrations were increasing exponentially, and student protestors had stormed the American consulate. It wasn’t a time to be nabbed by the police and beaten to a pulp.

At 5 pm on Thursday, I walked into the Princess Gate building with my bag full of climbing gear and dark blue overalls. I took the lift to the top floor, picked the lock onto the roof of the west tower, and settled down for a long wait among the air-conditioning equipment and bucket-loads of pigeon shit. 

At 2 am, I looked over the edge. Two hundred feet below, two police officers were still on duty, directly across the road from the building. I tied one end of the rope to the steel supports on an air conditioning unit and lowered the other end over the parapet. No one heard the rope softly sliding down the bricks. I rappelled the wall like a ninja turtle, stopping fifty feet down, where I hammered wooden wedges into the expansion crack with a rubber mallet–timing the whack, whack, whack with the minimal passing traffic. The police only had to raise their eyes twenty degrees to see me. I hung the two flags, climbed back up the rope, onto the roof, and changed into my business suit–borrowed from ABC journalist, raconteur and mountaineer, Ben Sandilands. I departed the building through the front doors, explaining to the cleaners that I’d been working late and had fallen asleep.

On the side of the building, the prime spot in Melbourne, was a highly visible message for Malcolm Fraser, the Minister for War in the John Gorton Government––a banner reading SACK FRASER NOT VIETNAM, and above it, the Richmond Day Hospital Appeal charity flag.

Melbourne’s defunct afternoon newspaper, The Herald, ran a front-page photograph elevating the Princess Gate building stunt into the lead. However, at the last possible moment, I was beaten into second place by students from the Monash Engineering department, who somehow managed a flag onto the back wall of the lions’ cage at the Melbourne Zoo. 

Reconstructed from The Melbourne Herald Newspaper – 1968