a picture is worth a thousand-word story

Burst of Joy

Burst of Joy

On March 17, 1973, the Stirm family was finally reunited. After six long years, POW Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm was once again able to hug his 15-year-old daughter Lorrie Stirm, along with his other three children and his wife. Robert’s flight, as part of Operation Homecoming, brought 20 POWs back home to the Travis Air Force Base in California, and 400 family members waited very impatiently as Robert Stirm delivered his speech on behalf of all the POWs of the Vietnam War. An Air Force fighter pilot, Robert had been shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and for years he had suffered through gunshot wounds, torture, starvation, and illness in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the same prison in which Senator John McCain was held captive and tortured for five and a half years.

Photographer Sal Veder, working for Associated Press, had been standing in a tightly packed bullpen with other journalists when he spotted the family sprinting toward each other. “You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air,” Veder said. He started taking pictures as quickly as he could, thankful for the overcast weather conditions that created the perfect amount of lighting. After he had gotten a handful of pictures, Veder ran to the women’s restroom, which had been turned into a makeshift darkroom. Photographers from United Press International were hoarding the men’s room (to use as a darkroom as well), so Veder needed to work quickly to get an image out to the public before they did.

But first he had to find out if any of the shots were any good. After all, he had taken the pictures very quickly and had been photographing moving objects. There was a good chance none of his images would even come close to what he wanted. To Veder’s surprise, he had captured not just one, but six fantastic photographs of the family. On top of that, he and his AP colleague had developed those six images in less than half an hour. His favorite image, which he immediately titled Burst of Joy, was sent out to the press and published in newspapers nationwide. In 1974, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have the happiest of endings. While the image became symbolic of the end of the Vietnam War and also served as a (small) hero’s welcome to all the troops who did not receive support upon returning home, it turned into a painful memory for Robert. Robert had been released from the prison camp on March 14, three days before his return home. On the same day as his release, Robert received mail that had not reached him while he was imprisoned. One of the envelopes contained a Dear John letter from his wife, Loretta. Robert and Loretta divorced the next year, and Loretta remarried. When Burst of Joy won the Pulitzer Prize, every member of the Stirm family received a copy of the photograph. To this day, they all have their copies displayed on a wall in their homes… except Robert. He said he just can’t bring himself to display it.

Lorrie, now married and a mother of two sons, sees the picture in a different light. “We have this very nice picture of a very happy moment,” she said, “but every time I look at it, I remember the families that weren’t reunited, and the ones that aren’t being reunited today—many, many families—and I think, I’m one of the lucky ones.”

4 Responses to “Burst of Joy”

  1. Peter Rivera

    Loretta. Why :’). Wow, that’s surprisingly ironic. He was freed to come back to a broken marriage :/. Honestly, it kind of subdues the happiness of the image for me. I don’t blame him for not being able to display it, for six years he probably dreamed of being reunited with his family and that’s definitely some ice cold water to the face. But everyone has their reasons. I’m really glad this blog exists (I’ll say this multiple times), I love learning about the “secrets” behind these photos. And to add what to what JP said, much respect to the photographers.

  2. Tanner Quiggle

    That has to be one of the most drastic emotional rollercoasters of all time. I cannot imagine being in that prison, and finally being released, only to find out that the love of my life has replaced me. To be honest, I did not know what a Dear John letter was (I had too look it up). However, I can now see why he does not hang up that picture, that’s a life-ruiner right there…

  3. Ani


    I had never read your passion blog before, but I absolutely love it. I think it is such a unique idea to tell the stories that people generally do not know about the images that they see. I think that it really takes a deeper approach to the photo and allows the viewer to be on a deeper level with the image.

    This image in particular really caught my attention as well. I hate to say it but I am a so soft when it comes to solider- returns-home- videos and I must say that I spend hours (sometimes) on end watching and sobbing at the reunions on YouTube (if you haven’t done that, I suggest you try). When I watch those videos, I never think of the millions of people that do not get to be reunited with their families. Until reading your blog, that idea never came into my head. I think it is really interesting to look at such a happy moment, but in the back of your head realize that for all, this moment was not so happy.

    I really do love the raw emotion in the picture! It would be really interesting if for your next blog post you could maybe show a sad version of a photo similar to this!

  4. JP

    The emotional aspect of this photo aside, I would like to comment on the impressive feat of the photographer and his partners(?) who managed to successfully develop six images in a dark room in under thirty minutes. As someone who has worked with film more times than I can count during photography in high school (and enjoyed the process) I can say I (obviously I’m no professional) could spend upwards of an hour just working on developing one picture to get the perfect shade I wanted. The fact that they managed six in half an hour and were happy with them is absolutely astounding to me!

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