Burst of Joy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder, taken on March 17, 1973 at Travis Air Force Base in California. The photograph came to symbolize the end of United States involvement in the Vietnam War, and the prevailing sentiment that military personnel and their families could begin a process of healing after enduring the horrors of war.
POWs leaving the prison camps in North Vietnam left on the American Lockheed C-141 Starlifter strategic airlift aircraft nicknamed the Hanoi Taxi. On March 17 the plane landed at Travis Air Force Base in California. Even though there were only 20 POWs aboard the plane almost 400 family members turned up for the homecoming. Veder was part of big press showing and remembers that, “You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air,” he said. Veder then rushed to the makeshift photo developing station in the ladies room of the Air Base washrooms, while the photographers from United Press International were in the men’s.
The photograph depicts United States Air Force Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm being reunited with his family, after spending more than five years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Stirm was shot down over Hanoi on October 27, 1967, while leading a flight of F-105s on a bombing mission, and not released until March 14, 1973. The centerpiece of the photograph is Stirm’s 15-year-old daughter Lorrie, who is excitedly greeting her father with outstretched arms, as the rest of the family approaches directly behind her.
Despite outward appearances, the reunion was an unhappy one for Stirm. Three days before he arrived in the United States, the same day he was released from captivity, Stirm received a Dear John letter from his wife Loretta informing him that their relationship was over. In 1974 the Stirms divorced and Loretta remarried. All of the family members depicted in the picture received copies of it after Burst of Joy was announced as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. They all display it prominently in their homes, except the Stirm patriarch, who says he cannot bear to look at it.
About the picture and its legacy, Lorrie Stirm Kitching once noted, “We have this very nice picture of a very happy moment, 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.”
Donald Goldstein, a retired Air Force colonel and a co-author of a prominent Vietnam War photojournalism book, The Vietnam War: The Stories and The Photographs, says of Burst of Joy, “After years of fighting a war we couldn’t win, a war that tore us apart, it was finally over, and the country could start healing.”