NEW YORK, N.Y. - The phone calls went out from Saigon's Xa-Loi Buddhist pagoda to chosen members of the foreign news corps. The message: Be at a certain location tomorrow for a "very important" happening.
The next morning, June 11, 1963, an elderly monk named Thich Quang Duc, clad in a brown robe and sandals, assumed the lotus position on a cushion in a blocked-off street intersection. Aides drenched him with aviation fuel, and the monk calmly lit a match and set himself ablaze.
Of the foreign journalists who had been alerted to the political protest against South Vietnam's U.S.-supported government, only one, Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press, showed up.
The photos he took appeared on front pages around the globe and sent shudders all the way to the White House, prompting President John F. Kennedy to order a re-evaluation of his administration's Vietnam policy.
"We have to do something about that regime," Kennedy told Henry Cabot Lodge, who was about to become U.S. ambassador to Saigon.
Browne died Monday at a New Hampshire hospital at age 81.
He recalled in a 1998 interview that the immolation was the beginning of the rebellion which led to U.S.-backed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem being overthrown and murdered, along with his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the national security chief.
"Almost immediately, huge demonstrations began to develop that were no longer limited to just the Buddhist clergy, but began to attract huge numbers of ordinary Saigon residents," Browne said.
Hal Buell, who was a deputy photo editor in New York when the photo of the burning monk was taken, said, "That picture put the Vietnam War on the front page more than anything else that happened before that. That's where the story stayed for the next 10 years or more."
Browne was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2000 and spent his last years using a wheelchair to get around. He was rushed to the hospital Monday night after experiencing difficulty breathing, said his wife, Le Lieu Browne.
Browne spent most of his journalism career at The New York Times, where he put in 30 years of his four decades as a journalist, much of it in war zones.
By his own account, Browne survived being shot down three times in combat aircraft, was expelled from half a dozen countries and was put on a "death list" in Saigon.
In 1964, Browne, then an AP correspondent, and rival Times journalist David Halberstam both won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting on the conflict in Vietnam.
The burning monk photo became one of the first iconic news photos of the Vietnam War.
"Malcome Browne was a precise and determined journalist who helped set the standard for rigorous reporting in the early days of the Vietnam War," said Kathleen Carroll, AP executive editor and senior vice-president. "He was also a genuinely decent and classy man."
In his 1993 memoir, "Muddy Boots and Red Socks," Browne said he "did not go to Vietnam harbouring any opposition to America's role in the Vietnamese civil war" but became disillusioned by the Kennedy administration's secretive "shadow war" concealing the extent of U.S. involvement.
Browne wrote a 1965 book, "The New Face of War," and a manual for new reporters in Vietnam. Among its kernels of advice: Have a sturdy pair of boots, watch out for police spies who eavesdrop on reporters' bar conversations, and "if you're crawling through grass with the troops and you hear gunfire, don't stick your head up to see where it's coming from, as you will be the next target."
In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Timothy; a daughter, Wendy, from a previous marriage; a brother, Timothy; and a sister, Miriam.
Former Associated Press writer Richard Pyle contributed to this report.