Veteran's admission to napalm victim a lie Minister says he never meant to deceive with 'story of forgiveness'

December 14, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- She is a grim icon of the Vietnam War: A 9-year-old girl running down a village road, napalm scorching all but her scream, her agony portrayed on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

At a Veteran's Day ceremony last year in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Kim Phuc said in halting English that if she ever meets the pilot who dropped the bomb she would urge him to join her in working for world peace.

"I am that man," John Plummer hastily wrote on a scrap of paper that was passed up to her. Minutes later the former Army captain was embracing Phuc, sobbing that he was sorry. Responded Phuc, "I forgive you."

A heart-rending tale, one that has since gained heavy media attention. But Plummer's part in it isn't true. Neither Plummer nor any other American piloted the plane that day, June 8, 1972. The pilot was a South Vietnamese air force officer.

Since the ceremony at the Wall, Plummer, a 50-year-old Methodist minister in rural Purcellville, Va., has revised his tale, though continuing to exaggerate it.

Appearing on ABC'S "Nightline" in June, he told Ted Koppel that he "ordered" the raid on Phuc's village of Trang Bang. An October cover story under his byline in Guideposts, an international religious magazine, referred to "the attack I had called." And in a documentary that aired last month on the Arts & Entertainment Network, he said: "Every time I saw that picture, I said, 'I did that. I'm responsible.' "

In fact, the North Carolina native flew helicopters, not fixed-wing aircraft of the type that dropped the napalm, though at the time he was in a staff job. Nor did he have the authority to order his own country's planes into action, let alone South Vietnamese aircraft, say his former superiors. Plummer, they say, was a low-level staff officer. The entire operation was run by South Vietnam's military, with Americans playing only an advisory role.

In an interview at Bethany United Methodist Church, where he is the pastor, Plummer conceded that he was neither the pilot nor the one who ordered the attack. He said he never intended to deceive anyone but was caught up in the emotion at the Wall that day.

He attributed his later comments -- to "Nightline" and others -- about ordering the attack to "semantics," saying the Guideposts article contained words he did not write. He continues to have a "very real feeling" that he was responsible for the airstrike, he said.

"I think I could have been misinterpreted, but I did not intentionally misrepresent my role," Plummer said. "When I used the words, I was thinking about the story of Kim and me. All I was thinking about was telling the story of Kim's forgiveness."

Phuc, living in Toronto and representing Unesco as a goodwill ambassador, did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

Plummer was miles from the village that day, at the Bien Hoa air base, where -- according to his own records -- he assisted in preparing bombing plans. A captain at the time, he said he relayed coordinates and other data from a field adviser to another American officer, who passed the information on to a South Vietnamese officer, who radioed the flight line to send the bombers into the sky.

'Very incensed about it'

Some Vietnam veterans are troubled and bitter by the publicity Plummer has generated in the past year, saying he has injected himself into a searing tragedy as the key player when his role was a minor one. Plummer says he has told his "story of forgiveness" to some 30 veterans, civic and religious groups, as well as numerous reporters, accepting only expenses. He has another half-dozen invitations, with trips planned to Minnesota and Oregon.

Plummer's story has also heated up an Internet chat group of Vietnam-era helicopter pilots, with some arguing that Plummer is perpetuating a myth that the United States napalmed Kim Phuc -- when in fact it was her own countrymen.

"I don't mind a ministry of forgiveness, but John's basing it on the fact that he did something he didn't do," said Ron Timberlake, a decorated helicopter pilot in Vietnam who lives in Texas. "He's taking the blame for something that makes Americans and Vietnam veterans look bad."

Words like "responsible" continue to grate on Vietnam veterans, who say that it is incorrect and furthers a stereotype of Vietnam veterans as killers and maimers of children. "I'm very incensed about it, and a lot of other people are incensed about it," said Robert Witt, a former helicopter pilot who served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. "The guy is using this for his own aggrandizement."

B. G. Burkett, a Dallas stockbroker and Vietnam veteran, has made a second career of unmasking men who claim to be Vietnam veterans or who exaggerate their roles. His book on the issue, "Stolen Valor," co-written with Glenna Whitley, is due out in the spring.

"You'll see how some guys project themselves into events," said Burkett, who did not previously know about Plummer. "They may have some connection; they know the story."

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