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Another post from the English lady who is beginning to feel badly that they've thought so badly of us. She and her son would obviously enjoy learning more from you.Posts like this are one reason to try to correct what history says about us.
Hi Ron

Thank you so much for all the reports you sent about the napalm bombing incident; they are most interesting. What a fraud that methodist minister is and it seems he's still going around the country giving talks about his experiences. I note that the girl, Kim, isn't answering her telephone or getting involved too much.

After reading the articles on the helicopter web page, there are lots of things I'd like to ask you but I realise you must be a very busy person so I won't bother you. I'm really grateful for all the help you've given me - well actually my son Dan - but I've become really interested in the subject now. Not only have I been telling my colleagues but I've told several Americans - they too didn't know it was a Vietnamese pilot who dropped the napalm bomb on Kim Phuc. There must be lots of incidents for which the Americans got the 'blame' and lots of events for which the military personnel involved didn't get the recognition they truly deserved.

One day, perhaps, you will all be appreciated but it seems to me that an awful lot of people just want to forget about that war and pretend it didn't happen. Corresponding, via the Internet, with past colleagues and men who went through similar experiences must have brought comfort to a lot of you.Happy trails ??? I guess that's a helicopter term Irene

Updated March 24 1998
To believe John Plummer means:

You have dismissed the very strong statements of John's Commanding General. So you seem to feel that a man who retired with three stars and three DSCs has no more weight to his testimony than a man who is building a business on his conflicting testimony. Hollingsworth has nothing to gain or lose,and John does. You may think that the general wasn't in the HQ with John. I can understand that, but I do not find it reasonable to say the general did not know what went on within the staff sections. You discount the general's complete repudiation of John's claims that he briefed the general every day. You cannot believe John's claims, and the general's statements.

You have dismissed the very strong statements of John's G-3, for whom John worked. You disregard the fact that John did not even remember who the G-3 was, and claimed that there was no Fulwyler on the staff when he was there.You disregard Fulwyler's statements that John could not have done what he said because it was physically impossible. You do not deem it pertinent that the G-3 ran the show from the HQ. You do not attribute as much weight to Fulwyler's statements as you do to John's although Fulwyler retired with two stars and has nothing to gain or lose from the issue. You cannot believe John's claims, and the statements of the man in charge of his staff section.

You have dismissed the statements of the Vietnamese Skyraider pilot who dropped the bombs that burned Kim, and the statements of one of his fellow pilots, who both say that there was NO American participation whatsoever. You discount the statement of these men, who do not want to be recognized or known, and give the weight instead to a man who is building a personal ministry on the notoriety he gains from his claims. You cannot believe John's claims, and the man who dropped the bombs.

You disregard the independent investigations of at least four news agencies, two of which had previously published glowing reports about John's miracle, and did NOT want to have to publish anything that showed they had been fooled. You disregard that John had previously praised the coverage given him by the press and on television. All four of the independent investigations revealed that John lied, embellished, and misrepresented what he did, and they were very gentle on him. Yet you dismiss their findings, for you cannot believe what they independently found, and still believe John's claims.

You give full weight and confidence to John's testimony, despite the numerous errors and the many conflicting versions of his story. You disregard that he said he wrote no letter to Linh Vo, yet Linh provided the letter, which asked for a meeting with Kim. You do not consider John's arrogant claims of controlling B-52 strikes (Which Hollingsworth calls "Horseshit!") to be further evidence of his embellishment and fabrication. You do not consider that he is the only person in this entire sequence that has anything at all to gain, or now to lose, from the results of this. All of his testimony has been compromised, yet you give him more credence than all the others, who are impartial.

There is much objective evidence, and every bit of it shows that multiple independent and impartial personnel all say the same thing, which directly contradicts the claims of a man who has already been caught embellishing and fabricating on similar claims.
Ronald N. Timberlake 187th AHC Crusader 18 Tay Ninh 68-69 F Trp, 9th Cav, 1st Cav Div Sabre 20 Bear Cat & Bien Hoa 71-72


The following is to be published soon by Accuracy in Media as an AIM Report. Because of the intense interest in the Kim Phuc/John Plummer affair, we are posting it before publication as a public service. Comments may be directed to me at: or to:

Accuracy in Media 4455 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 330 Washington, DC 20008 Phone: (202) 364-4401 Fax: (202) 364-4098
Joseph C. Goulden Director of Media Analysis Accuracy in Media
By Joseph C. Goulden

This is a story of how one citizen, given sufficient determination and energy, can force the media to correct a major falsehood before it is enshrined in history as "the truth." We refer to a remarkable man named Ron Timberlake, who won several high decorations as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and who now lives in retirement in Katy, a small town near Houston.

The cause which Timberlake adopted as his very own involved one of the more searing photographic images to come out of the Vietnam War, that of a young girl, the clothes burned off her body, running down a road with other villagers, her mouth locked in an apparent scream. Associated Press photographer Nick Ut took the girl’s picture, which ran on front pages of papers around the world in June 1972. Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for what was indeed a dramatic photograph — and one which opponents of the war quickly turned into an emotional propaganda tool.

As was reported at the time by Ut and another eyewitness, Chris Wain of United Press International, a South Vietnamese pilot dropped napalm on civilians fleeing the Viet Cong who he mistook for guerrillas who were charging government positions. Whether napalm actually burned the girl is a matter of contention; Gen. William C. Westmoreland, former Vietnam commander serving as Army chief of staff in 1972, said his investigation showed that an hibachi turned over during the raid, spilling hot coals on the girl.

Whatever the cause, the victim, Kim Phuc, then 10 years old, survived the burns and after a lengthy hospitalization made anti-American propaganda films denouncing the war. The Hanoi government then sent her to Cuba to study pharmacology. . During an airline stopover in Canada in 1992, she demonstrated what she thought of the communist regime by defecting. She now lives in Toronto with her husband and two children. Kim Phuc recognized the fame she achieved through the photograph continued to give her box office value, so she was a regular at so-called "peace rallies" both in the United States and Canada.

It was at such a rally, at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in 1996, that she met a Vietnam veteran named John Plummer. An oft-divorced recovering alcoholic, Plummer for several years has been a minister at a small Methodist church outside of Washington. And for some years prior to 1996, Plummer had been telling small audiences that he "ordered" the bombing attack in which Kim Phuc was burned.

The media-driven image is of an accidental encounter between a victim and the military officer "guilty" of injuring her. A careful reading of Plummer’s own account shows that the reality was considerably different — that the meeting at the memorial was a publicity stunt contrived by persons who want to keep anti-American hatreds alive because of the war.

Kim Phuc and Plummer had a hidden agenda that day. The catalyst between them was a leftist Vietnamese poet, Linh Duy Vo is grateful to America and her Viet vets, and deeply patriotic. The actual invitation for Kim Phuc was arranged by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an anti-war organization which has far out-lived the cause for which it was formed, but which drums incessantly the theme that America is "guilty" for fighting in Vietnam.

Kim Phuc knew that Plummer would be in her audience. . According an account in Biography Magazine [September 1997] Kim Phuc gave an emotional speech in which she claimed that two of the brothers had been killed in the air strike. [Actually, they were cousins, not brothers.] Plummer professed shock at this news, according to Biography, thinking, "That was the first time that I was ever aware that there were any deaths." [Actually, he had claimed that he learned of her being burned in a 1972 Stars & Stripes article which stated that 10 persons "were killed or injured.] During her speech Kim Phuc said, "Even if I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him, ‘We cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace.’"

It was at this point, according to the account Plummer has given to uncountable audiences, that he passed a note to the podium, "I need to speak to you for a moment." and he and Kim Phuc met and fell into one another’s arms with heaving sobs. Plummer begged forgiveness for having "ordered" the air strike.

The peace movement’s heroine was reborn, now with a former American military man admitting responsibility for what the media depicted as a horrible tragedy of an unjust war. Two points bear noting: (1) what happened to Kim Phuc surely was an awful event, and the girl suffered enormously, but (2) she was one of scores of thousands of innocents harmed during the war. The Viet Cong, of course, did not permit photographers and other journalists to roam their lines, recording the civilian casualties caused by its actions.

Until this "reunion" Plummer’s breast-beating had attracted little attention outside of his own church circles. But by allying himself with Kim Phuc, and the formidable propaganda machine serving left-wing "peace lovers," he found himself a sudden media star in his own right. He told of "ordering" the bombing on ABC’s Nightline on June 6, 1997. He was featured on A&E’s popular Biography program. There was considerable print attention. Plummer’s claim was that war guilt had haunted him for years, driving him into alcoholism and ruining his marriages but that he got control of himself in the early 1990s and started preaching.

The new surge of publicity helped Kim Phuc as well, and in November 1997 she was named a ‘good will ambassador" by UNESCO. A UNESCO film announcing her appointment included an interview with John Plummer claiming responsibility for the bombing. UNESCO quoted from the film interview in a press release from its Paris office, and many news organizations picked up the statement that the bombing had been "ordered" by an American.

Timberlake Truth Squad

Unfortunately for Plummer, the publicity caught the eye of Timberlake, who had retired to the Houston area after military service and then chopper stints for oil companies in the Middle East.

During his Vietnam service Timberlake flew many close support missions with both U. S. and South Vietnamese soldiers, and to him Plummer’s claim simply did not ring true. Officers of Plummer’s rank, captain, assigned to a remote headquarters, simply did not have the authority to order any air strikes, either U. S. or Vietnamese.

Timberlake began by running down some of the claims Plummer had made in public. Many newspaper accounts about Kim Phuc’s UNESCO appointment simply mentioned that the bombing was "ordered" by an American. But Timberlake found far more elaborate articles directly attributable to Plummer. The most complete was on A&E’s Biography segment, which was converted into an article for the program’s magazine, also entitled Biography.

Based on information provided by Plummer, and recycling material presented on the TV show, Geoff Williams wrote a moving account of the Kim Phuc affair in the magazine. By this version, on June 8, 1972, Plummer heard of the battle from his duty station in a command post some miles away. He "checked with an American military advisor who repeatedly assured him that the South Vietnamese village of Trang Bang was uninhabited by civilians. So Plummer assigned South Vietnamese aircraft to drop hard bombs and napalm on the village, which had been infiltrated by the Viet Cong."

The article continued that Plummer started his next day in a comfortable mess hall by getting a tray of scrambled eggs and bacon and picking up Stars & Stripes. "I put it on my tray and sat down, and I saw that picture, and I thought, ‘Wow. That’s terrible.’" Then he saw the words Trang Bang in the caption. "Plummer’s oldest son, seven years old, looked about the same age of the terrified girl in the photo, a photo that the sickened officer kept staring at, thinking, ‘I did that.’" [Emphasis in the article]

An even more dramatic rendition appeared under Plummer’s byline in Guidepost Magazine [Oct. 1997]. There is dialogue between Plummer, in a "command bunker," with a U. S. adviser at the scene who says the besieged forces needed help. "After studying the map, I was puzzled. ‘That is right on the edge of the village,’ I said. ‘What about the friendlies?’" The advisor told him all civilians had left.

"I knew the best munitions for entrenched infantry were napalm and high-explosive bombs. Since the target was close to our troops, I wanted the most accurate means of delivery. I located a South Vietnamese air unit with A-7 and A-1E attack aircraft. But I was still concerned. To make doubly sure I checked with the district headquarters. ‘What’s the friendly situation down there?’

‘All the villages have left.’ I radioed approval and about five minutes later the advisor reported, ‘Bombs right on target; our ground troops are moving in.’ A routine mission, I thought, I had done it dozens of times." Then Plummer repeated the emotional mess hall scene — only this time not the morning after the attack [per Biography] but three days later. [For the record, Plummer said on his Internet site that he did not write the Guideposts article, that it was ghosted under his name.]

Myth v. Reality

So what really happened that June day in 1972? Once Timberlake read about Plummer in stories about Kim Phuc’s UNESCO appointment, he obtained a copy of the two press releases which were the basis for news stories. It mentioned a 10-minute film, "Kim’s Story," about the attack in which she was burned. The press release stated, "Ms. Phuc is shown in a moment of reconciliation with John Plummer, now a Methodist minister, but who as a 24-year-old officer, ordered the bombing of the village."

Timberlake complained to the UNESCO press office about that control procedures were such that Plummer could not have "ordered" the air strike. Jo Hironaka, a UNESCO information officer, sent back an artful reply which is a good illustration of how a bureaucrat can concede that he was wrong without saying so directly. "For what it’s worth," Hironaka wrote, " the United States is never mentioned in either [release], although the second...mentions Rev. John Plummer in the context of the air strike." Hironaka said that UNESCO did not "assign blame or dig into old wounds," but he offered "our apologies for any misunderstandings that may have been raised." Hironaka also said he would "strike" the sentences concerning Plummer from UNESCOs on-line site about Kim Phuc.

Timberlake next checked contemporary news accounts. At this point, he told us, he wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, only that Plummer’s account was questionable. Since Plummer claimed that his first knowledge of Kim Phuc being burned came through an account in Stars & Stripes, Timberlake found old issues of the service paper to learn what had been published.

The Stars & Stripes story ran on June 10, 1972, two days after the incident, accompanied by Ut’s photograph. Christopher Wain, of UPI, gave an eyewitness account which was contained in the body of the article. He wrote that troops of the Viet Cong’s K1 Battalion attacked the Chu No marketplace in the outskirts of Trang Ban and the nearby hamlet of Gio Loc, 30 miles northwest of Saigon. The attack sent "thousands of civilians fleeing for cover."

Swain wrote, "A company of communists dug bunkers in the marketplace, and two more companies set up firing positions around the hamlet, waiting for government troops to counterattack. Three South Vietnamese infantry battalions backed by government Skyraider bombers moved in during the late morning in an attempt to oust the entrenched Viet Cong troops."

Although the bombing and ground fire appeared to take a heavy toll of the VC, by late afternoon the counterattack had slowed and the communists remained in control. The story continued: "He [Wain] said during the fighting at Gio Loc one of the government Skyraiders dropped four bombs 300 yards from the communist lines where government troops and civilians were taking cover. Soldiers and civilians made a dash across Highway 1 for safety...and a South Vietnamese pilot, apparently thinking the fleeing men, women and children were Viet Cong, dove and dropped the napalm canisters on them."

Wain reported that he saw four children and one woman burned by napalm. "South Vietnamese officers said five government soldiers were also burned, but newsmen at the scene saw only two or three of them." Wain described the girl later identified as Kim Phuc [he did not know her name] in two sentences: "One little girl ripped all of the clothing off her body and ran naked with several other children, crying and screaming. The skin was burned off her back." Ut would help take the little girl for medical treatment, then returned to the battle scene. The fighting would last for three days before the Vietcong withdrew.

Peter Arnett of the Associated Press was also present. The portion of his story which ran was incorporated into the Stars & Stripes story said little about the VC attack which led to the air strikes. He wrote, "Trang Bang was the scene Thursday of a mistaken napalm attack by South Vietnamese planes. Canisters of blazing jellied gasoline fell on civilians and troops alike, and 10 persons, children, women, men and soldiers, were killed or injured."

What caused the Vietnamese pilot’s error? The group which included Kim Phuc had been in a pagoda near the market place. When the bombing began, they began running towards positions occupied by South Vietnamese soldiers and the American journalists. Some in the group apparently carried weapons The pilot made a split-second decision to protect the ARVN troops from what he perceived as a threat. He diverted from his target and dove to attack the group. This is what correspondent Chris Swain witnessed. Only one American military man was at the scene, an officer acting as an advisor to Vietnamese infantry. He had nothing to do with the air strikes.
Timberlake Pulls Chain

Given this account, and knowing what he did of coordination between American advisors and the South Vietnamese, Timberlake felt that Plummer’s story could not be true. So Timberlake began working through the old chain of command of which Plummer was a part in Vietnam service. The man’s story quickly evaporated as Timberlake talked with Plummer’s former superiors — names of whom he passed along to the media so that they could check for themselves the veracity of what Plummer had been telling the press.. Long stories ran in both the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, as well as a piece by Ann Gearan on the Associated Press wire, which quoted sources supplied by Timberlake.

Plummer, 24 years at the time, was a captain assigned to the Third Regional Assistance Command [TRAC] as an assistant G-3 air. In military parlance, this means that he was the staff officer for the operations division who worked on aviation related matters. Plummer’s office was some 80 kilometers from Trang Bang. The TRAC commander, retired Lt. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth, stated, "On any staff anywhere, the assistant G-3 Air was nothing but a planner for the G-3. G-3 advisors were only advisors, operating under my direct control, and would have nothing to do with ordering anything. No captain G-3 Air advisor had responsibility with anything to do with VNAF or ordering it anywhere."

Another officer, retired Major General Niles Fulwyler, was a colonel in 1972 and Plummer’s direct supervisor in TRAC. "I think he’s stretching things the wrong way," Fulwyler told Baltimore Sun reporter Tom Bowan. Gen. Hollingsworth, who commanded the entire region, told the Sun that even he couldn’t order strikes by South Vietnamese planes, much less someone with Plummer’s rank of captain.

Bearded by these statements in interviews with reporters from the Sun and the AP, Plummer seemed to back away from his claimed responsibility. Bowman, describing Plummer as "alternately testy and defensive," quoted him as saying, "I still feel the connection to what happened there because I was involved in the process." But Plummer told the Sun and the AP that he would no longer claim that he "ordered" the air strike.

Plummer Is Irked

After the Sun and AP articles, Plummer posted an angry rebuttal on a Methodist church Internet home page claiming that "I have been vilified in the press...." He charged that "there has been a concentrated effort to discredit me and the ministry of forgiveness that has arisen from mine and Kim’s reconciliation.

Then he admitted that he in fact had erred. "In relating the story, I used the word ‘ordered’ when I should have used the word ‘coordinated.’ When I told the story, my emphasis was on the healing and forgiveness aspect and not the strict military use of the words. I believe that my incautious use of ‘ordered’ made it appear to some, especially in the veterans community, that I was claiming that the bombing was an American operation. I apologist for my inadvertent use of the wrong verb." Plummer claimed that the statements by his former superior officers "were true in a general sense," but that the demands of battle often caused deviations.

We tried to contact Plummer directly and were told he is giving no more press interviews for the time being. Tom Bowman of the Baltimore Sun, one of the reporters implicitly criticized by Plummer, laughed out loud when we read him the rebuttal. "I really sort of feel sorry for the guy," Bowman said. "He’s told the story, and he’s stuck with it."

The "peace movement" claque that made Kim Phuc its poster girl has gone so far as to credit the photograph with "ending the war." In fact, President Nixon had already withdrawn most American group troops by June 1972, and nine months later, after the Paris peace accords, all U. S. forces were out of Vietnam. As Timberlake commented, "The photo was embarrassing to the U. S. government, but extremely damaging to the South Vietnamese government. It was a great propaganda tool for the communists, and may have done more than any other photo to prevent the U.S. Congress from allowing assistance to the South Vietnamese government when North Vietnam launched the full-scale invasion of that country in 1973."

So are the media correcting the burned-girl story? Anne Gearan of the Washington bureau of the Associated Press was one of the reporters who believed Plummer’s initial tale, and she wrote a long story that appeared in papers on April 13, 1997 under headlines such as "Shame, Absolution: Vietnam Veteran Meets His Victim." The day after Bowman’s Sun article appeared, Gearan drove to Plummer’s church, confronted him, and wrote another article which moved on the AP wire under the tag, "Vet Said to Have Overstated Role." She quoted Plummer as saying he "overstated his role" in the incident.

We applaud Anne Gearan and AP for putting the quietus on a misleading story. We’ve asked Ted Koppel to do the same on ABC’s Nightline, and we’ve also written to the A&E Network concerning the flawed segment on Biography.

In his pre-Timberlake interviews, Plummer claimed that he has overcome alcoholism and that his life is on the right track. We certainly hope so, and we can appreciate the emotional stress he suffered over its years, whatever its origins But for any veteran to make claims which put blame for a horrible episode on his fellow Americans is despicable. Plummer outraged fellow veterans who are tired of being likened to callous war criminals. The hero of this episode is Ron Timberlake — a man who spotted an historical inaccuracy, and who had the energy to persuade the media to back away from it. Timberlake tells us that he was "deeply offended by the falsifications and implications" of how the Kim Phuc story was reported. We congratulate Ron Timberlake for his splendid effort on behalf of "accuracy in media."

What You Can Do???
Send a note, to retired Maj. Ron Timberlake in care of AIM so that he’ll know other Americans applaud his efforts on behalf of the truth in the Kim Phuc incident.