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."
Former superiors puzzled
Plummer's former superiors at the 3rd Regional Assistance Command, which was located outside Saigon and advised South Vietnam's III Corps, said in interviews that they are puzzled by Plummer's description of his role.
"I think he's stretching things the wrong way. He doesn't order aircraft," said retired Maj. Gen. Niles J. Fulwyler, who in June 1972 was a colonel and the chief of operations, with a staff of 15 that included Plummer. "If he was coordinating anything it was at a damn low level. They're just so many inconsistencies in what he's said."
The regional U.S. commander at that time, retired Lt. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth, said even he couldn't order Vietnamese planes into the air and described a captain such as Plummer as a "handyman" for Fulwyler, the operations chief. Plummer and others of his rank "would have no authority to order anyone to do anything," Hollingsworth said.
'I still feel the connection'
* Plummer wondered aloud in an interview, in which he was alternately testy and defensive, why some are questioning his feelings of responsibility.
"I felt tremendous remorse that a little girl was hurt in something I was involved in, remote as it may be," said Plummer.
Asked if he was now agreeing his role had been "remote," as others insist, he replied: "I still feel the connection to what happened there -- because I was involved in the process."
A few days after the bombing, he said, he saw the picture of Phuc in the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes. He realized, he said, that he had made "a terrible gaffe."
The tragedy haunted him and "ruined my life" for a decade, he said. He drank heavily and saw two marriages crumble. After marrying for a third time, he said, he turned his life around and became more religious, finally leaving a job with a defense contractor for a career in the ministry.
And as his Jeep Cherokee in front of the stone church attests, his two tours in Vietnam are still very much a part of him. His Virginia tag reads CAVLRY and includes a Bronze Star emblem. The plate's metal border reads "Black Horse 11th U.S. Cavalry," his old helicopter unit. Small metal wings are affixed to the back windshield. "Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association," says the bright yellow bumper sticker.
'God was orchestrating this'
Last year, he said, when he and others planned on being at the Wall for Veteran's Day, one of them told Plummer that Kim Phuc would be there.
"That's when I first began to understand and feel that God was orchestrating this," he said. "After all those years, Kim and I were finally going to be drawn together at the same place at the same time."
Asked why he wrote "I am that man" on the note, Plummer VTC paused for a long moment, then said: "Maybe I attached myself to the events that day. Maybe I was saying in that note that even though I wasn't the pilot that dropped the bombs, I am responsible for the bombs being there. I was in such a precarious psychological and emotional condition, I guess."
But Plummer says he only wanted to apologize to Kim for his own role and was not interested in publicizing it. Asked why he then did so, he said that when he told his tale on the Internet and at a Virginia ministers meeting two months after the ceremony, he realized "the power of that story" and how it changed lives and made people forgive.
"That's why I came forward," he said. "That's why I did 'Nightline.' "
"The veterans who are upset about this, they focus in on every word I use," he continued. "Since then, I've been very careful about how I use the words."
And someday he hopes to gain a wider audience for what happened at Trang Bang. "I would like to write a book about forgiveness," he said, "and obviously this story is going to be part of it."
Pub Date: 12/14/97