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Vet Accused of Embellishing Role

December 17, 1997

PURCELLVILLE, Va. (AP) _ A veteran who claimed to have ordered the napalm attack that produced one of the Vietnam War’s most excruciating images _ that of a naked 9-year-old girl fleeing in terror _ has now acknowledged that he overstated his role.

Last year, the Rev. John Plummer embraced Kim Phuc, the now 34-year-old Vietnamese woman left horribly disfigured by the attack, and begged for her forgiveness.

On Wednesday, Plummer said that his claims on ABC’s ``Nightline″ and elsewhere over the past year that he ``ordered″ the attack went too far and were misunderstood.

``I was not a commander and I did not order the airstrike, but I helped coordinate it,″ said Plummer, who served as an Army captain in Vietnam and is now a 50-year-old Methodist minister.

He added: ``That role was still enough personally to involve me in the results of that airstrike, which was a little girl getting burned.″

Others who served in the war, including one of Plummer’s superiors, have said he could not have done what he claimed.

``He did not have the authority,″ said Ronald Timberlake, an Army captain and helicopter pilot in Vietnam who was not Plummer’s superior but picked apart Plummer’s story in an article published on the Internet last month. ``He has tried to make his role more dramatic than it really was.″

Kim, who lives in Toronto and has an unlisted number, could not be reached for comment. She emigrated to Canada after numerous operations for burns on her back, neck and arm and is now a UNESCO goodwill ambassador.

Plummer, who preaches or lectures regularly about the airstrike on the village of Trang Bang in 1972, was an operations officer miles from the village and part of a chain of command that coordinated airstrikes between the American and South Vietnamese forces.

Plummer has described getting a call from an American adviser in Trang Bang, asking for help. He said he relayed that request to the South Vietnamese, after twice checking to see if there were any civilians in the village.

A South Vietnamese jet bombed the village, and Plummer said he did not know until he saw the photo of the girl that civilians were wounded.

The photo of Kim was published around the world and helped galvanize anti-war sentiment back home. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for The Associated Press and photographer Nick Ut.

Plummer’s superior at the time, retired Maj. Gen. Niles J. Fulwyler, told The Sun of Baltimore that Plummer was a junior officer on his staff of 15 who would not have played so central a role in organizing the strike.

``I think he’s stretching things the wrong way. He doesn’t order aircraft,″ Fulwyler, who was a colonel and operations chief when the village was bombed, told the newspaper. ``If he was coordinating anything it was at a damn low level. They’re just so many inconsistencies in what he’s said.″

Plummer, who has said he was hobbled for years by guilt and responsibility, often speaks movingly of embracing Kim at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and seeking her forgiveness.

Standing back in the Veterans Day crowd at the wall last year, Plummer heard Kim give a brief speech. She said if she could talk to the pilot who dropped the bombs, she would ask to work together for peace.

Plummer dashed off a note and passed it to her. ``Kim, I am that man,″ the note said.

They met and embraced moments later. Both have said they cried, and Kim patted Plummer’s back. ``I forgive,″ she told him.

Plummer said he may have been overly emotional when he wrote the note but did not intend to exaggerate his role to Kim or anyone else.

Kim and Plummer kept in touch after their embrace at the wall, but she has not been part of the approximately 30 appearances Plummer has made since going public with the story of their meeting.

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