Ronald Neil Timberlake
Major, United States Army
Nineteen-year-old Beau Timberlake of Tallahassee sat by himself for an hour, hugging his knees and focusing intently on the gravestone that reads "Ronald Neil Timberlake, US Army Maj."
His father survived two tours as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, receiving the Silver Star and Purple Heart and too many other honors to be listed on a modest block of marble.
He was proud of them but never boasted, his son said. There were many stories behind his accomplishments -- "many he would never tell," Beau added.
Then, barely three years ago, Timberlake was killed in a traffic accident outside Houston. This was Beau's first visit since the funeral.
"I had wanted to come up here for a long time,"
he said. "This was the best Memorial Day weekend I've ever had."
"Other "fake vets" actually served in Viet Nam, but find it necessary to revise and embellish what they did, to achieve notoriety or prove a point they want to make. Or to obtain something they want. In January of 1997, a friend showed me the story of "A Miracle At The Wall", written by a friend of his. It was the story of how a newly ordained Methodist minister had been the man who ordered the bombing that led to the famous photo of the naked little girl, burned by napalm at Trang Bang. It was the story of their meeting at The Wall, and her forgiveness for his actions that led to her accidental injury.
"I read the story from the perspective of a retired Army officer, who as a Hunter-Killer Team Leader in an Air Cavalry Troop, participated in numerous air strikes in Viet Nam. As I read it the first time, I knew the story to be untrue, but I did not realize at the time that it would prove to be such a complete fraud.
"I told my friend that the claims were very much exaggerated, because Americans, especially those in the US Army, did not order Viet Nam Air Force (VNAF) strikes. I also knew from experience that his friend had been in such a low level position on the staff of Army advisors, that he would not have been allowed to "order" anything but coffee, if in fact he was not the one who actually had to make it. He was hurt by that, and said that if the minister really believed the story to be true, that was good enough for him. This man is a valued friend, and I did not want to hurt our friendship.
"He convinced me to participate in an Internet group of former helicopter pilots and crewmen who had flown in Viet Nam, and it still amazes me to consider all the memories that group was able to bring to the surface. Overwhelmingly, those memories are good ones, of young men doing exciting jobs that we believed in. More than anything else, we believed in each other, and we learned then that men do not die for their country. They die for their friends, for their wingmen, and for strangers they have never met, but who need their help.
"We went from an amazing bond that few ever experience, back to our own country, to read and see the fabrications presented about us in the American news and entertainment media. For most men, Viet Nam did not become "a living hell" until long after we came home, and the years of revised history began to take effect. Those fabrications have replaced the truth over the decades, and have allowed many proud veterans to become extremely cynical. Others of us simply do not keep track of what is being said about what we did, and avoid veterans' activities. Since most people understand only the movie and news media versions of the war, most of us do not talk about how things really were for us.
"The minister was a member of the list server, and very much supported by the server's owner and his advisory council, so to experience a little of that bond again, and to bring those memories to the surface, I was willing to remain silent about the minister's claims. He had performed the marriages for several on the net, and I did not want to cause conflict. Unlike the reverend's supporters, I actually read the words in the articles he wrote, and carefully listened to the words he used on his interviews with Nightline and the Canadian produced documentary. I noted changes in the story, that were not just changes that could be expected from sloppy reporting. In addition, the reverend's posts on the net group were different in tone and content from what was seen by the public. I remained silent, and considered that he might be confused in his memories. He and his followers ignore the inconsistencies of his story, as well the absolute conflicts. In the Washington post, he was quoted as saying, "The moment I saw the picture and read the caption, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that was the air strike I ordered." That is consistent with his story in other publications. Yet in referring to his role in a post on the helicopter crew net, he said, "And to this day, I'm not convinced they (The air strike.) were from the same group that I sent from Bien Hoa."
"These and many other inconsistent statements convinced me that the story had gone beyond exaggeration, and fabrication was involved. Depending upon the audience, the minister even had multiple and very different versions of what the note said, that he passed to Kim Phuc at The Wall.
"The ultimate approval, social sanction, is very important to most people. During the years that I risked my life in the military, I did so with the sanction of our government. More importantly, I did so with the full sanction of my friends, the men who meant more to me than anyone else in the world. I was shot down, and I was shot, but it was with the conviction that I was doing what was right, and with the approval of my friends. That seemed to make it hurt less, and I always went back again when I was needed. I very strongly did not want to die, and I was terrified of burning in a crashed helicopter, but I was even more afraid of letting down people who depended upon me.
"A quarter century later, I found myself hesitating to correct something I knew was wrong. At the time, I did not know for certain that it was intentionally wrong, but I knew it surely was wrong. I would not be physically or financially hurt if I questioned the minister's story, so why did I hesitate for months? Because "hurting his feelings" or "questioning his integrity" would not be sanctioned by our friends. For perhaps the first time, I would be taking a stand that was not sanctioned by either my government, which does not care what is said about us, or by my peers. I knew many felt the same as I did about the minister's claims and publicity, but others, I knew, did not, and I did not want to hurt those who believed him. In late September,
"I decided I would leave the list server, rather than hear the praise for the "ministry of forgiveness" during the Veterans Day weekend. Then a close friend posted to ask the minister some questions about the incident, and the minister's answer stayed away from any real issues. So I very respectfully posted specific questions, and in mid-October, he responded with deceptive semantics and inaccuracies. He praised the media's success in getting his message of peace and forgiveness to the public. The short exchange continued until the server's owner told me not to post any further questioning of his minister friend. He said we should discuss it privately.
"I complied with his request, but with my curiosity aroused by the semantics used by the minister, I continued to search for the truth. The minister refused to correspond with me about the issues, and continued to advance his claims. Two weeks later, on November 1, I received a call from retired Lieutenant General James Hollingsworth, in response to a letter I wrote him.
"General Hollingsworth had been the commander of the unit on whose staff the minister had worked during the incident. Before he called me, the General called his Operations Officer from the time, who also retired as a general, to make sure it was not just himself who did not remember the former captain's now elevated authority. The General was very, very specific that the former staff officer could not have done what he claimed. That was solid testimony, that certainly changed the nature of the minister's claims, and I posted some of the General's comments to the list server. The minister responded that the general was wrong, and that he had never even heard of the man who the General "said" was his Operations Officer. He said that he was the one had briefed the general every day, and had never heard of an officer named Colonel Fulwyler. The minister posted his rebuttal of the General's statements, and made an issue that he was leaving the list server, to keep from being questioned further. Amazed that he would deny something that could be verified so easily, I called General Hollingsworth and read the post received from the minister only minutes before. The General's synopsis of the minister's claims and assertions was, "Never happened. It never happened."
"I posted a response to the net that the two generals had retired with a total of five stars, and had absolutely nothing to gain or lose from the minister's story. I questioned whether I should believe two generals with nothing to gain, or a man that the Army decided would not be retained as a captain, and who now had so much to gain or lose. That statement was intended only for the minister, in response to a post he sent me. It hurt the feelings of good men who had also been caught in the Reduction In Force of the seventies, and by the 60% promotion rate to major at the end of the decade.
"For that "attack" on the minister's integrity, I was kicked off the list server. Although many members protested the action, the net's owner and advisory council continued to defend the minister. This should not have been surprising, for these were the men who helped the minister weave himself into the myth, and basked in his notoriety. Two men, who I have never met, gave me the most visible support at that point. Through the power of the Internet, one was on the northwest coast, and one in England. Many others made a supportive post or two, or stayed silently in reserve. The three of us took some very cruel and heavy hits from the helicopter net, and we felt no need to expose our friends to the abuse. My friend in the US was soon suspended from the list server, and my friend in England quit the day Viet Nam Heli-Vets was formed as a list server for combat helicopter pilots and crewmen.
"On Veterans Day weekend, the commercial spots for the Arts & Entertainment documentary promised to show "the American commander" who ordered the bombing of Trang Bang, and the burning of Kim Phuc. Newspaper articles told of Kim Phuc's appointment as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and most of those greatly embellished the terrible story of how she was burned. The Methodist minister's insertion of himself as a key player in the tragedy gave legitimacy to the lie of American participation in the fight at Trang Bang, so that was reported as fact, and other details were added, as invented by the various writers. There was an account of nerve gas being used in the attack. Most articles said Kim was burned when the pagoda in which her family was hiding took a direct hit. Many accounts said her brothers were killed in the bombing, others said two brothers and two cousins. Most accounts said the village was targeted, or came under "intense aerial bombardment". One version said the minister, never higher in rank than captain, had been a colonel. As on the A&E commercials, he was now commonly called the American commander who ordered the bombing, instead of a low level staff officer over 80 kilometers from the fighting. Virtually all the accounts credited the US with conducting or ordering the bombing, but none of these exaggerations were true. Words of participation, responsibility, and apology again came from the minister's lips, and he scheduled more public appearances around the country, to continue the expansion of his ministry.
"This time, net members watched and read the lies with their eyes open, and with a new understanding. While the documentary was essentially the same as earlier in the year, with the addition of some of the narration, they compared the articles and broadcasts with what the minister himself had said on their list server. Many openly questioned the list server's support for the myth they had just seen. To maintain their control, the administrators threatened that anyone who even mentioned Trang Bang, or anything about the subject, would be suspended. Many men suspended themselves in protest of that censorship, and others quit the list server entirely.
"Most of these men joined another list server of former helicopter combat crewmen, because that server's owner does not support any side of the issue. Heli-Vets was supportive of the truth, while encouraging the minister to tell it, and they published accurate statistics and facts about the war on their home page. I wrote a report, The Myth Of The Girl In The Photo, which was posted there, and on several veterans' Internet sites. A brave stand was taken by the man who has amassed more information on helicopters and their crews in the Viet Nam war, than any other person or organization, Gary Roush. A member of the advisory council of the net group, he has produced accurate and widely quoted statistics pages, about the truths of the Viet Nam war. These statistics have been endorsed by The History Channel, and are accessed on the server's web site. On them, he posted the truth about the bombing at Trang Bang, and also posted the statistics on Heli-Vets. The owner and other members of the advisory council of the original site tried to make him remove the portion about Trang Bang, since it gave the impression that he doubted their minister friend's word. Roush refused to remove that portion without removing all his statistics from their web site. Those statistics are too important to all veterans, so they stayed, but he is no longer a member of the advisory committee.
"The evolving claims were too outrageous for even some of the minister's supporters to accept, and polite questions were asked. After praising their reporting in October, the minister turned on the "media maggots" in November. Even though the words had been his own, he said he had not meant what they said. Even though we heard his own lips say he ordered the strike, he said the words did not mean what they said. He posted that his article in Guideposts, a religious magazine, was written not by himself, but by a senior editor, and the words were not his.
"He told his supporters he would schedule an interview with the same Associated Press reporter who broke his story of forgiveness earlier in the year, to correct the wrong impressions. He later decided against the interview, and at the same time, he started a vigorous defense of my assertion that his story could not have happened the way he said. He also made another television appearance, similar to his others.
"At that point, it was obvious that he was not willing to retract enough of his fabrications and embellishments to make any real difference in the way the story was told. He appeared to be caught up in the celebrity of his new ministry. I was convinced that public action had to be taken to counteract the fabrications that were being heaped upon the minister's false claims, and I began to contact news agencies, and Accuracy In Media. Behind the scenes, a very independent team including several investigators and former law enforcement officers formed itself, and included me. Arts & Entertainment defended their documentary, the producer taking phrases and facts out of the context in which they were presented to the public, to show that the documentary had been accurate and truthful. They did not respond to what was said by the documentary's commercials and introductions. Their defense was to extract certain words and phrases, while ignoring all else that was said to the contrary. UNESCO was more forthcoming, and provided their original press release, to show that the release did not say what many of the newspapers changed it to say. They also understood that the minister's insertion of himself into the incident was controversial, at the very least, and decided to elimin by Peter Arnet, now a noted CNN correspondent. He and a UPI television correspondent who was an eyewitness, reported the story correctly when it was published on June 10, 1972.
"Reading that original article, it was clear that the strike was not one that had been sent to hit civilians, or one targeted onto the wrong area. The Vietnamese pilot had diverted to hit what he saw to be a threat to the soldiers he was sent to protect. Not only was it an all-Vietnamese operation, with the VNAF dropping the bombs in support of the South Vietnamese Army, but there were also South Vietnamese soldiers killed by the same bombs. Those soldiers, who died fighting to defend Kim's village from the invading Communists, asked and offered no forgiveness. The intermediary in setting up the meeting between the minister and Kim Phuc, is a poet named Linh Duy Vo. He has a fiercely passionate love for the country that has given him a home, and was heartbroken by the way that meeting was used. The minister's supporters fervently defended his claim that the meeting had not been planned or arranged, but was "an act of God". When asked, the minister specifically said that he had never written a letter to the poet, asking for the meeting. The poet silently answered that lie, by providing a copy of the minister's letter. In it, the minister asked to meet Kim, and requested her address and telephone number. Linh also provided several e-mail posts between himself and the minister, that helped set up the meeting that the minister requested. Significantly, that letter showed that the minister knew long before the meeting at The Wall that Kim knew about him, and that she had forgiven him. His deep emotions that day at the wall were attributed to his learning at that very moment that Kim was willing to forgive "that man", but the correspondence proved the contrived nature of their meeting, and the minister's story about it.
"As for Kim's part, Linh Vo asked his question in poetry. Even before he understood that the minister could not have done what he claimed, Linh wrote, "Educate me where in a history book that I can find the story of a Jewish Girl who once came to America's capitol to forgive the Americans and allies for accidentally hurting the children while liberating the Holocaust victims...."
"I would love to have been the one to arrange it, but it was another friend, one of the silent reserves whom I have never met face-to-face, who contacted the Washington, DC Bureau Chief of the Baltimore Sun. My call with the details was expected, and an investigative reporter was assigned to track down the truth about The Girl In The Photo. Tom Bowman's investigation resulted in such a confidence level on their part, that The Baltimore Sun's front page headline on December 14, 1997 was, "Veteran's admission to napalm victim a lie."
"Stung by the scoop, the Washington Post and Associated Press responded with follow-up reports that week. The AP interview that the minister decided not to request, came to him anyway. Anne Gearan had released the first story on the minister's miracle earlier in the year, and the Washington Post had followed. The difference was that the new AP and Post stories were actually researched, instead of relying on the statements of the principal. Because of that, they reflected generally the same results as the Baltimore Sun.
"The Methodist minister's claims to have ordered the bombing of Trang Bang were not true. In fact, the officers he worked for have stated that it was not even possible for him to have done what he said, and his explanations began to take on the impression of an animal floundering in quicksand. Virtually every defense he asserted, conflicted with at least some portion of what previously, he had specifically remembered or stated.
"Most people would realize that the game is over, but the minister continues to insist that he has always used the words "coordinated" and "ordered" interchangeably, and still grasps more of the responsibility for the event than his superiors say was even physically possible. He still says he never meant to deceive, and when he told his story, we just did not understand him. He still hides behind his trusting friends and his pulpit, and while sobbing "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." for use by national publications, he has never apologized to the men whose friendships he tore asunder.
"Now that his claims have been proven to be lies, misstatements, and embellishment, he wants to change his story just a bit, and continue the expansion of his ministry.
"The Virginia United Methodist Conference posted his response on their web site in January 1998. His response said he was guilty of nothing except "the incautious use of a verb". He also said that the accusations against him had been discounted by conscientious media personnel and military historians. Even a cursory investigation would show the church publication that these claims are completely false, but the web site did not respond to repeated posts providing the accurate information.
"When the site would not respond, his Bishop was provided the same information. As of this writing in March, the minister's false claims are still posted, giving rise to the question of how many other "modern day miracles" the Methodist Church supports, may also be false.
"Accuracy In Media has just released their story about the myth, after quietly investigating it for three months. In a very nice article, they label the minister's claims "despicable".
"His followers ask what this man could possibly have gained by knowingly embellishing his participation in an event that has resulted in such a miracle as Kim's forgiveness. For a new minister of a hundred-member church, who has addressed more people in the year since inserting himself into The Myth Of The Girl In The Photo, than he addressed in his entire life up until that point, the answer should be clear.
"Did the minister have help with his fabrication? Investigation reveals what appears to be an intertwining of relationships with members of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Kim Foundation. It appears that Kim's introduction at The Wall was in no way meant to honor veterans, but may have been part of the marketing plan for her message of forgiveness. The same people associated with her new foundation, are or were associated with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial foundation. Hopefully, this kind of personal use of the memorial will receive more of the attention it deserves, and a serious investigator will "follow the dollar" to the source.
Ronald N. Timberlake
Major Ron Timberlake won the silver star while
serving as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He died as a result of injuries
suffered in a motorcycle accident on May 5, 1999.