Midnight in South Vietnam, and the river is black. Past the rice paddies and shacks, small fires are burning by the shoreline as Lt. John H. Davis’ 50-foot aluminum swift boat — PCF 19 — makes its routine patrol through the reeds.
In a split second, rocket fire shatters the silence, and through a plume of oily smoke, the boat sinks to the river’s bottom.
“My whole crew lost their lives that night. I was the only one who survived,” Lt. Davis says.
Lt. Davis, now 62, lost his left eye. The bones in both legs were shattered. But the scars of war are nothing compared to the demons that wake him from his sleep, leaving him drenched in sweat and trembling with fear.
“My latest nightmare was that I was pulling my crew out of the water. When it came to the last body, it was me.”
Lt. Davis has come to Washington at his own expense, along with 89 other Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to tape the eighth 60-second TV spot questioning Sen. John Kerry’s fitness to be commander in chief.
They come from Oshkosh, Wis., and Orlando, Fla., San Francisco and Virginia Beach. One is on crutches. Others, former prisoners of war, walk stiffly, a result of being bound and tortured. Some wear their medals. Two are in cowboy boots.
Snow-haired Bud Day, a 79-year-old former POW, stands at attention. He is wearing a brown leather flight jacket befitting an Air Force major, complemented by the Medal of Honor around his neck. Others have donned “Swift Boat” baseball caps.
The silver-haired men — in natty ties, navy blazers and spit-shined shoes, their faces bronzed with Ben Nye matte foundation (“tan suede”) — line up under the hot lights in the cavernous soundstage at Atlantic Video on Massachusetts Avenue.
One by one, they share their stories with the cameras and defend their honor.
These Swiftees, at times jocular (breaking into “Row, row, row your boat”) and at other times on the verge of tears, are angry and frustrated. Not only because they say Mr. Kerry has lied about his service and refuses to sign the form that releases his military records to the public, but because 30 years ago, the candidate threw away his medals and called his fellow servicemen murderers, rapists, baby killers and cowards.
The weekend began with a dinner at the Key Bridge Marriott on Friday night, attended by a wealthy backer from Texas, T. Boone Pickens.
So far, they have raised more than $13 million — more than $4 million of which was contributed through their Internet site — and plan to step up their assault on the Democratic presidential candidate in the final weeks of the campaign. They raised an additional $2.5 million over the weekend and plan to spend $5 million more by Election Day.
The weekend shoot produced enough footage for two or three more ads, which the Swiftees plan to run starting Thursday in Pennsylvania and Ohio and in a few heavily military areas of Florida. Campaign analysts say the Swiftees have been highly effective in planting doubts about Mr. Kerry’s fitness for office.
Vernon Smith, a 74-year-old Swiftee from Virginia Beach, didn’t see any reason to come forward before, but when he read “Tour of Duty,” Mr. Kerry’s account of his Vietnam service as written by historian Douglas Brinkley, he got angry.