Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A number of the combat commanders, fellow officers and other men who served with Sen. John Kerry in Vietnam have challenged his accounts of combat heroism in a new book, “Unfit for Command” (Regnery Publishing), by John E. ONeill, who took over command of Swift Boat PCF 94 from Lt. Kerry, and Jerome R. Corsi, a political scientist who has written extensively about the Vietnam War protest movement. Each of these excerpts from “Unfit for Command” includes comparisons of Mr. Kerrys earlier published accounts to recollections of others who served with him.

First of three excerpts

In the history of Swift Boats in Vietnam, all military personnel served a tour of duty of at least one year unless seriously wounded. Among the few exceptions was John Kerry, who requested to leave Vietnam in 1969 after four months, citing a regulation that permitted release of personnel with three Purple Hearts.

Kerry, now the four-term senator from Massachusetts and the Democratic presidential nominee, is also the only known “Swiftee” who received the Purple Heart for a self-inflicted wound.

None of Kerry’s three Purple Hearts was for serious injuries. They were minor scratches, resulting in no lost duty time.

Each of these decorations is controversial, with considerable evidence (and in two cases, incontrovertible and conclusive evidence) that the injuries were caused by his own hand and not the result of hostile fire.

Kerry’s injuries are a subject of ridicule among fellow Swiftees.

“Many took exception to the Purple Hearts awarded to Kerry,” Swift Boat veteran William E. Franke, a Silver Star recipient, wrote to the authors in March. “His ‘wounds’ were suspect, so insignificant as to not be worthy of the award of such a medal.”

Franke and about 200 others, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, came forth in May to question Kerry’s deception. These veterans from Kerry’s unit signed a petition calling on him to execute Standard Form 180 and allow the public complete access to his service record.

Swiftees have remarked that if Kerry faked even one of these awards, he owed the Navy 243 additional days in Vietnam before running for anything.

In a unit where terribly wounded personnel like Shelton White (now an undersea film producer for National Geographic) chose to return to duty after three wounds on the same day, Kerry’s actions were disgraceful.

Indeed, many share the feelings of Adm. Roy F. Hoffmann, to whom all Swiftees reported when he was commander of Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam in 1968-69: Kerry simply “bugged out” when the heat was on.

Kerry volunteers

The Navy first brought Swift Boats to Vietnam in 1966 to control the coast. The high-speed, 50-foot aluminum boats — designated PCFs, for Patrol Crafts Fast — were specifically designed to intercept and inspect offshore traffic. They carried mortars.

Swift Boats, or PCFs, had no armor and relied on speed and firepower. Each boat had a six-man crew and operated as part of a small division.

Kerry volunteered for service on the Swifts. Given his extreme opposition to the Vietnam War and his view that it was an immoral enterprise, Kerry’s action has always puzzled most Swiftees. But in the early days, Swift Boats saw infrequent combat, which is apparently why they attracted Kerry.

“Although I wanted to see for myself what was going on, I didn’t really want to get involved in the war,” Kerry wrote in his 1986 contribution to “The Vietnam Experience: A War Remembered.”

In late 1968, the Swift Boat mission was redefined to root out the enemy hiding in the difficult terrain of the canals and rivers of the Mekong Delta.

On Nov. 17, 1968, Kerry reported for duty to Coastal Squadron One, Coastal Division 14, at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam. He had served a year without seeing combat aboard the USS Gridley, a guided-missile frigate that spent five weeks off the coast of Vietnam doing guard duty for planes.

Cam Ranh, a French tourist town with a well-protected, deep-water harbor and beautiful white beaches, was generally regarded as the safest place in Vietnam. Kerry, promoted five months earlier to lieutenant junior grade, spent one month of his four-month Vietnam tour training in Cam Ranh Bay.

Kerry’s campaign Web site,, presents his first Purple Heart incident in typical heroic fashion: “December 2, 1968 — Kerry experiences first intense combat; receives first combat related injury.”

Kerry’s account

Kerry recalled the incident as “a half-assed action that hardly qualified as combat” in Douglas Brinkley’s book “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War” (William Morrow, 2004).

As Kerry described the situation to Brinkley, he grew bored in his first two weeks in Vietnam while awaiting assignment of his own boat.

So Kerry volunteered for a “special mission” on a boat the Navy calls a skimmer, but which he knew as a “Boston whaler.” The craft was a foam-filled boat, not a Swift Boat.

Kerry and two enlisted men were patrolling along what Kerry described as “the shore off a Viet Cong?infested peninsula north of Cam Ranh” when the action started around 2 or 3 a.m. Here are Kerry’s words, quoted by Brinkley:

“The jungle closed in on us on both sides. It was scary as hell. You could hear yourself breathing. We were almost touching the shore. Suddenly, through the magnified moonlight of the infrared ‘starlight scope,’ I watched, mesmerized, as a group of sampans glided in toward the shore. We had been briefed that this was a favorite crossing area for VC trafficking contraband.”

Kerry said he turned off the motor and paddled the Boston whaler out of the inlet into the bay. Then he saw the Vietnamese pull their sampans onto the beach; they began to unload something. As recounted in “Tour of Duty,” Kerry decided to light a flare:

“The entire sky seemed to explode into daylight. The men from the sampans bolted erect, stiff with shock for only an instant before they sprang for cover like a herd of panicked gazelles I had once seen on TV’s ‘Wild Kingdom.’ We opened fire …The light from the flares started to fade, the air was full of explosions. My M-16 jammed, and as I bent down in the boat to grab another gun, a stinging piece of heat socked into my arm and just seemed to burn like hell. By this time, one of the sailors had started the engine, and we ran by the beach, strafing it. Then it was quiet.”

That was the entire action. As Kerry explained to Brinkley, he was not about to go chasing after the Vietnamese:

“We were unprotected; we didn’t have ammunition; we didn’t have cover; we just weren’t prepared for that. … So we first shot the sampans so that they were destroyed and whatever was in them was destroyed.”

Kerry and his crew loaded their gear in the Swift Boat that was there to cover them and, with the Boston whaler in tow, headed back to Cam Ranh Bay.

“I felt terribly seasoned after this minor skirmish,” Kerry recalled in the Brinkley book, “but since I couldn’t put my finger on what we had really accomplished or on what had happened, it was difficult to feel satisfied. I never saw where the piece of shrapnel had come from, and the vision of the men running like gazelles haunted me.”

Boston Globe’s account

A somewhat different version is recounted in “John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography” (PublicAffairs Reports, 2004), by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton.

In this account, Kerry emphasized that he was patrolling with the Boston whaler in a free-fire curfew zone, and that “anyone violating the curfew could be considered an enemy and shot.”

Questions had been raised about whether the incident involved any enemy fire, and the Globe reporters covered this point as follows:

“The Kerry campaign showed the Boston Globe a one-page document listing Kerry’s medical treatment during some of his service time. The notation said: ‘3 DEC 1968 U.S. NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY CAM RANH BAY RVN FPO Shrapnel in left arm above elbow. Shrapnel removed and apply Bacitracin dressing. Ret to duty.’”

The Globe asked the campaign whether Kerry was certain he received enemy fire and whether Kerry remembers the Purple Heart being questioned by a superior officer. The campaign did not respond to those specific questions and, instead, provided a written statement that the Navy did find the action worthy of a Purple Heart.

Two men serving alongside Kerry that night had similar memories. William Zaldonis, who was manning an M-60, and Patrick Runyon, operating the engine, said they spotted some people running from a sampan to a nearby shoreline. When they refused to obey a call to stop, Kerry’s crew began shooting.

“When John told me to open up, I opened up,” Zaldonis recalled to the Globe.

Zaldonis and Runyon both said they were too busy to notice how Kerry was hit.

“I assume they fired back,” Zaldonis said. “If you can picture me holding an M-60 machine gun and firing it — what do I see? Nothing. If they were firing at us, it was hard for me to tell.”

Runyon said he assumed the suspected Viet Cong fired back because Kerry was hit by a piece of shrapnel.

“I can’t say for sure that we got return fire or how [Kerry] got nicked,” Runyon told the Globe. “I know he did get nicked, a scrape on the arm.”

So even in the Globe accounting, it was not clear there was any enemy fire, just a question about how Kerry might have been hit with shrapnel.

The Globe reporters noted that upon the group’s return to base, Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, Kerry’s superior officer in Coastal Division 14, was skeptical about the injury. The Globe account quoted William Schachte, a lieutenant in command for the operation who went on to become an admiral. “It was not a very serious wound at all,” Schachte said in 2003.

Still, on April 18, when NBC correspondent Tim Russert questioned Kerry on national television about the incident, Kerry described it as “the most frightening night” of his Vietnam experience.

The Globe reporters noted that Kerry declined to be interviewed about the incident.

What happened

At the time of this incident, Kerry was an officer in command (OinC) under training. He was aboard the skimmer using the call sign “Robin” on the operation; Schachte, using the call sign “Batman,” also was on the skimmer.

After Kerry’s M-16 jammed, Kerry picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and fired a grenade too close, causing a tiny piece of shrapnel (one to two centimeters) to barely stick in his arm. Schachte berated Kerry for almost putting someone’s eye out.

There was no hostile fire of any kind, nor did Kerry on the way back mention to OinC Mike Voss, who commanded the PCF that towed the skimmer, that he was wounded.

There was no report of hostile fire that day (as would be required), nor do the records at Cam Ranh Bay reveal such hostile fire. No other records reflect hostile fire. There is no casualty report, as would have been required had there actually been a casualty.

To the surprise of both Schachte and the treating doctor, Louis Letson, Kerry managed to keep the tiny hanging fragment barely embedded in his arm until he arrived at sick bay miles away. Kerry was examined by Letson, who never has forgotten the experience and related it to his Democratic county chairman early in the 2004 primary campaign.

Letson, observing Kerry’s unimpressive scratch, asked in surprise, “Why are you here?”

Kerry answered, “I’ve been wounded by hostile fire.”

Accompanying crewmen told Letson that Kerry had wounded himself. Letson used tweezers to remove the tiny fragment, which he identified as shrapnel like that from an M-79 (not from a rifle bullet), and put a small bandage on Kerry’s arm.

The following morning, Kerry appeared at the office of Cmdr. Hibbard and applied for the Purple Heart. Hibbard turned down the award.

Hibbard’s account

When the authors interviewed Hibbard on June 17, he was emphatic that Kerry’s slight injury, in his opinion, could not possibly merit the Purple Heart.

Q: When did you first meet John Kerry?

Hibbard: Kerry reported to my division in November 1968. I didn’t know him from Adam.

Q: Can you describe the mission in which Kerry got his first Purple Heart?

Hibbard: Kerry requested permission to go on a skimmer operation with Lieutenant Schachte, my most senior and trusted lieutenant, using a Boston whaler to try to interdict a Viet Cong movement of arms and munitions.

The next morning at the briefing, I was informed that no enemy fire had been received on that mission. Our units had fired on some VC units running on the beach. We were all in my office, some of the crew members, I remember Schachte being there.

This was 36 years ago; it really didn’t seem all that important at the time. Here was this lieutenant, junior grade, who was saying, “I got wounded,” and everybody else, the crew that were present were saying, “We didn’t get any fire. We don’t know how he got the scratch.”

Kerry showed me the scratch on his arm. I hadn’t been informed that he had any medical treatment. The scratch didn’t look like much to me; I’ve seen worse injuries from a rose thorn.

Q: Did Kerry want you to recommend him for a Purple Heart?

Hibbard: Yes, that was his whole point. He had this little piece of shrapnel in his hand. It was tiny. I was told later that Kerry had fired an M-79 grenade and that he had misjudged it. He fired it too close to the shore, and it exploded on a rock or something. He got hit by a piece of shrapnel from a grenade that he had fired himself.

The injury was self-inflicted, that’s what made sense to me. I told Kerry to “forget it.” There was no hostile fire, the injury was self-inflicted for all I knew. Besides, it was nothing really more than a scratch. Kerry wasn’t getting any Purple Heart recommendation from me.

Q: How did Kerry get a Purple Heart from the incident, then?

Hibbard: I don’t know. It beats me. I know I didn’t recommend him for a Purple Heart. Kerry probably wrote up the paperwork and recommended himself, that’s all I can figure out. If it ever came across my desk, I don’t have any recollection of it. Kerry didn’t get my signature. I said “no way” and told him to get out of my office.

The doctor’s account

Kerry somehow “gamed the system” nearly three months later to obtain the Purple Heart that Hibbard had denied. How he obtained the award is unknown, since his continued refusal to execute Standard Form 180 means that whatever other documents exist are known only to Kerry, the Department of Defense and God.

Only a treatment record reflecting a scratch and a certificate signed three months later have been produced. There is no “after-action” hostile fire or casualty report. This is because there was no hostile fire, casualty, or action on this “most frightening night” of Kerry’s Vietnam experience.

Letson agreed with Hibbard, in a statement the doctor gave us in April, that Kerry’s injury was minor and probably self-inflicted:

“The incident that occasioned my meeting with Lieutenant Kerry began while he was patrolling the coast at night just north of Cam Ranh Bay, where I was the only medical officer for a small support base. Kerry returned from that night on patrol with an injury.

“Kerry reported that he had observed suspicious activity on shore and fired a flare to illuminate the area,” Letson continued. “According to Kerry, they had been engaged in a firefight, receiving small arms fire from on shore. He said that his injury resulted from this enemy action.

“The story he told was different from what his crewmen had to say about that night. Some of his crew confided that they did not receive any fire from shore, but that Kerry had fired a grenade round at close range to the shore. The crewman who related this story thought that the injury was from a fragment of the grenade shell that had ricocheted back from the rocks. That seemed to fit the injury I treated.

“What I saw was a small piece of metal sticking very superficially in the skin of Kerry’s arm. The metal fragment measured about one centimeter in length and was about two or three millimeters in diameter. It certainly did not look like a round from a rifle,” Letson continued.

“I simply removed the piece of metal by lifting it out of the skin with forceps. I doubt that it penetrated more than three or four millimeters. It did not require probing to find it, nor did it require any anesthesia to remove it. It did not require any sutures to close the wound. The wound was covered with a Band-Aid. No other injuries were reported and I do not recall that there was any injury to the boat.

“I remember that Jess Carreon [Letson’s corpsman, now dead] was present at the time, and he, in fact, made the entry into Lieutenant Kerry’s medical record.”

Letson also said: “Lieutenant Kerry’s crew related that he had told them that he would be president one day. He liked to think of himself as the next JFK from Massachusetts.”

Most fellow Swiftees who were with Kerry at Cam Ranh Bay never knew until Kerry decided to run for president that he had somehow successfully maneuvered his way to this undeserved Purple Heart. But in Coastal Division 14, Kerry’s attempt to gain the award through fraud marked him as someone who could never be trusted.

When Kerry was dispatched to go to An Thoi with Lt. Tedd Peck (who would retire as a Navy captain), Peck told him: “Kerry, follow me no closer than a thousand yards. If you get any closer, I’ll teach you what a real Purple Heart is.”

Copyright 2004 by John E. O’Neill and Jerome L. Corsi.

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