- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

ON THE BAY HAP RIVER, Vietnam — The 50-foot swift boats were easy targets as they plowed through the waterways of the Mekong Delta in packs of three or four, making big waves and thunderous noise when approaching.

Former Viet Cong soldier Duong Hoang Sinh remembers them well — the one time he tangled with three swift boats, the Americans killed all the insurgents in his unit except two.

“It was very fierce fighting,” said Mr. Sinh, 52, who lost his left eye during the war and still has shrapnel in his arm. “Each side tried to eliminate the other.”

Although Sen. John Kerry may be worried about the support of veterans in the United States, Mr. Sinh said, he would vote any day for his former enemy over President Bush.

Mr. Sinh and Mr. Kerry were fighting along the Dong Cung canal about the same time in early 1969, experiencing the intensity of war along these muddy waters, but from opposite sides.

Although Mr. Sinh said he had never heard of Mr. Kerry, he had a strong opinion about the debate surrounding the Democratic presidential candidate’s Vietnam War record as a U.S. Navy swift boat commander: Mr. Kerry must have had guts to troll the Mekong Delta’s spider web of rivers and narrow canals knowing that Viet Cong like himself were waiting to pick him off.

“Kerry served in Vietnam and he was awarded the medal for his bravery,” Mr. Sinh said. “He deserves the medal.”

The memories of the swift boat battles in these waters are being scrutinized under the divisive lens of the U.S. presidential election, where Mr. Kerry’s actions under fire have been disputed by a group of veterans.

As a Navy lieutenant, Mr. Kerry commanded two swift boat units, PCF-44 and PCF-94, in Vietnam for four months in late 1968 and early 1969. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.

Mr. Kerry’s actions in several of those instances have been challenged in a series of television ads aired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

When Mr. Kerry and Mr. Sinh plied these muddy waterways, mangroves grew thick on both sides of the Bay Hap River, forming perfect cover for Viet Cong guerrillas who lay waiting to ambush the U.S. boats.

Mr. Sinh recalled one morning in February 1969 when he and six other insurgents watched silently from their hiding spot in the thick forest that grew along the banks of the Dong Cung canal, about 4.7 miles off the Bay Hap River in Vietnam’s southernmost province of Ca Mau.

When the U.S. Navy boats rumbled into view, the Viet Cong were in for a shock as the Americans began firing on them. Mr. Sinh recalled his comrade got off one good shot from a B-40 rocket launcher, blasting a hole in the side of one vessel. But it wasn’t enough.

The Americans charged, unloading a hail of bullets, and Mr. Sinh realized that this was not a fight his unit could win. Five of his comrades died, including his buddy who fired the crippling blast. Mr. Sinh escaped by fleeing into the dense forest.

To Mr. Sinh and those who still live along the Mekong Delta, the debate over Mr. Kerry’s tour of duty in Vietnam is dumbfounding.

“I think it’s American politics,” said Nguyen Van Khoai, 61, a former Viet Cong soldier. “On any side, a soldier who made an outstanding feat is given a medal — but maybe some people try to think otherwise.”

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