Thursday, August 19, 2004

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

Second of three excerpts

John Kerry invented a “war hero” persona in his private journals and in the home movies he filmed and staged in Vietnam. Playing the lead role, he developed a past intended to advance his future political ambitions.

In reality, Kerry was regarded by his Navy peers as reckless with human life. Although Douglas Brinkley’s biography “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War” recalls that Kerry used the call sign “Square Jaw” for a short time, it doesn’t mention the sign he actually used for most of his four months in Vietnam: “Boston Strangler.”

Kerry portrays himself as a Swift Boat officer constantly protesting to his superiors about criminal war policies and inappropriate tactics. In reality, while Kerry constantly complained about the location of assignments to his peers, he hardly ever said a word of protest or spoke out in objection to any superior officer.

Kerry, who skippered two Swift Boats in the Mekong Delta from Dec. 6, 1968, to March 17, 1969, often sported a home-movie camera to record his exploits for later viewing. Fellow “Swiftees” report that Kerry would revisit ambush locations for re-enacting combat scenes where he would portray the hero.

Kerry would take movies of himself in combat gear, sometimes dressed as an infantryman walking resolutely through the terrain. He even filmed mock interviews of himself narrating his exploits.

A joke circulated among Swiftees was that Kerry left Vietnam early not because he received three Purple Hearts, but because he had recorded enough film of himself to take home for his planned political campaigns.

Only after returning home did Kerry argue publicly that war crimes were committed on a daily basis at the direction of all levels of command. He compared his superior officers to Lt. William Calley of My Lai infamy. Kerry’s accusations typically relied on impostors who concocted incidents that, when investigated, proved to be exaggerations or fabrications.

On the other hand, the propriety of Kerry’s own conduct in Vietnam was and is the subject of serious question.

“Kerry seemed to believe that there were no rules in a free-fire zone, and you were supposed to kill everyone,” Swift Boat veteran William E. Franke of Coastal Division 11 told us. “I didn’t see it that way. I will tell you in all candor that the only baby killer I knew in Vietnam was John F. Kerry.”

The evidence shows John Kerry was a ruthless operator in the field, with little regard for life. One example is the sampan incident in An Thoi in January 1969.

Kerry’s account

Kerry recounts that the Swift Boat under his command, PCF 44, and another, PCF 21, were patrolling a shallow channel on a pitch-black night and continually running aground.

For “Tour of Duty” (William Morrow, 2004), Brinkley drew his account from Kerry’s journals and subsequent explanations, noting that “neither Swift’s search or boarding lights were working properly.”

” ‘Many minutes of silent patrolling had gone by when one of the men yelled, “Sampan off the port bow,” Kerry wrote [in his journal]. ‘Everybody froze, and we slowed the engines quickly. But the sampan was already by us and wasn’t stopping. It was past curfew, and nothing was allowed in the river. I told the gunner to fire a few warning shots, and in the confusion, all guns opened up. We moved in on the sampan and taking one of the battle lanterns off the bulkhead, shone it on the silhouette of the craft that was now dead in the water.’ ”

Critical in this account is Kerry’s statement that he ordered the gunner to fire “a few warning shots.” Brinkley records Kerry’s self-justification of the action, one of many versions Kerry would subsequently offer to make the actions he took seem part of standard operating procedure:

“Technically, the two PCFs had done nothing wrong,” Brinkley wrote. “The sampan, operating past curfew, was undeniably in a free-fire zone; what’s more, there had been more than a few instances of sampans trying to get close enough to U.S. Navy vessels to toss bombs into their pilothouses.”

In other words, Kerry is trying to establish that opening fire on the sampan (a flat-bottomed Chinese skiff propelled by oars) was justified — a pre-emptive attack in self-defense. For Kerry, it was critical to maintain that his actions were taken according to Navy policy; otherwise, he had no defense. A Nuremberg defense — “just following orders” — was and is Kerry’s chosen line.

Kerry then admitted the civilian casualties he caused, according to the Brinkley biography:

“But knowing that they were following official Navy policy didn’t make it any easier to deal with what the crews saw next. ‘The light revealed a woman standing in the stern of the sampan with a child of perhaps two years or less in her arms,’ Kerry wrote. ‘Neither [was] harmed. We asked her where the men from the stern were, as one of the gunners was sure that he had seen someone moving back there. She gesticulated wildly, and I could see traces of blood on the engine mounting. It was obvious that they had been blown overboard.

“‘Then somebody said there was a body up front, and we moved in closer to see the limbs of a small child limp on the stacks of rice. She had already covered it, and when one of the men asked me if I wanted it uncovered I said no, realizing that the face would stay with me for the rest of my life and that it was better not to know whether there was a smile or a grimace or whether it was a girl or boy.’ ”

Boston Globe’s find

Coastal Division 11 personnel recall at least two different explanations given for the action by Kerry, in addition to his excuses that it was the crew’s fault and that it was a free-fire zone.

Kerry has suggested that, under the rice on the sampan, there might have been a bomb that could have been thrown into the Swift Boat had Kerry allowed the sampan to move close enough.

Additionally, Kerry has suggested that the Viet Cong used women and children to cover their actions and that there could have been Viet Cong in the boat ready to fire on them when they got closer. Another of Kerry’s suggestions was that the woman might have been hiding weapons in the sunken boat.

These are strange explanations, since Kerry also says in the Brinkley biography that during his “entire stint in Vietnam, he never found a single piece of contraband” on the hundreds of vessels he searched.

Critically important is the fact that Kerry filed a phony after-action operational report concealing the fact that a child had been killed during the attack on the sampan and inventing a fleeing squad of Viet Cong. The operational report is one of the important missing documents that Kerry neglects to make public on his campaign Web site.

The book written by three Boston Globe reporters, “John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography” (PublicAffairs Reports, 2004), cites a Navy report of “a similar-sounding incident.”

“In any case, while Kerry said in a 2003 interview that he wasn’t sure when the boy in the sampan was killed, a Navy report says a similar-sounding incident took place on Jan. 20, 1969. The crew of No. 44 ‘took sampan under fire, returned to capture 1 woman and a small child, one enemy KIA [Killed in Action] … believe four occupants fled to beach or possible KIA.’ ”

Kerry was the skipper of PCF 44 at the time. The Kerry campaign was sent a copy of the report, but did not respond when the Boston Globe asked if it matched Kerry’s memory of the night the child was killed.

The Globe reporters, who unknowingly uncovered a critical piece of evidence, were skeptical there could have been two such incidents.

Eyewitness account

Gunner Steve Gardner sat above Kerry on the double .50-caliber mount that night in January 1969.

PCF 44, engines shut off, lay in ambush near the western mouth of the Cua Lon River. The boat’s own generator was operating and its radar was on, with Kerry supposedly in the pilothouse monitoring the radar.

Although the radar was easily capable of picking up the sampan early, Kerry gave no warning to the crew and did not come out of the pilothouse. Instead, first an engine noise and then a sampan suddenly appeared in front of the boat — still no Kerry.

The PCF lights were thrown on — still no Kerry. The sampan was ordered to stop by the young gunner, Gardner — still no Kerry.

According to Gardner, there was no order to fire warning shots, as Kerry claimed. Indeed, there was no Kerry until it was over. When an occupant of the sampan appeared to Gardner to reach for or hold a weapon, he opened up (as did others), killing the father and, unintentionally, a child.

Then Kerry finally appeared; he ordered the crew to cease-fire and then threatened them with courts-martial.

‘Bone of contention’

Steve Gardner is the sole crewman not swayed by Kerry during his many post-Vietnam years of solicitation aimed at gaining the support of his own crew.

Today, Gardner asks: “How can Kerry possibly be commander in chief when he couldn’t competently command a six-man crew?”

Gardner, a two-tour Swift Boat sailor who sat five feet behind Kerry in Vietnam and who saw many officers during his two years, judges Kerry to be by far the worst.

“Kerry was erratic,” Gardner said in an interview June 19. “He hardly ever did what he was supposed to do. His command decisions put us in more peril then he should have. But mostly he just ran. When John Kerry looked out the bow of the boat and he saw tracer fire coming after him, he’d turn and run.”

Gardner added: “When he should have been fighting, calling in air support, he was hightailing it. That’s always been my bone of contention with Kerry — his decision-making capabilities. That’s what takes him out of contention as far as I’m concerned.”

Kerry’s failure to pick up the sampan on radar is hard to understand. Harder still to understand is his absence as the officer in charge during the critical part of the episode.

The fog of war can obscure anyone’s vision, but there would certainly have been an inquiry at An Thoi to determine what happened and how a small child could have been inadvertently killed. The inquiry would have focused on why the sampan was not detected early and why normal measures like a flare or small-caliber warning shot were not used.

Gardner irks Kerry

To be fair, it is likely the purpose of such an inquiry would not be to fix blame on anyone, but to avoid future miscalculation.

And the major questions would have been: Where was Kerry? Why was there no warning? Why was a gunner’s mate making the critical life-and-death decision instead of the officer in charge? Why the different accounts by Kerry?

Kerry avoided any problem by filing an after-action report in which the dead child simply disappeared from the record and was replaced by a fleeing squad of Viet Cong, some likely killed.

According to Gardner, Kerry threatened to court-martial those involved, even though the crew believed they had seen weapons on the sampan. Gardner strongly believes that the sight of potential weapons justified the firing.

In their biography, the Globe reporters note that Kerry supporters have tried to discredit Gardner and dismiss his criticism of Kerry. In March, Gardner was quoted publicly for the first time about his views on Kerry, in the Globe and on Time magazine’s Web site.

In the Time article, written by Kerry biographer Brinkley, Kerry was quoted as reacting strongly to Gardner’s criticism, saying that Gardner had “made up” stories. Brinkley dismissed Gardner, a supporter of President Bush, as being motivated by “one word: politics.” Kerry said he couldn’t remember the court-martial threat.

Gardner denied that politics had anything to do with his comments. “Absolutely not,” he said, saying he kept his feelings about Kerry to himself for 35 years and responded only when a Globe reporter tracked him down.

Kerry’s report

Cmdr. George M. Elliott of Coastal Division 11 never knew of the small child’s death because all he received from Kerry was the false report, which found its way up the chain of command.

The Commander Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam (CTF 115) Quarterly Evaluation Report of March 29, 1969, states: ” … 20 January PCFs 21 and 44 operating in An Xuyen Province … engaged the enemy with a resultant GDA of one VC KIA (BC) [body count], four VC KIA (EST) and two VC CIA.”

This is Kerry’s victory: killing in action (KIA) five imaginary Viet Cong, capturing in action (CIA) two Viet Cong (an exaggeration of the mother and baby who were actually rescued from the sampan) and simply omitting the dead child from the body count (BC) and the estimate (EST).

Roy F. Hoffmann, then commander of Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam, CTF 115, received Kerry’s false report of probably killing five Viet Cong and capturing two others. Hoffman sent Kerry a congratulatory message.

Upon learning of what Kerry actually had done, Hoffmann, who retired as a rear admiral, recently expressed his contempt for Kerry as a liar, false warrior and fraud.

“I do not believe John Kerry is fit to be commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States,” Hoffman said in May. “This is not a political issue. It is a matter of his judgment, truthfulness, reliability, loyalty and trust — all absolute tenets of command.”

Despite Kerry’s written report, rumors of the sampan incident on the Cua Lon River circulated for years.

The vivid memory of the small, bloody sampan haunts Franke, a Silver Star recipient and veteran of many battles.

“Absent clear indications of danger, Swift Boat crews simply did not open fire upon such boats,” Franke wrote us in March. “Rather, the vessel would be boarded, searched and let go with a warning.”

Yet in “Tour of Duty,” Kerry, according to one of his own accounts, appears to have lost control of his boat after crazily ordering that “warning shots” be fired at a small sampan with heavy .50-caliber weapons, instead of the numerous small-caliber weapons on board.

And according to the biography written by the Globe reporters, Kerry simply butchers a small sampan in a free-fire zone because it would have been dangerous to approach.

Fire discipline’

Thomas W. Wright, another Swift Boat commander in Coastal Division 11, said Kerry “was not a good combat commander.”

Wright said he had such “serious problems” working with Kerry that he finally objected to going on patrol with Kerry. Elliott granted Wright’s request that Kerry no longer be assigned to operations under his command.

Wright remembers that Kerry would disappear without warning on multiboat operations. He recalls that Kerry’s boat had poor fire discipline and would open fire without prior clearance or apparent reason.

“John Kerry’s leadership and operational style were different from mine,” Wright said in a written statement in April. “I can see how his crew thought he was a hero, but it seemed like he was a hero fighting out of situations he shouldn’t have been in to begin with. I had a lot of trouble getting him to follow orders.

“You had to be right, and you had to have fire discipline. You couldn’t blame something on the rules of engagement.”

George Bates, another officer in Coastal Division 11, participated in numerous operations with Kerry from January 1969 to March 1969.

In Bates’ view, Kerry was a coward who overreacted with deadly force when he felt threatened. Bates, a retired Navy captain, believed that Kerry treated the South Vietnamese in an almost criminal manner.

Bates is haunted by a particular patrol with Kerry on the Song Bo De River in early 1969. With Kerry in the lead, their Swift Boats approached a small hamlet with three to four grass huts. Pigs and chickens were milling around.

As the boats drew closer, the villagers fled. There were no political symbols or flags in evidence. It was obvious to Bates that existing policies, decency and good sense required the boats simply to move on.

Instead, Kerry beached his boat. Upon his command, numerous small animals were slaughtered by heavy-caliber machine guns. Acting more like a pirate than a naval officer, Kerry disembarked and ran around with a Zippo lighter, burning up the entire hamlet.

Bates was appalled by the hypocrisy of Kerry’s quick shift to the role of a peace activist condemning war crimes upon his return home. Even today, Bates describes Kerry as a man without a conscience.

A fraud

Whether one believes Kerry’s or Gardner’s version of the sampan debacle, Kerry’s boat was ultimately responsible. The fishing vessel could not possibly have escaped given the vast disparity in speed between sampans and Swift Boats.

No discussion of the incident can be found on Kerry’s campaign Web site, nor is there any official document of it among those Navy service records that Kerry has made public.

Gardner’s testimony and the quarterly report quoted above both indicate Kerry’s PCF 44 picked up the surviving woman and her baby, whom Kerry’s after-action report described as captured Viet Cong. Yet no record indicates what became of the woman or the child when Kerry’s boat returned to shore.

The squad of four fleeing Viet Cong existed only in Kerry’s imagination and in his written report. It does not exist in Brinkley’s “Tour of Duty,” or in Kerry’s statements to Boston Globe reporter Michael Kranish, or in Kerry’s secret journal, or in any recollection of anyone.

Kerry’s victory exists only in Kerry’s mind. Nonetheless, he succeeded in pulling off this fraud until the recent comparison of records.

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

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