Monday, October 11, 2004

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.

“I don’t like the fabrications. Why does a man have to lie like that? He is totally unfit for command,” he said.

Their beef with Mr. Kerry has driven them to action, the Swiftees say, as they search their collective memories for the truth. Many say they felt shame before, but now they are a band of brothers. “Unfit for Command,” which was co-authored by a leader of the group, is a best seller. And on Saturday, they received a wire for $500,000.

“In more than one firefight, Kerry actually pulled our boat out of it and ran out of the canal. I don’t think John Kerry was a coward,” says 57-year-old Steve Gardner, from Clover, S.C., who spent more than two months with Mr. Kerry on PCF 44 as a gunner’s mate 3rd class.

“I think John Kerry was an opportunist. And he was very ineffectual. He did everything in his own best interest. He was always carrying a little notebook with him. I assume it was his diaries. He was very aloof and disdainful of people under him,” he said.

Sgt. Chris LaCivita stands behind the monitor, as the men rehearse their lines. He is producing the spot, with help from Republican media consultant Rick Reed.

Sgt. LaCivita, a tall energetic former Marine who received a Purple Heart after he was shot in the face in the first Persian Gulf war, defends the TV spots against critics who say what happened 30 years ago shouldn’t matter.

“Character has always been and will always be a major focus on every candidate running,” he said. “So many of the men who were there have legitimate questions about whether he deserved his citations. These men have earned the right to be heard.”

But the group has become a lightning rod in recent weeks. In late August, Benjamin Ginsberg resigned his post as legal counsel for the Bush campaign when it became known that he was advising the Swiftees as well. Under scrutiny, several statements made by former “crewmates” of Mr. Kerry have been recanted.

One serious misstatement on Mr. Kerry’s part, they say, was his claim that he was ordered to go to Cambodia in December 1968, an illegal act. Not true, says Mr. Gardner, who was on the boat with Mr. Kerry at the time.

“We were never in Cambodia,” he says. “Not even close.”

Some question Mr. Kerry’s discharge from the Navy, information about which is still under wraps.

“If he’s a war hero, why not release the missing information?” their thinking goes.

“Good question,” Navy Lt. Paul Galanti says. “Everybody in this group wants to find out the truth about his service record. I think there’s a lot more there.”

Shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, Maj. Day suffered numerous injuries, managed to escape from his prison, walked for two weeks through the jungle eating live frogs before he was recaptured.

He then spent the next six years as a prison cellmate of John McCain, who would become a Republican senator, at the prison the Americans called, with bitter irony, the “Hanoi Hilton.” Maj. Day’s presence in the room is palpable. Even in a group of decorated war veterans, he stands out as a living legend.

The others sheepishly introduce themselves and are honored just to shake his still-firm hand.

“Kerry betrayed us by telling the people we were committing atrocities,” Maj. Day says. “A man who does that is not fit to lead. It’s impossible to let this man masquerade as a war hero and someone who has leadership. To imagine this guy who betrayed us becoming president and him being the leader of our armed forces is just unthinkable.”

Standing next to the major, 57-year-old Jim Hoffman from Oshkosh, Wis., said Mr. Kerry was never a leader.

“He was an arrogant snob,” said Mr. Hoffman, an engineman 2nd class on the swift boats, adding that he felt afraid and alone for many years, but now feels buoyed by his Swiftee peers and their mission.

Mr. Gardner says Mr. Kerry used to boast to his fellow servicemen that he would be the next JFK.

Says Sgt. LaCivita: “JFK must be rolling in his grave.”

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