Unfit for Command Chapter 05: More Fraudulent Medals
“Put me on the list… I was standing next to one of my crew at Seafloat when he was killed in a Sapper attack on the USS Krishna (Lanny Buroff 7/70). He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal-posthumously. No Silver or Bronze Star like Kerry got for filling out forms.”
DAVID BORDEN, PCF 40
April 28, 2004, e-mail
“As corpsman with the Marines (Golf 2/5) 1967-68, I agree totally with the information you are trying to get out on Kerry. Three Purple Hearts, Silver Star, Bronze Star in such a short tour is amazing…You will see Golf 2/5 was involved… in the battle for Hue City complete with block-to-block, houseto-house, and sometime room-to-room fighting. Throughout that battle and many others after that, I never saw anyone win so many decorations in such a short time. Actually, by the accounts I have read on the Silver Star, I would have punished him.”
CORPSMAN JOHN “DOC” HIGGINS, U.S. MARINES (GOLF 2/5)
“When John Kerry got his third Purple Heart, we told him to leave. We knew how the system worked and we didn’t want him in CosDiv11. Kerry didn’t decide to manipulate the system to go home after four months; we asked him to go home.”
THOMAS W. WRIGHT, USN (RETIRED)
Swift Boat commander
Far from his commercial portrayal as a purposeful warrior strolling boldly through the jungle, John Kerry was regarded by many Swiftees as a poor officer.
Tedd Peck, a Swift boat commander who operated with Kerry in Vietnam, asked Bill Zaldonis, a Kerry crewman and supporter, how he could possibly be in favor of Kerry. When Zaldonis replied that he wanted a warrior for president, Peck asked, “Yes, but who are you going to get?” Admiral Hoffmann characterized Kerry as a “loose cannon,” while Captain Charles Plumly called him “devious, requiring constant supervision.” For the mere three months that Kerry was involved in duty in Vietnam, he left behind an amazing legacy of Beetle Bailey bumbling. Steve Gardner is the sole crewman who was not swayed by Kerry during his many post-Vietnam years of solicitation aimed at gaining the support of his 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 Swift Boat commander he saw in Vietnam:
Kerry was erratic. 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. That isn’t what he was supposed to do. His job was to face into the fire, to quarter the boat so we could apply our twin .50-caliber machine guns on the enemy. That was our job in the canal, to stand our ground and suppress the enemy fire. All Kerry wanted to do was turn and “get out of Dodge” at the first sign of trouble. 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.1
While on patrol in one of the main rivers, for instance, Kerry ran his boat out of the water and aground for a number of hours-not particularly easy to do in the deep river channels. In Tour of Duty, James Wasser, another Kerry crewman (and a Kerry supporter), recounts one of Kerry’s mishaps:
In addition to leading the board-and-search operations, it was Wasser’s responsibility to stand by his young skipper in the event Lieutenant Kerry committed a blunder. “Sometimes he got disoriented and misread the navigational maps,” Wasser allowed. “It was easy to do. Once, we hit a sandbar and couldn’t get loose. We didn’t call in because we didn’t want to get John in trouble. We just sat around for hours, waiting for high tide. It eventually came, and off we went."2
This, of course, left Kerry’s boat almost defenseless, unable to maneuver, unable to bring guns to bear, unable to withdraw. Aground, Kerry’s boat was totally vulnerable to mortar or any other type of attack. Kerry’s mistake also left the area that his boat was supposed to be patrolling totally unguarded. Because of the boat’s vulnerability and its inability to guard its patrol area and carry out its assignment on station, officers in charge of boats that ran seriously aground were required to report the situation to Coastal Division headquarters immediately. In the above incident, Kerry evidently chose not to call in to avoid getting "in trouble.” While incidental minor grounding was seldom reported, a serious long-term grounding, like that of PCF 44 described above, would always have been reported, and very little trouble would have ensued given the nature of the brown-water navy. Kerry’s decision not to report the episode to his superiors, based on fear of their disfavor, says much about him.
In addition to failing to report adverse occurrences, Kerry developed a reputation for simply wandering off aimlessly. For example, on one occasion, after being relieved, he simply diverted his boat into Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the Communists), “to taste the storied capital,” without informing anyone that he had done so or where he was:
Kerry asked the tactical operations man if there were any waterway restrictions on traffic to Saigon. Every night on patrol he gazed longingly upon the bright lights of the big city just seven miles away, as seductive as the City of Oz or Las Vegas glittering beyond the horizon. Saigon had boutiques, bars, black market deals, nightclubs, brothels, and fifty-six thousand registered prostitutes (plus who knows how many freelancers). There were some river-travel restrictions, the officer informed him, but then he confided that there were also a few loopholes, too. On the spot, Kerry decided to exploit those. The key was to have a plausible excuse at the ready should his boat be stopped on its way into the city. “We knew that while we were cruising up and down the river at night, someone was sitting at the bar of the Majestic Hotel in the center of the city, drinking, probably with a girl at his side,” Kerry explained. “It seemed wrong. We were jealous at any rate and wanted to share it. So instead of turning right as we left Nha Be after being relieved, we went left, up the Long Tau, and into the heart of the city. We didn’t have permission from the division or anyone else, but we felt that we deserved an irresponsible, personal moment, so we did it anyway."3
Reading Brinkley’s account, one wonders why Kerry chose to brag about being irresponsible to the point where he concocted ready-made excuses should he be stopped and questioned, just so he and his crew could share in the sin available in Saigon. Self-reported self-indulgence is hard to comprehend.
On March 5-7, 1969, shortly before requesting his transfer from Vietnam, Kerry was under the command of Captain Charles Plumly, USN, for an operation in which the Swifts transported mines and personnel near the Bay Hap River. The Swifts were assigned individual positions where they would wait should mine personnel be attacked or need assistance. Repeatedly, Kerry simply disappeared from position, ” like a child with an attention problem,“ according to Captain Plumly. In Plumly’s report to Admiral Hoffmann, he indicated to Hoffmann that he had a terrible problem with Kerry: Kerry simply would not obey orders. As a result, Hoffmann came to An Thoi and gave a talk to the officers there (not singling Kerry out), indicating that anyone who failed to obey orders in the future would be shipped to Saigon without further notice.
That Kerry stories abound is remarkable given his short cameo in Vietnam. any recall Kerry blundering into living quarters in An Thoi with a live and dangerous Claymore mine and with B-40s that he had found. He acted like a tourist passing through, as if he intended to keep these items as souvenirs for later political campaigns. Like Lieutenant Keefer in The Caine Mutiny, the aspiring novelist played by Fred MacMurray in the 1954 movie, John Kerry kept busy with his private journal.
Kerry also often sported a home movie camera to record his exploits for later viewing. Swiftees report that Kerry would revisit ambush locations for reenacting combat scenes where he would portray the hero, catching it all on film. Kerry would take movies of himself walking around 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.
Kerry’s supporters point to an evaluation of Kerry by Commander George Elliott, who rated Kerry as "one of the few” best officers for his two months at An Thoi. In reality, Elliott gave essentially the same evaluation to every officer at An Thoi. Kerry was in the middle of the pack. Elliott felt that all the officers at An Thoi deserved superior ratings given the nature of the duty. Most important, Elliott did not know (as some of Kerry’s peers had begun to learn) of Kerry’s shell game of phony reports, fictitious victories, and concealed groundings. To the contrary, Kerry was ingratiating to superiors and, if judged solely by his own, often phony, written reports, a superb warrior proceeding from triumph to triumph. Commander Elliott notes that the tone and substance of Kerry’s “reports” are captured quite succinctly in Churchill’s quote, “I expect history to treat me kindly since I wrote it.”
In his after-action reports, Kerry wove a story of often imagined enemy fire, nonexistent triumphs, and charges into intense fire against superior numbers of enemy. These accounts existed on paper, but almost never in the real world.
Captain Thomas Wright remembers that on multiboat operations Kerry would suddenly disappear without warning. He recalls that Kerry’s boat had poor fire discipline and would open fire without prior clearance or apparent reason, sometimes opening fire even though the enemy had not fired at him. Because of these problems, Wright requested that Kerry no longer be assigned to operations under his command. Commander Elliott complied, and Wright no longer operated with Kerry.
Shortly before Kerry left Vietnam, Wright and others spoke to him at An Thoi. Kerry’s three Purple Hearts would allow him to leave Vietnam, and they urged him to do so. Wright was not upset to see the “ Boston Strangler” leave Vietnam. He believed that Kerry simply did not belong there. Kerry never formed the kind of human relationships with his fellow sailors that are essential to effective performance.
Purple Heart Number Two
Kerry claims to have been wounded on February 20, 1969, on the Dam Doi Canal, a canal running north from the Song Bo De River. In other reports, Kerry seems to place the location of the incident on the Cua Lon to the west. The operating report prepared by Kerry reflects “ intense rocket and rifle fire.” In his biography, Kerry describes “ blood running down the deck”:
Just as they moved out onto the Cua Lon, at a junction known for unfriendliness in the past, kaboom! PCF 94 had taken a rocket-propelled grenade round off the port side, fired at them from the far left bank. Kerry felt a piece of hot shrapnel bore into his left leg. With blood running down the deck, the Swift managed to make an otherwise uneventful exit into the Gulf of Thailand, where they rendezvoused with a Coast Guard Cutter.4
The biography written by the Boston Globe reporters also acknowledges the wound, though the discussion of it is presented in a much less dramatic manner: “He was treated on an offshore ship and returned to duty hours later."5
The officer of the accompanying boat, Rocky Hildreth, states that John Kerry’s operating report (which Hildreth did not see until 2004) is false, and that the intense rocket and rifle fire reported by Kerry never happened. It seems very unlikely that Kerry’s boat could have experienced the heavy fire he reported without the accompanying boat hearing it. Hildreth also reports that there was no "blood on the deck,” as Kerry claimed. Moreover, there was no damage to any boat from “the intense rifle and rocket fire” reported by Kerry. Van Odell, a sailor on PCF 93, recounts that when Kerry’s crew came back that day, he heard them say that Kerry had faked a Purple Heart from his own M-79 wound. In addition, one of Kerry’s crewmen, in a 2002 email that he disowned after meeting with Kerry, questioned this Purple Heart and indicated that it was for a negligently self-inflicted M-79 grenade round like the one occurring at Cam Ranh Bay.
What is beyond question is that Kerry suffered at most a minor wound, losing no duty time. His account of “blood running down the deck” seems exaggerated, an awful lot of blood for a wound requiring what appears to have been minor treatment. If Kerry did suffer a minor wound from hostile fire on this occasion, this would have been the only time such a thing happened during his three months in Vietnam.
In his Dam Doi operating report from February 20, 1969, Kerry recommended “ psy-ops” (psychological operations) along the Dam Doi-a recommendation he lauds as a great achievement in his 1970 interview in the Harvard Crimson: “One time Kerry was ordered to destroy a Viet Cong village but disobeyed orders and suggested that the Navy Command simply send in a Psychological Warfare team to befriend the villagers with food, hospital supplies, and better educational facilities."6 Once again, Kerry promotes himself as an ” antiwar warrior,“
Surprisingly, the Navy adopted a psy-ops recommendation. If the idea were indeed Kerry’s, then it would have been the only such recommendation he made and the only one to be adopted. At any rate, the program was an unmitigated disaster. Many Swiftees, including John O'Neill, wondered who could have been so stupid as to recommend using our boats to travel slowly while playing psy-ops tapes over a loudspeaker, appealing in Vietnamese to the local population, in an area as hostile as the Dam Doi. Many Swiftees and Mobile Riverine Sailors died or were wounded on these missions following the "Boston Strangler’s” recommendation.
One was Shelton White, a well-known film producer of underwater documentaries, who was wounded three times on the Dam Doi in a matter of minutes but who returned to fight again. White and many other sailors who signed the May 4, 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth letter opposing Kerry’s presidential campaign did not realize even in 2004 that it was John Kerry who had recommended this illconceived psy-ops operation for which they had paid with their blood.
A couple of days before his second Purple Heart, Kerry was also operating with Bob Hildreth, officer in charge of the accompanying boat. It was a day Hildreth would never forget. Kerry was the lead boat, with Hildreth behind. There was a small hole in a line of fishing stakes. Kerry’s boat slipped through first. When Hildreth’s boat started through, a mine went off, and then at least five rockets were fired at the boat. Standard doctrine and procedure when a boat was under such intense fire was for accompanying boats to stand and fight or return and provide fire support. According to Hildreth, Kerry simply fled, providing neither fire support nor even mortar support. Instead, Hildreth and his gallant crew were left alone to fight their way out of the ambush-which Hildreth has never forgotten: “I would never want Kerry behind me. I wouldn’t want him in front of me either. And I sure wouldn’t want him commanding our kids in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Typically, on Kerry’s website, as well as in the operating report for that day, which Kerry wrote and Hildreth never saw, it is Kerry’s boat-rather than Hildreth’s-that encounters the five B-40s and the mine. Kerry’s flight, leaving Hildreth’s boat in serious jeopardy, vanishes from the account, and the event is a real triumph-at least on Kerry’s website.
The Silver Star
For some thirty-five years, John Kerry has shaped his life around a single moment on February 28, 1969, for which he received the Silver Star. Unlike the lives of the Silver Star winners from Coastal Squadron One who signed the May 4, 2004, letter condemning John Kerry, or those of the sixty or so holders of one or more Purple Hearts in the same group, Kerry’s life seems to be frozen at that moment. He has chosen to utilize his thirty-five-year-old Silver Star as the basis for every political campaign he has waged. In each campaign, a new participant in Kerry’s medal stories is discovered, as was Jim Rassmann, the comrade “left behind” whom Kerry did fish out of the water but about whom he invented an exaggerated story during the 2004 presidential primary in Iowa. Each Kerry campaign ends with Kerry embracing his comrades while faulting his opponents for their less meritorious service.
Kerry’s Star would never have been awarded had his actions been reviewed through normal channels. In his case, he was awarded the medal two days after the incident with no review. The medal was arranged to boost the morale of Coastal Division 11, but it was based on false and incomplete information provided by Kerry himself. Kerry did follow normal military conduct and displayed ordinary courage, but the incident was nothing out of the ordinary and to most Swift and Vietnam veterans, Kerry’s actions would hardly justify any kind of unusual award. Moreover, to most Swiftees, Kerry’s tactical judgment was very poor, reflecting a willingness to risk boat and crew for medals and personal glory-hardly the type of judgment we expect from a commander in chief.
The following is the Silver Star citation based on Kerry’s account:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving with Coastal Division ELEVEN emerged in armed conflict with Viet Cong insurgents in An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam, on 28 February 1969. Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY was serving as Officer in Charge of Patrol Craft Fast 94 and Officer in Tactical Command of a three-boat mission. As the force approached the target area on the narrow Dong Cung River, all units came under intense automatic weapons and small arms fire from an entrenched enemy force less than fifty feet away. Unhesitatingly Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY ordered his boat to attack as all units opened fire and beached directly in front of the enemy ambushers. This daring and courageous tactic surprised the enemy and succeeded in routing a score of enemy soldiers. The PCF gunners captured many enemy weapons in the battle that followed. On a request from U.S. Army advisors ashore, Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY ordered PCFs 94 and 23 further up river to suppress enemy sniper fire. After proceeding approximately eight hundred yards, the boats were again taken under fire from a heavily foliated area and B-40 rocket exploded close aboard PCF 94; with utter disregard for his own safety and the enemy rockets, he again ordered a charge on the enemy, beached his boat only ten feet from the VC rocket position, and personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy. Upon sweeping the area in an immediate search uncovered an enemy rest and supply area which was destroyed. The extraordinary daring and personal courage of Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire were responsible for the highly successful mission. His actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.7
What actually occurred was quite different. According to Kerry’s crewman Michael Medeiros, Kerry had an agreement with him to turn the boat in and onto the beach if fired upon. Each of the three boats involved in the operation was involved in the agreement. Larry Lee, a crewman and gunner, recalls the agreement as Medeiros recounts it and further recalls a prior discussion of probable medals for those participating. Bronze Stars for selected landers were contemplated and Navy commendation for others. Some crewmen dispute this, but none deny that the landing had been calculated the night before.
According to Doug Reese, a pro-Kerry Army veteran, and many others, what happened that day differs from the retelling in the citation. Far from being alone, the boats were loaded with many soldiers commanded by Reese and two other advisors. When fired at, Reese’s boat-not Kerry’s-was the first to beach in the ambush zone. Then Reese and other troops and advisors (not Kerry) disembarked, killing a number of Viet Cong and capturing a number of weapons. None of the participants from Reese’s boat received any Silver Stars. Indeed, most, if not all, of the non-PCF troops received no medals for this action. Doug Reese, who advised the South Vietnamese who were the first group ashore and who killed most of the Viet Cong, received a well-deserved Army Commendation Medal-a much lower medal than the Silver Star. After the first boat beached, Kerry’s boat moved slightly downstream and was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in its aft cabin.
A young Viet Cong in a loincloth popped out of a hole, clutching a grenade launcher which may or may not have been loaded, depending on whose account one credits.8 Tom Belodeau, a forward gunner, shot the Viet Cong with an M-60 machine gun in the leg as he fled.9 At about this time, with the boat beached, the Viet Cong who had been wounded by Belodeau fled. Kerry and Medeiros (who had many troops in their boat) took off, perhaps with others, following the young Viet Cong as he fled, and shot him in the back, behind a lean-to. While Kerry’s actions in shooting a wounded, fleeing teenage foe were criticized in various 1996 Boston Globe articles and by some Swiftees, Kerry was defended in a 1996 press conference by Admiral Zumwalt, Captain Adrian Lonsdale, and Captain Elliott-a critical event in Kerry’s bid for reelection to the Senate that year. Ironically, each of the officers who were requested by Kerry to defend him in 1996 also signed the May 4, 2004, letter, condemning Kerry for his own many misrepresentations of his record and the record of others.10
Whether Kerry’s dispatching of a fleeing, wounded, armed, or unarmed teenage enemy was in accordance with the customs of war, it is very clear that many Vietnam veterans and most Swiftees do not consider this action to be the stuff of which medals of any kind are awarded; nor would it even be a good story if told in the cold details of reality. There is no indication that Kerry ever reported that the Viet Cong was wounded and fleeing when dispatched. Likewise, the citation simply ignores the presence of the soldiers and advisors who actually “ captured the many enemy weapons” and routed the Viet Cong. Further, the citation ignores the preplanned nature of the tactic and the fact that Kerry’s boat did not beach first. Finally, the citation statement that Kerry attacked “a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire” is simply false. There was little or no fire after Kerry followed the plan (and the earlier move of the first boat toward the beach). The lone, wounded, fleeing young Viet Cong in a loincloth was hardly a force superior to the heavily armed Swift boat and its crew and the soldiers carried aboard.11
The actual facts disclosed in 1996 and thereafter by Kerry’s crewmen and others like Reese, who are among the small minority of pro-Kerry Swiftees and Vietnam veterans, are completely at odds with the purported “facts” discussed in the citation. Admiral Roy Hoffmann, who sent a Bravo Zulu (meaning “good work”) to Kerry upon learning of the incident, was very surprised to discover in 2004 what had actually occurred. Hoffmann had been told that Kerry had spontaneously beached next to the bunker and almost single-handedly routed a bunkered force of Viet Cong. He was shocked to find out that Kerry had beached his boat second in a preplanned operation, and that he had killed a single, wounded teenage foe as he fled.
The planned nature of the action also calls Kerry’s judgment into doubt. The effect of beaching a boat is to risk the loss of all aboard, as well as the boat itself, because of the Claymore mines often found in front of bunkered positions. Moreover, the heavy weapons of the boat, double .50-caliber machine guns and an M-60, are unusable if friendly soldiers are in front of them. In effect, a single sailor with no radio or means of communications, armed with a single M-16, is substituted for the vast firepower of the boat. Finally, once the boat is beached, speed and maneuverability are obviously gone. The boat is frozen, shorn of its command function, in a single spot.
From a military viewpoint, the tactic displays stupidity, not courage-a point that has made it so hard for Vietnam Navy veterans (sometimes called “brown-water sailors” after the color of the water in the muddy Vietnamese delta), from vice admirals to seamen, to believe it. Brown-water officers and Swiftees willing to forgive stupidity when the action is a spontaneous charge against an enemy bunker undertaken by a foolhardy young officer, were appalled to learn recently that the action was actually preplanned by Kerry, who then wildly exaggerated the facts in his citation: from the “PCF gunners” capturing many weapons to his assault under “intense fire” into a bunker manned by “a numerically superior force.” The only explanation for what Kerry did is the same justification that characterizes his entire short Vietnam adventure: the pursuit of medals and ribbons. Kerry’s self-serving exaggeration of the action magnified the danger he faced and the supposed valor he displayed, and minimized or showed no appreciation for the actual nature of the risk or the contribution of the others involved.12
Commander George Elliott, who wrote up the initial draft of Kerry’s Silver Star citation, confirms that neither he nor anyone else in the Silver Star process that he knows realized before 1996 that Kerry was facing a single, wounded young Viet Cong fleeing in a loincloth. While Commander Elliott and many other Swiftees believe that Kerry committed no crime in killing the fleeing, wounded enemy (with a loaded or empty launcher), others feel differently. Commander Elliott indicates that a Silver Star recommendation would not have been made by him had he been aware of the actual facts. A more appropriate award for Kerry, if any, would have been the much lower Army Commendation Medal given to Doug Reese.
Swiftees have no answer (beyond that we simply did not know the actual facts) to the numerous Marine and Army veterans of Hue City, Khe Sanh, and other battles who have sent e-mails asking how Kerry could have possibly received a Silver Star for this limited achievement. The various other Silver Stars won by many of the signers of the May 4, 2004, statement opposing Kerry are stories of extraordinary heroism-stories that the nation will never hear. They are truly heroic acts: genuine charges into unknown hostile territory under intense fire, rescues of half-sunken boats with dead or wounded crews under horrible fire, and placing boats between the enemy and wounded, disabled, and dying to intercept the bombardment. These stories will never be used for self-advantage by the real heroes of our unit. In several cases, these tales are known only to themselves and God, unknown even to their children and families.
The Third Purple Heart and the Bronze Star
On March 13, 1969, John Kerry was involved in his final “combat” in Vietnam. The public has seen it. The incident has been the subject of more than $50 million in paid political advertising and was featured in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary in Iowa, where Kerry met in tearful reunion with Jim Rassmann, the Special Forces lieutenant “ rescued from the water” by Kerry.
The following is Kerry’s account of the final episode of his Vietnam cameo: A mine went off alongside Kerry’s boat. Lieutenant Rassmann was blown into the water. Kerry was terribly wounded from the underwater mine. Kerry turned back into the fire zone and, bleeding heavily from his arm and side, reached into the water and pulled Rassmann to safety with enemy fire all around. Kerry then towed a sinking boat out of the action.
There is only one problem with this scenario: The above recounting is another gross exaggeration of what actually happened and, in several ways, is a total fraud perpetrated upon the Navy and the nation. Kerry’s conduct on March 13, 1969, was more worthy of disciplinary action than any sort of medal. The action certainly does not establish Kerry’s credentials for becoming the president of the United States.
Kerry’s March 13, 1969, “Medals”
According to the records, Kerry claimed in the casualty report he prepared on March 13, 1969, that he was wounded as a result of a mine explosion. Within a short period, he presented his request to go home on the basis of his three Purple Hearts. By March 17, 1969, Kerry’s short combat career in Vietnam was over.
Regarding the action on March 13, 1969, Kerry’s medals were once again a complete fraud. Notwithstanding the fake submission for his Bronze Star, Kerry was never wounded or bleeding from his arm. All reports, including the medical reports, make clear that he suffered a minor bruise on his arm and minor shrapnel wounds on his buttocks. The minor bruise on his arm would never have justified a Purple Heart and is not mentioned in the citation.
This leaves only Kerry’s rear-end wound. This wound, like the Cam Ranh Bay wound, was of the minor tweezer-and-Band-Aid variety. How did Kerry receive a shrapnel wound in his buttocks from the explosion of an underwater mine, as his report suggests? Many participants in the incident state that neither weapons fire nor a mine explosion occurred near Kerry during the incident.
Larry Thurlow, an experienced, genuine hero and PCF veteran, commanded the boat behind Kerry on March 13, 1969. Thurlow was on the shore with Kerry and a group of Nung soldiers (mercenaries working with the South Vietnamese) that morning of March 13, 1969. Thurlow recalls that Kerry had that morning wounded himself in the buttocks with a grenade that he set off too close to a stock of rice he was trying to destroy. The incident is all too reminiscent of the M-79 grenade Kerry exploded too close to some rocks on shore, causing the wound at Cam Ranh Bay that resulted in his first Purple Heart. As the Boston Globe biographers note:
At one point, Kerry and Rassmann threw grenades into a huge rice cache that had been captured from the Vietcong and was thus slated for destruction. After tossing the grenades, the two dove for cover. Rassmann escaped the ensuing explosion of rice, but Kerry was not as lucky-thousands of grains stuck to him. The result was hilarious, and the two men formed a bond.13
Very probably, the incident Rassmann describes that resulted in Kerry’s self-inflicted wound is the very wound that Kerry used to claim his final Purple Heart. Indeed, Kerry’s report for that day mentions the rice he destroyed. He dishonestly transferred the time and cause of the injury to coincide with the PCF action later in the day and claimed that the cause of the injury was the mine exploding during the action.
By March 1969, most of Kerry’s peers at An Thoi were aware of his reputation as an unscrupulous self-promoter with an insatiable appetite for medals. But no one actually understood what Kerry pulled off. When Thurlow finally realized that the PCF 3 incident was the same incident described by the Kerry advertisement and in Tour of Duty, Thurlow instantly knew that Kerry had used the PCF 3 mine explosion and tragedy for its crew as his ticket home. Thurlow was astounded by the metamorphosis that had taken place in the explanation of Kerry’s wound: from Kerry’s own grenade as a cause, which Thurlow knew about; to a grenade error by friendly forces in the absence of hostile fire (Kerry’s secret journal and Tour of Duty); and then finally to the mine explosion (Kerry’s report and Purple Heart citation).
Unfortunately for Kerry, he ended up telling the truth by mistake. On page 313 of Tour of Duty and evidently in his secret journal written on or about March 13, 1969, which is quoted in the book, Kerry relates his injury from the rice stock explosion, although he tries to place the time and context of the incident later in the day and tries to claim that it resulted from friendly forces (the Nungs) but at a time in which there was no hostile fire:
The Nung blew up some huge bins of rice they had found, as it was assumed, as always, that these were the local stockpiles earmarked to feed the hungry VC moving through the Delta smuggling weapons. “I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice-bin explosions and then we started to move back to the boats, firing to our rear as we went."14
Unless one believes in the amazing coincidence that Kerry got two wounds in the same place on the same day and from the same type of incident, then Kerry’s wound of March 13, 1969, was not the result of hostile fire at all but, once again, simply a self-inflicted minor wound about which he lied to get a Purple Heart. Whatever the facts of the March 13 incident, it seems incontrovertible that: (1) Kerry lied in the Bronze Star citation about having any arm wound other than a minor bruise; and (2) Kerry fraudulently secured a Purple Heart by falsely attributing his self-inflicted "piece of small grenade in my ass” to the mine explosion hitting PCF 3 or to any other hostile action.
What Actually Happened
In addition to fabricating wounds from hostile fire to gain his third Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a quick trip home, Kerry falsely described the incident in his 1969 operating report, in his campaign biography, in his advertising, and even on his 2004 campaign website. On March 13, 1969, Jack Chenoweth commanded the boat in front of Kerry, and his gunner, Van Odell, had a clear view of the entire incident. Dick Pease commanded PCF 3, which was blown up by the mine that day. None of these Swiftees recognized the incident as described by Kerry in his report, by Douglas Brinkley in Tour of Duty, or on Kerry’s website. They were furious when they realized Kerry’s fraudulent account.
In reality, Kerry’s boat was on the right side of the river when a mine went off on the opposite side, under PCF 3. The boat’s crewmen were thrown into the water. The officers of PCF 3 were injured by the explosion and suffered concussions. A Viet Cong sympathizer in an adjoining bunker had touched off the mine. Besides the mine exploding under PCF 3, there was no other hostile fire and there were no other mines, according to Chenoweth, Odell, Pease, and Thurlow. The boats had begun firing after the mine exploded, but they ceased after a short time because of the lack of hostile fire.
Despite the absence of hostile fire, Kerry fled the scene. The remaining PCFs, in accord with standard doctrine, stood to defend the disabled PCF 3 and its crewmen in the water. Kerry disappeared several hundred yards away, returning only when it was clear that there was no return fire.
Chenoweth (who received no medal) picked up the PCF 3 crewmen thrown into the water. As a result of the explosion, PCF 3’s engines were knocked out on one side and frozen on 500 RPM on the other side. The boat weaved dangerously, hitting sandbars, with a dazed or unconscious crew aboard. Thurlow sought a secure hold on his boat so he could jump across and board PCF 3. However, he was thrown into the water as his first attempt to board PCF 3 failed and the boat hit the sandbars. Later, Thurlow brought PCF 3 to a stop, and the boat slowly began to sink.
During the incident, Jim Rassmann had fallen or had been knocked off either Kerry’s boat or PCF 35. When he was spotted in the water, Chenoweth’s boat, with the PCF 3 crew aboard, went to pick him up. Kerry’s boat, returning to the scene after its flight, reached him about twenty yards before Chenoweth.
Kerry did the decent thing by going a short distance to pick up Rassmann, justifiably earning Rassmann’s gratitude. The claim that Kerry “returned” to a hostile fire zone is a lie according to Chenoweth, Thurlow, and many others. Meanwhile, the serious work of saving PCF 3 continued.
Kerry’s false after-action report, prepared to justify his medals, reports “5,000 meters”-about two and a half miles-of heavy fire, about the same distance as a large Civil War battlefield. Not a shot of this fire was heard by Chenoweth, Thurlow, Odell, or Pease. Kerry’s false after-action report ignores Chenoweth’s heroic action in rescuing the PCF 3 survivors and Thurlow’s action in saving PCF 3, while highlighting his own routine pickup of Rassmann and PCF 94’s minor role in saving PCF 3.
When Chenoweth’s boat left a second time to deliver the wounded PCF 3 crewmen to a Coast Guard cutter offshore, Kerry jumped into the boat, leaving the few remaining officers and men the job of saving PCF 3, which was then in terrible condition, sinking just outside the river. Kerry’s eagerness to secure his third and final Purple Heart evidently outweighed any feelings he may have had of loyalty, duty, or honor with regard to his fellow sailors. Thurlow and the brave sailors who saved PCF 3 and towed it out did not seek Purple Hearts for their “minor contusions.” Indeed, several of the PCF 3 sailors did not seek or receive Purple Hearts. Chenoweth, Odell, and their boatmates who fished out and saved the sailors of PCF 3 likewise had no thought of seeking medals but only of rescuing their comrades and saving PCF 3. Kerry, however, portrays himself towing the disabled PCF 3 to safety after saving it. Another lie: The damage control on PCF 3 was done by Thurlow. While Kerry’s boat, PCF 94, participated in towing PCF 3, Kerry was no longer on it for most of the trip (he was safely on the Coast Guard cutter), and Thurlow and Chenoweth are certain that Kerry played no role in saving PCF 3 or its crew.
When Chenoweth and Thurlow (as well as several other Swiftees who were there on March 13, 1969) first saw the Kerry ads, they believed the event that Kerry had described in his campaign biography and that was portrayed in his campaign television ads (as well as in the medal citations) had to be different events involving different people. What they had experienced on March 13, 1969, was so unlike the incident Kerry described that they could not imagine that he was describing the same event. They were horrified when they finally realized Kerry had received medals for the incident they remembered.
Rassmann appeared for a spontaneous embrace of Kerry at a campaign event in Iowa. He was understandably grateful to Kerry for fishing him out of the river, and he was evidently happy to participate in the “no man left behind” version of the story being told by Kerry in his “war hero” mode. As with most Kerry campaigns, Iowa ended with Kerry, the Vietnam hero. Still, the other Swiftees who learned of Kerry’s fraudulent citations and ads felt betrayed. William Franke, writes,
You’ve just got to make them understand. We went out to operate and survive. We had no time to deal with the crap of John Kerry. We weren’t thinking of self-promotion like him. Just survival and doing the job. We didn’t want him around and we were happy he was gone.15
Tom Wright, another PCF commander at An Thoi, discussed John Kerry with several other Swiftees on base right after the March 13 incident. They were aware of the three Purple Heart rule that sounded like “three strikes and you’re out.” John Kerry could be sent home. So Wright approached Kerry one night and proposed to him that several fellow Swiftees on the base felt that it might be best for everybody if Kerry simply left. The next thing Wright knew, Kerry was gone, the exact result Wright hoped to achieve.
Kerry followed up the March Purple Heart with a request to head home, the only Swiftee in the history of Coastal Division 11 to do so before the end of a tour, except of course, those who suffered a serious wound.16 Kerry arrived home in New York, completing his “oneyear tour” in the record time of four months. According to his biography, when he got off the airplane at Kennedy Airport in New York to meet his fianc�e, Julia Thorne, Kerry was supposedly so “bandaged” that “some of it was sticking out."17 Whether this was just another example of Kerry political theater is not clear. It is certain that Kerry had only a minor bruise on his arm and a minor selfinflicted wound on the buttocks from some two weeks earlier. It is unclear how either of these wounds could have accounted for bandages "sticking out” from his clothing.
In his 1971 debate on the Dick Cavett Show with John O'Neill, Kerry made it seem as if his decision process to leave Vietnam had been tortured:
The fact of the matter remains that after I received my third wound, I was told that I could return to the United States. I deliberated for about two weeks because there was a difficult decision in whether or not you leave your friends because you have an opportunity to go, but I finally made the decision to go back and did leave of my own volition because I felt I could do more against the war back here… . When I got back here… I wrote a letter through him [an admiral] requesting that I be released from the Navy early because of my opposition.18
This “deliberation” was once again a complete lie. Kerry was “wounded” on March 13, 1969, on the Bay Hap River, but by March 17, 1969, at 7:42 a.m., his request for reassignment to the United States (having been typed up far away in An Thoi and signed by the commander there) was at the Navy Department in Washington. His subsequent request to leave the Navy late in 1969 mentions nothing about his “opposition to the war,” but only his ambition to run for Congress.19
The real Kerry “homecoming” that most Swiftees will never forget occurred at St. Albans Naval Hospital in early April 1969, where Tedd Peck, the commander of PCF 94, lay recovering from terrible wounds that he suffered on January 29, 1969.20 Peck was horrified when he learned that PCF 94 and his crew had been turned over to Kerry after Peck had been wounded. He thought, “How could the Navy do this to me after all I’ve suffered?”
Still in pain and suffering from his wounds, Peck was stunned to see a well-groomed John Kerry pop into his room, complete with dress whites and attach� cord. “Kerry, you son of a bitch,” Peck said, “what the hell are you doing here? You were only there a couple of months.”
Kerry replied (lying about his own request to come home), “Tedd, the Navy decided it was time for me to come home.” Kerry explained that he was visiting the wounded as an admiral’s aide.
Within a short time, Kerry sought to recruit Peck for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which Kerry described as a group he had organized. Peck, dumbfounded, asked Kerry, “John, how can you do this? All of our guys are still over there, in Vietnam?”
Kerry had no answer.
We have never been given any more of a real answer from John Kerry than the one Tedd Peck received while lying in his hospital bed.
Copyright © 2004 by John E. O'Neill and Jerome L. Corsi