An Angry Dispute Over a Rescue in the River
By John E. O'Neill and Jerome L. Corsi
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. This is the last of three excerpts that include comparisons of Mr. Kerry's earlier published accounts to recollections of others who served with him.
Last of three excerpts
John Kerry was involved in his final "combat" in Vietnam on March 13, 1969.
The public has seen it: The incident has been the subject of more than $50 million in paid political advertising.
The incident was featured before the Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa, where Kerry met in tearful reunion with Jim Rassmann, the Special Forces lieutenant who he "rescued from the water."
Here is Kerry's account of the final episode of his four-month Vietnam cameo, for which he received his third Purple Heart and a Bronze Star:
A mine went off alongside Kerry's Swift Boat, PCF 94. Rassmann was blown into the water. Kerry was terribly wounded from the underwater mine.
Kerry, 25, turned his boat 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 involving five Swift Boats on the Bay Hap River, described in Douglas Brinkley's biography "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War" (William Morrow, 2004) and elsewhere: It is another gross exaggeration of what actually happened and, in several ways, a 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 his credentials for becoming the president of the United States.
According to the records, Kerry claimed in the casualty report that he prepared 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, his short combat career in Vietnam was over.
Notwithstanding the fake submission for his Bronze Star after this incident, Kerry never was 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 injury received at Cam Ranh Bay on Dec. 2, 1968, for which he received his first Purple Heart, 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.
Larry Thurlow, an experienced, genuine hero and Swift Boat veteran, commanded PCF 51, the boat behind Kerry on March 13, 1969.
Thurlow was on the shore that morning with Kerry and a group of Nung soldiers, who were mercenaries working with the South Vietnamese. Thurlow recalls that Kerry had wounded himself in the buttocks that morning with a grenade that he set off too close to a stock of rice he was trying to destroy.
Boston Globe's account
This rice incident is all too reminiscent of the M-79 grenade that Kerry exploded too close to some rocks on shore at Cam Ranh Bay three months earlier, causing the shrapnel in his arm that resulted in his first Purple Heart.
The rice episode also involved Rassmann, later pulled from the water by Kerry, according to the Boston Globe.
"At one point, Kerry and Rassmann threw grenades into a huge rice cache that had been captured from the Viet Cong and was thus slated for destruction," Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton write in their "John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography" (PublicAffairs Reports, 2004).
"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."
Very probably, the incident that Rassmann described to the Globe that resulted in Kerry's self-inflicted wound also produced the very wound Kerry used to claim his third and 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 Swift Boat action later in the day and claimed the cause of the injury was the mine exploding during that later action.
By March 1969, most of Kerry's Swift Boat peers at the tiny An Thoi base 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 sinking of another skipper's boat, PCF 3, was the same incident described by a Kerry campaign advertisement and in Brinkley's "Tour of Duty," he knew Kerry had used the mine explosion and tragedy for PCF 3's 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, an incident the Globe described and which Thurlow knew about; to a grenade error by friendly forces in the absence of hostile fire (Kerry's secret Vietnam journal and "Tour of Duty" ); and finally to the mine explosion (Kerry's report and Purple Heart citation).
Adding it up
Unfortunately for Kerry, he ended up telling the truth by mistake.
On page 313 of "Tour of Duty," and evidently in Kerry's secret journal written on or about March 13, 1969, quoted in that book, Kerry relates his injury from the rice stock explosion.
However, 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 [Viet Cong] 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,' Kerry related."
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 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 buttocks wound to the mine explosion hitting PCF 3 or to any other hostile action.
Kerry falsely described the incident in his 1969 operating report, in his campaign biography, in his advertising and on his 2004 campaign Web site.
Jack Chenoweth commanded PCF 23, the boat in front of Kerry's PCF 94. 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 Brinkley in "Tour of Duty" [in which, after the mine exploded under PCF 3 on his port side, Kerry recalls his right arm being "smashed" against a bulkhead when "another explosion went off right beside us"] or on Kerry's Web site. They were furious when they realized Kerry's fraudulent account.
In reality, Kerry's boat, PCF 94, 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 suffered concussions.
A Viet Cong sympathizer in an adjoining bunker had touched off the mine. There was no other hostile fire and no other mines, according to Chenoweth, Odell, Pease and Thurlow. The boats had begun firing after the mine exploded, but ceased after a short time because of the lack of hostile fire.
Kerry's PCF 94 fled the scene. The remaining three PCFs, in accord with standard doctrine, stood to defend the disabled PCF 3 and its crewmen in the water. Kerry and PCF 94 disappeared several hundred yards away, returning only when it was clear there was no return fire.
Chenoweth (who received no medal) picked up the PCF 3 crewmen from the water. 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, dazed or unconscious crew members aboard.
Thurlow, commanding his own boat, sought a secure hold so he could jump across and board PCF 3. However, he was thrown into the water in his first attempt to board, and the boat hit the sandbars. Later, Thurlow brought PCF 3 to a stop, and the boat slowly began to sink.
Rassmann had fallen or been knocked off either Kerry's boat or the fifth boat, PCF 35. When Rassmann was spotted in the water, Chenoweth's PCF 23, with the PCF 3 crew aboard, went to pick him up.
Kerry's PCF 94, returning to the scene after its flight, reached Rassmann about 20 yards ahead of Chenoweth's boat. Kerry did the decent thing by going to pick up Rassmann, justifiably earning his gratitude. However, the claim that Kerry returned to a hostile fire zone is a lie, according to Chenoweth, Thurlow and others.
Meanwhile, the serious work of saving PCF 3 continued.
A sinking ship
Kerry's false after-action report, prepared to justify his Purple Heart and Bronze Star, reports "5,000 meters" of heavy fire — about 2½ miles, 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 after-action report ignores Chenoweth's heroic action in rescuing 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 remaining officers and men the job of saving PCF 3. It was in terrible condition, sinking just outside the river.
Kerry's eagerness to secure his third and final Purple Heart evidently outweighed any feelings of loyalty, duty or honor with regard to his fellow sailors. Thurlow and the other brave sailors who saved PCF 3 and towed it out did not seek Purple Hearts for their "minor contusions." Indeed, several PCF 3 sailors did not seek or receive Purple Hearts.
Chenoweth, Odell and boatmates who fished out the sailors of PCF 3 likewise had no thought of seeking medals, but only of rescuing 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. [Thurlow was awarded the Bronze Star as a result of his actions.]
Although Kerry's PCF 94 participated in towing PCF 3, Kerry was no longer on his boat for most of the trip. He was safely on the Coast Guard cutter.
Thurlow and Chenoweth are certain Kerry played no role in saving PCF 3 or its crew. When they, as well as several other Swiftees who were there, first saw the Kerry campaign ads they believed the events portrayed in the ads (as well as in Kerry's campaign biography and the medal citations) had to be different and involve different people. They were horrified when they realized Kerry had received medals for the incident they remembered.
Rassmann appeared for a spontaneous embrace of Kerry at a campaign event in January in Iowa, where Kerry's presidential campaign came back to life.
Rassmann 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. [Rassmann went on to help introduce Kerry when he accepted the Democratic nomination last month in Boston.]
Swiftees who learned of Kerry's fraudulent citations and ads felt betrayed.
"You've just got to make them understand," William E. Franke, a fellow commander in Coastal Division 11 and Silver Star recipient, wrote the authors. "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."
Kerry has implied that he volunteered for the military right after college. But he petitioned his draft board for a student deferment. His service record indicates that on Feb. 18, 1966, he enlisted in the Naval Reserves, status "inactive," not in the Navy.
These details are conveniently left out of pro-Kerry biographies. Brinkley, in "Tour of Duty," records that Kerry entered Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island; however, he fails to note that Kerry was seeking to be an officer in the Naval Reserves. The duty commitment was shorter, and a larger proportion of the period could be served stateside on inactive duty.
The repeated statements that Kerry was "sent home" by the Navy ignore the fact that Kerry requested to be sent home, invoking a regulation of which most Swiftees were unaware.
Thomas W. Wright, another PCF officer at An Thoi, discussed Kerry with other Swiftees on base after the March 13 incident. They were aware of the "three Purple Hearts" rule that sounded like "three strikes and you're out." Kerry could be sent home.
Wright approached Kerry one night and proposed to him that several fellow Swiftees felt it might be best for everybody if Kerry simply left. The next thing Wright knew, he got the exact result he hoped to achieve: John Kerry was gone.
A central drumbeat of the Kerry presidential campaign, as in every Kerry campaign, is that it is relevant and permissible to discuss at infinite length his short Vietnam service. Any effort, however, to examine his service by seeking out the records or truth is discouraged and resisted.
The reality is that Kerry has consistently refused to disclose his Vietnam records, as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have urged. Instead, he has released only those service records he considers favorable while concealing, for example, his own journal and home movies from the period — except for allowing friendly writers to draw from these materials and providing video clips for advertising.
There is a government form — Standard Form 180 — that Kerry could easily execute to permit the Department of Defense to release all his records, including the required records for receiving the Purple Heart or Silver Star.
By selectively releasing information, Kerry has tilted the record in his favor. Self-serving journal entries can be presented to "establish" events and circumstances as Kerry wishes to portray them.
A classic Kerry use of his private photographic cache, some of it self-staged, is his "Lifetime" campaign commercial. Kerry is depicted receiving the Bronze Star from Adm. Elmo Zumwalt III, commander of naval and Coast Guard forces in Vietnam, who later denounced Kerry.
The ad also includes a staged clip of Kerry as an infantryman in Vietnam, in bandoliers, stalking an unknown enemy through the forest in 1969 (and violating Rule No. 1 of the infantry by pointing his weapon down).
Who took this film? When and why? The viewer, typically unskilled in evaluating authentic military images, is left with the impression of Kerry as a fierce warrior engaged in the defense of his country.
John Kerry's name tossed around as "president" and "commander in chief" summoned many of us Swiftees from long political slumber — from games with grandchildren or feet by the fire — to render one last service to the nation.
That service is the hard task of informing an uninformed America — against the wishes of a media sympathetic to Kerry and his myth — of John Kerry's total unfitness to command our armed forces or lead our nation. We are our own small "band of brothers," resolved to sound the alarm.
•Copyright 2004 by John E. O'Neill and Jerome L. Corsi.
Bumped for the night crew.