WaPo: Both Sides’ Accounts Incomplete and Flawed

Update (1539): From A1 of tomorrow’s WaPo: Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete And Flawed

An investigation by The Washington Post into what happened that day suggests that neither side has been entirely forthcoming, and that each has withheld information from the public record.

Two best-selling books have formed the basis for public discussion of the events of March 13, 1969, as a result of which Kerry won a Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart. The fullest account of Kerry’s experience in Vietnam is “Tour of Duty” by prominent presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. It was written with Kerry’s cooperation and with exclusive access to his diaries and other writings about the Vietnam War. “Unfit for Command,” by John E. O’Neill, who succeeded Kerry as commander of his Swift boat, and Jerome R. Corsi, lays out a detailed attack on Kerry’s record.

The Post’s research shows that both accounts contain significant flaws and factual errors. This reconstruction of the climactic day in Kerry’s military career is based on more than two dozen interviews with former crewmates and officers who served with him, as well as research in the Naval Historical Center here, where the Swift boat records are preserved. Kerry himself was the only surviving skipper on the river then who declined a request for an interview.

On the core issue of whether Kerry was wounded under enemy fire that day, thereby qualifying for a third Purple Heart, the Navy records clearly favor Kerry. Several documents, including the after-action report and the Bronze Star citation for a Swift Boat skipper who has accused Kerry of lying, refer to “all units” coming under “automatic and small-weapons fire.” The eyewitness accounts, on the other hand, are conflicting. Kerry’s former crew members support his version, as does Rassmann, the Special Forces officer rescued from the river. But many of the other skippers and enlisted men who were on the river that day dispute Kerry’s account and have signed up with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a public advocacy group that has aired television advertisements accusing Kerry of lying about his wartime service.

From an outsider’s perspective, the flotilla of five 50-foot Swift boats that followed the Bay Hap River that humid March day has spawned two competing webs of loyalty. One group is fiercely loyal to Kerry and frequently appears with him at campaign events. The other group dislikes him intensely and is doing everything it can to block his election. Many Swift boat veterans opposed to Kerry acknowledge that their disgust with him was fueled by his involvement in the antiwar movement. When they returned from Vietnam, they say, they were dogged by accusations of atrocities. While Kerry went on to make a prominent political career, they got jobs as teachers, accountants, surveyors and oil field workers. When he ran for president, partly on the strength of his war record, their resentment exploded.

The report does a good job of laying out several competing claims and why they aren’t easily verified. With respect to the Bronze Star argument that has played out the last couple days,

Much of the debate over who is telling the truth boils down to whether the two-page after-action report and other Navy records are accurate or whether they have been embellished by Kerry or someone else. In “Unfit for Command,” O’Neill describes the after-action report as “Kerry’s report.” He contends that language in Thurlow’s Bronze Star citation referring to “enemy bullets flying about him” must also have come from “Kerry’s after-action report.” O’Neill has said that the initials “KJW” on the bottom of the report “identified” it as having been written by Kerry. It is unclear why this should be so, as Kerry’s initials are JFK. A review of other Swift boat after-action reports at the Naval Historical Center here reveals several that include the initials “KJW” but describe incidents at which Kerry was not present. Other Swift boat veterans, including Thurlow and Chenoweth, have said they believe that Kerry wrote the March 13 report. “I didn’t like to write reports,” said Thurlow, who was the senior officer in the five-boat flotilla. “John would write the thing up in longhand, and it would then be typed up and sent up the line.”

Even if Kerry did write the March 13 after-action report, it seems unlikely that he would have been the source of the information about “enemy bullets” flying around Thurlow. The official witness to those events, according to Thurlow’s medal recommendation form, was Radioman 1st Class Robert Lambert, a member of his crew. The Post was unable to trace Lambert before publication of this article.

Interesting. Keryy, Thurlow, and Lambert all got the Bronze Star from the same write-up, signed by LTCDR Elliot. One wonders why the junior member wrote the report?

Some of the mystery surrounding exactly what happened on the Bay Hap River in March 1969 could be resolved by the full release of all relevant records and personal diaries. Much information is available from the Web sites of the Kerry campaign and Swift BoatVeterans for Truth, and the Navy archives. But both the Kerry and anti-Kerry camps continue to deny or ignore requests for other relevant documents, including Kerry’s personal reminiscences (shared only with biographer Brinkley), the boat log of PCF-94 compiled by Medeiros (shared only with Brinkley) and the Chenoweth diary.

Although Kerry campaign officials insist that they have published Kerry’s full military records on their Web site (with the exception of medical records shown briefly to reporters earlier this year), they have not permitted independent access to his original Navy records. A Freedom of Information Act request by The Post for Kerry’s records produced six pages of information. A spokesman for the Navy Personnel Command, Mike McClellan, said he was not authorized to release the full file, which consists of at least a hundred pages.

The question that most bothers me about all this has been “Why now?” Obviously, Kerry is running for president now, but he has run for high office against Republicans before. Indeed, one would think that they would at least have come forth during this year’s primaries. A partial explanation is uncovered in the WaPo account:

Kerry’s reunion with Rassmann in January this year, nearly 35 years after he pulled the former Green Beret from the river, was a defining moment of his presidential campaign. Many political observers believed that the images of the two men embracing helped Kerry win the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The “No Man Left Behind” theme has become a recurring image of pro-Kerry advertising.

But many of the men Kerry served with in Vietnam feel betrayed and left behind by him. Soon after Kerry returned to the United States, he began organizing antiwar rallies. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, he said that U.S. troops in Vietnam had committed war crimes “with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” The anti-Kerry veterans began mobilizing earlier this year, following publication of the Brinkley biography and the nationwide publicity given to Kerry’s emotional reunion with Rassmann. Many of the veterans were contacted personally by Hoffmann, a gung-ho naval officer compared unflatteringly in “Tour of Duty” with the out-of-control lieutenant colonel in the movie “Apocalypse Now” who talked about how he loved “the smell of napalm in the morning.” Hoffmann, who was already angry with Kerry for his antiwar activities on his return from Vietnam, said in an interview that he was “appalled” to find out from reading “Tour of Duty” that Kerry was “considered to be a Navy hero.” “I thought there was a tremendous amount of gross exaggeration in the book, and in some places downright lies. So I started contacting some of my former shipmates,” he said.

One of the men Hoffmann contacted was O’Neill, a longtime Kerry critic who debated Kerry on television in 1971. O’Neill put Hoffmann in touch with some wealthy Republican Party contributors. One of O’Neill’s contacts was Texas millionaire Bob Perry, who has contributed $200,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Perry has also contributed to the Bush campaign. “I’d met him three or four times and represented people he knew,” said O’Neill, who has been practicing law in Houston for nearly 30 years. In addition to helping to organize the anti-Kerry campaign, O’Neill wrote his own book about the senator’s wartime record, which soared to the top of the Amazon.com best-seller list before its publication earlier this month.

With the exception of a sailor named Stephen Gardner, who served with Kerry in late 1968 on PCF-44, Kerry’s own crew members have remained loyal to him. “If it wasn’t for some of his decisions, we would probably be some of the names in that wall,” said Gene Thorson, the engineman on PCF-94, referring to the Vietnam War Memorial. “I respect him very much.” Others who served on boats that operated alongside Kerry on that fateful day in March 1969 say they cannot stand the man who is now challenging George W. Bush for the presidency. “I think that Kerry’s behavior was abominable,” said Pees, the commander of the boat that hit the mine. “His actions after the war were particularly disgusting. He distorted the truth when he talked about atrocities. We went out of our way to protect civilians. To suggest otherwise is a grotesque lie. As far as I am concerned, he did not speak the truth about how we conducted operations in Vietnam.”
“A lot of people just can’t forgive and forget,” countered Kerry crew member Medeiros. “He was a great commander. I would have no trouble following him anywhere.”

Clearly, Tour of Duty and other attempts to capitalize on his Vietnam experience irked these people. On the other hand, almost no one tends to object to a Silver Star recipient being characterized as a “war hero.” Indeed, Bob Dole was routinely lauded as such even though he never received anything higher than a Bronze Star for his WWII service. Of course, Bob Dole’s Purple Heart was for a massive set of injuries that leaves him debilitated to this day.

Non-veterans tend not to understand these seemingly silly flaps over medals. Incidents like the 1996 suicide of Admiral Mike Boorda, the highest ranking admiral in the Navy, which was triggered over a scandal over a “V” device on a couple of low level medals, are simply incomprehensible. But a lot of Vietnam veterans have an incredible distate for Kerry. His sudden cloaking himself in a hero’s garb, thirty-odd years after throwing his medals away with disdain and accusing his comrades of unspeakable crimes has clearly sparked a level of rage that no one expected.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    I agree, the Post story is remarkably well-balanced for a news article. Their editorial page staff have been much less biased than the news staff recently. Obviously, Michael Dobbs didn’t bother to consult with Dana Milbank.

    And for future reference, the appropriate abbreviation for a Lieutenant Commander is LCDR.
    Those naval ranks always seem to trip folks up. 🙂

  2. The article was well-balanced, but the headline as I saw it was not (which is a pattern for the WaPo)

    I saw “Swift Vets Accounts Flawed …” .

  3. I read it wrong. Disregard my idiocy (if you don’t automatically).

  4. bains says:

    You ask, “[t]he question that most bothers me about all this has been “Why now?”. Just below this thread you comment on Willian Mood, who after years of silence finally comes forward to support certain aspects of Kerry’s records.

    Why now? Because affairs past have been thrust to the fore.

  5. Peter says:

    Mr. Kerry picked this fight. The millions of men (and some women) who came back from our tour(s) in that war mostly are quite content to leave it in the past. Would that we are able to.
    Those of us who remember Mr. Kerry’s antics in 1971 would have probably just quietly voted against him. It was Mr. Kerry’s choice to make Viet Nam the centerpiece of his campaign.
    I never served with Mr. Kerry, I have no idea which, if any, of his medals were deservered and which, if any were a result of gaming the system. I saw both types awarded.
    I only know that Mr. Kerry surrounded himself with ‘veterans’, many of whom never served at all, many more who never were in Viet Nam, and portrayed every single one of us as rapists-murderers-torturers. I’ve lived with that for over three decades.
    I’m no hero, just a guy who happened to be wearing Uncle’s suit when LBJ got a wild hair up his ass. I’m no war criminal, either. It is Mr. Kerry’s behavior then, in 1971, and now, that make me believe O’Neil and company.
    I, while not particularly courageous when given a chice, have known many courageous men and women in my life. None of them have ever blamed a Secret Service Agent for falling while snowboarding.

  6. Sandcrab says:

    I disagree with your statement regarding “a level of rage that no one expected” – I, for one, was raging about Kerry’s post-war activities long before the Iowa Caucuses, and know plenty of vets who felt the same way at the same time.