Written in the first person, O'Neill's "Debating Kerry" is not part of the case against Kerry's service in Vietnam, so it belongs in Part II. Nonetheless, it is placed at the start of the book in order to dispute the characterization of Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace [VVJP] as a "front" for the Nixon White House and Charles Colson. [Brinkley, pp. 400-403] For an example of the type of media coverage that O'Neill is trying to discredit, see "With antiwar role, high visibility," by Michael Kranish. [Boston Globe]
Anyone who reads this chapter should also watch the debate.
Watching the video, note that Kerry questions O'Neill directly about whether he participated in Sealords missions. Anyone who doubts that Sealords raids from December 1968 to March 1969 were especially intense should read the Presidential Unit Citation signed by President Nixon. Kerry's commands coincide almost exactly with the period covered by the citation. In the debate, Kerry suggests that the "concept of operations" for the SWIFT boats had changed by the time O'Neill arrived at Coastal Division 11. O'Neill was sent to An Thoi and given command of PCF-94 in September 1969,* more than five months after Kerry's departure. By that time, Roy Hoffmann was gone and the Sealords and Market Time raids were being phased out in favor of Sea Float and ACTOV (Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese). This is stated clearly in the Coastal Division 11 command history for 1969:
"At the beginning of the year 1969, Coastal Division 11 was engaged in Operation Market Time and Operation Sealords. ... During 1969, two new operations gained in importance. As the [Market Time and Sealords] operations were phased out, Operation Sea Float and the ACTOV Program began to demand most of Coastal Division 11's assets. ..."
In sum, unlike O'Neill, Kerry was not involved in "Vietnamization." Kerry took part in an aggressive counteroffensive that ended long before O'Neill joined Coastal Division 11 at An Thoi. For more perspective on this, see "SEALORDS: A Front in a Frontless War". This thesis posits a divide between the first phase of Sealords focused on various "interdiction" operations and the second phase focused on Sea Float, a "pacification" operation. Kerry was going out on missions seeking to disrupt enemy operations, while O'Neill was defending an area from enemy incursions. Interdiction remained a primary objective of Sealords, of course, but the new emphasis on Sea Float (which O'Neill mentions during the debate) and ACTOV in its second phase indicates that Kerry was correct about a change in the concept of operations.
* John E. O'Neill was in charge of PCF-53 at Cat Lo (Coastal Division 13) from "3/69-9/69" and PCF-94 at An Thoi (Coastal Division 11) from "9/69-3/70." [swiftboats.net] Those dates, even though they presumably come directly from O'Neill himself, do not seem to be correct. According to the Navy Times, he arrived at Cat Lo on 25 May 1969 and departed An Thoi on 9 May 1970. [Navy Times] Note that this "mistake" allows O'Neill to claim he was in Vietnam while Kerry was there.
This should not come as a surprise. O'Neill's records show that he has lied repeatedly over the years about the length and nature of his service in Vietnam. For example, he lied about his record at least three times during his 1971 debate with Kerry! At the beginning, O'Neill says, "... after being in Vietnam for almost three years, I decided I wanted to go home back to Texas." Later he says to Kerry, "... but I did serve in the same place you did, and not for four months but for eighteen months, and I never saw anything." Still later he says, "... I served in Coastal Division 11 for twelve months, not four." Looking at the Navy Times data (which presumably comes directly from O'Neill's DD-214), we can see that none of these statements is the whole truth. O'Neill's assignment on the U.S.S. Woodpecker (November 1967 to January 1969) included only three months on Market Time patrol duty in Vietnam. [usswoodpeckermsc209.com] So, in truth, he served in Vietnam for fifteen months, not "three years." And he served in Coastal Division 11 for eight months, not "twelve" or "eighteen."
The aim of this chapter is neatly summed up in the opening quotation from Roy Hoffmann:
John Kerry gave the student commencement oratory at his Yale graduation, June 12, 1966, where he said:
"This Vietnam War has found our policymakers forcing Americans into a strange corner, ... that if victory escapes us, it would not be the fault of those who led, but of the doubters who stabbed them in the back."
No one can deny that these words were true. Long before he gave this speech, Kerry asked his draft board for a deferment to study for a year in Paris. [Harvard Crimson] When the deferment was turned down, he volunteered for the United States Naval Reserve (USNR), with active service to begin after his graduation from Yale. He didn't pull any strings to do so. He didn't get any sort of special treatment.
Incredibly, in his zeal to undermine Kerry's service, O'Neill actually states that the USNR is "not in the U.S. Navy." [p. 23]
This section badly misrepresents (and disrespects) the deployment of the U.S.S. Gridley to the Western Pacific, 9 February–8 June 1968. In fact, the only element that is correct in the paragraph about the Gridley is the date it returned to Long Beach. The next paragraph distorts the honest and straightforward statement made by Kerry's executive officer, James Kelly. [Gridley veterans] O'Neill suggests that Kelly agrees with the premise of Unfit for Command (that John Kerry is unfit for command), when in fact Kelly opposes Kerry for president because of his antiwar efforts. Here is some of the material O'Neill leaves out:
Here, Kerry's honest statements about his expectations when he requested SWIFT boat duty are used against him. Never mind that the same is true for all members of Coastal Squadron One while Kerry was there. Never mind that Kerry's second choice listed on his request for duty in Vietnam was PBR [Patrol Boat River] duty, which was never considered a safe assignment. It seems clear that what Kerry really wanted was to be in charge of his own boat, the bigger the better.
The quotations O'Neill attributes to William Franke in this section are worded to make it seem like they are Franke's personal recollections of attitudes among his fellow officers toward Kerry at the time, while they were in Vietnam.† However, if you look at his statements carefully it becomes clear that he is actually talking about things that were said or written recently. The SWIFT boat veterans appear to have maintained an active e-mail discussion list as early as 2001.
† William E. Franke was in charge of PCF-56 from "2/69-9/69" at Cat Lo and An Thoi. [swiftboats.net] He was stationed at Cat Lo before being sent to An Thoi long after Kerry had departed. He did not know Kerry in Vietnam. They were never stationed together.
Kerry had 235 days left in his year in Vietnam when he departed An Thoi, not "243." [p. 30] This is important because those 8 days that O'Neill has left out of the book's timeline [p. 199] are part of the "about two weeks" that Kerry says he deliberated his controversial decision to leave Vietnam early. ["Coming Home"]
For all other incidents discussed in Unfit for Command, we have Navy records and Kerry's journal to use for documentation in a rebuttal. In this case, however, the Navy records have not yet been found (all we have is a brief entry in Kerry's medical records) and Tour of Duty does not tell us what the journal says about this, if anything.
Runyon and Zaladonis agree that they were both on the skimmer on the night of December 2, 1968. Runyon says Zaladonis was there, and Zaladonis says Runyon was there. They also agree Kerry was there. Moreover, they are certain that it was their one and only skimmer operation, so they have not confused it with some other similar mission. Neither of these men has said there was no enemy fire. They are just trying to be honest when they say they can't be sure, since they were busy firing the M-60 and trying to start the motor. Kerry's own recollection is quite detailed, and it would be useful to know how much of it is confirmed by his journal or his letters home.
The boat that supported the skimmer that night was PCF-60, with Michael Voss in charge. Voss has said that he is "not certain who was on a skimmer on a certain night 36 years ago." [Boston Globe] There is, however, another witness who was there. James Wasser, who would later volunteer to join Kerry on PCF-44, was on board PCF-60 that night helping to process the detainees. Wasser had an above-average command of the nuances of the Vietnamese language and its local dialects, and at the time he was serving as a board-and-search interpreter for Market Time patrols. His presence and role in the mission fits Kerry's description perfectly. In fact, Wasser's recollection not only agrees with Kerry's, but also adds details to the story that Kerry did not witness. [Brinkley, pp. 157-158]
There are two elements to the Purple Heart award:  the severity of the wound and  the "heat of battle" standard. Both elements of Kerry's first Purple Heart have been challenged. Let's begin with the wound, or rather, the story of what transpired after PCF-60 returned to Cam Ranh Bay:
If there was a dispute about the wound, it is likely that Don Droz would have known about it. Kerry had been in Vietnam for barely two weeks. Droz had been in Vietnam since June 1968. He had graduated at the top of his class from Annapolis. He knew the ropes. He would have known whether or not Kerry had qualified for a Purple Heart. No one who was there denies that they were good friends. Kerry's first mission in Vietnam was on Droz's boat. [ABC] He mentioned Kerry in a letter home at that time, describing him as a "great guy." [New York Times] [Judy Droz Keyes]
We know that Kerry departed Cam Ranh Bay as Officer in Charge (OinC) of PCF-44 four days later, on December 6, accompanied by PCF-57 with Edward "Tedd" Peck as OinC. This was less than three weeks after Kerry arrived in Vietnam, not an unusual amount of time for a new arrival to spend at Cam Ranh Bay before being assigned as an OinC.
We also know that the Navy was giving out Purple Hearts for minor wounds with shrapnel in them, as discussed below with regard to Kerry's second Purple Heart. Given the presence of both shrapnel in the wound and the enemy during the action, the award should have been automatic. The PCF unit commander at Cam Ranh Bay, Grant Hibbard, claims he denied Kerry a Purple Heart on the grounds that the wound was not serious enough. In Unfit for Command, Peck claims to have heard about this before he and Kerry left Cam Ranh Bay. [p. 41] [Steve Hayes] But neither Peck nor Kerry has any first-hand knowledge of what went on after they left.
If we take him at his word, Hibbard does not know how the award was approved. This is easy to explain. In December 1968, he was in the last month of his tour of duty. He left Kerry's paperwork behind for his relief to handle. He has admitted, "I do remember some questions, some correspondence about it. I finally said, 'OK, if that's what happened ... do whatever you want.' After that, I don't know what happened. Obviously, he got it, I don't know how." [Boston Globe] In fact, Hibbard knows exactly what happened. He and Schachte procrastinated for a month and then left the task behind for their replacements to deal with. Those officers investigated the mission and then awarded a Purple Heart. Hibbard was in no position to question their decision then, nor is he now.
William Schachte, on the other hand, does not address the question of the severity of the wound. Instead, he simply claims that the enemy was not present, thereby challenging the "heat of battle" element of the award:
Schachte's story hinges on the fact there is no after-action "spot" report for the mission. He claims no such documentary evidence exists because nothing happened that night. Thomas Lipscomb has adopted this approach in a June 2006 article. [Military.com] The argument hinges on the fact that Kerry describes an operation in which a number of fishing sampans were encountered and brought back to the PCF for holding so they wouldn't be able to alert the Viet Cong, while Schachte describes a simplistic operation with no contacts and makes no attempt to account for fishermen and other non-combatants. As Wade Sanders has put it, "Encounters with civilian sampans were a constant part of a Swift boat officer's life and their presence frequently complicated or disrupted missions." Sanders also responds to other aspects of the article. [Military.com]
Occam's Razor dictates that Schachte is remembering a different mission on a different night.
Finally, we have a memo from the Navy inspector general to the Secretary of the Navy, along with other letters and materials released by the inspector general in response to these allegations.
"Our examination found that existing documentation regarding the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals indicates the awards approval process was properly followed. In particular, the senior officers who awarded the medals were properly delegated authority to do so. In addition, we found that they correctly followed the procedures in place at the time for approving these awards." [Judicial Watch, p. 11]
This public statement by the Navy's inspector general clearly disputes Hibbard and Schachte's attempts to discredit the award. In evaluating these materials, keep in mind that the inspector general's office has full access to any and all existing documentation.
The special operation Kerry describes certainly would have resulted in a Market Time spot report. There were four officers in the chain of command for PCF-60's mission on the night of December 2, 1968:
We know that the operation was coordinated out of the Coastal Surveillance Center (CSC) at Nha Trang. Any spot reports would have been handled using procedures established by the commanders at Nha Trang. [MAPS] We also know Kerry was treated at Cam Ranh Bay:
"3 December 1968, U.S. Naval Support Facility Cam Ranh Bay RVN FPO. Shrapnel in left arm above elbow. Shrapnel removed and appl bacitracin dressing. Ret To Duty." [Gerald J. Doyle]
It's not clear exactly what the "awards approval process" for a Purple Heart would have been under these circumstances, but Hibbard (CTE 220.127.116.11) would certainly have been responsible for putting the paperwork together. We can also assume that the command at Nha Trang would have been involved in confirming the details of the action, since it was responsible for the operation.
The only other hard fact that exists is the date of the Purple Heart presentation letter: February 28, 1969. The delay has been used as evidence that Kerry somehow manipulated the system to get the award. Most likely, the truth is that the date reflects the fact Hibbard and Schachte, the officers immediately responsible, did not handle the awards approval (or denial) process in a timely manner. They left it behind.
The length of the refueling stop at the LST was probably 30 minutes or so. All Kerry's journal tells us is that the LST captain offered them coffee. [Brinkley, p. 167] There is no mention of any sort of "comfortable dinner with the LST captain," as O'Neill claims. [p. 42] O'Neill simply lies in order to discredit Kerry's journal! The truth is that there was plenty of time for a cup of coffee and a few minutes of conversation with the captain.
Kerry's journal does appear to comment on what the captain said about the LST's role in the botched mission on the Bo De river. Unfit for Command says that the historical account in Tour of Duty is a "breathtaking lie." [p. 42] Brinkley's description of this well-known event, however, is based on at least one eyewitness interview (Brant, the officer in tactical command), the ABC correspondent's tape recording (which Kerry later obtained from Brant), the Stars and Stripes story, and so on. In short, much more than whatever it is Kerry wrote in his journal about the encounter.
Shortly after their arrival at An Thoi, Kerry's boat was reassigned to Cat Lo. The reason for that is not known, but it probably had nothing to do with Kerry himself. In the last part of this section, "The Real Reason Kerry was Reassigned," O'Neill cites Peck in claiming that Kerry was "constantly bellyaching about how he had not volunteered for this kind of danger." [p. 44] But Kerry's journal clearly indicates that he was complaining about being transferred to Cat Lo right after arriving in An Thoi. On this question, Kerry's journal trumps Peck's ridiculous claim. But O'Neill doesn't stop there. He tells us that William Franke "echoes" Peck's claim. Like the quotations from Franke used earlier, O'Neill presents Franke's words in a dishonest way in order to suggest that Franke has first-hand knowledge that confirms Peck's claim, when in reality all Franke is doing is repeating it. Franke did not arrive in Vietnam until two months later and did not know Kerry, as discussed above.
There are two main points here:  PCF-44 was on the Cambodia-Vietnam border on Christmas in 1968, and  Kerry went on at least one mission into Cambodia from An Thoi in February 1969.
Let's begin with PCF-44 in December 1968:
Wasser and Zaladonis are credible. The only question is how far they went up river. If they went far enough, they would have been in Cambodia. The journal, too, cannot be brushed aside. It is consistent with the Wasser and Zaladonis accounts. It gives us the only clear picture of the patrol. It tells us that PCF-44 was working with two PBRs (Patrol Boat, River), somewhere up river from Sa Dec, "toward Cambodia." It does not say they were in Cambodia, although they could have crossed into Cambodia at some point, and it certainly would not have been Kerry's decision if they did. His job was to provide cover for the smaller PBRs. The Christmas celebration episode occurred that night, on the way back toward Sa Dec. Later on, Kerry sent the message, "Merry Christmas from the most inland Market Time unit."
Kerry's famous war story on the floor of the Senate conflates three things:  the patrol on the border with two PBRs,  the incident with the Christmas celebration, and  the fact he was in Cambodia on missions out of An Thoi later on. Unfit for Command admits that such missions did take place, but claims Kerry didn't go on them. [p. 48] Those reports are classified and will remain so, although we have two spot reports that clearly indicate he was operating along the Cambodian border at that time. Senator Kerry told the story to make a political point—he was close enough to the truth for the rhetorical purposes of the Senate floor.
O'Neill's only witness in this is Steven Gardner, who joined PCF-44 under Kerry on December 6, 1968 and served with him until January 21, 1969. Brinkley has published a separate article on him called "The Tenth Brother." [Time] Gardner has lied repeatedly, constantly adjusting his story as his lies are exposed. He claims that PCF-44 did not venture beyond Sa Dec that day. To support this ludicrous statement, O'Neill tells us that "Tom Anderson, Commander of River Division 531, who was in charge of the PBRs" says that there were no PCFs in the area and that they would have been stopped had they appeared. [p. 48] But Kerry's journal entry clearly says that PCF-44 was working together with two PBRs, and was not running around willy-nilly on its own. PCFs and PBRs working together was not unusual, and it is not difficult to imagine that a PBR patrol heading upriver toward the Cambodian border would want a PCF along. The two PBRs could easily have led PCF-44 right up to and even across the border.
Moreover, "River Division 531" was never responsible for the area around the Cambodian border. Nor was its scope as broad as a unit like Coastal Division 11, as O'Neill implies. The riverine units parallel to the coastal PCF "Coastal Divisions" were the PBR "River Squadrons". [To add to the confusion, before September 1968 River Squadrons were called River Divisions, and River Divisions were called River Sections.] In December 1968, River Division 531 (TU 116.3.1) was part of River Squadron 53 (TG 116.3), part of Task Force 116 (TF 116), the River Patrol Force. Task units were assigned to patrol specific sections of the rivers, and thus the 10 or so PBRs in River Division 531 were a discreet unit with their own OinC. However, River Squadron 53 was the "My Tho River Patrol Group" [Before June 1968 it was called the "My Tho-Ham Luong River Patrol Unit"], responsible for an area in the lower Mekong Delta:
PCF-44 could have passed through that area on its way upriver, but Kerry's journal specifically refers to the Co Chien river, so they must have gone that way. Regardless, Vinh Long and Sa Dec were the responsibility of River Squadron 52 (TG 116.2), the "Co Chien River Patrol Group" [Before June 1968 it was called the "Co Chien-Mekong River Patrol Unit"]. River Squadron 51 (TG 116.1) was the "Bassac River Patrol Group." In May 1968, TF 116 began new Game Warden operations in the upper Bassac and Mekong rivers around Chau Doc and Tan Chau, with PBRs assigned on a rotating basis from these two task groups (116.1 and 116.2). In June 1968, TF 116 was reorganized and the "Upper Delta River Patrol Group" (TG 116.5) was added to patrol the area. Despite the changes in names and designators, the areas of responsibility for TG 116.1, 116.2, and 116.3 did not change. River Division 531 patrolled an area around My Tho, and was not responsible for areas further upriver.
Kerry's journal indicates they joined the PBRs at Sa Dec. The most likely scenario is that the two PBRs were from TG 116.5. They might well have traveled to Sa Dec in order to pick up the PCF. By December 1968, operation Game Warden was winding down and operation Sealords was underway. The relationships and areas of responsibility between TF 115 and TF 116 were changing. The operation could have been either Game Warden or Sealords. It seems like more of a Game Warden patrol than a targeted Sealords interdiction mission, but its cooperative nature may indicate a Sealords designator. Regardless, there is absolutely no question that the PBRs would have been in tactical command of the operation. If they went upriver from Chau Doc or Tan Chau, which would not have been at all unusual for a TG 116.5 patrol, then what Wasser and Zaladonis have said makes sense. From their descriptions, it seems virtually certain that they passed through Chau Doc and headed up the Hai Giang river (song), which comprises the border for a stretch before it passes into Cambodia. See the detailed map (overview).
The key points here bear repeating:  In December 1968, the Upper Delta River Patrol Group (TG 116.5) was operating on the Cambodian border around Chau Doc and Tan Chau. This PBR task group was formed for this specific purpose.  Sealords was underway, emphasizing cooperation between TFs 115, 116, and 117. See SEALORDS: A Front in a Frontless War for an analysis of the campaign. TF 115 components (PCF-44) working with TF 116 components (the PBRs) was exactly the point of Sealords. The TG 116.5 commander may have asked for a PCF precisely because they were planning to probe so far up the Hai Giang. It is understandable that riverine veterans involved in Game Warden operations prior to Sealords might think this unlikely, given the territorial approach to operations used by TFs 115, 116, and 117 prior to Sealords, but in truth it was very likely in December 1968.
On the question of Kerry's later clandestine missions into Cambodia from An Thoi, he has recently released a tiny but significant entry from his journal, "Feb 12: 0800 run to Cambodia." [New York Times] This is useful because we already have spot reports from 13 and 14 February that show PCF-94 was active around that time on Giang Thanh waterway (rach) and Vinh Te canal (kinh) along the Cambodian border inland from Ha Tien, inserting SEAL teams and picking them up after they were done. [PCF-94_spot_reports.pdf, pp. 1-4] See the detailed map (overview). It is important to note here that PCF-94 was paired with PCF-50 for both of the documented missions. The OinC of PCF-50 was Michael Bernique, who had received a Silver Star for a well-known action in the same area on October 14, 1968. [Brinkley, pp. 176-180] Bernique was CTE 18.104.22.168 for the missions on the 13th and 14th, and it seems likely that he would have been the officer in tactical command for the clandestine mission on the 12th as well.
This chapter begins with another quotation from William Franke that distorts the position on "free-fire zones" (that they violate the Geneva Conventions, no matter how they are interpreted) that Kerry held as the leading spokesman for the VVAW in 1971. Franke also claims to have known Kerry in Vietnam, but this is simply not true, as noted above. Following on from the quotation, "War Crimes" sets out to prove:
O'Neill's flimsy "evidence," as always, does not withstand scrutiny. There is plenty of documentation from a variety of sources that Kerry understood his orders just fine, and tried just as hard as everyone else to protect civilians while still doing his job.
The passages from Tour of Duty that O'Neill cites in the opening segment, "John Kerry's Story," describe an incident recorded in Kerry's journal that involved PCF-24 (Rich McCann) and PCF-94 (Kerry). Someone makes a mistake and PCF-94 kills a man and a child on a sampan. They then rescue a woman with a small child from the sampan before destroying it. [Brinkley, pp. 269-270] Kerry became the officer in charge on PCF-94 on 30 January 1969.
In the next segment, "The Boston Globe's Discovery," it is assumed, without any mention of the discrepancy, that Sealords mission 252, which involved PCF-21 and PCF-44 on 20 January 1969, is the mission described by Brinkley in Tour of Duty. This is based on a suggestion by Michael Kranish in the book John F. Kerry. Unlike Kranish, I do not believe that Brinkley is in error. After all, it was Brinkley who did the interview with Kerry about this, not Kranish, and he had access to the journal entry when he did the interview.
Then there is "Eyewitness Steve Gardner." Gardner's lies have been noted above, but here he has outdone himself. Brinkley, however, was able to interview him in early March 2004:
Gardner—who remembers no important dates or times or locales—claims that Kerry once threatened him with a court martial. The incident happened when Gardner, who told me he had "no trouble shooting gooks," saw a Viet Cong guerilla with an AK-47 in a boat and started firing. "I lay the hammer down on him," Gardner explains. "I just put a finger on the gun: boom, boom, boom, boom. He's done. He got flipped out of the boat, he went straight down. That’s when Kerry came running out of the guntub screaming 'ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire.' Then he turned to me and said, 'I ought to have you court-martialed for shooting.' I said, '... When somebody brings a gun up on me I'm gonna shoot and I’ll ask questions later 'cause I ain’t goin' back in a body bag.'" [Time]
When Gardner tells the same story in Unfit for Command, the "Viet Cong guerilla with an AK-47" turns into a father who may or may not have had a weapon, and a dead child appears out of nowhere. He also has suddenly remembered when and where it happened.
As explained in his chapter notes [p. 399], Kranish bases his conclusion on the fact that none of the PCF-94 crew remembers the incident. In this regard, it's worth noting that Kerry's whole point in the journal entry is that the night was pitch-black, their lights were not working properly, and the PCF-94 crew did not look at the body:
... Then somebody said that there was a body up front and we moved in closer to see the limbs of a small child limp in the stacks of rice. [The woman] 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 the rest of my life and it was better not to know whether there was a smile or a grimace or whether it was a girl or a boy. ... [Brinkley, pp. 269-270]
Kranish also ignores the fact none of the rest of the PCF-44 crew remembers anything like the incident Gardner describes. Moreover, the PCF-44 crew was disbanded in the next day or two and the boat went in for an overhaul. Gardner doesn't seem to remember that this was his last mission in Vietnam!
The after-action "spot" report for Sealords mission 252 includes the following:
As O'Neill points out, the incident is also mentioned in the weekly report by Captain Hoffmann:
These reports line up perfectly with one another. The only real similarity between the details of the incidents described in Kerry's journal and the Navy reports for 20 January 1969 is the capture of a woman with a small child. Surely there were many women with small children in sampans in the Mekong Delta? These were different missions at different times on different boats with different crews.
There is nothing wrong with Kranish reporting Gardner's story about the mission on 20 January 1969. But it is wrong to suggest that the incident described in Kerry's journal (and Brinkley's interview with Kerry) is the same mission. O'Neill draws a host of conclusions from this about Kerry "filing an after-action report in which the dead child simply disappeared and was replaced by a fleeing squad of Viet Cong." [p. 57] It is possible that the "one enemy KIA" in the report is the boy that Gardner mentions, since his would have been the only body counted ["BC"]. But there is nothing else in the report to support the rest of Gardner's story. Nor does it sound like the story in Kerry's journal. The Sealords 252 sampan was not "small"—it was a 30-foot boat. It was loaded with a large amount of material, some of which was captured, some of which was destroyed. It was 30 yards away when PCF-44 shot at it.
Moreover, it is not likely that Kerry wrote the report, since he had barely two months of PCF service at that time. The unknown officer in charge of PCF-21 was very likely senior to Kerry. According to the procedures outlined for Sealords missions by the base commander at An Thoi, Adrian Lonsdale, discussed below, the senior PCF officer in the two-boat task unit, identified as "CTU 115.4.4" in the headers, would have been responsible for the report.
Nonetheless, O'Neill continues on (he dwells on this for ten pages), using William Franke, who says he is haunted by "the vivid memory of the small bloody sampan." [p. 58] As noted above, Franke could not have been present at Sealords 252. He was still in training at Coronado! Nor could he have been present at the later incident mentioned in Kerry's journal, since both boats and their commanders are accounted for, and Franke was stationed at Cat Lo at the time.
O'Neill then turns to Thomas Wright, who repeats the idea that:
Wright takes this idea and runs with it. [pp. 60-61] Like Franke, he distorts Kerry's 1971 position that a "free-fire zone" (no matter how it is interpreted) is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. In truth, there is no evidence that Kerry misunderstood the rules of engagement when he was in Vietnam in 1969. Indeed, there is abundant evidence to the contrary.
Thomas W. Wright was in charge of PCF-44 at An Thoi after January 1969. [swiftboats.net] Extant spot reports show that PCF-44 went on missions with PCF-94 on February 20, 25, March 18, 19, 20. The last is less than a week before Kerry departed An Thoi and his crew disbanded. [PCF-94_spot_reports.pdf, pp. 9-13, 28-32]
To Wright's credit, he is the only person O'Neill cites in this section who was in the same place as Kerry long enough to have disliked him. So let's allow that they didn't get along. So what? Someone like Kerry, with a Yale degree and no real intention of pursuing a career in the military, might well have rankled those who did, like Commander Wright. It isn't hard to imagine what he might have thought of watching Admiral Zumwalt give Kerry the Silver Star.
O'Neill concludes this part of the chapter with a page entitled "Animal Slaughter," based on statements by George M. Bates. Bates plays the same petty game as Wright and Franke in claiming Kerry was "a coward" and "a man without a conscience." Interestingly, a member of Bates' crew, Gary D. Hoover, has come forward on the non-partisan site switftboats.org [Guestbook, entry no. 218, spelling corrected]:
"... reading the book out on Kerry unfit for command, I was in some of his missions and on page 62 George Bates talks about animal slaughter, I was the guy shooting the animals. In our minds we were to destroy everything from their food to sinking their sampans. ..."
Hoover served under Bates on PCF-90 [swiftboats.net], but they appear to have been based at Qui Nhon (north of Cam Ranh Bay, and a long way from the Bo De river), so it is not clear that Bates "participated in numerous missions with Kerry" as O'Neill claims. [p. 62] More likely it was just a few missions in January 1969 before he was sent to Qui Nhon. Regardless, what is most notable about Hoover's recollection is that it supports Kerry's statements about how the crews understood what they were doing on these kinds of raids. Hoover exposes Bates' hypocrisy, along with that of Franke and Wright.
This section is the real reason Unfit for Command and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth exist, because this is where the book defends Captain Roy Hoffmann. Rear Admiral Hoffmann (retired) insists, "O'Neill didn't start this thing, I did. O'Neill didn't come aboard until three months after we organized." [Knight Ridder]
Tour of Duty does not flatter Captain Hoffmann. Larry Thurlow put it this way, "That man wanted in the worst way to be admiral—that's what Sealords was about." [Brinkley, p. 333] Here is Hoffmann himself on Sealords: "The rules of engagement in Vietnam were overly restrictive. We were being too conservative, not taking the fight to the enemy. But I changed that." [Brinkley, pp. 105-106] This has been explored in detail in an article by Hannah Rosin in the Washington Post. [Washington Post]
The problem here is the same as always. Kerry's journals and letters, written while he was in Vietnam when the events were still fresh in his mind, constitute the primary sources for the narrative presented in Tour of Duty. His unfinished memoir, written with the aid of these materials three years after he was in Vietnam, is no doubt more literary and does not have the same immediacy as the journals and letters, but it is also a valuable historical resource.
In order to impeach these documents, O'Neill and ultimately Hoffmann have to argue that they are fiction, that Kerry made it all up. Hoffmann plays the old "he said, she said" game when he says that he remembers Kerry "did not ask one question or otherwise participate in the dialogue" at the meeting at Admiral Zumwalt's residence in Saigon, January 22, 1969. [p. 64] [Brinkley, pp. 254-261]
Next, Adrian Lonsdale, commander of the Gulf of Thailand Surveillance Group (CTG 115.4), the highest-ranking officer based at An Thoi, says he does not remember the time when Kerry and Don Droz made an appointment and came to him to argue for a different sort of campaign in the Mekong Delta. [Brinkley, pp. 296-298] Droz was surely the leader in this, not Kerry. He was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who got into Annapolis on his own merit. [Brinkley, p. 143] Unlike Hoffmann, Lonsdale does not actually lie—he just says he doesn't recall. He does not remember two junior officers walking into his office to talk about strategy 35 years ago. Why would he?
Both of the above events happened behind closed doors in meetings where the junior officers present had permission to speak freely to the senior officers present. O'Neill is blowing smoke when he argues that there is some sort of inconsistency between Kerry's outward deference to his superior officers and his behavior in these two episodes.
Steve Gardner's ridiculous statement that Kerry would, as a rule, "turn and run" under fire [pp. 72-73] is disputed in the strongest possible terms by all four of the other members of the PCF-44 crew. [Time]
It is not clear where Charles "Charley" Plumly stood in the chain of command at that time, or where he was based. It would be useful to know what the Medeiros log of PCF-94 missions says about March 5-7, when Plumly claims Kerry was "under his command." [p. 75] However, we know that for at least two of those days Kerry was definitely not deployed on the Bay Hap river: he was on leave in Saigon on March 5 and he flew back to An Thoi with Admiral Zumwalt and Captain Hoffmann on March 6, when the crews of PCFs 23, 43, and 94 received their medals. [Brinkley, pp. 293-294]
This chapter, of course, contains the heart of the assault on Kerry's honor in Vietnam. As before, the fundamental problem for O'Neill is the overwhelming documentary evidence against his case. But here it is not enough to just deny the integrity of Kerry's journal and letters and the recollections of the enlisted men who served under his command. No, here O'Neill must find a way to dispute an even more reliable primary source: U.S. Navy records! In short, O'Neill wants us to believe that Kerry wrote the after-action "spot" reports for all of the missions described below, changing the events so that he would emerge as the hero.
[Sealords mission 324, 20 February 1969] [Brinkley, pp. 284-288]
The spot report indicates there were six PCFs involved in the mission. O'Neill hides this fact so that Hildreth's claim that his boat was near Kerry's at the moment of the attack will seem plausible. In addition, Kerry was not the only one wounded. Eugene Thorson also received a Purple Heart for "shrapnel wounds in the right arm." O'Neill, as he ridicules the severity of Kerry's wound, neglects to mention that there were two sources for the blood on the deck of PCF-94.
"... Three personnel in black pajamas were spotted ducking behind bank on port side of PCF 94. This unit received small arms/rifle grenade fire and OinC and Thorson EN3 received shrapnel wounds. ..." [SeaLords324.pdf]
Moreover, the medical officer at An Thoi left the shrapnel in Kerry's leg because it was in too deep. Removing it would have required an operation that would have meant time off from duty for Kerry. [Gerald J. Doyle]
According to the applicable operations order, the "originator" (whose assessments are featured so prominently in the Sealords mission 324 report) of the daily Sealords missions from An Thoi was George Elliot, the commander of Coastal Division 11. [Operation_Order_101-69.pdf] Regardless, it is irresponsible for the book to suggest that the report from this one initial probe into enemy territory up the Dam Doi river resulted in later psy-ops missions there.
Finally, a note on shrapnel wounds and Purple Hearts. Hildreth has no trouble going along with O'Neill in discounting the severity of Kerry's wound. But Hildreth doesn't mention anything about the wound he himself received a few hours before heading out with Kerry on Sealords mission 312, the subject of the next section, "Ambush."
The Coastal Division 11 command history shows that Hildreth, Lindquist, and Gonzales all received Purple Hearts for these minor shrapnel wounds. This was standard practice. For Hildreth to turn around now and ridicule Kerry's Purple Heart is pure hypocrisy.
[Sealords mission 312, 18 February 1969] [Brinkley, pp. 281-283]
Hildreth was interviewed for Tour of Duty, where he says, "We got bracketed with five B-40 rockets. We could actually see them go by. Then they started hitting us with small arms fire."
The spot report indicates that PCF-72 was struck by a mine. The boats kept moving and encountered the B-40 rockets and small arms fire. Then another mine went off near PCF-94. The report is quite specific about where the rockets landed. Kerry recorded this incident in his journal as well, supplying additional information. Here we have two primary sources: a U.S. Navy report on the mission, filed the day afterward, and Kerry's detailed journal, also written at the time.
O'Neill says that PCF-94 "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." [p. 80] In other words, O'Neill claims that Kerry lied in the spot report to make himself look good and then made up all the details in his journal.
Yes, PCF-72 was also present when the B-40 rocket attack came. No, spot reports were not supposed to include every detail of the narrative so everyone would be happy 35 years later. They were supposed to supply military data about the location of enemy forces, their numbers, the quality of their firepower, damage and injuries on both sides, and so on. The report makes it clear that PCF-72 and PCF-94 were together and notes the damage to each boat. That was enough.
For more on O'Neill's use of the word "fled," see Bob Somerby's commentary in the Daily Howler.
[Sealords mission 270, 28 February 1969] [Brinkley, pp. 289-293]
O'Neill summarizes his case as follows:
Here, O'Neill carries out a multilayered distortion of the truth. His argument is based on a misrepresentation of both the mission and, more importantly, of the reason why Elmo Zumwalt, Commander of the United States Naval Forces in Vietnam, gave Kerry the Silver Star and then defended the award in 1996. Here is what he said then:
"It is a disgrace to the United States Navy that there's any inference that the [medal] process was anything other than totally honest." [Boston Herald, October 28, 1996]
To begin with, Zumwalt awarded Kerry the Silver Star on March 6, 1969, six days after the mission, not "two." [New York Times] O'Neill also claims that Kerry wrote the after-action "spot" report and that report was "false and incomplete." Fortunately, the actual report (in two parts) is now available. [SeaLords270.pdf, pp. 1-3] As discussed in my Introduction, Kerry was the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC). As such he was responsible for the spot reports, as discussed below. This question is, however, a red herring because the reports themselves are truthful and neither "false" nor "incomplete." For confirmation, we have the original draft of the Navy press release written the day after the mission and signed by William Rood [SeaLords270.pdf, p. 4] and the monthly historical summary produced by Zumwalt's staff 16 days later. [Monthly_Historical_Summary.pdf, pp. 2-3]
In addition, we have the original medal citations for Kerry's Silver Star and Rood's Bronze Star, both signed by Zumwalt. [Silver_Star.pdf] [Chicago Tribune] The description of the action in the Zumwalt citations is perfectly in line with the other records. It should come as no surprise, then, that O'Neill completely ignores the original Zumwalt citation awarded in Vietnam and the language it uses for Kerry's Silver Star—"devotion to duty, courage under fire, outstanding leadership, and exemplary professionalism." He pretends it doesn't exist. Instead, O'Neill focuses the less precise, more dramatic language of Kerry's official Silver Star citation signed by Admiral John Hyland. [Silver_Star_later_citations.pdf]
These materials reveal a number of useful facts, including exact locations for all parts of the action. They also clearly indicate that there were around 70 South Vietnamese Regional Forces/Popular Forces ["RF/PF"] troops on the three boats, plus three U.S. Army advisors on PCF-23. There was also a three-man demolition team of Navy SEALs ["UDT 13"] aboard PCF-94. PCF-23 landed first and the Army advisors led the initial assault at the first ambush site [VQ 982 818] and secured the immediate area. PCF-94 unloaded its RF/PF troops and UDT-13 at that point. Later, one of the advisors requested the PCFs "move up river towards area from which Army advisor reported gunshots." PCFs 94 (Kerry) and 23 (Rood) proceeded up river and turned around [at VQ 984 831] to return to the first ambush site, looking for the fleeing Viet Cong. On the way back, a B-40 rocket exploded near to PCF-94 and the two boats turned and charged the second ambush site [at VQ 984 830]. PCF-43 (Droz), which had remained back at the first ambush site, also moved up to the site of the second ambush.
Already, from my summary of the action to this point, you can see how misleading O'Neill's version of the events is. First, he does not make it clear that there were only three U.S. Army advisors present. The rest of the ground troops were South Vietnamese. Second, he tells us that "most of the non-PCF troops received no medals for this action." [p. 82] This is only true if you count the South Vietnamese irregulars. All U.S. personnel who participated in this mission received a medal. Doug Reese, one of the members of the Army Advisory Team, received an Army Commendation medal. The other two advisors, Bill Hirschler and Mike Miggins, who led the initial assault, were awarded Bronze Stars. The sailors based at An Thoi all received medals, from Kerry's Silver Star, to Bronze Stars for the PCF assault parties at the second ambush site, to Navy Commendation medals for everyone else. The three UDT-13 personnel on the mission also received medals.
Let's return to the narrative in the spot report:
PCF 94 beached in center of ambush in front of small path when VC sprung up from a bunker 10 feet from unit. Man ran with weapon towards hootch. Forward M-60 gunner [Belodeau] wounded man in leg. OinC [Kerry] jumped ashore and gave pursuit while other units saturated area with fire and beached placing assault parties ashore. OinC of PCF 94 chased VC inland behind hootch and shot him while he fled capturing one B-40 rocket launcher with round in chamber.
The report goes on to show that the other two PCFs also landed assault parties and joined the three sailors from PCF-94:
Parties from 3 PCFs proceeded to sweep the area. Units remained in ambush area at length due to the size and importance of the area overrun. ... UDT 13 personnel placed charges in major bunkers and rice bins and provided maximum destruction possible. Assault parties then rendezvoused with RFPF and units proceeded to clear area.
O'Neill would have us believe that only one boat landed at the first ambush site. It is true that PCF-23 with the Army advisors aboard landed first and they led the initial assault. But the other two PCFs also landed at the first site. Next, O'Neill says that "far from being alone, the boats were loaded with many soldiers" when PCFs 94 and 23 landed at the second ambush site. [pp. 82-83] This is simply not true. All of the RF/PF troops disembarked at the first ambush site, along with the Army advisors and the Navy SEALs. Not only is this the recollection of the PCF crews, but the monthly historical summary written March 17 by Zumwalt's staff in Vietnam also confirms that, "With the RF/PFs already ashore, this time the PCF crewmen went ashore in pursuit of the enemy. During this phase of the action one Viet Cong was killed and his still-loaded rocket launcher captured."
When Kerry went ashore at the second ambush site, he knew Medeiros would follow—that had been agreed upon before the mission. If Kerry left the boat, Medeiros would follow with the radio, along with Belodeau. Sandusky, Short, and Thorson (along with Charles Gibson, an officer attached to PCF-94 that week for orientation) would remain with the boat. [Brinkley, p. 291]
Kerry, as the officer in tactical command of the PCFs, made the decision for when and where to turn and charge the Viet Cong positions. The best way to understand what happened that day is to read Rood's account in the Chicago Tribune. Here are the key excerpts:
The difference was that Kerry, who had tactical command of that particular operation, had talked to Droz and me beforehand about not responding the way the boats usually did to an ambush. We agreed that if we were not crippled by the initial volley and had a clear fix on the location of the ambush, we would turn directly into it, focusing the boats' twin .50-caliber machine guns on the attackers and beaching the boats. We told our crews about the plan. ... The Viet Cong in the area had come to expect that the heavily loaded boats would lumber on past an ambush, firing at the entrenched attackers, beaching upstream and putting troops ashore to sweep back down on the ambush site. Often, they were long gone by the time the troops got there. ... The first time we took fire—the usual rockets and automatic weapons—Kerry ordered a "turn 90" and the three boats roared in on the ambush. It worked. We routed the ambush, killing three of the attackers. The troops, led by an Army adviser, jumped off the boats and began a sweep, which killed another half dozen VC, wounded or captured others and found weapons, blast masks and other supplies used to stage ambushes. ... Kerry ordered our boat to head upstream with his, leaving Droz's boat at the first site. It happened again, another ambush. And again, Kerry ordered the turn maneuver, and again it worked. As we headed for the riverbank, I remember seeing a loaded B-40 launcher pointed at the boats. It wasn't fired as two men jumped up from their spider holes. ... With our troops involved in the sweep of the first ambush site, Richard Lamberson, a member of my crew, and I also went ashore to search the area. I was checking out the inside of the hooch when I heard gunfire nearby. Not long after that, Kerry returned, reporting that he had killed the man he chased behind the hooch. He also had picked up a loaded B-40 rocket launcher, which we took back to our base in An Thoi after the operation. ... John O'Neill, author of a highly critical account of Kerry's Vietnam service, describes the man Kerry chased as a "teenager" in a "loincloth." I have no idea how old the gunner Kerry chased that day was, but both Leeds and I recall that he was a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore. The man Kerry chased was not the "lone" attacker at that site, as O'Neill suggests. There were others who fled. There was also firing from the tree line well behind the spider holes and at one point, from the opposite riverbank as well. It was not the work of just one attacker. [Chicago Tribune]
Gibson's account also supplies a detailed narrative, in which he clearly recalls the body:
PCF-43 had rejoined us and a landing party of Swift personnel proceeded to conduct a sweep of the area around the second ambush site. As the ground operation wound down, I went ashore and saw the body of the man who had fired the B-40 RPG and had reloaded the tube with the obvious intent of firing another round. This was ... the first combat fatality that I had seen. The vision was indelible and I have not forgotten it to this day. Contrary to some accounts, this was not a child. He appeared to be 18 or 20 years of age, a contemporary of our younger crew members. He had not been shot in the back as some have stated. Rather, he had an entry wound at the side of his chest and exit wound at the opposite side of the chest cavity, a wound that was consistent with reports of the man turning to fire a second B-40 rocket. I did not see any obvious evidence of a leg wound, but was not really looking closely for one. [Springfield Republican]
The day after the mission, Rood wrote and signed the original draft for the Navy press release about the mission, which is worth quoting in full:
The attacked became the attackers Thursday when three U.S. SWIFT boat twice routed Viet Cong ambushes near the south tip of Vietnam. The Swifts with 70 Vietnamese militia men embarked were enroute to insert the troops for a sweep and destroy operation when they came under heavy rocket and automatic weapons fire. Returning fire with .50 caliber machine guns, the SWIFTs charged the ambush position and beached, finding themselves less than twenty feet from poised enemy rockets. Apparently shaken by heavy SWIFT fire, more than 20 VC broke from their spider holes and entrenched positions, fleeing across open fields and into heavy mangroves. Accurate PCF gunfire cut down 3 VC and the chase that ensued netted Vietnamese militia men 6 VC dead and 6 weapons captured. In an attempt to capture more of the enemy in flight the SWIFTs moved up river and again came under fire from an enemy ambush site. Again the SWIFTs charged the ambush and routed entrenched Viet Cong. Giving chase, SWIFT landing parties killed another VC rocketman and captured his loaded launcher. Continuing their sweep, Navy SWIFT men discovered vast enemy stores of rice, clothing, ammunition, and Viet Cong propaganda literature. The supplies were cached in numerous holes and bunkers. The complex included sewing machines and material for making uniforms. ...
Rood and Gibson have said it all here, so I'm not going to repeat it. To get a sense of just how calculated O'Neill's narrative is, however, note how often he repeats the script—"lone," "teenager," "loincloth," "wounded," "fleeing"—in the three pages devoted to this part of the mission in Unfit for Command:
Rood and his crew all agree that there was more than one defender. PCF-23 had a different vantage point from PCF-94, so it is not surprising that their accounts are slightly different. The crew of PCF-94 never saw the second man from where they were. The Viet Cong used two-man B-40 teams. The second man was the loader, and he took off after loading the second round. The first man was killed by Kerry before he could get into position to fire the second round.
"Preplanned" is not the right word for the first landing, since it implies that they had intelligence about the Viet Cong positions in advance, which is not true. Nor was the second landing a "preplanned" tactic—indeed, the spot report makes it clear that the plan was to return to the first ambush site. Kerry took the intiative, knowing that his crew and the crews of the other two PCFs were prepared for it. The choices he made as the officer in tactical command of Sealords mission 270 were aggressive. There was risk, to be sure, but the boats were ready. They had the element of surprise and an overwhelming force. Kerry's tactics that day were unexpected and decisive. The Viet Cong were not prepared for them.
The idea that Kerry, Droz, and Rood, along with the enlisted men in their crews and Gibson, all managed to stay quiet about the premeditated nature of the tactic so that they would all have a better chance of being awarded medals is beyond belief, an insult to all these men. The original Zumwalt medal citations for Kerry and Rood line up perfectly with the spot reports, the press release, and the monthly historical summary. There are at least seven other Bronze Star citations from the mission that have not been made public, and no doubt they are all accurate as well. O'Neill's use of the language of the later, revised Hyland citation as the basis for the assertion that all of the other Navy materials were "false and incomplete" is fundamentally dishonest. O'Neill had the original, authoritative Zumwalt citation at his disposal and yet he chose to ignore it.
All of the Navy materials produced at the time in Vietnam show that Roy Hoffmann is lying about what he was told. They state that Kerry chased down and shot one man. They don't say anything about single-handedly routing a bunker full of Viet Cong. Only the language of the later Hyland citation contains this sort of hyperbole. The Swift Boat Veterans for "Truth" are thus, fundamentally, founded on a lie by one man, a retired rear admiral who has disgraced himself and the United States Navy. Hoffmann started the organization, and he provides the opening quotation for the book:
Zumwalt gave Kerry the Silver Star for "devotion to duty, courage under fire, outstanding leadership, and exemplary professionalism." [Silver_Star.pdf] In addition, Kerry displayed each of the tenets of command that Hoffmann emphasizes. He displayed judgment in choosing where and when to land the main force, which turned out to be right on top of the largest concentration of Viet Cong, who were not prepared for a frontal assault. None of the 25 United States military personnel present that day has ever disputed the truth of the narrative presented in the spot reports and other documentation produced in Vietnam. He displayed reliability when he attacked the second ambush site, thereby establishing better control along the river in support of the ground forces inland. His loyalty to his crew was evident when he made sure they were prepared to go ashore if need be, the worst-case scenario. His commanding officer, George Elliot displayed his trust when he made Kerry OTC that week and also assigned a new arrival, Gibson, to him for riverine indoctrination. Elmo Zumwalt was not misinformed. He understood the mission perfectly.
There are two later versions of the Silver Star citation. [Silver_Star_later_citations.pdf] There is nothing mysterious or nefarious about their existence. The aforementioned Hyland citation dates to 1969. As indicated in a memo prepared by the staff of the Navy inspector general in 2004, it is the "official version," signed by the Navy's "delegated award authority" for a Silver Star in Vietnam, CINCPACFLT. The two-page "COMUSNAVFOR Vietnam version," signed by Zumwalt and presented to Kerry on March 6, 1969, is more detailed and historically accurate than the single-page (suitable for framing) official version. [Judicial Watch, p. 10]
The Lehman citations date to 1985, Kerry's first year as a member of the United States Senate. It seems likely his staff requested them for his office. This was noted by the inspector general in another 2004 memo:
"... It is apparent that duplicate citations issued under then-Secretary Lehman's and other's signatures in June 1985 were in response to a request from Senator Kerry or his office. It isn't altogether clear why the originals weren't on file. ... The citations under Secretary Lehman's name appear to have been signed by a machine, which would explain why he now doesn't recall any involvement." [Judicial Watch, p. 7]
[Sealords mission 358, 13 March 1969] [Brinkley, pp. 303-318]
Unfit for Command combines two objectives in this section, "The Third Purple Heart and the Bronze Star," which argues that Kerry deserved neither a Bronze Star for his actions, nor a Purple Heart for his wounds. In a pattern that should be quite familiar to the reader by now, O'Neill both conceals the content of the primary source documents and claims they are "a total fraud perpetrated upon the Navy and the nation" by Kerry. [p. 86]
Let's begin with the case against Kerry's Bronze Star, and only then turn to the question of his wounds. As always, the book ignores the original, primary source documents that exist from the time: the Navy spot report and other communications, the award recommendations, and Kerry's own detailed description of this incident in his journal. The dispute is about  whether there was enemy fire and  whether there was more than one explosion. All of the Navy documentation is very clear on these two points: yes and yes. O'Neill's response is to claim that Kerry wrote the spot report and the rest of the documentation flowed from that. This claim is discussed in detail below. For now, keep in mind that the two extant award recommendations written by Kerry's commanding officer cite other eyewitnesses and describe the action from different points of view, as do the three award citations, all providing details that are not in the spot report. Plus, both of the eyewitnesses cited in the extant award recommendations (Lambert and Sandusky) have come forward since the publication of Unfit for Command to confirm that there was enemy fire, a fact which has been confirmed independently by at least four other men who were there, for a total of eleven witnesses including Kerry and his crew, all of whom were present on the scene the entire time. Finally, as we shall see, an excerpt from a contemporary notebook kept by another officer who was there also confirms crucial elements of the Navy's narrative, and does not contradict any part of it.
The following is the text of the spot report as it pertains to the ambush. It speaks for itself. I have expanded the shorthand like "rcvd," "a/w," and so on. "MSF" [Mobile Strike Forces] were Cambodian Nung mercenaries. "RF/PF" [Regional Forces/Popular Forces] were local South Vietnamese troops. "LCVP" [Landing Craft, Vehicles and Personnel] was an updated version of the versatile landing craft used in WWII and the Korean war.
PCF 23 joined at Cai Nuoc. PCFs with MSF embarked departed Cai Nuoc at 1445H proceeding down Bay Hap [river]. At VQ 995770 mine detonated under PCF 3 lifting boat about 2-3 feet out of water, very heavy black smoke observed. At same time boats received heavy automatic weapons and small arms fire from both banks. Fire continued for about 5000 meters. Two other mine explosions observed. All boats and MSF returned fire and attempted assist PCF 3. PCF 94 picked up MSF advisor who went overboard. PCF 94 towed PCF 3 as bucket brigade controlled flooding. PCF 43 took all wounded in action to USCGC Spencer for treatment. PCF 94 and 51 assisted PCF 3. LCVP with damage control party was immediately dispatched from Washtenaw County. ... Spotter aircraft in area spotted and RF/PF Cai Nuoc fired mortar after boats cleared. ... [SeaLords358.pdf, p. 2]
PCF-94 even received special recognition in the weekly update from the Commander of Task Force 115 (Roy Hoffmann):
Special recognition is due to the following unit this week, for exceptional performance: To PCF 94 for providing extraordinary assistance to PCF 3 which was seriously damaged by a mine explosion while proceeding down the Bay Hap [river]. PCF 94 picked up the MSF advisor out of the water and towed PCF 3 out of the danger area. PCF 43, 51, and 23 all assisted in suppression of automatic weapons and small arms fire, evacuation of wounded in action, and damage control effort on PCF 3. ... [CTF-115_14March.pdf, pp. 2-3]
This was written for the benefit of the PCF officers in charge and their crews. They all would have seen this, especially those involved in the missions that week. Its details were confirmed four days later, in the weekly assessment Hoffmann sent up the chain of command: "Market Time Raiders conducted Sealords 358 inserting and extracting MSF along Song Bay Hap. During transit to Cai Nuoc encountered an enemy initiated firefight with water mines and automatic weapons fire at VQ995770." [CTF-115_18March.pdf]
O'Neill, however, ignores all of the above and relies on four witnesses. One is Larry Thurlow, who received a Bronze Star for his actions that day. The whole point of his medal citation is that he was not looking around to see if there was enemy fire that was being suppressed. He jumped from his boat to PCF-3 on a rescue mission without regard for his own safety. He was busy saving the dazed and injured crew of PCF-3. He wasn't looking for the enemy.
Richard Pees [not "Pease," unless he has since changed the spelling], the officer in charge of PCF-3, suffered a concussion and other injuries, so he was in no shape to notice whether PCF-94 had encountered a mine or if enemy fire was being suppressed, much less remember anything about it. At any rate, he left the scene as soon as possible, along with the other three seriously wounded sailors (Hollister, Tryner, Vorphal).
So that leaves just Jack Chenoweth and Van Odell, both aboard PCF-23, who say they "had a clear view of the entire incident." [p. 90] But there are at least two holes in their story in Unfit for Command. First, they claim to have brought the wounded to the Coast Guard cutter Spencer for triage, [p. 90-91] but the spot report clearly indicates that it was PCF-43 that carried the wounded. Kerry's journal actually disentangles Chenoweth from this problem, precisely because it is an accurate, contemporaneous account. The journal tells us that the wounded from PCF-3 were transferred to another boat [PCF-43], which "set off at full speed with a cover boat." [Brinkley, p. 315] The cover boat was PCF-23. This is confirmed by Chenoweth's own notebook, of which two pages have been released. I have expanded some of Chenoweth's abbreviations, like DC and "T":
... Got underway at 0930. Went into Bay Hap alone. No incidents. Layed to at the mouth of the canal where the other boats went in to insert troops. Sat there for about three hours. Finally the boats came out and we went up to Cai Nuoc. We were there for about 45 minutes. Pulled out with 3 leading left column followed by me, with 43, 51, and 94 on the right bank. We were starting past the first group of fish stakes when the 3 boat was mined. My God, I've never seen anything like it. The boat was lifted, entirely, at least 6 feet out of the water. Then there was a fantastic flash, a boom, then the 3 boat disappeared in a fountain of water and debris. I was only 30 yards behind. I backed down full, veered off to the right as we unleashed everything into the banks. The 3 boat wandered aimlessly downstream. I pulled up to cover him. All of a sudden we spotted a man overboard. Started to pick him up, but 94 got there first. Proceeded downstream. The 3 boat ran aground. 94 pulled him off. 43 and I proceeded on out with injured personnel. 51 and 94 took 3 under tow. I rendezvoused with mike boat to pick up damage-control team and headed back for 3 boat. Met 3 boat and damage-control team went on board and started pumping. Later on, transfered body of MSF team to my boat, along with John Kerry, who had shrapnel in his hip and a possible broken arm. Took the body to the LST and John to the Coast Guard Cutter. Got back to the LST and went to bed. [Page 1] [Page 2]
As a result, it isn't hard to see the other problem with Chenoweth and Odell's claim to have witnessed "the entire incident." They weren't there the whole time.
Regardless, O'Neill omits crucial details, like the role of the damage-control team, saying "Kerry jumped into the boat [PCF-23], leaving the few remaining officers and men the job of saving PCF-3 ..." [p. 91] The truth is that Kerry was aboard PCF-94 as it towed PCF-3 most of the way to the LST with the help of PCF-51 (Thurlow), along with PCF-23 (Chenoweth) and the damage-control team. As they came into the vicinity of the LST, Chenoweth's notebook shows that Kerry left PCF-94 and boarded PCF-23. They brought the body of Bac She De, the MSF soldier who was killed during the mission earlier in the day, ahead to the LST to be medevaced. The helicopter was waiting, with the four wounded from PCF-3 already aboard. [Brinkley, p. 316] PCF-23 then brought Kerry and the two remaining members of the PCF-3 crew over to the Spencer for medical treatment, and waited to bring them back.
Nothing in Chenoweth's notebook entry contradicts anything in the Navy documentation. It does not mention enemy fire or secondary mine explosions, but it otherwise clearly confirms PCF-94's active part in the rescue, directly contradicting key elements of the smear.
In several of his television appearances after the publication of Unfit for Command, O'Neill cited an article by Thomas Lipscomb that was published on October 1, 2004. [New York Sun] The article is based on the research of Troy Jenkins. It sets out to prove that Kerry wrote the after-action "spot" report on March 13. Jenkins' so-called research is largely wishful thinking, but he poses as an expert ["NavyChief"] on various online forums, including:
What Jenkins does is look for evidence that supports his notion of what happened. He doesn't look at the evidence and try to draw conclusions from it. Instead, he draws his conclusions first and then looks at the evidence, ignoring anything that doesn't fit his preconceptions. Let's look carefully at the documents from Sealords 358 and what he does with them. [SeaLords358.pdf]
At the top of each page of the message there is the teletype (TTY) routing indicator RUMFSBB, which indicates where in the system the message was sent from. Jenkins claims that this indicates the USCGC Spencer. That is simply not correct. In fact, RUMFSAA (not BB) was the indicator for the Spencer. This is apparent on the Sealords 358 spot report itself. Among the recipients listed is the following: "RUMFSAA/CTU ONE ONE FIVE PT FOUR PT TWO". CTU 115.4.2 is the commanding officer of the Spencer. How do we know this?
Operation Order 201-69 was the basic order in effect at that time and in that place. [Operation_Order_201-69.pdf] On p. A-3, notice that CTU 115.4.2 is the commander of Gulf Offshore Reaction Unit NINE. The "NINE" refers to Patrol Area 9 (see p. A-4), the location of Sealords 358. For more information about Patrol Area 9, see the map on p. B-I-B-1 along with the precise description starting on p. B-I-A-3. Add to this the March Market Time Employment Schedule, available here: [March_Employment_Schedule.pdf]. This confirms that the Coast Guard cutter Spencer and the Navy LST USS Washtenaw County were the only two regular Market Time support units deployed in Patrol Area 9 on March 13.
In short, the report could not have been sent from the Spencer because it was sent to the Spencer!
That just leaves the question of what RUMFSBB does in fact indicate. Common sense tells us that it must be the Washtenaw County, the other support unit involved. Its designator was TU 115.4.9, the "Gulf Operations Support Unit", which could only be an LST. [Operation_Order_201-69.pdf, p. A-3] Thus, on March 13, 1969 in the Gulf of Thailand:
RUMFSAA = TU 115.4.2 (WHEC) = USCGC SPENCER
RUMFSBB = TU 115.4.9 (LST) = USS WASHTENAW COUNTY
Jenkins is correct when he states that the Spencer went off duty after March 14, as indicated in the schedule. That may explain why the spot report sent late on March 13 was sent via TTY to the Spencer, when such reports were usually delivered by other means (indicated by "ZEN" in the list of recipients) to the cutter during its deployment.
Among the collected spot reports involving PCF-94 under Kerry, two others were sent from RUMFSBB:
If we look at the Sealords 354 spot report, we see some additional evidence that TU 115.4.2 is in fact the Spencer, since one of the five VC captured was "seriously wounded" and given "medical treatment" on "CTU 115.4.2." Note also that the employment schedule shows that the Washtenaw County (unlike the Spencer) was still on duty as of March 20, when the Sealords 378 report was sent.
Jenkins also claims that the "/1" at the end of the "MARKET TIME SPOT REPORT 13/1/TE 22.214.171.124/1" line of the report indicates that Kerry is its author. This is a fantasy. Lipscomb writes,
First of all, the missing "C" in the line is an error. Just look at the FM [FROM] line at the top of the report, where it clearly indicates "FM CTE ONE NINE FOUR PT FIVE PT FOUR PT FOUR." Second, the "/1" at the end of the line indicates "first report." Both of these points are easily demonstrated by looking at any number of these reports from January/February/March 1969. In no case, ever, does the Market Time Spot Report line end with "CTE 126.96.36.199"—there is always a "/1" or "/2" at the end. Only very rarely is there a second report, indicated by a "/2"—for examples, see the reports that were filed for Sealords missions 326 and 270. [PCF-94_spot_reports.pdf, pp. 11-13, 18-20]
In addition, Operation Order 201-69, the basic order for normal operations, states:
... the final [number] is the SITREP number for that incident with the initial report numbered one. 28/2/WARBLER/3 would be the third SITREP on the second incident reported by the USS WARBLER on the 28th day of the month. [Operation_Order_201-69.pdf, p. C-I-A-2, note c]
Thus, 13/1/CTE 188.8.131.52/1 would be the first SITREP on the first incident reported by CTE 184.108.40.206 on the 13th day of the month.
The "194" in these numbers indicates Operation Sealords. Jenkins cites Operation Order 101-69, formulated by Adrian Lonsdale (CTG 115.4) on January 1, 1969. This special order outlines daily Sealords missions from An Thoi:
CTU 115.4.7 [George Elliot, commander of Coastal Division 11] will assign 3 PCFs to form TE 220.127.116.11 to plan and conduct a minimum of one significant incursion during each 24 hour period for which a major Sea Lords operation is not scheduled. Types of operations to be conducted are as follows: ... [Operation_Order_101-69.pdf]
The order defines CTE 18.104.22.168 as the "Senior PCF OinC" and TE 22.214.171.124 is defined as the "Three PCFs assigned Sealords operations An Xuyen Province." Add to this Lonsdale's own statement about command procedure quoted in Lipscomb's article:
What Lonsdale doesn't tell you (or doesn't know) is that not only had both Droz and Thurlow been in Vietnam for much longer than Kerry, but Thurlow had been based at An Thoi longer than Kerry. Droz arrived in Vietnam in June 1968. Thurlow arrived in April 1968. [Navy Times] Thus, according to Lonsdale's own statement, and as clearly defined in the operation order he authored, Thurlow was the "logical candidate" to write the report on March 13. Moreover, if we look at the basic order for normal operations, Operation Order 201-69, we find it plainly states that:
For special operations involving more than one unit, the OTC will submit combined report. [Operation_Order_201-69.pdf, p. C-I-A-2]
Thurlow was the OTC and he has never said that he remembers that Kerry prepared the spot report. He has only said that he himself does not remember preparing it. The statement quoted in the article, "I never liked the paperwork anyway. I was happy to have Kerry write them up," is not the same as saying he remembers who did the report on March 13.
Kerry was treated at 1900H, four hours after the ambush. Jenkins claims that PCF-23 (Chenoweth) brought Kerry to the Spencer and returned to the LST without him, claiming Kerry spent the night on the cutter. [Remember, he also claims the spot report was sent from the cutter.] If Jenkins is correct, then obviously Kerry had little or nothing to do with the spot report. The last time Kerry would have been on the LST was more than 5 hours before the report was sent from there! But, as usual, Jenkins is completely wrong. Chenoweth's notebook does not say anything about not waiting to take Kerry back to the LST after treatment. Indeed, since he knew about the shrapnel and the "possible broken arm," it seems most likely that PCF-23's orders were to wait and Chenoweth's notes simply reflect what he was told while waiting, or on the way back.
In fact, there is only one OinC that the documents show beyond any doubt that he was present on the Washtenaw County when the spot report was sent at 2320H on March 13, 1969: LTJG Thurlow, the OTC for the mission and CTE 126.96.36.199. The text of his award recommendation makes it clear that he returned to the LST. Note that Elliot, the commander of Coastal Division 11, was also there. At least, he was there during the operation earlier in the day. Kerry was there for a short while before being brought to the Spencer for treatment, maybe long enough to be debriefed, but certainly not long enough to write the report itself. In reality, of course, all of the OinCs would have been back on the LST by 2320H, even Chenoweth and Kerry.
It is a disgrace and a pity that Thurlow and Elliot won't stand up and take responsibility for the content of the spot report. It appears that they were both present on the LST when it was sent. Indeed, it seems likely that Elliot prepared the report after debriefing the OinCs. This was not uncommon, especially for missions like Sealords 358, which required coordination between multiple boats and the ground troops. None of the OinCs, not even Thurlow, had a clear picture of the entire operation. In addition, LCDR Elliot had been directly involved, issuing orders from the LST during the engagement. Elliot, of course, also submitted the award recommendations for Thurlow, Lambert, and Kerry on March 23.
Elliot had everything to gain from handling the spot report for Sealords 358. The report does not mention the problems on the mission, making it look like everything went just fine up until the moment the mine exploded under PCF-3 during the return to base. In contrast to the problems with the RF/PF described by Kerry in his journal [Brinkley, pp. 310-313], the only problem the spot report mentions is a lack of LHFT (Light Helicopter Fire Team, i.e., Navy Seawolves) support. In fact, it may have been the lack of promised LHFT support that caused the RF/PF forces to balk and radio back to Cai Nuoc for instructions. See Hoffmann's February 2, 1969 memo on air support for TF 115 Sealords raids, where he specifically says that, "Although we can and do most raids with PCF's only, RF troops will not participate or support our ops without helo support." [SeaLordsLHFT.pdf] While the RF/PF did in fact particpate in operations without LHFT support (Sealords 270, for example), Kerry's journal makes it clear that Seawolves had been "promised" for Sealords 358. The RF/PF must have had a pretty good idea of the enemy's strength and numbers, which were considerable—the MSF were in a firefight for 2 hours with 20-40 enemy and the movements of the RF/PF flushed out 30 more. They knew air support was critical to the mission.
If Kerry had been asked to write the report, he would have described a much less successful operation, with opportunities lost. Details like the wires leading down to the landing area with strings of batteries at the other end (for mines) would have made it into the report. [Brinkley, p. 312] On the other hand, since it was Elliot's job to make sure the operation had the air support it needed, he would not have been interested in highlighting the consequences of its absence. Curiously, the report cites the exact time to the minute, 0946H, when Elliot made the request for LHFT support, while all of the other times in the report are rounded off to the nearest 15 minutes. Surely that detail could only have come from Elliot? Handing out a few Bronze Stars also fits Elliot's agenda by taking the focus off of what went wrong with Sealords 358 (no LHFT support) and putting it on what went right later on (saving PCF-3).
The following is a simple list of the times mentioned in the documentation, listed in local time ["H"], seven hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time ["Z"]. The content of the FM [FROM] line is given in brackets after a description of the document:
The rest of Jenkins' timeline follows Unfit for Command and is mostly wrong, as discussed in Coming Home.
[Sealords mission 358, 13 March 1969] [Brinkley, pp. 303-318]
Kerry's personal medical records contain the following notation: "... In firefight approximately 3 hours ago, patient was a) thrown against bulkhead sustaining injury (contusion) to R forearm. b) sustained small piece of shrapnel in L upper buttock." The injury to the forearm was serious enough to warrant an x-ray. [Gerald J. Doyle]
There are two versions of the Navy casualty report. One was generated for Kerry's personnel file. [Personnel_Casualty_Report.pdf, p. 4] The other is the original report from the Naval Support Activity Detachment, An Thoi, which is more complete:
13 MAR 1969, 1530H, Song Bay Hap, WQ 010780. While serving as Officer in Charge aboard PCF-94 engaged in operations in the above river, LTJG Kerry suffered shrapnel wounds in his left buttocks and contusions on his right forearm when a mine detonated close aboard PCF-94. ... Treated by medical officer aboard USCGC Spencer (WHEC-36) and returned to duty with Coastal Division Eleven. [SeaLords358.pdf, p. 9]
Finally, the spot report from the mission says:
WIA [Wounded in Action]: LTJG Richard W. Pees, USNR, head and back injury (medevac); ENS Kenneth S. Tryner, USNR, back injury (medevac); GMG3 Earl N. Hollister, USN, shrapnel wound groin (medevac); RD3 Leslie L. Vorphal, USN, back injury (medevac); LTJG John F. Kerry, USNR, shrapnel wound left buttock and contusion right forearm (minor); GMG3 Wolfe, USN, back injury, contusions, and abrasions (minor); EN3 Arp, USN, contusions and abrasions (minor). [SeaLords358.pdf, p. 2]
O'Neill interprets these documents in the dishonest way that we have come to expect from him:
The trick is easy enough to see, if you look. All you have to do is notice that each short wound description in the spot report ends with one of two words in parenthesis: "(medevac)" or "(minor)." Thus, "(minor)" at the end of the description of Kerry's wound does not modify the preceding clause, "contusion right forearm," like O'Neill would have us believe. Rather, it carries the same meaning as the standard phrase at the end of the casualty report: "Treated ... and returned to duty." Note that "(medevac)" is short for "Treated ... and medevaced ..." in the casualty reports for the four members of the PCF-3 crew who were eventually medevaced. [SeaLords358.pdf, pp. 3-6] Thus, "(minor)" means that Kerry was not medevaced. It does not otherwise indicate the severity of his wounds.
It was not the point of the casualty reports to document every aspect of the injuries, only the most serious. Hollister's casualty report, for example, does not mention the shrapnel wounds on his groin that are noted in the spot report. All it says is "GMG Hollister suffered minor internal injuries when a mine detonated under PCF-9." [SeaLords358.pdf, p. 3] Shall we assume that the shrapnel wounds did not exist because they are not in his casualty report? Shall we say Hollister did not deserve a Purple Heart because the word "minor" was used in the report? Kerry's casualty report does not use the word "minor" and it not tell us whether his arm was bleeding. The degree of damage to the arm is not specified. All it says is that there was a contusion and the arm was working well enough for Kerry to return to duty.
Finally, Chenoweth's notebook entry gives us one important additional piece of information when it says Kerry "had shrapnel in his hip and a possible broken arm." This suggests that the Spencer did not have an x-ray machine on board. Otherwise, Chenoweth would not have written that Kerry had a "possible broken arm." He would have known if it was broken or not. As a result, the official casualty report had to wait until Kerry got back to An Thoi and an x-ray machine. This explains why it was not sent until the next afternoon, and why it was sent from An Thoi.
The purpose of this coda at the end of O'Neill's case against "John Kerry in Vietnam" is to carry out one last distortion of the truth. As I pointed out at the very beginning of this essay, here, the only meaningful question surrounding John Kerry's Purple Hearts is not how he got them but rather why he chose to accept a thrice-wounded reassignment for his wounds. The answer is linked to his anger about the war, and his determination to do something about it.
O'Neill whitewashes the issue of the war itself and instead focuses on the timing of Kerry's decision to leave An Thoi. In his 1971 debate with O'Neill, Kerry said that he "deliberated for about two weeks" before making the decision to leave. O'Neill says this statement was "a complete lie." [p. 94] At this point it should come as no surprise to the reader that it is O'Neill who is lying here. Unfit for Command claims that Kerry departed An Thoi on March 17. [p. 199] In reality, Kerry left An Thoi on March 26, as indicated in his fitness report. Indeed, it is certain that he took part in missions until at least March 21-22, and possibly March 25-26. This is indicated in his journal [Brinkley, pp. 323-328] and the spot reports for this period. [PCF-94_spot_reports.pdf, pp. 28-34]
For those keeping score at home, that is "about two weeks" between the time of his third wound (March 13) and the time he departed An Thoi (March 26) to go to Cam Ranh Bay to await his orders. According to the Navy regulation that governed this (BUPERS Instruction 1300.39), the request for a thrice-wounded reassignment (dated March 17) was automatic, required no matter what Kerry decided to do. It was up to Kerry himself to file a second, written request to waive the reassignment, which he could have chosen to do at any time before he left An Thoi. [Campaign Desk] [Thrice-wounded_reassignment.pdf]