San Diego Union Tribune

July 24, 2004

Vietnam protests put Kerry in early spotlight

OTTO KREISHER
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON  The cavernous Senate hearing room was packed, with the usual well-groomed Capitol crowd mixed with scores of scruffy-looking military veterans, some in partial uniforms.

Sitting alone at the witness table in front of six graying senators was a young man, his green jungle fatigues adorned with three rows of ribbons, his long-jawed face framed by a thick mop of hair.

John Kerry, a decorated former Navy officer and the Ivy League-educated scion of an old Massachusetts family, urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to end the war in Vietnam because every day men were dying so the United States did not have to admit "that we have made a mistake."

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" a 27-year-old Kerry asked.

That electrifying appearance April 22, 1971, catapulted Kerry into national prominence, setting the stage for a political career that has the Massachusetts senator on the verge of accepting next week's Democratic nomination for president.

In his bid for the White House, Kerry has relied heavily on his record as a thrice-wounded veteran and on the support of hundreds of fellow veterans, including the "band of brothers" of former sailors he led.

But he has been assailed by other Vietnam veterans who still burn with anger over Kerry's role in the anti-war movement.

Although Kerry already had doubts about the war, he has said he felt an obligation to serve because a number of his close friends at Yale were joining the military and because of his background. Kerry was born in a Denver military hospital in 1943; his father was an Army Air Forces pilot.

Kerry reported to Officer Candidate School at Newport, R.I., in August 1966 and three months later was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy Reserve.

His first assignment was to the Gridley, a guided-missile frigate, at Long Beach Naval Station, where he was responsible for keeping the ship clean and rust-free.

In his officer's evaluation, Kerry was described as:

"A most capable officer who demonstrates a high degree of maturity beyond his age and experience ... His division's morale is one of the highest on the ship due to his dynamic leadership."

But retired Navy Capt. James F. Kelly, who drafted that report as the Gridley's executive officer, recently condemned Kerry for protesting the Vietnam War while he and others were still fighting.

"Many of us felt betrayed that one of our own, a decorated hero, gave comfort to the enemy by such actions," Kelly said in a letter to a Navy journal.

DEATH OF A FRIEND

After the Gridley sailed for Vietnam in February 1968, Kerry received word that Richard Pershing, one of his closest friends at Yale, had been killed in combat.

The loss of Pershing - the first of several of Kerry's friends to fall in Vietnam - might have planted the seed for his zealous opposition to the war.

In a letter to his future wife, Julia Thorne, Kerry wrote:

"If I do nothing else in my life, I will never stop trying to bring to people the conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this kind."

Although he had grown distressed over the war, Kerry already had volunteered to plunge into the conflict, requesting assignment to swift boats, one of the most dangerous Navy jobs in Vietnam.

The swifts, officially Patrol Craft Fast, were 50-foot, aluminum-hull boats with little in the way of armor to protect the six-man crew, but a lot of firepower. They were used for patrols along the coast and into the maze of rivers in the Mekong Delta.

After coming back for training at the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Kerry returned to Vietnam on Nov. 17, 1968.

Without a boat of his own, Kerry spent weeks with other swift boat officers on coastal patrol, where the main danger was frequently violent storms.

To break the boredom, Kerry volunteered for a Dec. 2 mission on a small boat with two sailors looking for vessels violating curfew. A night encounter with a group of Vietnamese led to an exchange of fire that left Kerry with a slight arm wound, earning him a Purple Heart.

Kerry later called the incident "a half-assed action that hardly qualified as combat, but it was my first and that made it very exciting."

He was soon given a swift boat of his own, PCF-44, with a crew of five.

At that time, Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt - a future chief of naval operations - assumed overall command of the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, and Capt. Roy Hoffman took over the Coastal Command, which included the swift boats. Hoffman ordered a more aggressive policy to "take the fight to the enemy."

FIREFIGHTS ON PATROL

In the following weeks, Kerry and his crew conducted numerous patrols in the small winding rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta, repeatedly taking fire from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades from unseen enemies on the densely covered banks.

Kerry later noted that he was disturbed by the willingness of Vietnamese troops and some swift boat crews to shoot at apparently unarmed people, and that his gloom deepened upon hearing that Bob Crosby, a good friend from training, had been killed in an accidental shooting.

Late in January 1969, the skipper of another swift boat was badly wounded, and Kerry was given command of that boat, PCF-94, and its veteran five-man crew.

On one of their early missions, the crew encountered a sampan in the dark. Kerry told his crew to fire a warning shot, but the sailors opened fire. Boarding the craft, they found a woman with a baby, blood on the deck and a dead child. A man thought to be aboard to sampan was not found.

Kerry said the incident haunted him for years.

In the next weeks, the crew conducted 18 missions and engaged in numerous firefights. On Feb. 20, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the boat, sending shrapnel into Kerry's left leg and earning him a second Purple Heart.

Eight days later, Kerry's boat and another swift boat engaged in a series of firefights that reportedly killed nine Viet Cong guerrillas and earned Kerry a Silver Star, the third-highest decoration for valor.

As Kerry directed his boat toward the riverbank in response to enemy fire, a guerrilla popped up and aimed a rocket launcher at the vessel. Apparently because the fighter was too close to his target for the rocket to arm, he ran.

Fred Short, the crew gunner, said he could not fire his twin .50 caliber guns forward because the pilothouse was in the way. But he said Tommy Belodeau, in the bow, fired his M-60 machine gun, hitting the guerrilla in the leg.

"That guy never broke stride," Short recalled.

Kerry, armed with an M-16 rifle, jumped from the boat and chased the armed Viet Cong, followed by Mike Medeiros and Belodeau. Short said Medeiros told him the enemy soldier stood up aiming his rocket but that Kerry shot him before he could fire.

Critics would later question whether Kerry's action had been appropriate and necessary, but Short and Del Sandusky, the boat's senior enlisted man, said Kerry saved their lives.

If Kerry had not chased and killed the Viet Cong guerrilla, "we would have been dead," Sandusky said in an interview.

Adm. Zumwalt pinned the Silver Star on Kerry, citing him for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action."

EXIT FROM VIETNAM

On March 13, Kerry's boat and four other swift boats conducted a mission that would earn him two more medals and a ticket out of Vietnam.

After an incident ashore in which Kerry was hit in the buttock by shrapnel, the boats were leaving the area when they were raked by gunfire from the shore. Mines planted in the river exploded around them.

As Kerry directed his boat to shield a damaged swift boat, another explosion rocked his boat, throwing him into a bulkhead and smashing his right arm.

Another blast knocked Army Green Beret Lt. James Rassmann from one of the other boats. Amid continued enemy fire, Kerry raced his boat back to reach the soldier and, despite an injured arm, ran from the cover of the pilothouse to pull the Green Beret aboard.

Rassmann nominated Kerry for another Silver Star. But he was awarded a Bronze Star with a citation praising his "professionalism, great personal courage under fire and complete dedication to duty."

Kerry also received a third Purple Heart, making him eligible to request assignment out of Vietnam.

Kerry insists that the transfer papers were filed routinely for him, but his critics say an individual had to make the request personally.

Regardless, Kerry flew out of Vietnam in late March 1969, after just over four months of a normal 12-month tour in country.

Back stateside, he requested early release from active duty in January 1970, returned to civilian life and joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In one of his first activities with the veterans group, Kerry addressed a Labor Day rally at Valley Forge, Pa., following Jane Fonda.

Kerry then attended the anti-war veterans group Winter Soldiers gathering in Detroit, where dozens of men who identified themselves as combat veterans described horrible deeds they said they witnessed or committed in Vietnam.

He also helped organize a large demonstration in Washington, which the Nixon White House tried to squash. At that protest, Kerry met Sen. J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., who invited him to testify before his Foreign Relations panel.

A LIGHTNING ROD

Most Vietnam veterans do not object to Kerry's declaration that the war was being fought for the wrong reasons and could not be won.

But many were outraged when, during his testimony, he repeated on national television the allegations from the Detroit gathering of rapes, mutilations, destruction of villages and unprovoked shooting of civilians.

These violations, Kerry said, were not isolated incidents "but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."

Thirty-three years later, his statements have caused thousands of Vietnam veterans to oppose Kerry for impugning the honor of their service.

This year, some of that opposition has apparent political motives.

An example of that is the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a well-funded organization recently established by Texas lawyer John O'Neill, a former swift boat officer who had been recruited by the Nixon administration in 1971 to counter Kerry's charges.

Most of the group's money came from a major Republican contributor in Texas.

The group held a Washington news conference in May to denounce Kerry as unfit to be commander in chief, condemning his assertions of atrocities and challenging the legitimacy of his medals for valor and combat wounds.

It claims 215 members, veterans of swift boats or units that served with them. The list includes swift-boat leader Hoffman, now a retired rear admiral; retired Cmdr. George Elliot, who was Kerry's immediate superior in the Delta; and Steven Gardner, who served with Kerry during the short time he commanded his first boat, the PCF-44.

Hoffman said Kerry in Vietnam "was aggressive, but vain and prone to impulsive judgment, often with disregard for specific tactical assignments."

Gardner said Kerry's "indecisive moves with our boat put our boat in jeopardy." Gardner is the only one of the 11 sailors who served on Kerry's two swift boats who has spoken out against him. Many of the others have appeared with Kerry during the campaign, and several have filmed TV ads for him.

They dismiss suggestions that Kerry did not deserve all of his three Purple Hearts or his two decorations for valor, or that he maligned all Vietnam veterans in his Senate testimony.

Kerry crew member Short said the critics have a right to their opinions. "But none of those men were on that boat ... I'm an eyewitness ... I wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for him."

Sandusky noted that he was "on the 94 boat when (Kerry) won his medals. He deserved every one of them. I saw the blood. I saw what he did."

"He was an exceptional officer," Sandusky said. "We followed his orders explicitly. He made good decisions."