|Unfit for Command - Chapter Five|
MORE FRAUDULENT MEDALS
“Put me on the list. . . I was standing next to one of my crew
at Seafloat when he was killed in a Sapper attack on the USS
Krishna (Lanny Buroff 7/70). He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal—posthumously. No Silver or Bronze Star
like Kerry got for filling out forms.”
DAVID BORDEN, PCF 40
April 28, 2004, e-mail
“As corpsman with the Marines (Golf 2/5) 1967–68, I agree totally with the information you are trying to get out on Kerry. Three Purple Hearts, Silver Star, Bronze Star in such a short tour is amazing. . .You will see Golf 2/5 was involved. . . in the battle for Hue City complete with block-to-block, houseto-house, and sometime room-to-room fighting. Throughout that battle and many others after that, I never saw anyone win so many decorations in such a short time. Actually, by the accounts I have read on the Silver Star, I would have punished him.”
CORPSMAN JOHN “DOC” HIGGINS, U.S. MARINES
“When John Kerry got his third Purple Heart, we told him to
leave. We knew how the system worked and we didn’t want
him in CosDiv11. Kerry didn’t decide to manipulate the system
to go home after four months; we asked him to go home.”
THOMAS W. WRIGHT, USN (RETIRED)
Swift Boat commander
Far from his commercial portrayal as a purposeful warrior strolling boldly through the jungle, John Kerry was regarded by many Swiftees as a poor officer.
Tedd Peck, a Swift boat commander who operated with Kerry in Vietnam, asked Bill Zaldonis, a Kerry crewman and supporter, how he could possibly be in favor of Kerry. When Zaldonis replied that he wanted a warrior for president, Peck asked, “Yes, but who are you going to get?” Admiral Hoffmann characterized Kerry as a “loose cannon,” while Captain Charles Plumly called him “devious, requiring constant supervision.” For the mere three months that Kerry was involved in duty in Vietnam, he left behind an amazing legacy of Beetle Bailey bumbling. Steve Gardner is the sole crewman who was not swayed by Kerry during his many post-Vietnam years of solicitation aimed at gaining the support of his crew. Today, Gardner asks, “How can Kerry possibly be commander in chief when he couldn’t competently command a six-man crew?” Gardner, a two-tour Swift Boat sailor who sat five feet behind Kerry in Vietnam and who saw many
officers during his two years, judges Kerry to be by far the worst Swift Boat commander he saw in Vietnam:
Kerry was erratic. He hardly ever did what he was supposed to do. His command decisions put us in more peril then he should have. But mostly he just ran. When John Kerry looked out the bow of the boat and he saw tracer fire coming after him, he’d turn and run. That isn’t what he was supposed to do. His job was to face into the fire, to quarter the boat so we could apply our twin .50-caliber machine guns on the enemy. That was our job in the canal, to stand our ground and suppress the enemy fire. All Kerry wanted to do was turn and “get out of Dodge” at the first sign of trouble. When he should have been fighting, calling in air support, he was hightailing it. That’s always been my bone of contention with Kerry—his decision-making capabilities, that’s what takes him out of contention as far as I’m concerned.1
While on patrol in one of the main rivers, for instance, Kerry ran his boat out of the water and aground for a number of hours—not particularly easy to do in the deep river channels. In Tour of Duty, James Wasser, another Kerry crewman (and a Kerry supporter), recounts one of Kerry’s mishaps:
In addition to leading the board-and-search operations, it was Wasser’s responsibility to stand by his young skipper in the event Lieutenant Kerry committed a blunder. “Sometimes he got disoriented and misread the navigational maps,” Wasser allowed. “It was easy to do. Once, we hit a sandbar and couldn’t get loose. We didn’t call in because we didn’t want to get John in trouble. We just sat around for hours, waiting for high tide. It eventually came, and off we went.”2
This, of course, left Kerry’s boat almost defenseless, unable to maneuver, unable to bring guns to bear, unable to withdraw. Aground, Kerry’s boat was totally vulnerable to mortar or any other type of attack. Kerry’s mistake also left the area that his boat was supposed to be patrolling totally unguarded. Because of the boat’s vulnerability and its inability to guard its patrol area and carry out its assignment on station, officers in charge of boats that ran seriously aground were required to report the situation to Coastal Division headquarters immediately. In the above incident, Kerry evidently chose not to call in to avoid getting “in trouble.” While incidental minor grounding was seldom reported, a serious long-term grounding, like that of PCF 44 described above, would always have been reported, and very little trouble would have ensued given the nature of the brown-water navy. Kerry’s decision not to report the episode to his superiors, based on fear of their disfavor, says much about him.
In addition to failing to report adverse occurrences, Kerry developed a reputation for simply wandering off aimlessly. For example, on one occasion, after being relieved, he simply diverted his boat into Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the Communists), “to taste the storied capital,” without informing anyone that he had done so or where he was:
Kerry asked the tactical operations man if there were any waterway restrictions on traffic to Saigon. Every night on patrol he gazed longingly upon the bright lights of the big city just seven miles away, as seductive as the City of Oz or Las Vegas glittering beyond the horizon. Saigon had boutiques, bars, black market deals, nightclubs, brothels, and fifty-six thousand registered prostitutes (plus who knows how many freelancers). There were some river-travel restrictions, the officer informed him, but then he confided that there were also a few loopholes, too. On the spot, Kerry decided to exploit those. The key was to have a plausible excuse at the ready should his boat be stopped on its way into the city. “We knew that while we were cruising up and down the river at night, someone was sitting at the bar of the Majestic Hotel in the center of the city, drinking, probably with a girl at his side,” Kerry explained. “It seemed wrong. We were jealous at any rate and wanted to share it. So instead of turning right as we left Nha Be after being relieved, we went left, up the Long Tau, and into the heart of the city. We didn’t have permission from the division or anyone else, but we felt that we deserved an irresponsible, personal moment, so we did it anyway.”3
Reading Brinkley’s account, one wonders why Kerry chose to brag about being irresponsible to the point where he concocted ready-made excuses should he be stopped and questioned, just so he and his crew could share in the sin available in Saigon. Self-reported self-indulgence is hard to comprehend.
On March 5–7, 1969, shortly before requesting his transfer from Vietnam, Kerry was under the command of Captain Charles Plumly, USN, for an operation in which the Swifts transported mines and personnel near the Bay Hap River. The Swifts were assigned individual positions where they would wait should mine personnel be attacked or need assistance. Repeatedly, Kerry simply disappeared from position, “ like a child with an attention problem,” according to Captain Plumly. In Plumly’s report to Admiral Hoffmann, he indicated to Hoffmann that he had a terrible problem with Kerry: Kerry simply would not obey orders. As a result, Hoffmann came to An Thoi and gave a talk to the officers there (not singling Kerry out), indicating that anyone who failed to obey orders in the future would be shipped to Saigon without further notice.
That Kerry stories abound is remarkable given his short cameo in Vietnam. any recall Kerry blundering into living quarters in An Thoi with a live and dangerous Claymore mine and with B-40s that he had found. He acted like a tourist passing through, as if he intended to keep these items as souvenirs for later political campaigns. Like Lieutenant Keefer in The Caine Mutiny, the aspiring novelist played by Fred MacMurray in the 1954 movie, John Kerry kept busy with his private journal.
Kerry also often sported a home movie camera to record his exploits for later viewing. Swiftees report that Kerry would revisit ambush locations for reenacting combat scenes where he would portray the hero, catching it all on film. Kerry would take movies of himself walking around in combat gear, sometimes dressed as an infantryman walking resolutely through the terrain. He even filmed mock interviews of himself narrating his exploits. A joke circulated among Swiftees was that Kerry left Vietnam early not because he received three Purple Hearts, but because he had recorded enough film of himself to take home for his planned political campaigns.
Kerry’s supporters point to an evaluation of Kerry by Commander George Elliott, who rated Kerry as “one of the few” best officers for his two months at An Thoi. In reality, Elliott gave essentially the same evaluation to every officer at An Thoi. Kerry was in the middle of the pack. Elliott felt that all the officers at An Thoi deserved superior ratings given the nature of the duty. Most important, Elliott did not know (as some of Kerry’s peers had begun to learn) of Kerry’s shell game of phony reports, fictitious victories, and concealed groundings. To the contrary, Kerry was ingratiating to superiors and, if judged solely by his own, often phony, written reports, a superb warrior proceeding from triumph to triumph. Commander Elliott notes that the tone and substance of Kerry’s “reports” are captured quite succinctly in Churchill’s quote, “I expect history to treat me kindly since I wrote it.”
In his after-action reports, Kerry wove a story of often imagined enemy fire, nonexistent triumphs, and charges into intense fire against superior numbers of enemy. These accounts existed on paper, but almost never in the real world.
Captain Thomas Wright remembers that on multiboat operations Kerry would suddenly disappear without warning. He recalls that Kerry’s boat had poor fire discipline and would open fire without prior clearance or apparent reason, sometimes opening fire even though the enemy had not fired at him. Because of these problems, Wright requested that Kerry no longer be assigned to operations under his command. Commander Elliott complied, and Wright no longer operated with Kerry.
Shortly before Kerry left Vietnam, Wright and others spoke to him at An Thoi. Kerry’s three Purple Hearts would allow him to leave Vietnam, and they urged him to do so. Wright was not upset to see the “ Boston Strangler” leave Vietnam. He believed that Kerry simply did not belong there. Kerry never formed the kind of human relationships with his fellow sailors that are essential to effective performance.
Purple Heart Number Two
Kerry claims to have been wounded on February 20, 1969, on the Dam Doi Canal, a canal running north from the Song Bo De River. In other reports, Kerry seems to place the location of the incident on the Cua Lon to the west. The operating report prepared by Kerry reflects “ intense rocket and rifle fire.” In his biography, Kerry describes “ blood running down the deck”:
Just as they moved out onto the Cua Lon, at a junction known for unfriendliness in the past, kaboom! PCF 94 had taken a rocket-propelled grenade round off the port side, fired at them from the far left bank. Kerry felt a piece of hot shrapnel bore into his left leg. With blood running down the deck, the Swift managed to make an otherwise uneventful exit into the Gulf of Thailand, where they rendezvoused with a Coast Guard Cutter.4
The biography written by the Boston Globe reporters also acknowledges the wound, though the discussion of it is presented in a much less dramatic manner: “He was treated on an offshore ship and returned to duty hours later.”5
The officer of the accompanying boat, Rocky Hildreth, states that John Kerry’s operating report (which Hildreth did not see until 2004) is false, and that the intense rocket and rifle fire reported by Kerry never happened. It seems very unlikely that Kerry’s boat could have experienced the heavy fire he reported without the accompanying boat hearing it. Hildreth also reports that there was no “blood on the deck,” as Kerry claimed. Moreover, there was no damage to any boat from “the intense rifle and rocket fire” reported by Kerry. Van Odell, a sailor on PCF 93, recounts that when Kerry’s crew came back that day, he heard them say that Kerry had faked a Purple Heart from his own M-79 wound. In addition, one of Kerry’s crewmen, in a 2002 email that he disowned after meeting with Kerry, questioned this Purple Heart and indicated that it was for a negligently self-inflicted M-79 grenade round like the one occurring at Cam Ranh Bay.
What is beyond question is that Kerry suffered at most a minor wound, losing no duty time. His account of “blood running down the deck” seems exaggerated, an awful lot of blood for a wound requiring what appears to have been minor treatment. If Kerry did suffer a minor wound from hostile fire on this occasion, this would have been the only time such a thing happened during his three months in Vietnam.
In his Dam Doi operating report from February 20, 1969, Kerry recommended “ psy-ops” (psychological operations) along the Dam Doi—a recommendation he lauds as a great achievement in his 1970 interview in the Harvard Crimson: “One time Kerry was ordered to destroy a Viet Cong village but disobeyed orders and suggested that the Navy Command simply send in a Psychological Warfare team to befriend the villagers with food, hospital supplies, and better educational facilities.”6 Once again, Kerry promotes himself as an “ antiwar warrior,”
Surprisingly, the Navy adopted a psy-ops recommendation. If the idea were indeed Kerry’s, then it would have been the only such recommendation he made and the only one to be adopted. At any rate, the program was an unmitigated disaster. Many Swiftees, including John O’Neill, wondered who could have been so stupid as to recommend using our boats to travel slowly while playing psy-ops tapes over a loudspeaker, appealing in Vietnamese to the local population, in an area as hostile as the Dam Doi. Many Swiftees and Mobile Riverine Sailors died or were wounded on these missions following the “Boston Strangler’s” recommendation.
One was Shelton White, a well-known film producer of underwater documentaries, who was wounded three times on the Dam Doi in a matter of minutes but who returned to fight again. White and many other sailors who signed the May 4, 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth letter opposing Kerry’s presidential campaign did not realize even in 2004 that it was John Kerry who had recommended this illconceived psy-ops operation for which they had paid with their blood.
A couple of days before his second Purple Heart, Kerry was also operating with Bob Hildreth, officer in charge of the accompanying boat. It was a day Hildreth would never forget. Kerry was the lead boat, with Hildreth behind. There was a small hole in a line of fishing stakes. Kerry’s boat slipped through first. When Hildreth’s boat started through, a mine went off, and then at least five rockets were fired at the boat. Standard doctrine and procedure when a boat was under such intense fire was for accompanying boats to stand and fight or return and provide fire support. According to Hildreth, Kerry simply fled, providing neither fire support nor even mortar support. Instead, Hildreth and his gallant crew were left alone to fight their way out of the ambush—which Hildreth has never forgotten: “I would never want Kerry behind me. I wouldn’t want him in front of me either. And I sure wouldn’t want him commanding our kids in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Typically, on Kerry’s website, as well as in the operating report for that day, which Kerry wrote and Hildreth never saw, it is Kerry’s boat—rather than Hildreth’s—that encounters the five B-40s and the mine. Kerry’s flight, leaving Hildreth’s boat in serious jeopardy, vanishes from the account, and the event is a real triumph—at least on Kerry’s website.
The Silver Star
For some thirty-five years, John Kerry has shaped his life around a single moment on February 28, 1969, for which he received the Silver Star. Unlike the lives of the Silver Star winners from Coastal Squadron One who signed the May 4, 2004, letter condemning John Kerry, or those of the sixty or so holders of one or more Purple Hearts in the same group, Kerry’s life seems to be frozen at that moment. He has chosen to utilize his thirty-five-year-old Silver Star as the basis for every political campaign he has waged. In each campaign, a new participant in Kerry’s medal stories is discovered, as was Jim Rassmann, the comrade “left behind” whom Kerry did fish out of the water but about whom he invented an exaggerated story during the 2004 presidential primary in Iowa. Each Kerry campaign ends with Kerry
embracing his comrades while faulting his opponents for their less meritorious service.
Kerry’s Star would never have been awarded had his actions been reviewed through normal channels. In his case, he was awarded the medal two days after the incident with no review. The medal was arranged to boost the morale of Coastal Division 11, but it was based on false and incomplete information provided by Kerry himself. Kerry did follow normal military conduct and displayed ordinary courage, but the incident was nothing out of the ordinary and to most Swift and Vietnam veterans, Kerry’s actions would hardly justify any kind of unusual award. Moreover, to most Swiftees, Kerry’s tactical judgment was very poor, reflecting a willingness to risk boat and crew for medals and personal glory—hardly the type of judgment we expect from a commander in chief.
The following is the Silver Star citation based on Kerry’s account:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving with Coastal Division ELEVEN emerged in armed conflict with Viet Cong insurgents in An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam, on 28 February 1969. Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY was serving as Officer in Charge of Patrol Craft Fast 94 and Officer in Tactical Command of a three-boat mission. As the force approached the target area on the narrow Dong Cung River, all units came under intense automatic weapons and small arms fire from an entrenched enemy force less than fifty feet away. Unhesitatingly Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY ordered his boat to attack as all units opened fire and beached directly in front of the enemy ambushers. This daring and courageous tactic surprised the enemy and succeeded in routing a score of enemy soldiers. The PCF gunners captured many enemy weapons in the battle that followed. On a request from U.S. Army advisors ashore, Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY ordered PCFs 94 and 23 further up river to suppress enemy sniper fire. After proceeding approximately eight hundred yards, the boats were again taken under fire from a heavily foliated area and B-40 rocket exploded close aboard PCF 94; with utter disregard for his own safety and the enemy rockets, he again ordered a charge on the enemy, beached his boat only ten feet from the VC rocket position, and
personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy. Upon sweeping the area in an immediate search uncovered an
enemy rest and supply area which was destroyed. The extraordinary daring and personal courage of Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire were responsible for the highly successful mission. His actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.7
What actually occurred was quite different. According to Kerry’s crewman Michael Medeiros, Kerry had an agreement with him to turn the boat in and onto the beach if fired upon. Each of the three boats involved in the operation was involved in the agreement. Larry Lee, a crewman and gunner, recalls the agreement as Medeiros recounts it and further recalls a prior discussion of probable medals for those participating. Bronze Stars for selected landers were contemplated and Navy commendation for others. Some crewmen dispute this, but none deny that the landing had been calculated the night before.
According to Doug Reese, a pro-Kerry Army veteran, and many others, what happened that day differs from the retelling in the citation. Far from being alone, the boats were loaded with many soldiers commanded by Reese and two other advisors. When fired at, Reese’s boat—not Kerry’s—was the first to beach in the ambush zone. Then Reese and other troops and advisors (not Kerry) disembarked, killing a number of Viet Cong and capturing a number of weapons. None of the participants from Reese’s boat received any Silver Stars. Indeed, most, if not all, of the non-PCF troops received no medals for this action. Doug Reese, who advised the South Vietnamese who were the first group ashore and who killed most of the Viet Cong, received a well-deserved Army Commendation Medal—a much lower medal than the Silver Star. After the first boat beached, Kerry’s boat moved slightly downstream and was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in its aft cabin.
A young Viet Cong in a loincloth popped out of a hole, clutching a grenade launcher which may or may not have been loaded, depending on whose account one credits.8 Tom Belodeau, a forward gunner, shot the Viet Cong with an M-60 machine gun in the leg as he fled.9 At about this time, with the boat beached, the Viet Cong who had been wounded by Belodeau fled. Kerry and Medeiros (who had many troops in their boat) took off, perhaps with others, following the young Viet Cong as he fled, and shot him in the back, behind a lean-to. While Kerry’s actions in shooting a wounded, fleeing teenage foe were criticized in various 1996 Boston Globe articles and by some Swiftees, Kerry was defended in a 1996 press conference by Admiral Zumwalt, Captain Adrian Lonsdale, and Captain Elliott—a critical event in Kerry’s bid for reelection to the Senate that year. Ironically, each of the officers who were requested by Kerry to defend him in 1996 also signed the May 4, 2004, letter, condemning Kerry for his own many misrepresentations of his record and the record of others.10
Whether Kerry’s dispatching of a fleeing, wounded, armed, or unarmed teenage enemy was in accordance with the customs of war, it is very clear that many Vietnam veterans and most Swiftees do not consider this action to be the stuff of which medals of any kind are awarded; nor would it even be a good story if told in the cold details of reality. There is no indication that Kerry ever reported that the Viet Cong was wounded and fleeing when dispatched. Likewise, the citation simply ignores the presence of the soldiers and advisors who actually “ captured the many enemy weapons” and routed the Viet Cong. Further, the citation ignores the preplanned nature of the tactic and the fact that Kerry’s boat did not beach first. Finally, the citation statement that Kerry attacked “a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire” is simply false. There was little or no fire after Kerry followed the plan (and the earlier move of the first boat toward the beach). The lone, wounded, fleeing young Viet Cong in a loincloth was hardly a force superior to the heavily armed Swift boat and its crew and the soldiers carried aboard.11
The actual facts disclosed in 1996 and thereafter by Kerry’s crewmen and others like Reese, who are among the small minority of pro-Kerry Swiftees and Vietnam veterans, are completely at odds with the purported “facts” discussed in the citation. Admiral Roy Hoffmann, who sent a Bravo Zulu (meaning “good work”) to Kerry upon learning of the incident, was very surprised to discover in 2004 what had actually occurred. Hoffmann had been told that Kerry had spontaneously beached next to the bunker and almost single-handedly routed a bunkered force of Viet Cong. He was shocked to find out that Kerry had beached his boat second in a preplanned operation, and that he had killed a single, wounded teenage foe as he fled.
The planned nature of the action also calls Kerry’s judgment into doubt. The effect of beaching a boat is to risk the loss of all aboard, as well as the boat itself, because of the Claymore mines often found in front of bunkered positions. Moreover, the heavy weapons of the boat, double .50-caliber machine guns and an M-60, are unusable if friendly soldiers are in front of them. In effect, a single sailor with no radio or means of communications, armed with a single M-16, is substituted for the vast firepower of the boat. Finally, once the boat is beached, speed and maneuverability are obviously gone. The boat is frozen, shorn of its command function, in a single spot.
From a military viewpoint, the tactic displays stupidity, not courage—a point that has made it so hard for Vietnam Navy veterans (sometimes called “brown-water sailors” after the color of the water in the muddy Vietnamese delta), from vice admirals to seamen, to believe it. Brown-water officers and Swiftees willing to forgive stupidity when the action is a spontaneous charge against an enemy bunker undertaken by a foolhardy young officer, were appalled to learn recently that the action was actually preplanned by Kerry, who then wildly exaggerated the facts in his citation: from the “PCF gunners” capturing many weapons to his assault under “intense fire” into a bunker manned by “a numerically superior force.” The only explanation for what Kerry did is the same justification that characterizes his entire short Vietnam adventure: the pursuit of medals and ribbons. Kerry’s self-serving exaggeration of the action magnified the danger he faced and the supposed valor he displayed, and minimized or showed no appreciation for the actual nature of the risk or the contribution
of the others involved.12