Questions have arisen about the military record of one of Sen. John F. Kerry’s harshest accusers, a Swift boat skipper during the Vietnam War and one of a group of veterans running ads that accuse the Democratic presidential nominee of lying about his combat service.
Larry Thurlow, a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, won a Bronze Star stemming from the same incident in which the Massachusetts senator received the same award 35 years ago.
Kerry earned the medal for rescuing Army Lt. Jim Rassmann, who had been knocked off Kerry’s Swift boat when a mine exploded nearby on March 13, 1969. Kerry, who also received a Purple Heart after being injured during the explosion, pulled Rassmann out of the Bay Hap River.
Rassmann’s and Kerry’s accounts of the incident, along with Kerry’s Bronze Star citation, describe the rescue as happening under enemy fire, as does the official Navy report. In addition, a damage survey filed with the Navy report said that three of the five boats involved sustained “battle damage,” and Thurlow’s boat had “three 30 cal bullet holes about super structure.”
But in interviews since the anti-Kerry group formed in the spring, Thurlow has repeatedly said that there was no enemy fire.
He said Kerry’s boat left the area, while other boats went to help the wounded and stabilize the damaged boat.
In the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad, Thurlow says: “When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.”
But in an interview with The Times in June, Thurlow admitted that he had been thrown overboard from a nearby boat during the chaos, making it difficult for him to have seen the entire incident.
The Washington Post on Thursday reported that Thurlow’s military records contradicted him, describing “enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire” directed at all of the boats involved in the incident.
Thurlow’s Bronze Star citation, the Post said, lauds him for helping wounded comrades and a damaged boat “despite enemy bullets flying about him.”
Kerry’s boat, PCF-94, was one of several in a flotilla going down the river when the mine went off, damaging another, PCF-3. Thurlow commanded nearby PCF-51.
In a Times interview Thursday, Thurlow stood by his story. He said that, though he still had his medal, he had lost the paperwork that went with it.
“If I’m required to be under fire to get that medal, I need to give it back,” said Thurlow, who lives in Bogue, Kan.
“I got it under fraudulent circumstances.”
Lt. Cmdr. George M. Elliott signed the recommendations that led to both Kerry’s and Thurlow’s medals, according to the Post.
Elliott, also a member of the anti-Kerry veterans group, has called the Silver Star into question since the ad ran; he has not questioned Kerry’s Bronze Star.
When Thurlow was pressed Thursday about how his Bronze Star citation could be wrong, he told The Times that Kerry wrote up the report on which Elliott based his recommendations and that Elliott “accepted John’s report at face value.”
But neither Thurlow nor his group has proved that Kerry was the sole source of the battle account that led to his Bronze Star, according to a Times review of the ad’s allegations published Tuesday.
Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.