Officer Recalls Boat Mission With Kerry
There were three Swift boats on the river that day in Vietnam more than 35 years ago -- three officers and 15 crew members. Only two of those officers remain to talk about what happened on Feb. 28, 1969.
One is John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate who won a Silver Star for what happened on that date. I am the other.
For years, no one asked about those events. But now they are the focus of skirmishing in a presidential election with a group of Swift boat veterans and others contending that Kerry didn’t deserve the Silver Star for what he did on that day, or the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he was awarded for other actions.
Many of us wanted to put it all behind us -- the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry’s service -- even those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where I work.
But Kerry’s critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they’re not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It’s gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there.
Even though Kerry’s own crew members have backed him, the attacks have continued, and in recent days Kerry has called me and others who were with him in those days, asking that we go public with our accounts.
I can’t pretend those calls had no effect on me, but that is not why I am writing this. What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserved to be honored for what they did. My intent is to tell the story here and to never again talk publicly about it.
I was part of the operation that led to Kerry’s Silver Star. I have no firsthand knowledge of the events that resulted in his winning the Purple Hearts or the Bronze Star.
But on Feb. 28, 1969, I was officer in charge of PCF-23, one of three Swift boats -- including Kerry’s PCF-94 and Lt. j.g. Donald Droz’s PCF-43 -- that carried Vietnamese Regional and Popular Force troops and a Navy demolition team up the Dong Cung, a narrow tributary of the Bay Hap River, to conduct a sweep in the area.
The approach of the noisy 50-foot aluminum boats, each driven by two huge 12-cylinder diesels and loaded down with six crew members, troops and gear, was no secret.
Ambushes were a virtual certainty, and that day was no exception.
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 advisor, 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
We called Droz’s boat up to assist us, and Kerry, followed by one member of his crew, jumped ashore and chased a VC behind a hooch -- a thatched hut -- maybe 15 yards inland from the ambush site. Some who were there that day recall the man being wounded as he ran. Neither I nor Jerry Leeds, our boat’s leading petty officer with whom I’ve checked my recollection of all these events, recalls that, which is no surprise. Recollections of those who go through experiences like that frequently differ.
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.
Our initial reports of the day’s action caused an immediate response from our task force headquarters in Cam Ranh Bay.
Known over radio circuits by the call sign “Latch,” then-Capt. and now retired Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann, the task force commander, fired off a message congratulating the three Swift boats, saying at one point that the tactic of charging the ambushes was a “shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy” and that it “may be the most efficacious method of dealing with small numbers of ambushers.”
Hoffmann has become a leading critic of Kerry’s and now says that what the boats did on that day demonstrated Kerry’s inclination to be impulsive to a fault.
Our decision to use that tactic under the right circumstances was not impulsive but was the result of discussions well beforehand and a mutual agreement of all three boat officers.
It was also well within the aggressive tradition that was embraced by the late Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, then commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam. Months before that day in February, a fellow boat officer, Michael Bernique, was summoned to Saigon to explain to top Navy commanders why he had made an unauthorized run up the Giang Thanh River, which runs along the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Bernique, who speaks French fluently, had been told by a source in Ha Tien at the mouth of the river that a VC tax collector was operating upstream.
Ignoring the prohibition against it, Bernique and his crew went upstream and routed the VC, pursuing and killing several.
Instead of facing disciplinary action as he had expected, Bernique was given the Silver Star, and Zumwalt ordered other Swifts, which had largely patrolled coastal waters, into the rivers.
The decision sent a clear message, underscored repeatedly by Hoffmann’s congratulatory messages, that aggressive patrolling was expected and that well-timed, if unconventional, tactics like Bernique’s were encouraged.
What we did on Feb. 28, 1969, was well in line with the tone set by our top commanders.
Zumwalt made that clear when he flew down to our base at An Thoi off the southern tip of Vietnam to pin the Silver Star on Kerry and assorted Bronze Stars and commendation medals on the rest of us.
My Bronze Star citation, signed by Zumwalt, praised the charge tactic we used that day, saying the VC were “caught completely off guard.”
There’s at least one mistake in that citation. The name of the river where the main action occurred is wrong, a reminder that such documents were often done in haste, authored for their signers by staffers. It’s a cautionary note for those trying to piece it all together. There’s no final authority on something that happened so long ago -- not the documents and not even the strained recollections of those of us who were there.
But I know that what some people are saying now is wrong. While they mean to hurt Kerry, what they’re saying impugns others who are not in the public eye.
Men like Larry Lee, who was on our bow with an M-60 machine gun as we charged the riverbank; Kenneth Martin, who was in the .50-caliber gun tub atop our boat; and Benjamin Cueva, our engineman, who was at our aft gun mount suppressing the fire from the opposite bank.
Wayne Langhoffer and the other crewmen on Droz’s boat went through even worse on April 12, 1969, when they saw Droz killed in a brutal ambush that left PCF-43 an abandoned pile of wreckage on the banks of the Duong Keo River. That was just a few months after the birth of his only child, Tracy.
The survivors of all these events are scattered across the country now.
Jerry Leeds lives in a tiny Kansas town where he built and sold a successful printing business. He owns a beautiful home with a lawn that sweeps to the edge of a small lake, which he also owns. Every year, flights of purple martins return to the stately birdhouses on the tall poles in his backyard.
Cueva, recently retired, has raised three daughters and is beloved by his neighbors for all the years he spent keeping their cars running. Lee is a senior computer programmer in Kentucky, and Lamberson finished a second military career in the Army.
With the debate over that long-ago day in February, they’re all living that war another time.
William Rood is night city editor at the Chicago Tribune; previously, he was a reporter and an editor at the Los Angeles Times. Both publications are owned by Tribune Co.
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