Kerry’s Own War Over Vietnam

Times Staff Writer

A mission upriver in John F. Kerry’s war started with a call to arms. “Saddle up, tigers,” he would bark to his gunboat crewmen before they headed off on patrol deep into Vietnam’s mangrove-choked canals. It was a command and a warning.

Kerry led his men into combat with a gambler’s daring that masked a doubter’s disillusionment. The remote southern coast of the Mekong Delta became a proving ground for a Navy lieutenant junior grade eager to test his mettle as a leader -- and a crash course in failed policy for a Yale graduate skeptical of the war’s outcome.

For four months, from the fall of 1968 into the spring of 1969, Kerry, then 26, experienced Vietnam’s chaos from both vantages, piloting a succession of machine-gun-armed Swift boats on raids against Vietcong river outposts. His aggressive, unorthodox tactics made admirers of his crewmen, raised eyebrows among fellow officers and commanders, and earned him a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for valor.

He approached Vietnam with ambivalence, but intent on making his mark in wartime -- much as had his political role model, President John F. Kennedy. Kerry’s passage steeped him with self-confidence and a lasting “sense of what it means to be under fire,” he said recently during an interview in Portland, Ore.

“I think I was a good warrior,” Kerry said. “I think I knew how to fight. I also think I was smart enough and sensitive enough to see through it, and know what the downsides and the strategy faults were.”


Kerry took calculated risks in battle even as his unease grew over the Vietnam War’s stalemated strategy and rising death toll. After a final blur of firefights and close calls, a third combat wound allowed him to shorten his one-year tour. Kerry returned to the U.S. to publicly oppose the war and subsequently run for office.

His complicated stance and abrupt exit were emblematic of his layered, opaque character. If Vietnam helped define him as a soldier and a leader, Kerry also went to war displaying traits that have marked his public life. His fierce drive to excel and his knack for cementing lifelong friendships alternated with a cerebral aloofness and a barely sheathed instinct for advancement.

The loyal band of Navy crewmen and gunboat officers who bonded with Kerry 35 years ago now campaign for him, depicting him as a trusted fighter. “He got us psyched up to go out on patrol every day, even though he needed it as much as we did,” said Del Sandusky, one of Kerry’s gunboat helmsmen.

Other Swift boat officers -- Republican sympathizers and veterans bitter over Kerry’s post-Vietnam peace activism -- pose a darker alternate history. Members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an anti-Kerry political committee, they are led by retired Rear Adm. Roy F. Hoffmann, a blunt-edged Navy career man who oversaw the hit-and-run river raids Kerry viewed as a costly waste of American lives.

In Vietnam, Hoffmann and other former officers contend, Kerry bucked Navy procedure, staying in country just long enough to prime his political resume. Some question the accuracy of Kerry’s recollections and the legitimacy of the first of his three Purple Hearts -- a minor wound, they claim, that was not suffered in action.

“He went to Vietnam to build a career,” Hoffmann said. “He was a loose cannon while he was there, and he bugged out early.”

Yet Hoffmann and Kerry had few direct dealings in Vietnam. A Los Angeles Times examination of Navy archives found that Hoffmann praised Kerry’s performance in cabled messages after several river skirmishes. And while the Purple Heart account remains murky, its award was routine. Navy records show Swift boat crews were frequently raked with slight wounds of uncertain origin -- injuries that often earned decorations.

“I don’t know what conclusions you can draw about someone’s ability to lead from their combat experience, but John’s service was commendable,” said James J. Galvin, a former Swift boat officer who, like Kerry, was honored for three minor wounds and left the coastal combat zone early. “He played by the same rules we all did.”

Since George Washington’s day, a candidate’s wartime service has almost “always been seen as an advantage,” said Alan Brinkley, professor of American history at Columbia University.

That presumption has been swept aside this presidential election year. Even as the Massachusetts senator uses his Vietnam days in media ads and speeches to emphasize his firmness on national security, sparring over his four-month tour shows how even a prized military record can be picked apart during an election.

Kerry went off to war cautiously, analyzing every move that nudged him closer.

Aware that he was eligible for the draft, Kerry explored his uncertainty in a valedictory speech to his 1966 Yale graduating class. “This Vietnam War,” he said, “has found our policymakers forcing Americans into a strange corner.” Solemnly insisting he valued military service, he mused about “the very roots of what we are serving.”

He sidestepped the draft by applying to the highly competitive Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. As U.S. troop levels escalated and fierce fighting flared, college graduates flooded the Navy OCS with applications because duty aboard a ship was seen as far safer than being a junior officer in the Army or Marines.

But sea adventure also held allure, and Kerry shared the noblesse oblige of his social set. “In our circle, duty was a strong consideration,” said Kerry intimate George Butler. “He knew what was expected.”

The sons of New England’s elite prep schools emulated fathers and heroes. Richard Kerry had been a World War II test pilot. John F. Kennedy, whose path Kerry talked of following and whose initials he shared, won renown on PT-109 in the South Pacific.

On training duty off Vietnam’s coast in 1968 aboard the missile frigate Gridley, Kerry fixated on the 50-foot aluminum boats on patrol nearby. Shallow Water Inshore Fast Tactical craft were speedy oil rig transports modified with grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns.

“We were just enamored of those boats,” said former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Wade Sanders, who trained with Kerry. “It was cool; it was what Kennedy did.”

Avoiding brutal warfare was also a factor, Kerry has admitted. Swift boat training prepared him for coastal duty, targeting junks and sampans that supplied the Vietcong. He expected a gentleman’s war, with skirmishes and some casualties, not an infantryman’s grinding combat.

But by his November arrival at the U.S. base at Cam Ranh Bay, Swift boat duty had grown hazardous. Frustrated at the Vietcong’s ease at moving through the Mekong’s web of rivers and canals, the Navy was probing inland. The Navy’s new top officer in Vietnam, Vice Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., had launched Operation Sealords, a plan that relied on Swift boats to seek out and destroy enemy vessels and hamlets.

Nosing past rice paddies and elephant grass, the noisy, thin-hulled boats were vulnerable to ambush by guerrillas with rocket launchers. “People started getting wounded, and boats were getting shot up. They needed a steady stream of replacements,” recalled Stephen Hayes, a former Swift boat officer.

Kerry arrived “intent on living up to standards.” But “from my first week in country,” he said, he was disturbed by the “lack of taking territory. Strategically, it didn’t make a lot of sense.”

Hoffmann, a decorated Korean War veteran whom Navy officials chose to carry out that strategy, has not forgiven Kerry for questioning Sealords’ results.

“He never saw the big picture,” Hoffmann, 78, said during an interview at his Virginia home. “The key concept was to take over the rivers and work up to the Cambodian border. Well, we did that.”

Plucked off a destroyer to head the Navy’s effort to slash Vietcong supply routes, Capt. Hoffmann demanded initiative and obedience. A distant figure known by his code name, Latch, he popped in on missions, standing watch on deck with a .45 on his hip and a cigar clenched in his teeth. He gave officers authority to fire at will, and demanded body counts to prove their success. Favored lieutenants were cheered on with terse “Bravo Zulu” messages that signified “Well done.” Sometimes Hoffmann added: “Good shooting.”

Hoffman commanded more than 100 Swift boats, also called PCFs, for “patrol craft fast,” as part of the Sealords mission. The boats advanced inland at a high cost. Several were sunk by rocket blasts, and, by the war’s end, 51 men had died out of the nearly 3,000 officers and enlisted personnel in the “brown water navy.”

As the boats pushed deep into Mekong waterways, only the dense southern Ca Mau Peninsula -- where Kerry would spend most of his war -- remained impenetrable. There, Hoffmann dispatched Swift boats carrying special forces and mercenaries on harassing coastal sweeps similar to “Jeb Stuart’s civil war raids. There was never any real effort to take territory. We kept them off-balance,” Hoffmann said.

Even before he had his first boat command, Kerry sailed off on a “dangerous mission” that led to his first wound -- and to skeptical murmurs. Patrolling north of Cam Ranh Bay in a small skimmer on the night of Dec. 2, Kerry and two crewmen fired on Vietcong guerrillas massed on a beach. Amid the din, he felt a sting in his forearm.

“I didn’t see where it came from,” Kerry said. Radarman Jim Wasser, who patrolled that night in another boat and who later sailed with Kerry, recalled hearing a radio message that “someone had a slight wound.”

The next day, the base medical officer used tweezers to remove a shrapnel shard from Kerry’s arm. According to the former medic, retired Dr. Louis Letson, Kerry said he had been “under hostile fire.” But corpsmen heard from other crewmen that there was no return volley, said Letson, now among Hoffmann’s anti-Kerry faction.

Later that day, Kerry displayed what his superior, Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, recalled as a “scratch.” Kerry asked him to write an official injury report, but Hibbard said he told Kerry to “forget it.” Vaguely recalling that he later “took some heat” for turning Kerry down, Hibbard was angered when he learned that Kerry had won a Purple Heart.

Hibbard and other critics cited the incident as a glaring mark against Kerry as an officer and a gentleman. By grubbing for an undeserved honor, they said, Kerry used it to reduce his Vietnam tour. “He fell short,” Hibbard said.

Kerry testily denied initially pressing for the award, saying he simply reported the wound. “Later on, I asked where it was or something,” he said, but insisted he played no role in obtaining the medal. “It wasn’t my decision.”

It was the Navy’s. The award came from the Naval Support Facility in Saigon -- issued without any evident formal protest at the time from Hibbard, Letson or other commanders. Neither the slightness of Kerry’s wound nor its murky origins would have likely disqualified him, said Shelby Jean Kirk, a retired civilian director of the Bureau of Naval Operations awards branch.

The most critical element in an award decision was “action against the enemy.” Conflicting battle accounts were not uncommon, and when Navy awards personnel could not make a clear determination, the serviceman often “got the benefit of the doubt,” Kirk said.

“The fog of war forced the system to bend to interpretation,” said former Navy Cmdr. David L. Riley, author of “Uncommon Valor,” a history of the Navy’s awards.

A review of injury reports from Kerry’s boat units during his tour of duty confirms that pattern. Stacked in the Navy archives in Washington, the records show that in the last three months of Kerry’s tour, 46 Swift boat personnel were wounded. Most were hurt by shrapnel, and all but five of the cases earned Purple Hearts.

Injury reports are missing from Kerry’s first month -- including his contested Dec. 2 wound. But at least two dozen of the 46 men who were wounded later suffered “light” or “minor” shrapnel injuries. In a similar number of cases, wounds could not be clearly traced to enemy fire.

“All I knew,” Kerry said, “was I had a hole in my shirt and a hole in my arm.”

Within days, he had his first boat command. Through late January, he led the five-man crew of PCF-44, patrolling between Cam Ranh Bay and An Thoi, a small base on the western rind of the remote Ca Mau.

The patrician Kerry worked hard at winning over his crew. Small-town boys, they were wary of the “long, tall Yankee,” recalled Oklahoma boatswain’s mate Drew Whitlow. Kerry patiently explained the details of each mission. After a firefight, he huddled with each man to “make sure we were all right,” Wasser said.

Only gunner Steve Gardner held out. Convinced Kerry was a hesitant skipper and “in it for himself,” Gardner said the two men had heated arguments.

Some fellow officers viewed Kerry as “aloof,” often “bent over a typewriter in the corner while we had beers,” Hayes said.

A prolific letter writer who also amassed a thick war diary, Kerry gravitated to officers who shared his fascination with politics and ideas. He bonded with close friend Lt. Elliot “Skip” Barker in long talks about philosophy and Vietnam’s stirring landscape and tortured history.

Kerry told Barker of his interest in “some sort of public office.” Other former officers said he astonished them by confiding a loftier goal -- the presidency. In officers club discussions, “he would mention Kennedy and how he was an officer in charge of a small craft in wartime and went home a hero,” said former Lt. Bill Shumadine. “John said he was going to do the same thing.”

On routine patrol at sea, days could be idyllic. Kerry instigated speed races with other Swift boats and duels with flare guns. Using a tape deck plugged into the boat’s public address system, he blared out favorite Doors albums. He spent hours documenting his tour, narrating his impressions on a tape recorder and using a hand-held movie camera he owned to film landscapes and sampan boardings. It was a hobby that stood out among sailors who mostly toted around cheap still cameras.

Nights in the canals were ambush hell. Just before Christmas near the Cambodian border, Wasser opened fire after a mortar round exploded. His shots killed an old man tending a water buffalo. “The holiday season’s still tough on me,” he said.

In another harrowing incident, Gardner blasted a Vietcong suspect off a sampan as he saw “the guy rise up with an AK-47.” When the crew boarded, they found a frightened woman and a child’s bullet-riddled body.

“It became a walk on the dark side,” Kerry said, quieting at his memories.

There were no repercussions. In a “free-fire” zone, Hoffmann expected crews to use their guns when necessary. “Everything isn’t peaches and cream in warfare,” Hoffmann said. “You either get the message across that you’ve got firepower and you’re willing to use it, or you go home.”

But his lieutenants also had to hew to the Navy’s strict chain of command and “standard operating procedure.” For aggressive officers like Kerry, that meant walking a fine line.

After more than a month at the helm of PCF-44, Kerry was given command of a second boat, PCF-94, out of An Thoi. On a series of sweeps in the Ca Mau, he stretched his tactics. Weary of ambushes, he began beaching his boat under fire, a risky move shunned by most officers.

In training, Swift boat officers were warned that a Navy commander never left his boat -- snipers and booby traps were a constant peril. But on Feb. 28, Kerry went on land. After transporting units of South Vietnamese soldiers for a raid on a Vietcong camp on the Rach Dong Cung canal, PCF-94 and two other Swift boats were attacked from the shore. The boats turned toward the volleys, scattering guerrillas with machine-gun fire.

Continuing downriver, the boats sailed into a rocket barrage. Kerry ordered helmsman Sandusky to wheel toward the beach. As the boat skidded on land, a teenage insurgent rose up only a few feet away, hoisting a B-40 grenade launcher.

“I could see the hairs of his mustache,” said gunner Fred Short. “Why he didn’t fire, who knows? I guess we scared hell out of him.”

Tom Belodeau, the other gunner, got off a burst. Wounded in the leg, the youth hobbled behind a hut with his weapon. Armed with an M-16 rifle, Kerry ordered Belodeau and mate Mike Medeiros to follow, then sprinted ahead. “We were all firing, but the skipper got him,” Short recalled.

None of the crewmen alive today had a clear view of the shooting. But “next thing we know, there’s Kerry with the B-40 in his hand,” Sandusky said.

Kerry’s charge won him a Silver Star, personally awarded by Zumwalt in a Saigon ceremony. Three days after the skirmish, Kerry and his crew also received a cable from Sealords task force headquarters.

“The tactic of attack and assault thoroughly surprised the enemy in his spider-holes and proved to be immensely effective in rousting him into the open,” the message read.

The cable was from Hoffmann. Four times in February and March, he cabled Kerry and his crew, praising them and other Swift boats after skirmishes. Hoffmann acknowledged the cables, saying Kerry showed “some pretty sharp thinking. He had courage. But he was loose. He went out on his own too much.”

Hoffmann and several former Swift officers said Kerry’s boat sometimes veered off during missions without explanation -- a criticism Kerry and his crewmen dismissed.

There are no official rebukes in Navy archives or Kerry’s available personnel file. Hoffmann’s criticism is also at odds with the glowing evaluations of Kerry in his official Navy record. Only Hibbard’s was less than effusive.

“These were all exceptionally good men, and John Kerry was one of them,” said former Lt. Cmdr. George Elliot, who gave him top marks.

Elliot nominated Kerry for his Silver Star, but also chided him for beaching his boat, telling Kerry he was uncertain whether he deserved an award or a court-martial. “There was never any question that he was in trouble,” Elliot says now. “I just wanted it to be clear that he wasn’t supposed to leave the boat.”

The same day as the Silver Star beaching, Hoffmann sent Kerry’s boat another cable commending the crew’s capture of “5 VC males” in a “daring PCF operation [that] will provide an invaluable source of intelligence.”

A photograph taken hours after that mission showed a pensive Kerry standing by in a Coast Guard cutter infirmary as a medic treated the gashed leg of a grimacing Vietcong prisoner. Shown the snapshot for the first time on a recent campaign stop in Portland, Ore., Kerry grew somber as he recalled the scene.

“That’s the guy whose leg got chopped up by our boat,” Kerry said quietly.

PCF-94 and another Swift boat had exchanged fire with two sampans in a night ambush. Five Vietcong suspects plunged into shallow water to escape. Three were hauled up while Kerry and Medeiros waded in the mud, cornering the others at gunpoint.

One wounded Vietcong fighter clung to a row of stakes used for netting fish. In a split-second face-off in a free-fire zone, Kerry said, “you could shoot anything that moved. But we figured, we can’t shoot this guy. He’s unarmed.” They trundled him to a Coast Guard cutter, where Kerry watched while he was treated. “He was a human being. I wanted to make sure he made it,” Kerry said.

The whipsawing between compassion and aggressive warfare was taking its toll. Kerry’s letters home were grim. George Butler recalled a note about the “beauty of the land and what a violation the war had become. He was clearly depressed about what he was doing.”

Kerry said nothing to Hoffmann, confiding only to officers he trusted. Barker said he harped repeatedly on “all the endangerment we faced for diminutive returns.” Adrian Lonsdale, a Coast Guard commander at An Thoi, recalled “wide-ranging discussions” -- but he complained that Kerry exaggerated the details of their talks in “Tour of Duty,” an authorized history of his Vietnam War days.

Kerry’s turning point came March 13, when he was ordered with four other Swift boat officers to transport Vietnamese mercenaries and U.S. officers on a series of sweeps along the Bay Hap River. After a long day of shore skirmishes, the gunboats chugged directly into a gantlet of machine-gun fire and mines.

A blast rocked PCF-94, pitching Kerry against the bulkhead and wrenching his arm. Another charge blew Army Lt. James Rassman into the river from another boat. Rassman bobbed under a wild spray of Vietcong gunfire. His arm bleeding, Kerry ordered Sandusky to swing the boat around.

“Here comes Kerry charging up to the bow,” Rassman recalled. “He kneeled down and grabbed my arm and pulled me over. What a dummy. It was miraculous neither of us were hit.”

Kerry was awarded the Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart. With three decorated wounds, an obscure regulation allowed him to request reassignment -- even back to the U.S. Kerry recalled one commander, Chuck Horne, telling him: “You’ve got a ticket home.”

He had had enough. A strip of shrapnel was buried in his thigh. On the dock, he had counted 180 holes and dents in PCF-94’s scarred hull. “I was convinced I’d probably be killed, the way we were going,” Kerry recalled. “I didn’t want to participate in something I thought was fundamentally screwed up.”

The day he left, Kerry said few farewells. In the officers’ barracks, he ran into fellow Swift boat officer Galvin and told him about his “three Purple Hearts” exit. Later wounded a third time, Galvin also used the rule to transfer out of the Mekong war zone several months early -- though he stayed in Vietnam for the full year tour.

In the cramped hallway, Kerry told Galvin he was leaving because his fiancee, Julia Thorne, was worried about him and her two brothers, who were also serving in Vietnam. “He told me she was stressed out,” Galvin recalled.

“She was very concerned,” Kerry said. But his explanation was also likely politic, he said, “a silver lining of how I actually felt,” glossing over the antiwar disillusionment that would fuel the next stage of his public life.

The two men spoke for a few more moments before parting. When Galvin glanced back, Kerry was already gone.

Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.