Repaying a Big Debt to Lt. Kerry

Times Staff Writer

The eyes still get watery 35 years later, and Jim Rassmann -- former Green Beret, retired California cop -- doesn’t want anybody to see. He turns away or uses his beefy hands to cover up.

But he gets through it, recalling in vivid detail the day, March 13, 1969, when John F. Kerry snatched him out of a muddy brown river in Vietnam and saved him from a watery end.

The story has been told often since January, when the two men reunited in Des Moines, just two days before the Iowa primary. Their emotional reunion has been described as a turning point in Kerry’s quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.


Rassmann, a registered Republican, held the audience rapt that night with the dramatic tale of his rescue. The two men embraced, the cameras rolled and Rassmann in a single moment became a prime-time voucher for Kerry’s combat heroism and a symbol of the senator’s support among Vietnam War veterans.

Since then, Rassmann, 56, has volunteered on the campaign trail for Kerry, with brief visits home to his wife, Julie, and their four-acre homestead here on the Oregon coast.

Rassmann is home now, spending as much time as possible in his greenhouse, where he normally spends his days tending orchids, thousands of them, wall to wall and floor to ceiling. It’s his refuge, the sanctum he dwells in. He’s a man of substantial mass, short and wide with thick fingers that handle the delicate flowers with surprising grace.

Going from the tranquillity of his greenhouse to the chaos of the campaign trail grates against his nature. But here he is, bags packed, waiting for a call from the Kerry people about the next leg.

“I had no idea it would lead to this,” Rassmann says.

He certainly had no intention of becoming anything as grand as a symbol. Rassmann says he holds a low opinion of politicians and politics in general, but he makes an exception for Kerry. He’s prepared to campaign for the Massachusetts senator until November.


“I owe him,” he says.

Rassmann abides by the old warrior’s code that when a man saves you from death, you’re in debt to him for life. He’s paying his debt. When he tears up, something else becomes clear: The emotion isn’t only for himself, but for all the friends he lost in the war.

There was Cal Courtemanche, a friend since childhood, who was shot in the chest during the Tet Offensive. There was Charles Hughes, a Special Forces commander machine-gunned to death. There was Ralph Cannon, killed after stepping over a spider hole occupied by two enemy soldiers.

Rassmann’s unit lost five of 11 men. He remembers their names, ranks, the dates they were killed. He lists them like a roll call. And in a long, circuitous way, he explains the depth of his gratitude to Kerry: If it were not for him, Rassmann believes, his name would surely be on the list.


The reunion with Kerry began with violin music.

Just after New Year’s, the Rassmanns were in Glendale visiting Jim’s 82-year-old mother when they stepped into a Barnes & Noble to pick up a CD on operatic arias transcribed for violin. At the checkout counter, Rassmann saw Douglas Brinkley’s new book on Kerry’s Vietnam experience, “Tour of Duty,” on a display stand.

Rassmann hadn’t known about the book, and he hadn’t seen or talked to Kerry since that day when the two briefly clasped hands in the Mekong Delta.

Rassmann eyed the book cover: It was John all right, his long, skinny face much the same as it is today. Rassmann picked up the book, stepped aside and began leafing through it. To his amazement, on pages 314 and 315, the author tells the story of what happened that day.

He and his wife read the whole account standing near the checkout counter.

Rassmann was 21 at the time, a Special Forces lieutenant in charge of a company of American and Chinese fighters. On that day, they traveled on a convoy of five patrol boats led by the 25-year-old Kerry, a Navy lieutenant -- and they were on the run, being chased down the Bay Hap River by enemy soldiers firing guns and rockets.

The group had already lost one soldier that day. As they sped down the river, one boat was blown out of the water, and then another. An explosion wounded Kerry in the arm and threw Rassmann into the river. Rassmann dove to the bottom to avoid being run over by the other boats. When he surfaced, he saw the convoy had gone ahead.

Viet Cong snipers fired at him, and Rassmann submerged over and over to avoid being hit. The bullets came from both banks, and Rassmann had nowhere to go. He began thinking his time had come, but the fifth time he came up, he saw the convoy had turned around. Kerry had ordered the boats back to pick up the man overboard.

Kerry’s boat, under heavy fire, sidled up to the struggling soldier. Rassmann tried to scramble up a cargo net at the bow but was too exhausted to make it all the way. He clung to the net as bullets whizzed past.

“Next thing I knew, John came out in the middle of all this,” Rassmann says. “I couldn’t believe it. He was going to get killed. He ran to the edge, reached over with his good arm [Kerry had been wounded in his right arm] and pulled me over the lip.”

Rassmann later recommended Kerry for the Silver Star, and was upset when the Army instead awarded Kerry a lesser Bronze Star with a “V” for valor. The medal citation described Kerry’s actions on the river that day.

Shortly after, the two returned stateside and went their separate ways. Rassmann, a Southern California native, finished college, married and had two children. He went on to spend two decades with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, patrolling neighborhoods not far from where he grew up in Glendale.

In 1993, he and Julie retired to the Oregon coast, where they live in a modest, well-tended home.


Rassmann didn’t buy the book at Barnes & Noble (he now owns two copies), but the memory of that day did sit on his mind as he returned home.

Lots of things had been brewing in him over the past year. Rassmann traveled the world judging or taking part in orchid shows. He said he got routinely “hammered” in discussions with people angry at the Bush administration for the war in Iraq.

“As if I had any power over it,” he says.

Rassmann himself, initially supportive of the war, had become disillusioned, and came to believe the Bush administration lied about the justifications for the invasion, namely that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The apparent lack of such weapons infuriated Rassmann. Lately, he’d felt he had to do something to help “get Bush out of the White House.”

Then there was Kerry, whose career Rassmann had been following. When a young Kerry led protests against the Vietnam War, Rassmann admired him from a distance and now says he would have joined him in those marches had he had more guts.

When Kerry was elected to the Senate in 1984, Rassmann wrote him a letter inviting him to dinner, but Kerry said he never received it. Still, Rassmann, who describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, followed news of Kerry’s political activities over the years and generally agreed with his positions.

Somehow all these factors came together one morning in January. Rassmann picked up the phone, called Kerry campaign headquarters in Washington and said he’d like to help. He had never done anything like that before.

He imagined answering phones or licking envelopes in some Oregon outpost. “Clerical stuff,” he says. But to his amazement, later that day, the phone rang. It was John Hurley, Kerry’s veterans affairs coordinator.

“We’ve been looking for you,” Rassmann recalls Hurley saying. The next day, Jan. 17, Rassmann was on a 5:45 a.m. flight to Des Moines, and within hours was reunited with Kerry in a TV moment that Hurley described as “monumental” for Kerry personally and politically. As campaign strategy, it couldn’t have been better scripted.

Was it scripted? Rassmann laughs at the question. Fated perhaps. Serendipitous for Kerry, absolutely. Certainly Kerry’s campaign organizers sought to capitalize on Rassmann’s timely emergence and arranged for the highly visible meeting. But were the words and emotions staged?

“No,” Rassmann says simply.

Julie Rassmann says she’s watched a change come over her husband during the past six weeks. It reconnected him, she says, to a largely unspoken past.

Like a lot of Vietnam veterans, Rassmann came home not just to public indifference but to hostility. The soldiers had stories to tell, but few people could, or wanted to, relate. Now, she says, her husband’s involvement in that unpopular war seems to have new relevance.

If it’s true that a new end is being written to his Vietnam story, Rassmann says he didn’t plan it. He says nothing that’s happened to him since he walked into that bookstore in Glendale has been planned.

It’s all unfolding day by day, and he doesn’t know where it will lead. What keeps him going are old ideas of loyalty and honor. He’ll tell you over and over he owes John Kerry, and if all he has to do to pay his debt is tell what happened on the Bay Hap River, he says he’ll do it as long as Kerry needs him to.

If Kerry gets elected president, he’ll have reason to thank Rassmann. One day Rassmann hopes the two of them will be able shake hands in private, away from any TV camera, and -- acknowledging their debt to each other -- call it even.