Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: John Kerry's Vietnam War service medals (a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts) were earned under "fishy" circumstances.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2004]
Origins: In Vietnam, Lieutenant John Kerry served aboard 50-foot aluminum boats known as PCFs (from "patrol craft fast") or "Swift boats" (supposedly an acronym for "Shallow Water Inshore Fast Tactical Craft"). Despite the implications contained in the piece quoted above ("that duty wasn't the worst you could draw"), Swift boat duty was plenty dangerous:
. . . two weeks after [Kerry] arrived in Vietnam, the swift boat mission changedIt was not at all unusual that a Swift boat crew member might be wounded more than once in a relatively short period of time, or that injuries meriting the award of a Purple Heart might not be serious enough to require time off from duty. According to a Boston Globe overview of John Kerry's Vietnam experience:
Originally designed to ferry oil workers to ocean rigs, swift boats offered flimsy protection. Because bullets could easily penetrate the hull, sailors hung flak jackets over the sides. The boat's loud engine invited ambushes. Speed was its saving grace
The swift boat crew typically consisted of a college-educated skipper, such as Kerry, and five blue-collar sailors averaging
Under [Navy Admiral Elmo] Zumwalt's command, swift boats would aggressively engage the enemy. Zumwalt, who died in 2000, calculated in his autobiography that these men under his command had aAnd according to Douglas Brinkley's history of John Kerry and the Vietnam War:
"There were an awful lot of Purple Hearts
As generally understood, the Purple Heart is given to any U.S. citizen wounded in wartime service to the nation. Giving out Purple Hearts increased as the United States started sending Swifts up rivers. Sailors — no longer safe on aircraft carriers or battleships in the Gulf of TonkinJohn Kerry was wounded in his first significant combat action, when he volunteered for a special mission on
"It was a half-assed action that hardly qualfied as combat, but it was my first, and that made it very exciting," [Kerry said]. "Three of us, two enlisted men and myself, had stayed up all night in a Boston Whaler [a foam-filled-fiberglass boat] patrolling the shore off a Viet Cong-infested peninsula north of CamThe "stinging piece of heat" Kerry felt in his arm had been caused by a piece of shrapnel, a wound for which he was awarded a Purple Heart. The injury was not serious
As it turned out, the two men really were just a pair of innocent fisherman who didn't know where one zone began and the other ended. Their papers were perfectly in order, if their night's fishing over. The fear was that they were VC. Allowing them to continue might have compromised the mission. For the next four hours Kerry's Boston Whaler, using paddles, brought boatloads of fisherman they found in sampans, all operating in a curfew zone, back to the Swift. It was tiring work. "We deposited them with the Swift boat that remained out in the deep water to give us cover," Kerry continued. "Then, very early in the morning, around 2:00 or 3:00, while it was still dark, we proceeded up the tiny inlet between the island and the peninsula to the point designated as our objective. The jungle closed in on us on both sides. It was scary as hell. You could hear yourself breathing. We were almost touching the shore. Suddenly, through the magnified moonlight of the infrared 'starlight scope,' I watched, mesmerized, as a group of sampans glided in toward the shore. We had been briefed that this was a favorite crossing area for VC trafficking contraband."
With its motor turned off, Kerry paddled the Boston Whaler out of the inlet into the beginning of the bay. Simultaneously the Vietnamese pulled their sampans up onto the beach and began to unload something; he couldn't tell what, so he decided to illuminate the proceedings with a flare. The entire sky seemed to explode into daylight. The men from the sampans bolted erect, stiff with shock for only an instant before they sprang for cover like a herd of panicked gazelles Kerry had once seen on TV's Wild Kingdom. "We opened fire," he went on. "The light from the flares started to fade, the air was full of explosions. My
"We stayed quiet and low because we did not want to illuminate ourselves at that point," Kerry explained. "In the dead of night, without any knowledge of what kind of force was there, we were not all about to go crawling on the beach to get our asses shot off. We were unprotected; we didn't have ammunition, we didn't have cover, we just weren't prepared for
Kerry earned his second Purple Heart while returning from a PCF mission up the Bo De River on
One of the mission's support helicopters had been hit by small-arms fire during the trip up theBrinkley noted that, as in the previous case, "Kerry's wound was not serious enough to require time off from duty."
Just as they moved out onto the Cua Lon, at a junction known for unfriendliness in the past, kaboom!
Kerry earned his Silver Star on 28 February 1969, when he beached his craft and jumped off it with an M-16 rifle in hand to chase and shoot a guerrilla who was running into position to launch a
On Feb. 28, 1969, Kerry's boat received word that a swift boat was being ambushed. As Kerry raced to the scene, his boat became another target, as a Viet CongAnother member of the crew confirmed Kerry's account for the Boston Globe and expressed no doubt that Kerry's action had saved both the boat and its crew:
An enemy was just feet away, holding a weapon with enough firepower to blow up the boat. Kerry's forward gunner, [Tommy] Belodeau, shot and clipped the Viet Cong in the leg. Then Belodeau's gun jammed, according to other crewmates (Belodeau died in 1997). [Michael] Medeiros tried to fire at the Viet Cong, but he couldn't get a shot off.
In an interview, Kerry added a chilling detail.
"This guy could have dispatched us in a second, but
Instead, the guerrilla got up and started running. "We've got to get him, make sure he doesn't get behind the hut, and then we're in trouble," Kerry recalled.
So Kerry shot and killed the guerrilla. "I don't have a second's question about that, nor does anybody who was with me," he said. "He was running away with a live
The crewman with the best view of the action was Frederic Short, the man in the tub operating the twin guns. Short had not talked to Kerry forAlthough Kerry's superiors were somewhat concerned about the issue of his leaving his boat unattended, they nonetheless found his actions courageous and worthy of commendation:
Short had joined Kerry's crew just two weeks earlier, as a last-minute replacement, and he was as green as the Arkansas grass of his home. He said he didn't realize that he should have carried an
Short believes the guerrilla didn't fire because he was too close and needed to be a suitable distance to hit the boat squarely and avoid ricochet debris. Short tried to protect his skipper.
"I laid in fire with the twin .50s, and he got behind a hootch," recalled Short. "I laid
Short said there is "no doubt" that Kerry saved the boat and crew. "That was a him-or-us thing, that was a loaded weapon with a shape charge on
Charles Gibson, who served on Kerry's boat that day because he was on a one-week indoctrination course, said Kerry's action was dangerous but necessary. "Every day you wake up and say, 'How the hell did we get out of that alive?'" Gibson said. "Kerry was a good leader. He knew what he was doing."
When Kerry returned to his base, his commanding officer, George Elliott, raised an issue with Kerry: the fine line between whether the action merited a medal or a court-martial.Kerry was injured yet again on
"When [Kerry] came back from the well-publicized action where he beached his boat in middle of ambush and chased a VC around a hootch and ended his life, when [Kerry] came back and I heard his debrief, I said, 'John, I don't know whether you should be court-martialed or given a medal, court-martialed for leaving your ship, your post,'" Elliott recalled in an interview.
"But I ended up writing it up for a Silver Star, which is well deserved, and I have no regrets or second thoughts at all about that," Elliott said. A Silver Star, which the Navy said is its fifth-highest medal, commends distinctive gallantry in action.
Asked why he had raised the issue of a court-martial, Elliott said he did so "half tongue-in-cheek, because there was never any question I wanted him to realize I didn't want him to leave his boat unattended. That was in context of big-ship Navy — my background. A C.O. [commanding officer] never leaves his ship in battle or anything else. I realize this, first of all, it was pretty courageous to turn into an ambush even though you usually find no more than two or three people there. On the other hand, on an operation some time later, down on the very tip of the peninsula, we had lost one boat and several men in a big operation, and they were hit by a lot more than two or three people."
Elliott stressed that he never questioned Kerry's decision to kill the Viet Cong, and he appeared in Boston at Kerry's side during the 1996 Senate race to back up that aspect of Kerry's action.
"I don't think they were exactly ready to court-martial him," said Wade Sanders, who commanded a swift boat that sometimes accompanied Kerry's vessel, and who later became deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. "I can only say from the certainty borne of experience that there must have been some rumbling about, 'What are we going to do with this guy, he turned his boat,' and I can hear the words, 'He endangered his crew.' But from our position, the tactic to take is whatever action is best designed to eliminate the enemy threat, which is what he did."
Indeed, the Silver Star citation makes clear that Kerry's performance on that day was both extraordinary and risky. "With utter disregard for his own safety and the enemy rockets," the citation says, Kerry "again ordered a charge on the enemy, beached his boat only
Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry was serving as an Officer-in-Charge of Inshore Patrol Craft 94, one of five boats conducting a Sealords operation in the Bay Hap River. While exiting the river, a mine detonated under another Inshore Patrol Craft and almost simultaneously, another mine detonated wounding Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry in the right arm. In addition, all units began receiving small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks. When Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry discovered he had a man overboard, he returned upriver to assist. The man in the water was receiving sniper fire from both banks. Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry directed his gunners to provide suppressing fire, while from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain and with disregard for his personal safety, he pulled the man aboard. Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry then directed his boat to return to and assist the other damaged boat to safety. Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry's calmness, professionalism and great personal courage under fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.According to the Boston Globe, this was the only one of Kerry's three Purple Heart injuries that caused him to miss any days of service:
Kerry had been wounded three times and received three Purple Hearts. Asked about the severity of the wounds, Kerry said that one of them cost him about two days of service, and that the other two did not interrupt his duty. "Walking wounded," as Kerry put it. A shrapnel wound in his left arm gave Kerry pain for years. Kerry declined a request from the Globe to sign a waiver authorizing the release of military documents that are covered under the Privacy Act and that might shed more light on the extent of the treatment Kerry needed as a result of the wounds.Back in 1969, Navy regulations specified that any soldier wounded in combat three times be automatically reassigned away from a combat zone to an assignment of his choosing (unless the thrice-wounded soldier specifically requested to stay). Four days after Kerry took his third hit of shrapnel, Commodore
Kerry served with Admiral Schlech until the end of 1969, when he requested an early discharge from the Navy in order to run for a Massachusetts congressional seat. Admiral Schlech approved the request, and on
Last updated: 2 September 2007
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