ALL I CAN DO IS PASS ON THE FACTS: KERRY EARNED HIS SILVER STAR
William B. Rood was there and puts an end to speculation about what did – and did not – happen.
"There were three swift boats on the river that day in Vietnam more than 35 years ago – with 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 then. 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 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 claimed that the accounts of what happened are 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 never talk publicly about it again.
"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.
"On Feb. 28, 1969, I was officer in charge of PCF-23, one of three swift boats – the others were Kerry's PCF-94 and Lt. j.g. Donald Droz's PCF-43 – that carried Vietnamese regional and Popular Force troops and a U.S. Navy demolition team up the Dong Cung, a narrow tributary of the Bay Hap River, to conduct a sweep.
"The approach of the noisy 50-foot aluminum boats – each driven by two huge 12-cylinder diesel engines 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 boat crews 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 had come to expect that the heavily loaded boats would lumber on past an ambush, firing at the entrenched attackers, beaching upstream and sending troops to sweep back down on the ambush site. Often, the enemy was long gone by the time the troops got there.
"The first time we took fire – from the usual rockets and automatic weapons – Kerry ordered "turn 90," and the three boats roared in on the ambushers. It worked. We routed the attackers, killing three of them. The troops, led by an Army adviser, jumped off the boats and began a sweep, which killed a half dozen more Viet Cong, wounded or captured others and found weapons and supplies used to stage ambushes.
"Meanwhile, Kerry ordered my 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 90" maneuver, and again it worked. As we headed for the riverbank, I remember seeing a loaded B-40 rocket launcher pointed at the boats. But 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 Viet Cong fighter 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 had 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 Viet Cong usually wore.
"The man Kerry chased was not the "lone" attacker at that site, as O'Neill suggests. There were others who fled. There also was 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 boat crews, saying that the tactic of charging the attackers 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 boat crews did on that day demonstrated Kerry's inclination to be impulsive to a fault.
"However, 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 also was 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 Viet Cong tax collector was operating upstream.
"Ignoring the prohibition against it, Bernique and his crew went upstream and routed the Viet Cong, pursuing and killing several.
"Instead of facing disciplinary action as he had expected, Bernique was given the Silver Star, and Zumwalt ordered other swift boats, 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 such as 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, saying the Viet Cong were "caught completely off guard."
"There's at least one mistake in that citation. It incorrectly identifies the river where the main action occurred, a reminder that such documents often were drawn up in haste and sometimes 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 intend 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 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 United States now.
"Jerry Leeds lives in a 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, purple martins return to the stately birdhouses on the tall poles in his back yard.
"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 B. Rood
August 24, 2004
With all this information (and more to come in other posts), we must ask why our Spokesman Review newspaper chose to "front page" reports which have the effect of making the lies by men who did not serve with John Kerry seem equal to the facts. A good job of reporting would help to serve the truth and point up all the lies which are coming out of these liars and also their personal craziness. I must question the Spokesman's Republican leanings when one of its editors admitted that the Spokesman has already made up its collective mind to endorse the lies of George Bush.