It is more than passing strage that Kerry and other Dems think his comparison with bish's service in the Texas Air National Guard is in any way persuaive to those who think he was an anti war puke who became a senator who opposed most national security programs. What does Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard have to do with Kerry being wrong on every national security measure of importance during his career. Certainly serving in the Navy does not give you a free pass to continue to be wrong on national security issues.
When John F. Kerry rescued James Rassmann from the Bay Hap River in the jungles of Vietnam in March 1969, neither man could possibly have imagined that the episode would become a much-disputed focus of an American presidential campaign 35 years later.
For Kerry, then a green and gangly Navy lieutenant junior grade and now the Democratic challenger to a wartime Republican president, that tale of heroism under fire has become integral to his campaign. A centerpiece of public rallies, videos and a new campaign advertisement last week, it has helped distinguish the candidate from his Democratic primary rivals and from President Bush, who spent the war at home as a member of the Texas Air National Guard.
Rassmann had the worse position to witness the events that surrounded him. By his own admission he was in the water and diving underneath to avoid props and what he perceived as bullets. He certainly would not be as ood a witness as someone on one of the other boats that were staying in the areas and going about the business of rescuing others.
For the Massachusetts senator's critics, who include three of the five Swift boat skippers who were present that day, the incident demonstrates why Kerry does not deserve to be commander in chief. They accuse him of cowardice, hogging the limelight and lying. Far from displaying coolness under fire, they say, Kerry was never fired upon and fled the scene at the moment of maximum danger.
Establishing the facts 35 years later is complicated not merely by fading memories and sometimes ambiguous archival evidence, but also by the bitterly partisan nature of the presidential campaign.
...Several documents, including the after-action report and the Bronze Star citation for a Swift Boat skipper who has accused Kerry of lying, refer to "all units" coming under "automatic and small-weapons fire."
The eyewitness accounts, on the other hand, are conflicting. Kerry's former crew members support his version, as does Rassmann, the Special Forces officer rescued from the river. But many of the other skippers and enlisted men who were on the river that day dispute Kerry's account and have signed up with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a public advocacy group that has aired television advertisements accusing Kerry of lying about his wartime service.
As they were heading back to the boat, Kerry and Rassmann decided to blow up a five-ton rice bin to deny food to the Vietcong. In an interview last week, Rassmann recalled that they climbed on top of the huge pile and dug a hole in the rice. On the count of three, they tossed their grenades into the hole and ran.
Evidently, Kerry did not run fast enough. "He got some frags and pieces of rice in his rear end," Rassmann said with a laugh. "It was more embarrassing than painful." At the time, the incident did not seem significant, and Kerry did not mention it to anyone when he got back on the boat. An unsigned "personnel casualty report," however, erroneously implies that Kerry suffered "shrapnel wounds in his left buttocks" later in the day, following the mine explosion incident, when he also received "contusions to his right forearm."
Anti-Kerry veterans have accused Kerry of conflating the two injuries to strengthen his case for a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Kerry's Bronze Star citation, however, refers only to his arm injury.
"When the mine went off, we were still going full speed," recalled Michael Medeiros, one of Kerry's crew members. Kerry's boat raced off down the river, away from the ambush zone.
It is at this point that the eyewitness accounts begin to diverge sharply. Everybody agrees that a mine exploded under the 3 boat. There is no argument that Rassmann fell into the river and that Kerry fished him out. Nor is there any dispute that Kerry was hurt in the arm, although the anti-Kerry camp claims he exaggerated the nature of his injury. Much else is hotly contested.
When the first explosion occurred, Rassmann was seated next to the pilothouse on the starboard, or right, side of Kerry's boat, munching a chocolate chip cookie that he recalls having "ripped off from someone's Care package." He saw the 3 boat lift out of the water. Almost simultaneously, Kerry's forward gunner, Tommy Belodeau, began screaming for a replacement for his machine gun, which had jammed. Rassmann grabbed an M-16 and worked his way sideways along the deck, which was only seven inches wide in places.
At this point, Kerry crew members say their boat was hit by a second explosion. Although Kerry's injury report speaks of a mine that "detonated close aboard PCF-94," helmsman Del Sandusky believes it was more likely a rocket or rocket-propelled grenade, as a mine would have inflicted more damage. Whatever it was, the explosion rammed Kerry into the wall of his pilothouse, injuring his right forearm.
The second explosion "blew me right off the boat," Rassmann recalled. Frightened that he might be struck by the propellers of one of the boats, he dived to the bottom of the river, where he dumped his weapons and rucksack. When he surfaced, he said, bullets were "snapping overhead," as well as hitting the water around him.
At first, nobody noticed what had happened to Rassmann. But then Medeiros, who was standing at the stern, saw him bobbing up and down in the water and shouted, "Man overboard." Around this time, crew members said, Kerry decided to go back to help the crippled 3 boat. It is unclear how far down the river Kerry's boat was when he turned around. It could have been anywhere from half a mile to a mile.
O'Neill claims that Kerry "fled the scene" despite the absence of hostile fire. Kerry, in a purported journal entry cited in Brinkley's "Tour of Duty," maintains that he wanted to get his troops ashore "on the outskirts of the ambush."
The Kerry/Rassmann version of what happened next has been retold many times, in TV advertisements and campaign appearances: Rassmann struggling to climb up a scramble net, Kerry leaning over the bow of the boat and pulling him up with his injured arm. As Kerry later recalled, in notes cited by Brinkley, "Somehow we got him on board and I didn't get the bullet in the head that I expected, and we managed to move down near the 3 boat that was still crawling a snail-like zig-zag through the river."
Rassmann remembers several boats coming back up the river toward him. But Chenoweth believes that the rescue must have taken place fairly close to the other boats, which had been drifting slowly downriver. In his diary, he said, he wrote that "we spotted a man overboard, started to pick him up, but 94 [Kerry's boat] got there first."
While Kerry was rescuing Rassmann, the other Swift boats had gone to the assistance of Pees and the 3 boat. Thurlow, in particular, distinguished himself by leaping onto the 3 boat and administering first aid, according to his Bronze Star citation. At one point, he, too, was knocked overboard when the boat hit a sandbar, but he was rescued by crewmates.
The Kerry and anti-Kerry camps differ sharply on whether the flotilla came under enemy fire after the explosion that crippled the 3 boat. Everybody aboard Kerry's boat, including Rassmann, says there was fire from both riverbanks, and the official after-action report speaks of all boats receiving "heavy a/w [automatic weapons] and s/a [small arms] from both banks." The Bronze Star citations for Kerry and Thurlow also speak of prolonged enemy fire.
A report on "battle damage" to Thurlow's boat mentions "three 30 cal bullet holes about super structure." According to Thurlow, at least one of the bullet holes was the result of action the previous day, when he ran into another Vietcong ambush.
Thurlow, Chenoweth, Pees and several of their crew members who belong to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth say neither they nor Kerry came under fire. "If there was fire, I would have made some notation in my journal," Chenoweth said. "But it didn't happen that way. There wasn't any fire." Although he read his diary entry to a reporter over the phone, he declined to supply a copy.
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Rassmann said, "are not just questioning Kerry's account, they are questioning my account. I take that very personally. No one can tell me that we were not under fire. I saw it, I heard the splashes, and I was scared to death. For them to come back 35 years after the fact to tarnish not only Kerry's record, but my veracity is unconscionable."
...Why did it take the Post so long to tell the swiftvets side of this story? Read the whole thing.
Some of the mystery surrounding exactly what happened on the Bay Hap River in March 1969 could be resolved by the full release of all relevant records and personal diaries. Much information is available from the Web sites of the Kerry campaign and Swift BoatVeterans for Truth, and the Navy archives. But both the Kerry and anti-Kerry camps continue to deny or ignore requests for other relevant documents, including Kerry's personal reminiscences (shared only with biographer Brinkley), the boat log of PCF-94 compiled by Medeiros (shared only with Brinkley) and the Chenoweth diary.
Although Kerry campaign officials insist that they have published Kerry's full military records on their Web site (with the exception of medical records shown briefly to reporters earlier this year), they have not permitted independent access to his original Navy records. A Freedom of Information Act request by The Post for Kerry's records produced six pages of information. A spokesman for the Navy Personnel Command, Mike McClellan, said he was not authorized to release the full file, which consists of at least a hundred pages.
Others who served on boats that operated alongside Kerry on that fateful day in March 1969 say they cannot stand the man who is now challenging George W. Bush for the presidency.
"I think that Kerry's behavior was abominable," said Pees, the commander of the boat that hit the mine. "His actions after the war were particularly disgusting. He distorted the truth when he talked about atrocities. We went out of our way to protect civilians. To suggest otherwise is a grotesque lie. As far as I am concerned, he did not speak the truth about how we conducted operations in Vietnam."