What John Kerry Really Did in Vietnam

With John Kerry currently in full Henry Kissinger regalia, parading around the Middle East, brow-beating the Palestinians and their allies in the region and Europe into signing onto a deeply flawed peace accord that primarily serves Israeli and American interests, it may prove a useful exercise to inspect the curriculum vitae of this putative peace-maker, especially during those formative years when the Secretary of State first carved out his name in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Though Kerry has a reputation as an anti-war activist, his brief tenure in Vietnam and Cambodia was notable both for acts of casual savagery and his striking lack of contrition for his own participation in atrocities that in a rational society might easily be classified as war crimes.–JSC 

In his senior year at Yale in 1966 John Kerry enlisted in the US Navy, with his actual induction scheduled for the summer, after his graduation. Already notorious among his contemporaries for his political ambition, he’d maneuvered himself into the top slot at the Yale political union, while also winning admission to Skull and Bones.

While George W. Bush, two years behind Kerry, was seeking commercial opportunity at Yale by selling ounce bags of cocaine, (so one contemporary has recalled) Kerry was keeping a vigilant eye on the political temperature and duly noted a contradiction between his personal commitment to go to war and the growing antiwar sentiment among the masses, some of whom he hoped would vote for him at a not too distant time.

It was a season for important decisions and Kerry pondered his options amid the delights of a Skull and Bones retreat on an island in the St Lawrence River. He duly decided to junk his speech on the theme of “life after graduation” and opted for a fiery denunciation of the war and of an LBJ. The speech was well received by the students and some professors. Most parents were aghast, though not Kerry’s own mother and father.

Unlike Bill Clinton and George Bush, Kerry duly presented himself for military service. After a year’s training he was assigned to the USS Gridley, deployed to the Pacific, probably carrying nuclear missiles. Beset by boredom, Kerry received the news that once of his best friends, Dickie Pershing, grandson of “Black Jack” Pershing had been killed in Vietnam. Kerry seethed with rage and yearned, as he put it years later to his biographer Douglas Brinkley, for vengeance. (Brinkley’s highly admiring biography, A Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, offers many telling vignettes to an assiduous reader. It’s based almost entirely on Kerry’s diaries and letters of the time.)

Kerry engineered reassignment to the Swift boat patrol. In Vietnam the Tet Offensive had prompted a terrible series of search and destroy missions by the US, plus the assassination program known as Phoenix. As part of the US Navy’s slice of the action, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and his sidekick Captain Roy “Latch” Hoffman had devised “Operation Sea Lords”, in which the Swift boats would patrol the canals and secondary streams of the Mekong Delta, with particular emphasis on the areas near the Cambodian border. The basic plan, explicitly acknowledged by many Swift boat veterans, was to terrorize the peasants into turning against the National Liberation Front, aka Viet Cong. The entire area, except for certain designated “friendly villages”, was a free fire zone, meaning the Americans could shoot at will and count anyone they killed as VC.

Arriving in Vietnam on November 17, 1968, Kerry chafed at patrols around Cam Ranh Bay and pushed successfully for assignment to the forward, killing patrols. He was no Al Gore, peaceably smoking dope and shooting hoops on his Army base in Vietnam and writing home fierce moral critiques of the war. “I was more opposed to the war than ever”, Kerry told Brinkley in 2003, “yet more compelled by patriotism to fight it. I guess until you’re in it, you still want to try it.”

Day after day, night after night, the Swift boats plied the waters, harassing and often killing villagers, fishermen and farmers. In this program, aimed at intimidating the peasants into submission, Kerry was notoriously zealous. One of his fellow lieutenants, James R. Wasser, described him admiringly in these words: “Kerry was an extremely aggressive officer and so was I. I liked that he took the fight to the enemy, that he was tough and gutsy–not afraid to spill blood for his country.”

On December 2, Kerry went on his first patrol up one of the canals. It was near midnight when the crew caught sight of a sampan. Rules of engagement required no challenge, no effort to see who was on board the sampan. Kerry sent up a flare, signal for his crew to start blazing away with the boat’s two machineguns and M16 rifles. Kerry described the fishermen “running away like gazelles”.

Kerry sustained a very minor wound to his arm, probably caused by debris from his own boat’s salvoes. The scratch earned him his first Purple Heart, a medal awarded for those wounded in combat. Actually there’s no evidence that anyone had fired back, or that Kerry had been in combat, as becomes obvious when we read an entry from his diary about a subsequent excursion, written on December 11, 1968, nine days after the incident that got Kerry his medal. “A cocky air of invincibility accompanied us up the Long Tau shipping channel, because we hadn’t been shot at yet, and Americans at war who haven’t been shot at are allowed to be cocky.”

He received two more Purple Hearts, both for relatively minor wounds. Indeed Kerry never missed a day of duty for any of the medal-earning wounds.

Craving more action, Kerry got himself deployed to An Thoi, at Vietnam’s southern tip, one of the centers for the lethal Phoenix sweeps and the location of a infamous interrogation camp which held as many as 30,000 prisoners.

Kerry’s first mission as part of the Phoenix program was to ferry a Provincial Reconnaissance Unit of South Vietnamese soldiers, which would have been led by either a Green Beret or CIA officer. After off-loading the unit Kerry hid his Swift boat in a mangrove backwater. Two hours later a red flare told them that the PRU wanted an emergency “extraction”. Kerry’s boat picked up the PRU team, plus two prisoners. The leader of the PRU team told Kerry that while they were kidnapping the two villagers (one of them a young woman) from their hut, they’d seen four people in a sampan and promptly killed them. The two prisoners were “body-snatched” as part of a regular schedule of such seizures in the victims would be taken to An Thoi for interrogation and torture.

Kerry’s term to Brinkley for such outings–and there were many in his brief time in Vietnam–is “accidental atrocities”.

On daylight missions the Swift boats were accompanied by Cobra Attack helicopters that would strafe the river banks and the skeletal forest ravaged by napalm and Agent Orange. “Helos upset the VC [sic, meaning anyone on the ground] more than anything else that we had to offer”, Kerry tells Brinkley, “and any chance we had to have them with us was more than welcome.”

An example of these Cobras in action. It’s daylight, so the population is not under curfew. Kerry’s boat is working its way up a canal, with a Cobra above it. They encounter a sampan with several people in it. The helicopter hovers right above the sampan, then empties its machineguns into it, killing everyone and sinking the sampan. Kerry, in his war diary, doesn’t lament the deaths but does deplore the senselessness of the Cobra’s crew in using all of its ammunition, since the chopper pilot “requested permission to leave in order to rearm, an operation that left us uncovered for more than 45 minutes in an area where cover was essential”.

Christmas Eve, 1968, finds Kerry leading a patrol up a canal along the Cambodian border. The Christmas ceasefire has just come into effect. So what the boat was doing there is a question in and of itself. They spot two sampans and chase them to a small fishing village. The boat takes some sniper fire, (or at least Kerry says it did). Kerry orders his machine-gunner, James Wasser, to open up a barrage.

At last a note of contrition, but not from Kerry. Wasser describes to Brinkley how he saw that he’d killed an old man leading a water buffalo. “I’m haunted by that old man’s face. He was just doing his daily farming, hurting nobody. He got hit in the chest with an M-60 machinegun round. It may have been Christmas Eve, but I was real somber after that… to see the old man blown away sticks with you.” It turned out that Kerry’s boat had shot up one of the few “friendly” villages, with a garrison of South Vietnamese ARV soldiers, two of whom were wounded.

Contrast Wasser’s sad reflections with Kerry’s self-righteous account in his diary of such salvoes, often aimed into Cambodian territory. “On occasion we had shot towards the border when provoked by sniper or ambush, but without fail this led to a formal reprimand by the Cambodian government and accusations of civilian slaughters and random killings by American ‘aggressors’. I have no doubt that on occasion some innocents were hit by bullets that were aimed in self-defense at the enemy, but of all the cases in Vietnam that could be labeled massacres, this was certainly the most spurious.”

It’s very striking how we never find, in any of Kerry’s diaries or letters, the slightest expression of contrition or remorse–and Brinkley would surely have highlighted them had Kerry ever written such words. Nor did Kerry, in his later career as a self-promoting star of the antiwar movement, ever go beyond generalized verbiage about accidents of war, even as many vets were baring their souls about the horrors they had perpetrated.

It’s not that he couldn’t have summoned up for his audiences back then some awful episodes. For example, a few weeks after the incident on the Cambodian border Kerry’s boat was heading up the Cua Lon River toward Square bay, when one of the crew yelled “sampan off port bow”. Kerry ordered the machineguns to fire on the fishing boat. The sampan stopped and Kerry and his crew boarded it. They found a woman holding an infant, and near her the body of her young child riddled with machine gun bullets, lying face down among bags of rice. Kerry tells Brinkley he refused to look at the dead child, saying, “the face would stay with me for the rest of my life and it was better not to know whether it was a smile or grimace or whether it was a girl or boy”. Kerry’s preferred mode is the usual one. “Our orders”, he tells Brinkley a few pages later, “were to destroy all the hooches and sampans we could find.”

As part of Operation Sea Lords, Kerry would ferry Nung tribesmen on assassination missions. The Nung were paid by the kill, and Kerry contrasts them favorably to the South Vietnamese PF guardsmen, derisively terming the latter “Cream Puffs”. On one occasion, Kerry ferried Nung to a village where they seized an old man and forced him to act as a human mine detector, walking ahead of them along the trail. There were no mines and the Nung encountered no enemy. But for the old man it was a one-way trip. The Nung slit his throat, disemboweled him and left a warning note on his body.

When Kerry was awarded his Silver Star he had it pinned on by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and at the ceremony had the opportunity to meet Commander Adrian Lonsdale, the operational commander of Seas Lords. Kerry seized the chance to criticize the conduct of the war: “It’s not that the men are afraid or chicken to go into the rivers”, he says he told Lonsdale. “It’s not that they’re not willing to risk their lives, or that they don’t agree with the principle of what’s being done over here. It’s just that they want to have a fair chance to do
Hopeless-Barack-Obama-and-the-Politics-of-Illusion-Book-Jacket-photosomething that brings results and what they’re doing now isn’t bringing them anything. If we were to have some support, something that would guarantee that we were gaining something, but for a country with all the power that we have, we’re making men fight in a fashion that defies reason…. What we need, Sir, are some troops to sweep through the areas and secure them after we leave; otherwise we’re just going to be shot to hell after we go through, and there’ll be nothing gained.”

Yes, this is the same Kerry who, in 2004 during the height of the Sunni uprising, called for 40,000 more US troops to deployed to Iraq.

How He Won His Silver And Bronze Stars

The incident that won US Navy lieutenant John Kerry his Silver Star, thus lofting him to the useful status of “war hero”, occurred on February 28, 1969. His Swift boat was ferrying US “explosives experts” and some South Vietnamese soldiers up the Dong Cung River. After dropping them off, Kerry’s boat came under small arms fire. Kerry turned the boat toward the source of the shots, beached the boat and opened up at the forest with the boat’s machine guns.

By beaching the boat Kerry was disobeying standard orders forbidding this on the grounds that it made the craft and its crew a sitting duck. Kerry’s motive? As crew member Michael “Duke” Medeiros explained it to Kerry’s biographer, Douglas Brinkley, it was a matter of verifying kills. “We never knew whether we killed any VC or not. When fired upon, he [Kerry] wanted to beach the boat and go get the enemy.”

The boat’s machine-guns had in fact killed a Vietnamese, described as “a VC guerilla”, and they took evidence [undescribed] from the body.

The boat continued downstream and was fired on once more, by a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Here’s where accounts of the event diverge markedly, depending on the interests of the various narrators. The citation for Kerry’s Silver Star describes the event this way: “With utter disregard for his own safety and the enemy rockets, he again ordered a charge on the enemy, beached his boat only ten feet from the VC rocket position, and personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy. Upon sweeping the area an immediate search uncovered an enemy rest and supply area which was destroyed. The extraordinary daring and personal courage of Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY in attacking the n numerically superior force in the face of intense fire were responsible for the highly successful mission.”

This citation, issued by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, was based on the incident report, written by John Kerry. Missing from the Zumwalt version was a dramatic confrontation described by Kerry 27 years later in 1996, in the heat of a nasty re-election fight against Republican William Weld, when Kerry was seeking a third senate term. Kerry imparted to Jonathan Carroll, writing for the New Yorker, a story going as follows: he had faced down a Viet Cong standing a few feet from him with a B-40 rocket launcher; “It was either going to be him or it was going to be us”, Kerry told Carroll. “It was that simple. I don’t know why it wasn’t us–I mean, to this day. He had a rocket pointed right at our boat. He stood up out of that hole, and none of us saw him until he was standing in front of us, aiming a rocket right at us, and, for whatever reason, he didn’t pull the trigger–he turned and ran. He was shocked to see our boat right in front him. If he’d pulled the trigger, we’d all be dead. I just won’t talk about all of it. I don’t and I can’t. The things that probably really turn me I’ve never told anybody. Nobody would understand.”

(He may not have wanted to talk but he certainly liked to screen. The first time Kerry took Hollywood star Dana Delaney to his home in the Eighties she says his big move was showing her video clips taken of him in the Navy when he was in Vietnam. She never went out with him again. (As he prepared to make his grand entry to the Democratic convention in Boston, stories circulated that Kerry had reenacted his skirmishes, filming them with an 8mm camera for later political use.)

Two of Kerry’s crew members, Medeiros and machine-gunner Tommy Belodeau, found no mystery in why the VC soldier didn’t fire his B-40 RPG launcher. The Vietnamese was effectively unarmed. He hadn’t reloaded the RPGafter the first shot at Kerry’s boat as it headed down the river.

Later that year of 1996 Belodeau described the full scope of the incident to the Boston Globe’s David Warsh. Belodeau told Warsh that he opened with his M-60 machine gun on the Vietnamese man at a range of ten feet after they’d beached the boat. The machine gun bullets caught the Vietnamese in the legs, and the wounded man crawled behind a nearby hooch. At this point, Belodeau said, Kerry had seized an M-16 rifle, jumped out of the boat, gone up to the man who Belodeau says was near death, and finished him off.

When the Globe published Warsh’s account of Belodeau’s recollection, essentially accusing Kerry of a war crime, the Kerry campaign quickly led Madeiros to the press and he described how the Vietnamese, felled by Belodeau’s machine-gun fire, got up, grabbed the rocket launcher and ran off down a trail through the forest and a disappeared around a bend. As Kerry set off after him, Medeiros followed. They came round the corner to find the Vietnamese once again pointing the RPG at them ten feet away. He didn’t fire and Kerry shot him dead with his rifle.

Circulating around veterans’ websites in early February of 2004 was an email written by Mike Morrison who, like Kerry, won a bronze star won in Vietnam. Morrison who later went on to write speeches for Lee Iacocca, was highly suspicious of Kerry’s claims to martial glory. In a letter to his brother Ed he wrote as follows:

“I’ve long thought that John Kerry’s war record was phony. We talked about it when you were here. It’s mainly been instinct because, as you know, nobody who claims to have seen the action he does would so shamelessly flaunt it for political gain.

“I was in the Delta shortly after he left. I know that area well. I know the operations he was involved in well. I know the tactics and the doctrine used. I know the equipment. Although I was attached to CTF-116 (PBRs) I spent a fair amount of time with CTF-115 (swift boats), Kerry’s command.

“Here are my problems and suspicions:

“(1) Kerry was in-country less than four months and collected, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. I never heard of anybody with any outfit I worked with (including SEAL One, the Sea Wolves, Riverines and the River Patrol Force) collecting that much hardware so fast, and for such pedestrian actions. The Swifts did a commendable job. But that duty wasn’t the worst you could draw. They operated only along the coast and in the major rivers (Bassac and Mekong). The rough stuff in the hot areas was mainly handled by the smaller, faster PBRs. Fishy.

“(2) Three Purple Hearts but no limp. All injuries so minor that no time lost from duty. Amazing luck. Or he was putting himself in for medals every time he bumped his head on the wheel house hatch? Combat on the boats was almost always at close range. You didn’t have minor wounds. At least not often. Not three times in a row. Then he used the three Purple Hearts to request a trip home eight months before the end of his tour. Fishy.

“(3) The details of the event for which he was given the Silver Star make no sense at all. Supposedly, a B-40 (rocket propelled grenade) was fired at the boat and missed. Charlie jumps up with the launcher in his hand, the bow gunner knocks him down with the twin .50 (caliber machine guns), Kerry beaches the boat, jumps off, shoots Charlie, and retrieves the launcher. If true, he did everything wrong. (a) Standard procedure when you took rocket fire was to put your stern to the action and go (away) balls to the wall. A B-40 has the ballistic integrity of a Frisbee after about 25 yards, so you put 50 yards or so between you and the beach and begin raking it with your .50′s. ( Did you ever see anybody get knocked down with a .50 caliber round and get up? The guy was dead or dying. The rocket launcher was empty. There was no reason to go after him (except if you knew he was no danger to you–just flopping around in the dust during his last few seconds on earth, and you wanted some derring-do in your after-action report). And we didn’t shoot wounded people. We had rules against that, too.

“Kerry got off the boat. This was a major breach of standing procedures. Nobody on a boat crew ever got off a boat in a hot area. EVER! The reason was simple. If you had somebody on the beach your boat was defenseless. It couldn’t run and it couldn’t return fire. It was stupid and it put his crew in danger. He should have been relieved and reprimanded. I never heard of any boat crewman ever leaving a boat during or after a firefight.

“Something is very fishy.”

The account that makes sense to me is Belodeau’s. There were three high-powered machine guns on the boat and one Vietnamese at close range on the land and Belodeau says his machinegun knocked him down. Even if the Vietnamese fighter miraculously got up and started running away down that trail, is it likely that the two would have pursued him down an unknown path on foot. Wouldn’t be more likely that the boat would have used its machineguns again, blazing away as on Kerry’s own account they did, day and day and night after night?

Kerry’s Bronze Star On March 13, 1969, two weeks after the episode that yielded the Silver Star Kerry saw his last slice of action. It got him his bronze star and his third Purple Heart, which meant he could file a request to be transferred out of Vietnam.

Kerry earned the bronze star by pulling another lieutenant out of the water after the latter’s Swift boat had hit a mine. That same mine’s detonation caused enough wake to throw Kerry against a bulkhead, bruising his arm. This was classed as a wound, which meant the third Purple Heart. Then, amid rifle fire, Kerry maneuvered his boat toward Lieutenant Rassman and hoisted him onto the deck.

Both boats had been on yet another mission ferrying Green Berets, US Navy SEALs and Nung assassins to a village. Once again they had mistakenly targeted a friendly village, where they opened fire on South Vietnamese troops who were interrogating a group of women and children lined up against a wall.

When the Green Berets and SEALs opened fire, the South Vietnamese soldiers jumped the wall and at least ten of the women and children were killed. Meanwhile, against orders, Kerry had again left his boat and attached himself to the Nung and was, by his own words, “shooting and blowing things up”. One of the Nung threw a grenade into a hut that turned out to be filled with sacks of rice. Kerry got grains of rice and some bits of metal debris embedded in his ass, the most severe wounds he sustained in Vietnam.

With three Purple Hearts, the Silver and Bronze stars, Kerry now applied for reassignment as a personal aide to a senior officer in either Boston, New York or Washington DC. He ended up in New York working for Admiral Walter F. Schlech in New York. In January 1970 he applied for early discharge to run for office. As he put it, he’d decided not to join the antiwar movement but work within the system and try and win a seat in Congress from the Third District in Massachusetts.

Zumwalt: “Kerry’s Record Will Haunt Him”

A former assistant secretary of defense and Fletcher School of Diplomacy professor, W. Scott Thompson, recalled a conversation with the late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. that clearly had a slightly different take on Kerry’s recollection of their discussions: “[T]he fabled and distinguished chief of naval operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, told me –30 years ago when he was still CNO [chief naval officer in Vietnam] that during his own command of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam, just prior to his anointment as CNO, young Kerry had created great problems for him and the other top brass, by killing so many non-combatant civilians and going after other non-military targets.

“We had virtually to straitjacket him to keep him under control”, the admiral said. “Bud” Zumwalt got it right when he assessed Kerry as having large ambitions –but promised that his career in Vietnam would haunt him if he were ever on the national stage.”

This essay is adapted from a chapter in Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser Evil.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3