FactCheck.org - Annenberg Political Fact Check
FactCheck HomeAbout UsArchivePrivacy PolicyCopyright PolicyContact Us

Republican-funded Group Attacks Kerry's War Record

Ad features vets who claim Kerry "lied" to get Vietnam medals. But other witnesses disagree -- and so do Navy records.

August 6, 2004

Modified: August 22, 2004

eMail eMail to a friend Print Printer Friendly Version

Summary

 

A group funded by the biggest Republican campaign donor in Texas began running an attack ad Aug. 5 in which former Swift Boat veterans claim Kerry lied to get one of his two decorations for bravery and two of his three purple hearts.
But the veterans who accuse Kerry are contradicted by Kerry's former crewmen, and by Navy records.

One of the accusers says he was on another boat "a few yards" away during the incident which won Kerry the Bronze Star, but the former Army lieutenant whom Kerry plucked from the water that day backs Kerry's account. In an Aug. 10 opinion piece in the conservative Wall Street Journal , Rassmann (a Republican himself) wrote that the ad was "launched by people without decency" who are "lying" and "should hang their heads in shame."

And on Aug. 19, Navy records came to light also contradicting the accusers. One of the veterans who says Kerry wasn't under fire was himself awarded a Bronze Star for aiding others "in the face of enemy fire" during the same incident.

Analysis

 

"Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is a group formed March 23 after Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination. It held a news conference May 4 denigrating Kerry's military record and his later anti-war pronouncements during the 1970's. The group began running an attack ad Aug. 5 in which 13 veterans variously say Kerry is "not being honest" and "is lying about his record."

SBVT Ad "Any Questions?" 

John Edwards: "If you have any questions about what John Kerry is made of, just spend 3 minutes with the men who served with him."

(On screen: Here's what those men this of John Kerry)

Al French: I served with John Kerry.

Bob Elder : I served with John Kerry.

George Elliott: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

Al French: He is lying about his record.

Louis Letson: I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury.

Van O'Dell: John Kerry lied to get his bronze star...I know, I was there, I saw what happened.

Jack Chenoweth: His account of what happened and what actually happened are the difference between night and day.

Admiral Hoffman: John Kerry has not been honest.

Adrian Lonsdale: And he lacks the capacity to lead.

Larry Thurlow: When he chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.

Bob Elder: John Kerry is no war hero.

Grant Hibbard: He betrayed all his shipmates...he lied before the Senate.

Shelton White: John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam.

Joe Ponder: He dishonored his country...he most certainly did.

Bob Hildreth: I served with John Kerry...

Bob Hildreth (off camera) : John Kerry cannot be trusted.

Where the Money Comes From

Although the word "Republican" does not appear in the ad, the group's financing is highly partisan. The source of the Swift Boat group's money wasn't known when it first surfaced, but a report filed July 15 with the Internal Revenue Services now shows its initial funding came mainly from a Houston home builder, Bob R. Perry, who has also given millions to the Republican party and Republican candidates, mostly in Texas, including President Bush and Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose district is near Houston

Perry gave $100,000 of the $158,750 received by the Swift Boat group through the end of June, according to its disclosure report .

Perry and his wife Doylene also gave more than $3 million to Texas Republicans during the 2002 elections, according to a database maintained by the Institute on Money in State Politics . The Perrys also were among the largest Republican donors in neighboring Louisiana, where they gave $200,000, and New Mexico, where they gave $183,000, according to the database 

At the federal level the Perrys have given $359,825 since 1999, including $6,000 to Bush's campaigns and $27,325 to DeLay and his political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, according to a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics .

The Silver Star

Several of those who appear in the ad have signed brief affidavits, and we have posted some of them in the "supporting documents" section to the right for our visitors to evaluate for themselves.

One of those affidavits, signed by George Elliott, quickly became controversial. Elliott is the retired Navy captain who had recommended Kerry for his highest decoration for valor, the Silver Star, which was awarded for events of Feb. 28, 1969, when Kerry beached his boat in the face of an enemy ambush and then pursued and killed an enemy soldier on the shore.

Elliott, who had been Kerry's commanding officer, was quoted by the Boston Globe Aug 6 as saying he had made a "terrible mistake" in signing the affidavit against Kerry, in which Elliott suggested Kerry hadn't told him the truth about how he killed the enemy soldier. Later Elliott signed a second affidavit saying he still stands by the words in the TV ad. But Elliott also made what he called an "immaterial clarification" - saying he has no first-hand information that Kerry was less than forthright about what he did to win the Silver Star.

What Elliott said in the ad is that Kerry "has not been honest about what happened in Viet Nam." In his original affidavit Elliott said Kerry had not been "forthright" in Vietnam. The only example he offered of Kerry not being "honest" or "forthright" was this: "For example, in connection with his Silver Star, I was never informed that he had simply shot a wounded, fleeing Viet Cong in the back.

In the Globe story, Elliott is quoted as saying it was a "terrible mistake" to sign that statement:

George Elliott (Globe account): It was a terrible mistake probably for me to sign the affidavit with those words. I'm the one in trouble here. . . . I knew it was wrong . . . In a hurry I signed it and faxed it back. That was a mistake.

In his second affidavit, however, Elliott downgraded that "terrible mistake" to an "immaterial clarification." He said in the second affidavit:

Elliott (second affidavit): I do not claim to have personal knowledge as to how Kerry shot the wounded, fleeing Viet Cong. 

Elliott also said he now believes Kerry shot the man in the back, based on other accounts including a book in which Kerry is quoted as saying of the soldier, "He was running away with a live B-40 (rocket launcher) and, I thought, poised to turn around and fire it." (The book quoted by Elliott is John  F. Kerry, The Complete Biography, By The Reporters Who Know Him Best.)

Elliott also says in that second affidavit, "Had I known the facts, I would not have recommended Kerry for the Silver Star for simply pursuing and dispatching a single, wounded, fleeing Viet Cong." That statement is misleading, however. It mischaracterizes the actual basis on which Kerry received his decoration.

The official citations show Kerry was not awarded the Silver Star "for simply pursuing and dispatching" the Viet Cong. In fact, the killing is not even mentioned in two of the three versions of the official citation (see "supporting documents" at right.) The citations - based on what Elliott wrote up at the time - dwell mostly on Kerry's decision to attack rather than flee from two ambushes, including one in which he led a landing party.

The longest of the citations, signed by Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam, describes Kerry as killing a fleeing Viet Cong with a loaded rocket launcher. It says that as Kerry beached his boat to attack his second set of ambushers, "an enemy soldier sprang up from his position not ten feet from Patrol Craft Fast 94 and fled. Without hesitation, Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY leaped ashore, pursued the man behind a hooch, and killed him, capturing a B-40 rocket launcher with a round in the chamber."

Two other citations omit any mention of the killing. One was signed by Admiral John J. Hyland, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, and the other was signed by the Secretary of the Navy. Both those citations  say Kerry attacked his first set of ambushers and that "this daring and courageous tactic surprised the enemy and succeeded in routing a score of enemy soldiers." Later, 800 yards away, Kerry's boat encountered a second ambush and a B-40 rocket exploded  "close aboard" Kerry's boat. "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 away from the VC rocket position, and personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy." In these citations  there is no mention of enemy casualties at all. Kerry was cited for "extraordinary daring and personal courage . . . in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire."

Elliott had previously defended Kerry on that score when his record was questioned during his 1996 Senate campaign. At that time Elliott came to Boston and said Kerry acted properly and deserved the Silver Star. And as recently as June, 2003, Elliott called Kerry's Silver Star "well deserved" and his action "courageous" for beaching his boat in the face of an ambush:

Elliott (Boston Globe, June 2003): 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. . . . (It) was pretty courageous to turn into an ambush even though you usually find no more than two or three people there.

Elliott now feels differently, and says he has come to believe Kerry didn't deserve his second award for valor, either, based only on what the other anti-Kerry veterans have told him. He told the Globe Aug. 6:

Elliott: I have chosen to believe the other men. I absolutely do not know first hand.

On Aug. 22 an officer who was present supported Kerry's version, breaking a 35-year silence. William B. Rood commanded another Swift Boat during the same operation and was awarded the Bronze Star himself for his role in attacking the Viet Cong ambushers. He said Kerry and he went ashore at the same time after being attacked by several Viet Cong onshore.
Rood said he was the only other officer present. Rood is now an editor on the metropolitan desk of the Chicago Tribune, which published his first-person account of the incident in its Sunday edition. Rood said he had refused all interviews about Kerry's war record, even from reporters for his own paper, until motivated to speak up because Kerry's critics are telling "stories I know to be untrue" and "their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us."

Rood described two Viet  Cong ambushes, both of them routed using a tactic devised by Kerry who was in tactical command of a three-boat operation. At the second ambush only the Rood and Kerry boats were attacked.

Rood: Kerry, followed by one member of his crew, jumped ashore and chased a VC 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 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.

Rood disputed an account of the incident given by John O'Neill in his book "Unfit for Command," which describes the man Kerry chased as a "teenager" in a "loincloth." Rood said, "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 VC usually wore."

 

The Bronze Star

The most serious allegation in the ad is that Kerry received both the Bronze Star, his second-highest decoration, and his third purple heart, which allowed him to be sent home early, under false pretenses. But that account is flatly contradicted by Jim Rassmann, the former Army Lieutenant whom Kerry rescued that day.

Van O'Dell, a former Navy enlisted man who says he was the gunner on another Swift Boat, states in his affidavit that he was "a few yards away" from Kerry's boat on March 13, 1969 when Kerry pulled Rassman from the water. According to the official medal citations, Kerry's boat was under enemy fire at the time, and Kerry had been wounded when an enemy mine exploded near his own boat. O'Dell insists "there was no fire" at the time, adding: "I did not hear any shots, nor did any hostile fire hit any boats" other than his own, PCF-3.

Others in the ad back up that account. Jack Chenoweth, who was a Lieutenant (junior grade) commanding PCF-3, said Kerry's boat "fled the scene" after a mine blast disabled PCF-3, and returned only later "when it was apparent that there was no return fire." And Larry Thurlow, who says he commanded a third Swift Boat that day, says "Kerry fled while we stayed to fight," and returned only later "after no return fire occurred."

 Kerry Ad "Heart"

John Kerry: I was born in Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Colorado, my dad was serving in the Army air corps. Both of my parents taught me about public service. I enlisted because I believed in service to country. I thought it was important, if you had a lot of privileges as I had had, to go to a great university like Yale, that you give something back to your country.

Del Sandusky: The decisions that he made saved our lives.

Jim Rassmann: When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his life to save mine. 

Narrator: For more than 30 years John Kerry has served America.

Vanessa Kerry: If you look at my father's time and service to this country, whether it has been a veteran, prosecutor, or Senator, he has shown an ability to fight for things that matter.

Teresa Kerry: John is the face of someone who is hopeful, who is generous of spirit, and of heart.

John Kerry : We're a country of optimists...we're the can-do people, and we just need to believe in ourselves again. 

Narrator: A lifetime of service and strength: John Kerry for President.

A serious discrepancy in the account of Kerry's accusers came to light Aug. 19, when the Washington Post reported that Navy records describe Thurlow himself as dodging enemy bullets during the same incident, for which Thurlow also was awarded the Bronze Star.

Thurlow's citation - which the Post said it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - says that "all units began receiving enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks" after the first explosion. The citation describes Thurlow as leaping aboard the damaged PCF-3 and rendering aid "while still under enemy fire," and adds: "His actions and courage in the face of enemy fire . . .  were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

A separate document that recommended Thurlow for that decoration states that all Thurlow's actions "took place under constant enemy small arms fire." It was signed by Elliott.

The Post quoted Thurlow as saying he had lost his citation years earlier and had been under the impression that he received the award for aiding the damaged boat and its crew, and that his own award would be "fraudulent" if based on his facing enemy fire. The Post   reported that, after hearing the citation read to him, Thurlow said: "It's like a Hollywood presentation here, which wasn't the case. . . My personal feeling was always that I got the award for coming to the rescue of the boat that was mined. This casts doubt on anybody's awards. It is sickening and disgusting. . . . I am here to state that we weren't under fire."

None of those in the attack ad by the Swift Boat group actually served on Kerry's boat. And their statements are contrary to the accounts of Kerry and those who served under him. 

Jim Rassmann was the Army Special Forces lieutenant whom Kerry plucked from the water. Rassmann has said all along that he was under sniper fire from both banks of the river when Kerry, wounded, helped him aboard. Rassmann is featured in an earlier Kerry ad, in fact, (see script at left) saying "he (Kerry) risked his life to save mine."

On Aug. 10, Rassmann wrote a vivid account of the rescue in the Wall Street Journal that contradicts the Kerry accusers. Rassmann said that after the first explosion that disabled PCF-3:

Rassmann: Machine-gun fire erupted from both banks of the river and a second explosion followed moments later. The second blast blew me off John's swift boat, PCF-94, throwing me into the river. Fearing that the other boats would run me over, I swam to the bottom of the river and stayed there as long as I could hold my breath.

When I surfaced, all the swift boats had left, and I was alone taking fire from both banks. To avoid the incoming fire I repeatedly swam under water as long as I could hold my breath, attempting to make it to the north bank of the river. I thought I would die right there. The odds were against me avoiding the incoming fire and, even if I made it out of the river, I thought I thought I'd be captured and executed. Kerry must have seen me in the water and directed his driver, Del Sandusky, to turn the boat around. Kerry's boat ran up to me in the water, bow on, and I was able to climb up a cargo net to the lip of the deck. But, because I was nearly upside down, I couldn't make it over the edge of the deck. This left me hanging out in the open, a perfect target. John, already wounded by the explosion that threw me off his boat, came out onto the bow, exposing himself to the fire directed at us from the jungle, and pulled me aboard.

Rassmann said he recommended Kerry for the Silver Star for that action, and learned only later that the Bronze Star had been awarded instead. "To this day I still believe he deserved the Silver Star for his courage," he wrote. Rassmann described himself as a retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "I am a Republican, and for more than 30 years I have largely voted for Republicans," Rassmann said. But he said Kerry "will be a great commander in chief."

"This smear campaign has been launched by people without decency," Rassmann said. "Their new charges are false; their stories are fabricated, made up by people who did not serve with Kerry in Vietnam."

On Aug. 22 the Washington Post quoted a new eyewitness in support of Kerry's version. The Post said it had independently contacted Wayne D. Langhofer, who manned a machine gun aboard  PCF-43, the boat directly behind Kerry's, and that Langhofer said he distinctly remembered the "clack, clack, clack" of enemy AK-47 assault rifles.

Langhofer: There was a lot of firing going on, and it came from both sides of the river.

The Third Purple Heart

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth further says Kerry didn't deserve his third purple heart, which was received for shrapnel wounds in left buttocks and contusions on right forearm. The Swift Boat group's affidavits state that the wound in Kerry's backside happened earlier that day in an accident. "Kerry inadvertently wounded himself in the fanny," Thurlow said in his affidavit, "by throwing a grenade too close (to destroy a rice supply) and suffered minor shrapnel wounds."

The grenade incident is actually supported by Kerry's own account, but the shrapnel wound was only part of the basis for Kerry's third purple heart according to official documents. The evidence here is contradictory.

Kerry's account is in  the book Tour of Duty by Douglas Brinkley, who based it largely on Kerry's own Vietnam diaries and 12 hours of interviews with Kerry. "I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice-bin explosions and then we started to move back to the boats," Kerry is quoted as saying on page 313. In that account, Kerry says his arm was hurt later, after the mine  blast that disabled PCF-3, when a second explosion rocked his own boat. "The concussion threw me violently against the bulkhead on the door and I smashed my arm," Kerry says on page 314.

And according to a Navy casualty report released by the Kerry campaign, the third purple heart was received for "shrapnel wounds in left buttocks and contusions on his right forearm when a mine detonated close aboard PCF-94," Kerry's boat. As a matter of strict grammar, the report doesn't state that both injuries were received as a result of the mine explosion, only the arm injury.

The official citation  for Kerry's Bronze Star refers only to his arm injury, not to the shrapnel wound to his rear. It says he performed the rescue "from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain." The description of Kerry's arm "bleeding" isn't consistent with the description of a "contusion," or bruise.

Rassmann's Aug. 10 Wall Street Journal article states that Kerry's arm was "wounded by the explosion that threw me off his boat," which would make that wound clearly enemy-inflicted.

In any case, even a "friendly fire" injury can qualify for a purple heart "as long as the 'friendly' projectile or agent was released with the full intent of inflicting damage or destroying enemy troops or equipment," according to the website of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. All agree that rice was being destroyed that day on the assumption that it otherwise might feed Viet Cong fighters.

Another major discrepancy raises a question of how close Kerry's accusers actually were to the rescue of Rassmann. Tour of Duty describes Rassmann's rescue (and the sniper fire) as happening "several hundred yards back" from where the crippled PCF-3 was lying, not "a few yards away," the distance from which the anti-Kerry veterans claim to have witnessed the incident.

First Purple Heart

Two who appear in the ad say Kerry didn't deserve his first purple heart.  Louis Letson, a medical officer and Lieutenant Commander, says in the ad that he knows Kerry is lying about his first purple heart because “I treated him for that.”  However, medical records provided by the Kerry campaign to FactCheck.org do not list Letson as the “person administering treatment” for Kerry’s injury on December 3, 1968 .  The person who signed this sick call report is J.C. Carreon, who is listed as treating Kerry for shrapnel to the left arm.

In his affidavit, Letson says Kerry's wound was self-inflicted and does not merit a purple heart. But that's based on hearsay, and disputed hearsay at that. Letson says “the crewman with Kerry told me there was no hostile fire, and that Kerry had inadvertently wounded himself with an M-79 grenade.” But the Kerry campaign says the two crewmen with Kerry that day deny ever talking to Letson.

On Aug. 17 the Los Angeles Times quoted Letson as giving a slightly different account than the one in his affidavit. The Times quotes him as saying he heard only third-hand that there had been no enemy fire. According to the Times, Letson said that what he heard about Kerry's wounding came not from other crewmen directly, but through some of his own subordinates. Letson was quoted as saying the information came from crewmen who were "just talking to my guys … There was not a firefight -- that's what the guys related. They didn't remember any firing from shore."

Letson also insisted to the Times that he was the one who treated Kerry, removing a tiny shard of shrapnel from Kerry's arm using a pair of tweezers. Letson said Carreon, whose signature appears on Kerry's medical record, was an enlisted man who routinely made record entries on his behalf. Carreon signed as "HM1," indicating he held the enlisted rank of Hospital Corpsman First Class.

Also appearing in the ad is  Grant Hibbard, Kerry’s commanding officer at the time. Hibbard’s affidavit says that he “turned down the Purple Heart request,” and recalled Kerry's injury as a "tiny scratch less than from a rose thorn." 

That doesn't quite square with Letson's affidavit, which describes shrapnel "lodged in Kerry's arm" (though "barely.")

Hibbard also told the Boston Globe in an interview in April 2004 that he eventually acquiesced about granting Kerry the purple heart.

Hibbard: I do remember some questions on it. . .I finally said, OK if that's what happened. . . do whatever you want

Kerry got the first purple heart after Hibbard left to return to the US

McCain Speaks Up

Sen. John McCain -- who has publicly endorsed Bush and even appealed for donations to the President's campaign -- came to Kerry's defense on this. McCain didn't witness the events in question, of course. But he told the Associated Press in an August 5 interview:

McCain : I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable. As it is none of these individuals served on the boat (Kerry) commanded. Many of his crewmates have testified to his courage under fire.  I think John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam.

At this point, 35 years later and half a world away, we see no way to resolve which of these versions of reality is closer to the truth.

Sources

Michael Kranish,Veteran Retracts Criticism of Kerry ,” The Boston Globe, 6 August 2004 .

Jodi Wilgoren, "Vietnam Veterans Buy Ads to Attack Kerry," The New York Times, 5 August 2004. 

Douglas Brinkley, Tour of Duty, (NY, HarperCollins, 2004).

Jim Rassmann, "Shame on the Swift Boat Veterans for Bush," Wall Street Journal, 10 Aug 2004: A10.

Ron Fournier, "McCain Condemns Anti-Kerry Ad," Associated Press, 5 August 2004.

Michael Kranish, "Kerry Faces Questions Over Purple Heart," The Boston Globe , 14 April 2004: A1.

Michael Kranish, "Heroism, and growing concern about war," The Boston Globe, 16 June 2003.

Maria L. La Ganga and Stephen Braun, "Race to the White House: Veterans Battle Over Truth; An ad calls Kerry a liar. His Vietnam crew sees a hero. Memories, and agendas, are in conflict." Los Angeles Times 17 Aug 2004: A1.

Michael Dobbs, "Records Counter A Critic Of Kerry; Fellow Skipper's Citation Refers To Enemy Fire" Washington Post, 19 Aug. 2004: A1.

William B. Rood, "FEB. 28, 1969: ON THE DONG CUNG RIVER
`This is what I saw that day'" Chicago Tribune 22 Aug 2004.

Michael Dobbs, "Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete: Critics Fail to Disprove Kerry's Version of Vietnam War Episode," Washington Post 22 Aug 2004: A1.