On March 13, 1969, in the Bay Hap River, did Lieut. John Kerry, captain of Swift boat PCF-94, defy enemy fire and heroically save the life of First Lieut. Jim Rassmann, who had been blown off Kerry’s boat into the water by a mine explosion? Or did Kerry, during this mission involving five Swift boats, merely help a comrade return to his boat at a time of relative calm? A band of anti-Kerry veterans funded by Republican donors–who call themselves Swift Boat Veterans for Truth–have claimed that there was no enemy fire when Kerry pulled Rassmann into his boat and that Kerry did not deserve the Bronze Star he won for this incident. Although the citation for Kerry’s Bronze Star notes he rescued Rassmann in the face of sniper fire and Kerry, Rassmann and PCF-94 crew members all say Rassmann was under fire when Kerry pulled him aboard, the anti-Kerry vets insist that was not how it happened, that there was no enemy fire. Their campaign against Kerry took a hit yesterday when The Washington Post disclosed that the military records of Larry Thurlow–a leader of the anti-Kerry outfit who also won a Bronze Star for actions taken during this engagement–contradict Thurlow’s claim that there was no enemy fire at the time. (See here.) Military records obtained by The Nation provide more evidence that there was enemy fire during this episode.
Three Navy men won Bronze Stars for their actions that day: Kerry, Thurlow, and radarman first class Robert Eugene Lambert, a petty officer in the boat captained by Thurlow. The citation for Lambert’s Bronze Star–previously undisclosed but obtained today under the Freedom of Information Act from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis–repeats the description of the incident included in the citation for Thurlow’s Bronze Star: “all units came under small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks.” Lambert’s citation also notes that Lambert–who assumed command of PCF-51 after Thurlow went to assist another Swift boat damaged by a mine–“directed accurate suppressing fire at the enemy.” The citation praises Lambert’s “coolness, professionalism and courage under fire.”
In an affidavit Thurlow signed last month, he said “no return fire occurred….I never heard a shot.” He said to the Post, “I am here to state that we weren’t under fire.” But the individual citations for Thurlow, Kerry and Lambert each refer to enemy fire. And the Lambert citation also suggests there was a need for his boat to engage in “suppressing fire.”
Asked about the discrepancy between his own account and his citation, Thurlow, who was the senior skipper in the flotilla involved in this engagement, said that Kerry was often able to present his own (presumably self-serving) descriptions of events to superiors. But neither Thurlow nor the Swift Boat group has substantiated this claim. And did Kerry rig not only his own award recommendation but those of Thurlow and Lambert? In the award recommendation for Thurlow’s Bronze Star, Lambert–not Kerry–is listed as the eyewitness. (And Del Sandusky, a crew mate of Kerry, was the eyewitness listed in the award recommendation for Kerry. According to the National Personnel Records Center, Lambert’s file no longer contains the award recommendation for his Bronze Star.)