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.)
Kerry has posted his award citation on his web site (click here), and Thurlow’s Bronze Star citation was posted by the Post (click here). Lambert’s citation describes what seems to have been a harrowing situation. It reads in full:
“For meritorious achievement while serving with Coastal Division ELEVEN engaged in armed conflict against Viet Cong communist aggressors in An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on 13 March 1969. Inshore Patrol Craft [PCF] 51, with Petty Officer Lambert serving as Leading Petty Officer, was conducting a SEA LORDS operation in the Bay Hap river with four other boats. The boats were exiting the river when a mine detonated under another Inshore Patrol Craft, inflicting heavy damage to the boat and wounding the entire crew. At the same time, all units came under small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks. Inshore Patrol Craft 51 immediately proceeded to aid the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft, where the Officer-in-Charge [Larry Thurlow] leaped aboard to render assistance. Petty Officer LAMBERT assumed command of Inshore Patrol Craft 51 and directed accurate suppressing fire at the enemy. While administering first aid to the crew of the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft, Inshore Patrol Craft 51’s Officer-in-Charge was knocked overboard. Petty Officer LAMBERT, without hesitation, directed Inshore Patrol Craft 51 alongside his Officer-in-Charge, where, from an exposed position and with complete disregard for his personal safety, he pulled him aboard. Petty Officer LAMBERT then returned his Officer-in-Charge to the aid of the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft and remained in command of Inshore Patrol Craft 51 until all units cleared the river. Petty Officer LAMBERT’s coolness, professionalism and courage under fire significantly contributed to the rescue of his Officer-in-Charge and the damaged Inshore Patrol Craft and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Lambert, a career Navy man who served on active duty from 1957 to 1978, could not be located. But his records offer more support for Kerry’s account (which, by the way, is the official account). And the credibility of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has been challenged on several fronts. Jerome Corsi, the co-author of the book the group is promoting, Unfit for Command, recently acknowledged that he has posted anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic comments on a conservative website. Others involved with the anti-Kerry outfit have flip-flopped and altered their stories. For instance, George Elliott, a leading member of the group who was the commander who signed the recommendation for Kerry’s Bronze Star, campaigned with Kerry in 1996, defending him after questions were raised about Kerry’s Silver Star. (Kerry received this medal for chasing down and killing an enemy soldier on February 28, 1969.) And in 1969, Elliot wrote Kerry’s fitness report and noted, “In a combat environment often requiring independent decisive action, Lt. j.g. Kerry was unsurpassed.” Now he says Kerry lied about his service in Vietnam. And today the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unveiled a new ad that assailed Kerry for having criticized the conduct of American soldiers in Vietnam. The ad claims Kerry, during his famous testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused his fellow soldiers of having committed atrocities. But Kerry, then a leader of the movement against the Vietnam War, was reporting what other soldiers had said they had done. (Today the Kerry campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing the group of illegally coordinating with the Bush campaign.)
The latest volley from the Swift Vets shows what motivates these anti-Kerry veterans. They remain mad at him for opposing the war and addressing its worst aspects. As for what happened on March 13, 1969, the issue is whether to accept the accounts of veterans who are angry with Kerry or the documentary evidence that is seconded by Rassmann, a Republican, and Kerry’s crew mates. Lambert’s citation offers more reason to wonder about the Swift Boat group’s version of events and to question its dedication to the truth.
Reporting assistance for this story was provided by Shane Goldmacher
When you’re done reading this article, check out David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. And read about the Case of the Missing Swift Boat Vet. How did a Bush campaign adviser end up in an ad put out by the supposedly independent Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?
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