Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry By John O’Neill and Jerome R. Corsi (published by Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS) will debut Sunday at No. 3 on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Yet, O’Neill, who took over command of Kerry’s Swift Boat 94 when Kerry left Vietnam after serving only four months of the typical one-year tour, has not been given broad exposure in the establishment media. Nor have several former Navy officers who served beside Kerry in Vietnam and who were on-the-record sources for O’Neill’s book.
When O’Neill did appear on CNN’s “Crossfire” on August 12, co-host James Carville shouted him down. On August 16, the editors of HUMAN EVENTS interviewed O’Neill under calmer circumstances and gave him an opportunity to answer the questions Carville did not want to ask.
On CNN’S Crossfire, August 12, James Carville, citing a statement from the Kerry campaign, said: “They say in your book, they actually say that you never spoke to anyone on the two boats when he was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star.” Is that true?
JOHN O’ NEILL: No. First, on the first Purple Heart, I have interviewed directly Rear Adm. William Schachte. Second, with respect to the crewmen on his boats, we had them interviewed by an investigator named Tom Rupprath until they refused to be interviewed anymore.”
Did you know how many members of Kerry’s boat crew Rupprath spoke to?
O’ NEILL: He managed to speak to three before they shut him down.
How many total crew members did Kerry command during the time he was in Vietnam?
O’ NEILL: Ten. Of course [in] the command for the longest length of time is a fellow who’s been with us, [Steve] Gardner, and has given a full and complete statement. He was there [under Kerry’s command] for two months. In contrast, the fellow that spoke for Kerry at the Democratic National Convention, [David] Alston, was there for a fairly short period of time, perhaps as little as a week.”
The three crewmembers your investigator talked to–does that include Gardner?
O’ NEILL: Yes. It includes Gardner, [Steve] Hatch, and [Bill] Zaldonis.
So there are another seven crewmembers you folks weren’t able to interview in any capacity while you were doing this book, but that’s not because you didn’t try?
O’ NEILL: Absolutely. There are actually another six. One is dead. I will tell you this, some of these crew members have no relevant information on some of the incidents because they simply weren’t present for some of those incidents involved in the book.
You mentioned that you interviewed now Rear Admiral William Schachte. [In Unfit for Command. Schachte is described as being on a Boston Whaler with Kerry on Dec. 2, 1968, when Kerry, according to the book, fired a grenade into the shore from too-close range and was slightly wounded in his arm by rebounding shrapnel. Although there was no enemy fire that night, according to Unfit for Command, it was this incident, witnessed by Schachte, for which Kerry received his Purple Heart.].
On that same August 12 Crossfire program, Lanny Davis said in an exchange with you on that issue that Schachte was not on the boat and your claim that Schachte was on the boat is false.
O’ NEILL: I am absolutely certain that Schachte was on the boat. I know it from multiple sources. First of all, I know it from Rear Admiral William Schachte himself, the former acting Judge Advocate General of the Navy. Secondly, I know it from other crewmen who were available to testify that Schachte was on the boat. Third, I know it from the commanding officer of the unit, Commander Grant Hibbard, who detached Schachte for the purposes of commanding the boat.
Is Schachte willing to come forward and speak publicly about what he told you when you were researching this book?
O’ NEILL: I believe that Admiral Schachte will ultimately come forward at his own time and own his own pace to testify publicly about exactly what happened.
In Bob Novak’s column this morning he says he spoke to two people who were on the boat when Kerry got the first Purple Heart, Zaldonis and Runyon.
Are those the two people that you understand were on the boat at that time?
O’NEILL: There is confusion as to which of those two guys were on the boat. It is clear that John Kerry was on the boat. It is clear that Admiral Schachte was on the boat. As to [whether both Zaldonis and Runyon were on the boat] there is confusion as to that point.
In Novak’s column he says: “I telephoned the two of Kerry’s crew members who said they were on the whaler that night: Patrick Runyon and William Zaldonis. Each said they did not know whether there was enemy fire and did not know how Kerry was wounded. But each said he was certain that they alone were in the boat with Kerry, and did not even know Schachte.”
O’ NEILL: Yes, I disagree with that statement completely. Schachte was the executive officer of that coastal division and Schachte was on the boat that evening.
Do you believe Schachte will come forward and speak before the election?
O’NEILL: Without question, I believe so.
On Crossfire with you, Lanny Davis said: “Every single person in the numbers that you quote was not on those boats during the incidents that led to the [Bronze and Silver] stars [that were awarded to John Kerry]. Yes or no?”
O’NEILL: That is a total and complete lie. Davis knows it’s a lie as each word leaves his mouth. The reason why they have a Washington lawyer instead of a Swift Boat guy is to fabricate lies just like that. . . . Look, for example, in the incident of March 13, , the Rassmann incident, [when John Kerry was awarded the Bronze Star for reportedly returning, under fire, to the scene of a series of mine explosions to pull Jim Rassmann out of the water, after Kerry himself had reportedly been wounded by shrapnel from one of the mines] there are six separate people who were on the other boats and observed the incident and know that our boats did not flee. They know that the only boat that fled was Kerry’s.
But so far, all we have is what Rassmann said. That’s all we have in terms of a live person who was really there and says what he saw. He says that there was hostile fire and that he was rescued by Kerry, etc, etc. He says Kerry came back for him and that there were no other Swift Boats in the area. Now, you quoted people like Jack Chenowith and Larry Thurlow and Van Odell. They are never seen on television. There are no affidavits from them. The point is, Rassmann seems to have a better part of this case. You are the only one out there and you didn’t really serve with Kerry at that time.
O’ NEILL: First, they have all executed affidavits. There are some 14 affidavits that were executed by these guys. The guy who hasn’t executed an affidavit is Rassmann.
Was he asked to do one? Did you guys try to get him to do one?
O’ NEILL: No. Obviously he will not talk to us. All those guys appeared on television, Odell, Chenowith, Thurlow. We have every boat commander who was there that day other than Kerry. In addition, Kerry has a huge problem and that’s a physical impossibility. What I mean is that the No. 3 boat was blown into the air by a mine. The sailors were knocked off the No. 3 boat into the water. The No. 3 boat couldn’t go anywhere. It couldn’t flee. The other four boats but [not] Kerry’s closed in to save the No. 3 boat.
When this happened, how many boats were there in the general vicinity?
O’ NEILL: There were five boats there. . . . They were following each other, within a few yards of each other, three on one side of the river and two on the other side.
Now one is sunk, or basically out of combat, and one left [the scene], Kerry’s, right?
O’ NEILL: Exactly. The other boats opened up because they thought there might be return fire in addition to the mine. Within 30 seconds they saw there was no return fire, so they ceased firing. If everybody had fled like Kerry describes, Dick Pees would be dead. His boat would have sunk with him on it.
He was on the No. 3 boat?
O’ NEILL: He was the captain of the 3 boat, yes.
In the book where you describe this, you cite as sources Jack Chenowith, Dick Pees, Van Odell and Larry Thurlow. All of those men have executed affidavits describing what happened at this event?
O’ NEILL: Three of the four of them have. Dick Pees is here, but we didn’t physically get an affidavit from Pees at the time.
Chenowith, Odell and Thurlow have all signed affidavits though, right?
O’ NEILL: Let me try to explain what happened. We had an ad that took the position that Kerry’s Bronze Star was fraudulent. The DNC had two law firms attack the ad. We then provided a package to the station managers of 20 stations supporting the ad, containing the affidavits, 14 affidavits and other documentation. Every one of those stations carried our ad after studying that documentation.
What was Chenowith’s role there that day?
O’ NEILL: Chenowith was the officer in command of the boat immediately behind the No. 3 boat. When the No. 3 boat blew up, he was the guy who backed up and saved the sailors in the water. After they were saved, Chenowith started toward Rassmann and was within 10 or 15 yards of Rassmann at the time Kerry finally returned and picked him up.
So Pees was the commander of the No. 3 boat. Chenowith is the commander of the boat behind that one. And what about Thurlow?
O’ NEILL: He was the commander of the rear boat. He was famous for this incident because he went aboard the 3 boat, saved the boat from sinking and actually saved the crew while Kerry was gone. The boat was in slow movement, 500 RPM with one screw gone. Thurlow jumped over the boat, dropped into the water, was almost chewed up by the props, climbed back out and jumped over again. He brought the boat to a halt and began plugging the holes in the engine room so that the boat wouldn’t sink with the people aboard.
Pees is in the water at this point?
O’ NEILL: No, he is in the pilothouse. There were two people thrown into the water, but not Pees. Pees was thrown into the ceiling. He had a concussion as a result.
Chenowith was an eyewitness to all this going on?
O’ NEILL: Chenowith was right there. He was coming in the boat immediately behind the No. 3. Later, he had a very distinguished naval career, and retired as a captain.
Where was Odell when this was taking place?
O’ NEILL: Odell was the gunner on top of the Chenowith boat. These boats had .50 caliber machine guns on the very top of the boat. Odell was the guy on the Chenowith boat who sprayed the left bank until it became obvious that there was no return fire. He had the best view of the entire scene.
After this burst of suppressive fire there was no other hostile fire after that?
O’ NEILL: No one heard any hostile fire of any kind. In the after action report that John Kerry filed, he claimed that there was 5,000 meters of hostile fire. That’s like at Gettysburg, Seminary Ridge. He claimed that there was hostile fire coming from both banks. He claimed that in his report.
For 5,000 meters of river, he claimed they were firing for that length of the river?
O’ NEILL: Well, he claimed that there was enemy fire for 3.2 miles.
So that would mean that people all along that distance were firing at them?
O’ NEILL: On both banks, yes. This is a 75-yard-wide river. First of all there were only 2 miles of river between the place they were at and the gulf. But beyond that, had that sort of volume of fire actually occurred, these boats and the people on them would have been riddled. There was not one bullet hole in one of the boats. There was not one guy wounded except for John Kerry’s bottom wound and the guys that were hurt being blown off the 3 boat by the mine.
Who was the commander of the fifth boat? Where is he and what is he saying now?
O’ NEILL: He is dead.
Were written reports filed after this by the commanders of the other boats?
O’ NEILL: No, only by John Kerry.
Why was he the only one to file a report?
O’ NEILL: He chose to be the guy filing the one report, the officer in tactical command. Whether he was or not, he was the one to file the only report of the incident.
Was that typical? You’d have an incident, and someone would say, OK, I’ll file the report?
O’ NEILL: Actually, the pattern is that he would always file the reports in the short time he was there. Inevitably, those reports would always glorify him and inevitably minimize everyone else.
Everyone agrees, though, Rassmann was in the water?
O’ NEILL: Beyond question, Rassmann was on Kerry’s boat and he had known him for a couple of days and he fell into the water. How was he in the water? Kerry claims that there was a mine, and nobody else heard that mine.
So there were two mines according to Kerry?
O’ NEILL: Actually, Kerry claims in his after action report that there were three mines. He claims the mine under PCF 3, which was real, along with two other mines that nobody on any of the other adjoining boats heard.
None of the other boats suffered any damage from these supposed mines?
O’ NEILL: That’s right. Kerry points to a boat damage report that shows his windows blown out and that’s on his website. The problem with trying to use the windows blown out is if you’ll turn to page 304 of Tour of Duty, you’ll learn that that happened the day before.
One simple distinction that I think is critical and I’ve often seen interviews go by with nobody explaining it, is that the Kerry people keep saying “none of these people were on the boat.” Is it really that important whether they were actually on the boat?
O’ NEILL: Not at all. As a matter of fact, the Kerry crewmen by and large were there only a short period of time with Kerry. The officers he served with were there for much longer. They were there for like two or three months. His crewmen, other than [Steve] Gardner, were there relatively short periods of time. These are boats that operate in packs of two to six boats, just like tanks or airplanes. These are not aircraft carriers or battleships. These are little tiny boats that operate together usually within 5 or 10 yards of each other. Remember that the crewmen on the Kerry boats never got a chance to see the fraudulent reports that Kerry was issuing. Remember also that the most important view of Kerry’s boat on March 13 was from the guys in the water and the guys sitting on these other boats as they watched the stern disappearing.
What you are saying is that in this particular incident, March 13, 1969, that of four surviving swift boat commanders that were involved in this event, one of them is Kerry, and the other three are sources for your book?
O’ NEILL: Exactly. And with the other three, their stories are exactly the same, and many of the crewmen on their boats.
And two of these commanders have signed sworn affidavits of their accounts of the event?
O’ NEILL: Two of the commanders plus Van Odell.
Do Swift Boats ever just go off on missions of their own?
O’ NEILL: Let me explain. If you were off the coast, it would be possible to operate on your own, but never in my experience did an individual Swift Boat go by itself in rivers and canals because you see the area we were operating in was so hostile that if your engine went out or something like that, you’d run into big problems.
So it’s somewhat disingenuous for someone to say, well, only one of these people was actually on Kerry’s boat?
O’ NEILL: I think that veterans all over the country are laughing at that. Anybody who was ever in a tank or operated in a fighter squadron, anybody who was ever in the brown-water navy, they think that that is the silliest thing they ever heard.
That is key to Lanny Davis’ critique of you: that these guys were not in the boat.
O’ NEILL: That is like trying to claim that unless you were in the tank, you don’t know what happened with the tank, even if you were in the same little tank company. It’s a great Washington lawyer comment and a great spin comment, but in the real world, outside of Washington, it’s a big joke.
For everybody that I talk to who is not a veteran, that point is sort of lost on them.
O’ NEILL: You have to look at each one of the incidents one by one. The first Purple Heart incident involved a little skimmer [Boston Whaler]. Admiral Schachte was on the boat. . . . The second big incident was the [March 13, 1969] Bronze Star/third Purple Heart incident. We’ve been through that. That was an incident in close proximity to four other boats–the one we just talked about. A third important incident is the sampan incident. Kerry’s problem on the sampan incident is that we have his account and those of all of his crewmen in Tour of Duty and the Kerry biography by [Mike] Kranish [of the Boston Globe], and then we have the report he made to the Navy Department. That report is completely different than . . . the little family of four described in his book. You don’t need to be in the boat to hear what all the guys in the boat all say.
What about the Silver Star incident?
O’ NEILL: Our sources on the Silver Star incident are [Michael] Medeiros and Kerry’s crewmen on many occasions have described the incident. The facts are largely undisputed over what happened in that incident. The action was sort of pre-planed that the lead boat with a guy who favors Kerry, named Lt. [Doug] Reese, first went into shore, and then all the troops were discharged from that boat and had a little bit of a battle with the Viet Cong while Kerry milled about. And a rocket was fired at Kerry’s boat. He went in to the shore. There was a lone Viet Cong guy, shot by Kerry’s gunner in the legs. As he was fleeing and wounded, Kerry jumped off the boat, chased him down and shot him in the back. Those facts are agreed to in the Kranish book, essentially in the Tour of Duty book, and in many accounts by Kerry’s crewmen.
In terms of the citation, though, it’s different, isn’t it?
O’ NEILL: That’s his problem. The problem he has is that when he reported what happened to his superior officers, he first reported that he was part of the first action–that he had gone in with the lead boat, when he hadn’t. The second thing he reported is that when he turned his boat in, he turned it into a bunkered force of Viet Cong. And therefore the citation talks about his turning his boat into a numerically superior enemy and intense fire. No offense, but a single guy in a loincloth–a teenager, wounded in the legs–is not a superior force when confronted by a large gunboat with double 50-calibers and 30 troops on board.
When you’re awarded a Silver Star, doesn’t there have to be more than just one guy saying, “I did these brave things?”
O’ NEILL: There should be. There should always be two sworn witness statements and a whole segment of documents. Those are all missing here. They never happened here. The event occurred on Feb. 28, . Within two days, Kerry was awarded the Silver Star. There are no witness statements, there’s no review, and there are no accompanying documents, as occur in almost every other Silver Star.
How do you know that unless you have access to all of those records? Or do you?
O’ NEILL: Kerry purported to release all records on his website. You can check and you will not find the accompanying affidavits, you will not find any review. And I know those didn’t occur because I’ve spoken directly to the people involved in the process. Any Silver Star is well documented. What’s shocking about this Silver Star is that it wasn’t well documented, it occurred spontaneously because they accepted what he had to say about it.
Was this an irregular award in terms of, they didn’t follow the standard process?
O’ NEILL: They did not. According to the books, I believe Admiral Zumwalt was provided the information that Kerry reported, and Admiral Zumwalt, in order to enhance morale, immediately made the award. He did that because he believed what Kerry said. In fact, none of the people involved in the awards process knew it was just a single kid who was wounded and fleeing.
On this Cambodia business–I think you said he could sue you if you were wrong–
O’ NEILL: Sure.
Here’s what you said: “Kerry was never in Cambodia during Christmas 1968”–and now [the Kerry campaign] has been trying to change this and say it was in January or something like that. But you say: “or at all during the Vietnam War.” You’re saying he was never in Cambodia, and then you say that all the living commanders in Kerry’s chain of command–you spell them all out–deny that Kerry was ever ordered to Cambodia. You still stick by that?
O’ NEILL: Oh, absolutely. First of all, Kerry’s story, on more than 50 occasions on the floor of the Senate, and on more than 50 different occasions in interviews as recently as last summer, was that the turning point of his life was that he had undergone this deal where he had been illegally ordered into Cambodia at Christmastime–Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Sometimes he says [it was the] “turning point of his life.” As a matter of fact, Kranish, his biographer, on Hannity and Colmes described this as the turning point of [Kerry’s] life. . . . The guy in command of him at that point in time was a man named Joseph Streuhli and then the chain of command would have run up ultimately to Admiral Hoffmann and then Admiral Zumwalt, who’s dead. We checked with Joseph Streuhli to ensure that there was never anything like that occurring. We also know that it’s a lie independent of those comments in the following two ways. In the book Tour of Duty, Kerry is placed safely in Sa-Dec, some 50 miles from the Cambodian border, writing a letter, in his words, with visions of sugarplums in his head. Second, we know he wasn’t in Cambodia that Christmas Eve because everyone familiar with the entire operation series knows that the PCF, the Swift Boat areas, stopped just north of Sa-Dec, some 50 miles from the border. The areas further north were PBRs–smaller boats–and that the border was heavily guarded to ensure that nobody could go across it.
Is the border within the Mekong Delta, or is it actually on the discrete channel of the river.
O’ NEILL: It’s on the discrete channel of the river in that area, directly between Cambodia on the one side and Vietnam on the other, and there were gunboats anchored right there to stop anybody from going over.
There were navy gunboats anchored in the Mekong River Channel, through which a Swift Boat would have to pass.
O’ NEILL: Yes. It would have been apprehended 30 miles before. But [the gun boats] were placed there because in 1967 some drunken Army guys actually went up that river and were interned in Cambodia. And so to avoid future incidents, those gunboats were placed there. And we checked with the commander of those gunboats, whose name is Tom Anderson. He’s also in the book.
Did he say that no Swift Boats went by his post?
O’ NEILL: Yes. The significance of “Christmas in Cambodia” is that he accused every single fellow officer–I mean every superior–of a war crime in crossing an international boundary illegally. He painted himself as a hero among villains. He said it was the turning point of his whole life many times–how many people fake the turning point of their life?