Four Eyewitnesses Dispute Kerry's Account of Bronze Star Incident

By Joseph A. D’Agostino
and David Freddoso

According to an after-action report for the afternoon of March 13, 1969, John Kerry’s unit of five Swift boats encountered enemy automatic and small-arms fire from both banks along a 5,000-meter stretch of the Bay Hap River in Vietnam. Three enemy mines were detonated, the report states, one of which damaged Kerry’s boat. According to that same report and a separate casualty report, Kerry received a minor contusion on his arm and shrapnel in his buttocks from the incident.

On the basis of these two reports, Kerry received a Bronze Star–and importantly, his third Purple Heart, which allowed him to leave Vietnam after serving only four months of the standard one-year tour.

‘No Hostile Fire’

But there are two potential problems with this story: First, four eyewitnesses now contradict the after-action report. They say there was no hostile fire in the incident, and claim that Kerry, whose version of events agrees with the report, wrote the report himself–a claim Kerry’s campaign denies.

Second, a story Kerry told biographer Douglas Brinkley for Tour of Duty appears to contradict the casualty report that resulted in Kerry’s tour-ending third Purple Heart. Kerry told Brinkley he received a wound to his buttocks earlier on the same day as the Bay Hap combat incident. But, in this case, the wound came from a non-combat accident in a nearby village. Some friendly forces were destroying rice that was believed to be stockpiled for the Viet Cong. “I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice bin explosions,” Kerry told Brinkley. The military does not grant Purple Hearts for self-inflicted wounds or accidents.

The casualty report filed on Kerry the next morning mentions nothing about Kerry’s rice-bin injury. It says: “LTJG Kerry suffered shapnel (sic) wounds in his left buttocks and contusions on his right forearm when a mine detonated close aboard PCF-94.”

Larry Thurlow, Dick Pees, and Jack Chenoweth–all Swift boat captains who served with Kerry in Coastal Division 11 and participated with him in the Bay Hap incident–dispute the after-action report, insisting there was no hostile fire from either bank. Chenoweth’s gunner, Van Odell, tells the same story. All four–who this spring with other Vietnam veterans formed the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to tell their version of John Kerry’s military service–told HUMAN EVENTS that only one mine was detonated, nearly sinking Pees’ boat, PCF-3, and throwing two of his crewmen overboard. They all deny seeing or hearing any mines explode near Kerry’s boat, which was on the opposite side of the river. Chenoweth, Thurlow and Odell have all signed affidavits attesting to their version of events.

The difference between Kerry’s version of events and that of his fellow Swiftees is sharp and irreconcilable, although Kerry’s account is consistent with that given by Jim Rassmann, a special forces advisor who fell off Kerry’s boat during the incident.

The apparent discrepancies in the casualty and after-action reports, taken together, raise the question of whether Kerry’s fellow veterans are lying now, or Kerry lied in order to get the third Purple Heart.

Thurlow disputes the after-action report even though it later became part of the basis for a Bronze Star award he received that summer after he finished his yearlong tour in Vietnam and returned home to northwest Kansas. Thurlow’s citation, written and signed by division commander George Elliot, says that Thurlow’s act that day of saving PCF-3 boat from sinking after the mine explosion “took place under constant enemy small arms fire which LTJG THURLOW completely ignored in providing immediate assistance.”

The Washington Post, in an August 19 article, reported Thurlow’s citation as evidence of a conflict in his story, but Thurlow maintains that there was no fire, and that his award citation is factually incorrect.

“In terms of receiving hostile fire, it’s false,” Thurlow told HUMAN EVENTS of his own Bronze Star citation.

Elliott told HUMAN EVENTS that he wrote the part about hostile fire in Thurlow’s citation based on the same after-action report. “I got the information from the after-action report,” he said.

“None of us believed there was any incoming fire at any point in time,” said Chenoweth. “Only the mine.” Chenoweth, Thurlow, and Odell concurred that there was only one mine, and that no mine had exploded near Kerry’s boat, PCF-94. At that point, Pees missed much of the action, as he had been wounded by the mine explosion.

Thurlow, Chenoweth and Pees all say they did not write the disputed after-action report. The only other officers present at the incident were Kerry and Don Droz, who died in a massive ambush one month after the Bay Hap incident.

There seems to be no documentation to settle the issue of who wrote the after-action report. Thurlow told HUMAN EVENTS he believes Kerry wrote the report, noting that it mentions Kerry’s actions most prominently even though he, Odell, Chenoweth and Pees remember Kerry playing a relatively minor role in the incident. For example, Thurlow said, although four people were fished out of the water after the mine explosion–including two seriously injured crewmen of the sinking PCF-3 and at one point Thurlow himself–the report only mentions the uninjured man whom Kerry pulled out of the water, an “MSF advisor” named Jim Rassmann.

“There was no statement made [in the report] about the two guys who were injured and blown off the number 3 boat,” said Thurlow. According to Thurlow and the others, Kerry’s boat, which was carrying infantrymen, including Rassmann, sped off downstream as soon as the mine exploded under Pees’ boat. According to Thurlow and Chenoweth, the Swiftees then sprayed the banks with bullets for about 40 seconds. They ceased fire after noticing their fire was not being returned, and within minutes, Kerry’s boat returned to pick up Rassmann.

The Kerry campaign put out a press release August 19 that quoted Rassmann as saying, “There was only one person in the water that day and that was me, anyone who is telling you otherwise is giving you a lie.”

Thurlow said that if there had actually been three miles of hostile fire from both banks, boats other than PCF 3 would have been damaged and men other than Kerry would have been wounded.

“Nobody received even a fragment of bullets going through the metal” of the Swift Boats, Thurlow said. “Nobody was even ducking for cover,” he said.

Thurlow added that he believes there was less than 5,000 meters of river between where the mine detonated under PCF-3 and the river mouth, despite the report’s contention that the enemy was firing on the five boats from both banks for that long a stretch of river.

Kerry’s campaign spokesman, Michael Meehan, declined to speak to HUMAN EVENTS, but in the Washington Post report of August 19 Kerry campaign researchers disputed the contention of Thurlow, Chenoweth and Pees that Kerry wrote the after-action report that Thurlow, Chenoweth and Pees insist is false.

Thurlow, who was the senior officer among the five present that day, told HUMAN EVENTS that Kerry volunteered more than once to write such after-action reports–the last thing most Swift Boat officers wanted to do after a tough day on the river. He said that he never thought twice about what was being reported. “A good officer probably says, ‘Well, John, let’s see what you wrote up.’ I never did,” Thurlow said. “I really didn’t care, to be honest with you.”

The incident on the Bay Hap–Kerry’s last battle in Vietnam–began when the five boats in Kerry’s group approached a fishing weir across the river. As Swift Boat operators Thurlow, Chenoweth, Pees, and gunner Odell describe it, Kerry’s boat led the way around the weir on the right in PCF-94, while Pees led the way on the left in PCF-3. Suddenly, a mine was detonated directly beneath Pees’ boat, blowing it several feet into the air before it crashed back down on the surface of the river and began to move about erratically because of engine damage from the blast.

After showering the shore with bullets, Odell, Chenoweth and Thurlow said, the Swiftees in the other boats ceased firing upon noticing that there was no hostile fire from either bank. They said that by the time Kerry returned to fish Rassmann out of the water, the only noise on the river was the idling engines of the Swift Boats, and that the Swiftees had already set about rescuing PCF-3 and its crewmen.