Veteran John O’Neill, John Kerry’s longtime critic recently wrote the book “Unfit for Command,” which includes interviews from over 60 veterans contesting Kerry’s actions during the war. Chris Matthews played ‘Hardball’ with O’Neill and John Hurley, the national director of the group 'Veterans for Kerry' on Thursday’s show.
On Kerry being a “war hero”
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL’: What do you think of John Kerry’s politics, he was a war hero. Is that true?
JOHN O‘NEILL, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH: That‘s not true at all. More than 60 people from his unit are in this book right here. He served with 23 officers in this unit. There are 17 of them that have signed our letter condemning him. They have some very good reasons why.
First of all, he was there a very short period of time. Second, as the book outlines, he fabricated at least two of his Purple Hearts, I think conclusively, based on the documentation. He provided false reports and then he went home. That‘s OK. But he was no war hero.
MATTHEWS: You‘re both familiar with his military record. He was in Vietnam how long, John?
JOHN HURLEY, NATIONAL DIRECTOR, VIETNAM VETERANS FOR JOHN KERRY: He had two tours in Vietnam, one on the USS Gridley and one on the swift boat, two swift boats in the Delta?
MATTHEWS: Do you could concur on that?
O‘NEILL: Not at all. The USS Gridley was not a tour in Vietnam. It was a ship way off the coast of Vietnam. He was there for five weeks on the Gridley off the coast.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s try to use Naval language and Naval rulings here and not personal reflections. Was he given credit, John Hurley, for serving in Vietnam when he was on that ship?
MATTHEWS: Was he given credit by the Navy for serving in Vietnam?
O‘NEILL: Yes. But it would never have been considered a tour in Vietnam by the Navy or anybody else.
MATTHEWS: Well, why was he given credit for it?
O‘NEILL: Well, he was given credit for exactly what he did, which was being on the Gridley off the coast. It was not a one-year tour of Vietnam.
MATTHEWS: How did he win the Silver Star?
MATTHEWS: How did he win the Silver Star?
HURLEY: He won the Silver Star when PCF-94, which is his second command in Vietnam, came under ambush in February of 1969. John Kerry ordered his helmsman, Del Sandusky, to turn the boat into the ambush. They went in.
As they beached the boat, V.C. with a grenade launcher, an RPG, stood up 10 feet away from them and started running away. They had already opened fire. Tommy Belodeau was on the bow gun that day. He winged this guy in the leg. But the guy did not break stride. He kept right on running; took off. Kerry took off after him, got off the boat with an M-16. He was followed by Mike Medeiros and subsequently followed by Tommy Belodeau. He was leading the way. And he chased this guy down a path.
Fred Short, who was on the twin 50s that day, will tell you that he observed the whole thing. He followed him down a path that this V.C. was turning towards the boat with the armed B-40 rocket and John Kerry killed him.
MATTHEWS: Now, who put him up for the award, for the Silver? And who has to approve the Silver Star?
HURLEY: In this case, it was Admiral Zumwalt. Admiral Zumwalt said in 1996 that he felt John Kerry deserved a Navy Cross for his actions that day. This award is much higher. It would have to have gone back to the Pentagon for approval. He was looking for a morale booster in the Delta. He could issue a Silver Star on his own authority and did so and issued it very quickly to John Kerry.
MATTHEWS: Do you deny that he won the Silver Star?
O‘NEILL: Well, he received the Silver Star.
MATTHEWS: Do you deny that he deserved it?
O‘NEILL: Absolutely, because the Navy didn‘t have the facts. The citation, which you can read in the book “Unfit For Command,” says that he turned into superior forces and into intense fire. He was on a gunboat with 20 or 30 troops. It was a huge gunboat. There was a single fleeing Viet Cong.
Commander Elliott, who wrote the citation, indicated he didn‘t understand that. All of us defend his right to shoot that guy in the back because the guy had fired at him. None of us say that was a war crime. What we do say, had the Navy known the actual facts, he wouldn‘t have received the Silver Star.
MATTHEWS: Well, who put him up for the award?
O‘NEILL: Commander Elliott, based on the notion that he had gone into a bunker full of a large number of Viet Cong by himself.
MATTHEWS: How did he get that notion?
O‘NEILL: Kerry told him that, because that‘s what the report carefully read by John Kerry says for that day, on that day, February the 28th.
MATTHEWS: You, in other words, argue that the Silver Star he received was wrongly awarded because of failure of the right information to reach Elliott and then that Zumwalt was simply given further bad information.
O‘NEILL: Yes, based on the report Kerry himself provided and the information he provided. We don‘t deny that Kerry acted with ordinary courage. We don‘t attack Kerry for shooting the kid in the back.
MATTHEWS: How do you assess the fact of a commander of a ship beaching a swift boat, going into land, hostile territory, knowing that there‘s V.C. all around and chasing after a guy in very much hostile territory. If you don‘t call that courage, what would you call that?
O‘NEILL: I think it involves an ordinary degree of courage, Chris. I just don‘t think that that‘s the Silver Star. I think that in chasing this kid and shooting him in the back, that that involved some degree of courage. I believe we all believe that that involved some degree of physical courage.
MATTHEWS: Well, he risked his life, didn‘t he?
O‘NEILL: I don‘t believe that.
MATTHEWS: You mean he didn‘t face enemy, potential enemy fire by going up on the beach in Vietnam in V.C. territory?
O‘NEILL: You mean on that occasion?
O‘NEILL: I don‘t really think so, Chris. We had people shoot at us. John Kerry got shot at. I‘m not denying that John Kerry in being shot at showed courage. I think he did, just like all the rest of us.
MATTHEWS: Well, compare that to Bush‘s record in Vietnam. If a man shows any courage in the battlefield, he‘s done more than most people do in this country. He‘s gone out and fought for his country and risked his life for his country and shot one of the enemy for his country. That puts him a step above most people, doesn‘t it?
MATTHEWS: I‘m going to ask you, is he less a hero than Bush?
O‘NEILL: And I would like to answer, if you‘ll give me a chance. With respect to what he did, we don‘t challenge that he went ashore that day. With respect to overall, he had very limited accomplishments in the short period he was in Vietnam and he came back here and delivered almost a death blow to the U.S. military by lying.
First of all, I believe that his comments and the war crimes claims back here were absolutely wrong. And I‘ll never forget those. Neither will the guys.
MATTHEWS: What war crimes?
O‘NEILL: His claims that U.S. troops committed war crimes on a day-to-day basis, that we were like Genghis Khan.
MATTHEWS: By the way, disabuse the public who are watching right now what I‘m wrong about. Where do you live?
O‘NEILL: I live in Houston, Texas.
MATTHEWS: Have you voted Democrat recently for president?
O‘NEILL: Absolutely. I haven‘t voted for a Republican since 1988. As a matter of fact, I just backed the Democratic mayor of Houston, Bill White.
MATTHEWS: OK, you‘re generally a Republican or a Democrat when it comes to voting for president?
O‘NEILL: It depends on the person, Chris.
MATTHEWS: He got the Silver Star. He got the Bronze Star. He won three Purple Hearts. You‘re saying this is all just unfair.
O‘NEILL: With respect to his Silver Star, he exaggerated the circumstances, that no competent military person that I know would give someone a Silver Star for shooting a kid in the back, although I don‘t find anything wrong with that.
With respect to his Purple Hearts, two of the three of them, all you need to do is look at the paper. He provided falsified papers to get out of Vietnam in a short period.
MATTHEWS: Respond to what he said about the Silver Star.
HURLEY: His book and his organization is built on lies and distortions. John McCain had it absolutely right when he said it is dishonorable and dishonest what Mr. O‘Neill‘s organization is doing. They‘re taking and distorting the facts. They‘re in writing from 1969. If you look at those award recommendations, if you look at those fitness reports, if you go back and talk to the people who were actually there, there is no question and no dispute about John Kerry‘s heroism in Vietnam.
On Kerry’s Purple Hearts
MATTHEWS: Are Kerry’s shipmates all with him on the facts?
HURLEY: Every man who was with him when he won the Silver Star, when he won the Bronze Star, when he won three Purple Hearts is with him.
MATTHEWS: Is that true?
O‘NEILL: Absolutely false.
O‘NEILL: Well, his first Purple Heart was not on a ship. It was on a Boston whaler.
O‘NEILL: With him on the Boston whaler was Lieutenant William Schachte, now Rear Admiral William Schachte. He will tell you that he falsified that award, that the award was forged.
HURLEY: This is dishonest. There were three men on that boat that night, John Kerry, Bill Zaladonis, Pat Runyon, period, three men on that boat. This is part of irresponsible journalism, irresponsible reporting. There was no one else on that boat that night. And those men will tell you exactly what happened that night.
MATTHEWS: What happened?
HURLEY: They went into an inlet where they had been advised that there were V.C. using a crossing to traffic in contraband. They went in and they towed a number of fishermen and sampans out to a swift boat. The Boston whaler is a very small boat. It‘s a 14-to-15-foot boat. There were three of them in it and they went in under power, at some point, cut the engine and paddled in.
They encountered they encountered Vietnamese fishermen, towed them back out to the swift boat for interrogation. On one trip in, the final trip in, they spotted V.C. crossing this inlet where they were told there would be V.C. Kerry popped the flare, exposing their position. The V.C. began to run and they opened fire on the V.C. As they were exiting the inlet, Kerry felt—there was an explosion in the water and Kerry felt a stinging, burning sensation in his arm. There was no fourth person.
MATTHEWS: Who put him up for the Purple Heart?
HURLEY: It is a function of getting medical treatment for that injury. He was treated the next day, the next morning at Cam Rahn Bay for that injury. They removed shrapnel from his arm. And by virtue of that medical treatment, he received the Purple Heart.
MATTHEWS: How do you know he had shrapnel removed from his arm?
O‘NEILL: Because the medical report says removed shrapnel from his arm.
MATTHEWS: What about that, John?
HURLEY: And the fourth person on this boat is a dishonest and ridiculous attempt.
O‘NEILL: We have just called the No. 2 guy in the Judge Advocate General‘s Corps a liar.
Now, let‘s deal with how he got the Purple Heart. His commanding officer was a man named Grant Hibbard. He has provided an affidavit. Kerry went in to Grant Hibbard and said, "I‘m entitled to a Purple Heart." Grant Hibbard, the division commander said, "Forget it. You‘re not getting any Purple Heart. There wasn‘t any hostile fire and you have got a scratch here. I‘m not giving you any Purple Heart."
It was denied by the division commander. After everybody left Vietnam, somehow it mysteriously appears three months later without any of the supporting documents, with no hostile fire report, no casualty report.
The hostile fire report exists for every other Purple Heart ever issued in Vietnam. There also is a casualty report.
MATTHEWS: OK, look, we have got two other Purple Hearts to deal with. We‘ll be right back. We have got two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver.
On Kerry’s Bronze Star
MATTHEWS: Let‘s go to that other medal, because I want to be somewhat analytical here, the Bronze. Why did he get Bronze?
HURLEY: If Mr. O‘Neill was interested in the truth, the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, if he was interested in the truth, he would have tried to talk to any of John Kerry‘s crewmates for this book. He did not talk to John Kerry‘s crewmates.
MATTHEWS: Is that true?
O‘NEILL: None of his crewmates could have told me anything about the first Purple Heart.
MATTHEWS: Here‘s an interesting thing. There seems to be three broad directions of criticism and support for Kerry.
One is, the Navy gave him the Silver. The Navy gave him the Bronze. The Navy gave him three Purple Hearts. So the Navy, as is the Navy, there‘s the right way, the wrong way, and the Navy way. The Navy way was to give him these awards, OK? We all agree on that because that‘s a fact.
Now, there‘s this other force, people who are not his crewmen, who are not the Navy, who have contributed to your book. What is this about? Why are there three different points of view here, the official Navy way, his crew backing him up?
Does anybody in your group like John Kerry and wish they didn‘t have to do this?
O‘NEILL: All of them. Virtually everybody would be much happier not to be involved in this at all, Chris.
MATTHEWS: Run through everything. What is this about, this attack?
HURLEY: This is about a Republican smear campaign sponsored by Republican fund raisers down in Texas, supported by Merrie Spaeth, the Republican communications this has got nothing to do with John Kerry‘s service in Vietnam, which is documented in documents written in 1969, is supported by every member who served with him on those crews.
Now, 35 years after the fact, crewmates or swifties in Vietnam are coming forward, saying, "Ah, but I remember it differently now."
Let me read to you. This is from George Elliott, one of John Kerry‘s commanders in Vietnam. This is the recommendation for the award of the Bronze Star. And he talks about a little bit in this.Then he says: “Shortly after starting their exit from this river, a mine detonated under one of the boats, PCF-3, lifting it two feet above the water and wounded everyone on board. Almost simultaneously, another mine detonated, close aboard PCF-94, knocking First Lieutenant Rassmann into the water and wounding Lieutenant J.G. Kerry in the right arm.”
It goes on that PCF-4 provided cover fire, that they received sniper fire from the riverbanks. “Lieutenant J.G. Kerry, from his exposed position on the bow of the boat, managed to pull Lieutenant Rassmann aboard despite the painful wound in his right arm. Meanwhile, PCF-94 gunners provided accurate suppressing fire.” It concludes by saying: “Lieutenant J.G. Kerry proved himself to be calm, professional and highly courageous in the face of enemy fire.” That is signed by George Elliott, one of these same guys now who is saying, "Oh, but I remember it differently and I want to change my mind."
What is specious about this book, what is dishonest about this book, what John McCain is getting at when he says it‘s dishonest and dishonorable, is that Mr. O‘Neill and his co-author, Mr. Corsi, did not talk to one member of John Kerry‘s crew on that boat. If they were interested in the truth, they would have talked with Jim Rassmann. They would have talked with Fred Short.
MATTHEWS: Did you?
O‘NEILL: Actually, we did. We interviewed. We had a private investigator, specifically to check this out, interview three of the crewmen. They confirmed to us that this Cambodia story was a lie.
MATTHEWS: If Kerry experienced the situations that led him to receive these medals why are you building a case against the guy on behalf of a guy running for president with absolutely no military experience in the field?
O‘NEILL: All I‘m saying is that the third Purple Heart was another self-inflicted wound. I‘m saying he lied about the Bronze Star. And I‘m saying that you, Chris, could read the documents yourself, if you would take the time.
MATTHEWS: OK, your last thought.
HURLEY: John Kerry served heroically. He served courageously. He made wonderful decision-making in Vietnam, saved his crew on a number of occasions. They have his full and complete support. He was recognized by his commanders in Vietnam, particularly Commander Elliott, who said, in a combat situation, John Kerry was unsurpassed.
This now, 35 years later, is, as John McCain said, dishonest and dishonorable. It is a Republican-inspired smear campaign.