updated 8/27/2004 5:57:37 PM ET 2004-08-27T21:57:37

NBC's Lisa Myers conducted the following interview with Rear Adm. William L. Schachte (USN Ret.) in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 24, 2004. Portions have been edited for clarity.

Myers: When did you first meet John Kerry?            

Adm. William Schachte (U.S. Navy, ret.): In Vietnam in 1968.  I was – like everyone, by the way, serving on small boats in combat in Vietnam – I was a volunteer.  When John reported aboard, I was then the lieutenant and the senior, second in command officer of Coastal Division 14. I was also the operations officer, and John reported sometime in mid-November – as an officer in charge under training.  And that's the first time I met him.

Myers: And so you were his superior?

Schachte: Yeah, I was one of his superiors, yes.

Myers: And how long did you serve with Senator Kerry?

Schachte: Until he left our area; I believe it was the 4th of December [1968] or so.

Myers: So for a period of roughly how long?

Schachte: Well, a couple of weeks.  Several weeks. But he was out on patrol and I was with him one night in particular – in the skimmer [Note: Schachte claims the date of that night was 12/02/68, the same date listed in military records for the incident that earned Kerry his first Purple Heart; “skimmer” is a type of small water craft used by U.S. forces in Vietnam].Which was the subject of that first matter concerning his Purple Heart…        

I had been a patrolling officer and when I became the operations officer and the number two in command, it was subsequent to the bombing halt announced by President Johnson.  We got orders to turn up the heat, try to be more aggressive, do things differently.  And I conceived an operation – it became known as ‘skimmer ops.’  Very simple operation – we had a 15-foot Boston whaler.  We would send that boat into ‘hot’ areas… The operation was very simple.  The boat was to go into these areas and, by the way, I must mention that these areas were all non-population areas, not near any villages or anything else.  We knew if anybody or anyone were around, they were enemy.  We would go in, draw fire and get out immediately.  Let others – swift boats standing off or maybe air support come in and take care of the enemy forces… ["swift boat" was the common name for Patrol Craft Fast vessels (PCFs) used by the U.S. Navy in Vietnam]

Myers: So you were basically trying to smoke out the enemy?

Schachte: Yes. Bait 'em, if you will.  We had these boats.  We had an M-60 machine gun forward, an M-16 mounted with a starlight scope.  On a hazy night, a badly overcast night, we had a M-14 mounted with an infra-red.  M-79 grenade launcher – those were single-launch launchers in those days.  Flares…an FM radio.  And we, in addition to our combat gear –  helmets, flak-jackets and what-not – we had .38-caliber pistols.  I usually carried one. A lot of times different folks didn't want to carry them…

The boats were manned by two officers and one enlisted person.  Officers because officers were briefed daily.  We had daily intelligence briefings seven days a week, with the latest intelligence from the area.  Or in the patrolling boat – officers would come back and debrief their area.  So, the officers had a good feel for everything that was going in our area of operation and our sectors.

The enlisted person operated the motor.  Now, this was my idea.  And I went on each one of these – in command of each one that we did up to and including the night with Lieutenant Junior Grade Kerry.

I did that because it was my idea and people volunteered for this.  And I didn't think it was right having one of these operations and being on a swift boat or back at Operations Center or something like that.

Myers: Because you thought it was a dangerous operation?           

Schachte: Yes, and I had to be a part of it.  It was my idea.  The night in question, we-- as always, the swift boat would tow the skimmer out to the designated area.  And we would board the skimmer.  This night our call sign was ‘Batman.’  I got into the boat.  My weapon was forward – the M-60 machine gun.  John got in the boat.  I don't remember who the enlisted person was.  We then proceeded to the designated area.  The swift boat would stay off, sometimes out of sight, sometimes not.  But far enough away that they could ride shotgun on the mission.

Providing, also, long-ranged communications.  All we had was this FM radio. We would then go into an area and as we did this night, shut the motor down and just drift.  And we would drift along the shoreline or river bank or whatever it happened to be – looking for movement, or listening for sounds of movement.  This night, we were in an area – I recall we were so close to the beach you could actually hear the water lapping on the shoreline.  It was between two and three in the morning – I don't remember.  I detected what I thought was some movement.  So, I took one of the hand-held flares and popped it instantly.  It went up and when it burst – I don't know if you've heard that described, but it really lights up the area.  I thought I saw the same area of movement.  So, I opened up on it with my M-60.

Those guns were double loaded with tracers – Tango India, target identification.  And John, right after I opened up, opened up with his M-16 and I could see he was firing in the direction of my tracer fire, which is why we had the double-loaded tracer.  My gun jammed after the first burst and as I was trying to clear my weapon – John's gun apparently jammed too because he wouldn't fire anymore – I heard the old familiar, ‘thump’ – ‘POW!’.  And I looked, and John had fired the M-79 grenade launcher. 

We were receiving NO fire from the beach.  There were no muzzle flashes.  The water wasn't boiling around the boat as it were – and the only noise was the noise we were making.  So, I told the boat operator – the motor operator – to, you know, ‘let's leave the area.’ And we did, went back to port, eventually – went back to the swift boat and went back to port.  And that morning, I went in and debriefed my commanding officer – our division commander, then Lieutenant Commander [Grant] ‘Skip’ Hibbard.

And I told him what happened.  And I told him I was NOT going to be filing an after-action report, which is required if you have enemy action, because we had no enemy action.  And I also after giving him all the details and I said, ‘Oh, by the way – ’ and I don't remember my exact words – ‘John nicked himself with the M-79.’  Those M-79s, by the way, have a kill radius of about five meters.  A  little over five yards.  But, there is a shrapnel area beyond that.  And that's what happened.  And I was upset because that could have gone in somebody's eye and so on and so forth.

The division commander said, ‘Fine, understand – no after-action report required.’  Then, I found out that John had come in. And then I went back into a meeting and he had this small piece of shrapnel in his hand and he was requesting a Purple Heart.  I was opposed to that.  The division commander was opposed to that.

And John left our division four or five days later. I departed country maybe three weeks later.  Skip left a few days after I left.  So, we were all gone.  And I forgot about it.  Until some years later, someone told me – and I don't recall who – to my surprise, John had been awarded a Purple Heart for that incident.

Fine, I felt I did my duty that night and that morning and it didn't bother me.  And that's the way things were until about 20 years or so later.  I was then an Admiral and I was in uniform – didn't have my hat on; I'd left that someplace in an office I was visiting.  I was in the basement of the Senate Russell Office Building.  And you have this subway system in the Capitol.  I was waiting for a subway with a friend.

And he pointed – ‘Look, that's Senator Kerry over there.’ And I said, ‘I know him.’  And he said, ‘You do?’  And I hadn't seen or talked with John since Vietnam.  And I guess I embarrassed my friend because I said, ‘Hey, John!’  Just like that.  Well, he turned around, looked at me – it's about 20 paces away – and he kind of strolled over to me.  And that call sign that night, if I haven't mentioned it, was ‘Batman.’  I think I have. But, John walked over to me and got kind of close and he said, ‘Batman.’  And I was really impressed that he had that degree of recall.  And, of course, we exchanged pleasantries.  And we were going to do lunch.  And, of course, we never did.  And that was the last time I've seen him in person or been with him.  And that went on.  I retired – so on and so forth.  And this March, I got a phone call from one of my swift boat colleagues, ‘have you seen Tour of Duty?’ [the book,Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, by Douglas Brinkley (William Morrow, 2004)]

And I said, ‘No, I certainly haven't.’ …And he said, ‘Well, let me at least fax you these pages about an incident that we all you know you got personal information on and so on and so forth.’  So, I said, ‘Fine.’  And he did.  And I looked at that fax and read his account – and I was astonished.  I'm not in the boat.  The sampan issue and people and he's firing the hand-held grenade and so on and so forth. [note: the account of the incident attributed to Kerry in Brinkley’s book describes the mission encountering people in  sampan vessels; Schachte recalls seeing no people or vessels]

One other point: John was new in-country.  He'd never been in a firefight.  We never would – anybody with any combat experience will tell you – you would never assign somebody like that to an ambush mission like this, endangering, you know, other people if you didn't have some degree of experience.

We always had two officers in the boat.

No after-action report – no fire received and so and so forth.  Well, I thank my friend for sending me that information.  But, I told him, ‘Look, I'm not going to  get involved in this.’  You know, and I've heard from them and different people that they had a number of eyewitness reports on different things.  And I just didn't want to expose my family to all of that.  And I kind of maintained that posture – I'm not a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth…

Myers:  …are you saying that John Kerry accidentally injured himself?

Schachte:  Yes. Clear-- of course, it was an accident.

Myers:  That there was no enemy fire?           

Schachte:  There was no enemy fire – no after- action report, no muzzle flashes – nothing.  No return fire from the beach at all.

Myers:  So, in your view, he did not deserve the Purple Heart?

Schachte:  That's what I told my commanding officer at the time.                       

Myers:  And your commanding officer felt what?           

Schachte:  He agreed with me, after I related the story.

Myers:  So, if you didn't support a Purple Heart and your commanding officer did not put in Kerry for a Purple Heart, how did he get it?

Schachte:  You'll have to ask him.  I don't know.  And after– like I say, I had done my duty.  It was over.  I didn't care.  I mean, that was not my issue.  I was doing other things with my life.                       

Myers:  Here's how John Kerry has described what happened that night.  Quote: ‘My M-16 jammed and as I bent down in the boat to grab another gun, a stinging piece of heat socked into my arm.’  Is that accurate?

Schachte:  It's accurate that his gun jammed, but it's not accurate (LAUGHS) that he was reaching something.  He had already fired the M-79.                       

Myers:  And that's what injured him?

Schachte:  Yes.

Myers:  It was an accidentally, self-inflicted wound?

Schachte:  Yes, right. Which could have been very dangerous to any of the other two of us in that boat.

Myers:  If you both were firing weapons, how can you be absolutely certain that there was no enemy fire that hit John Kerry that night?

Schachte:  Because when both guns jammed after the first burst, there was this moment of eerie silence until I heard the M-79 go off and the subsequent – almost immediate explosion from that weapon.  And if you were there, (LAUGHS) you would know if you're being shot at, believe me.

Myers: …So what happens when you all return from the mission?

Schachte:  We went back.  I reported to the division commander.  I debriefed him on what had happened that evening, earlier that morning.  And that I was not going to file an after-action report because there was no enemy action.  We received no fire from the beach and that John had gotten nicked from a round at – I don't remember my exact words.  But, John had gotten nicked from an M-79 that he fired too close to the boat.

Myers:  And there was no enemy fire involved?           

Schachte:  None.

Myers:  Period?           

Schachte:  Yes.

Myers:  You're absolutely certain?           

Schachte:  Yes.

Myers:  36 years later?                       

Schachte:  Hey, listen, when somebody's shooting at you [LAUGHS], you know it.  There was no – and some of the reasons you remember these things is because the starkness of what happens while that's going on…

Myers:  You seem to be saying that John Kerry lied then and is lying today.  That's a very serious charge.  What proof do you have?           

Schachte:  The only thing that I can tell you – several things – number one, no after-action report, which would have been required.  I was in command of those missions and I was in the boat that night.  We always had two officers in the boat that night--  in the boat when we did those operations, and an enlisted man on the motor.  I saw no muzzle flashes or anything else.  Now, that's what I saw.  And it's not for me to judge what other people are going to think about that.  That's up to other people.                       

Myers:  But, you are, in a sense, saying Senator Kerry is lying and did not deserve his first Purple [Heart].

Schachte:  I'm saying that he did not deserve the first Purple Heart from what I saw.  You can characterize it anyway you want.  But, I'm not going to say that.

Myers:  Do you believe that John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam?

Schachte:  Listen, everybody in that combat environment, as I said earlier, were all volunteers.  I was only with him for this very small piece of that truncated tour that he had.  I can only speak to what I saw that night and what-not.  You have to ask others that spent more time with him.  I couldn't give a judgment on something like that.

Myers:  But, based on what you saw, do you believe John Kerry served honorably?           

Schachte:  From that night, from that incident, I would say that John Kerry sought a Purple Heart that was turned down that he later got.  How he got it -- I don't have a clue….

Myers:  Do you believe that John Kerry showed courage?

Schachte:  Listen, anybody on any of those boats at any time – I was there, we were there for Tet [1968 Tet Offensive by North Vietnam and Vietcong forces], and further times – you don't-- you don't show up on the boat if-- unless you've got a little bit of that in you.           

Myers:  Courage?           

Schachte:  Yes.                       

Myers:  So, you're not saying that John Kerry was not courageous?

Schachte:  No.                       

Myers:  Or that he did not serve honorably?           

Schachte:  I can't judge that.  All I can tell you about is that very brief period that I was with him on.

Myers:  You say…that John Kerry was so new to country, there's no way you could have sent him out on a mission by himself?

Schachte:  Yeah, not alone – in charge – no, uh-uh [negative].

Myers:  Can you remember the name of the enlisted man that was with him?

Schachte:  No. I really can't.

Myers:  But, you're absolutely certain that John Kerry would not have been -- never have been sent off in–

Schachte:  Listen, my boss would not have permitted that and neither would the chain of command.  You just don't DO that on a mission on an ambush operation like this that's, um, dangerous, that dangerous.  It's not fair to the person to put him in that situation. And it's not a situation of absolute necessity.  We were just trying to turn the heat up.  And that's why we sought volunteers.  And that's why I went as a volunteer myself on these missions.           

Myers:  And John Kerry volunteered for that mission?

Schachte:  Yep.

Myers:  …What proof do you have that you were actually in that boat that night?

Schachte:  Well, my report back to the division commander, the fact that we had officers in those boats, the fact that I was in the boat for those that we did up to and including that evening.  And what I saw.

Myers:  But, there's no documentation.           

Schachte:  No, listen, we're in a wartime environment.  We didn't write up doctrines and stuff.  We made the necessary reports – if you had a Casualty Report, After-Action Report, Operational Status of the Boats [Report], whether they were combat ready or not.  I was responsible for all that as the operations officer.  But, those are the kinds of things that we kept record of, records of.

Myers:  And there would not have been any damage report on that...

Schachte:  Correct, there was none-- yeah.           

Myers:  The thing a lot of people are going to be asking Admiral is, it's been 35 years--                       

Schachte:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Myers:  Why speak out now in the heat of a presidential campaign?

Schachte:  Well, the timing is something that's driven by the publication of Tour of Duty.  As far as the timing is concerned, that was the precipitating thing that got those of us who were eyewitnesses, who served with John Kerry in Vietnam – made us aware of-- of what he was saying.  I was not interviewed by anybody for that book.  Nor do I know anybody of my colleagues that were interviewed.

I'm non-partisan.  Listen, I have voted Democrat, Republican.  I voted for President Clinton the first time he ran.  And I know what you're talking about.  That has nothing to do-- this is not a partisan issue.  This is an issue of people stepping forward to tell their facts as they saw them.

Myers:  John Kerry and two enlisted men insist they were on the boat that night and you were not.  Why should we believe you?

Schachte:  …there are two officers on each boat, each time we did one of these missions.  I reported to the division command.  I think he [then-Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard, Coastal Division 14] has been public with a sworn affidavit [released by the organization Swift Boat Veterans for Truth] as to my coming in to him and telling him what happened… 

Myers:  You think the two enlisted men are just making it up?

Schachte:  I don’t-- I can't tell you anything about their motives.  The only thing I can tell you is what I know, who I talked to about it – after the incident and-- and that's all I can say…

Myers:  Admiral, how can you be certain that John Kerry did not deserve that first Purple Heart?                       

Schachte:  Well, other than the fact that I was in the boat with him when he fired this M-79 round too close to the boat and got nicked by it, I can't give you much more than that… 

Myers:  Can you think of anyone else who would recall your presence in the skimmer that day?                       

Schachte:  Well, there are several people that may know the answer to that, and some of which have-- one in particular has requested not to be involved.  And I certainly honored that.  Maybe someone who was in-- the place where we-- we stayed – after the incident.  I think I said something to a couple of the guys, and they may have been able to remember the remark.

Myers:  You said you went on, as I recall, that you went on nine different missions.

Schachte: Thereabouts.  I'm not sure the number.

Myers:  In this skimmer?

Schachte:  Yeah, yeah.

Myers:  Do you recall roughly where John Kerry's mission was in the sequence?

Schachte:  It was the last one I went on.  It was the last one I went on.

Myers:  All right.  And he went on only one.

Schachte:  Yes.  And then he departed about four days later to go South…

Myers:  Why would John Kerry say that you weren't in the boat if you were?                       

Schachte:  You'll have to ask John.                       

Myers:  Can you think of a motive?           

Schachte:  Uh, I'll let you speculate.  I'm not going to.

Myers:  Is it possible in your view that John Kerry simply forgot that you were there?           

Schachte:  It could've been.  I know he had vivid recollection of our call sign that night.  It was repeated to me over 20 years later.  But of course, that's possible.

Myers:  …Everyone is going to wonder why now?  Why come forward in the closing weeks of a presidential campaign.  What is your motive?           

Schachte:  My only motive, as is the motive as I understand it of those brave eyewitness – witnesses that have come forward with sworn affidavits and what not – is to tell the truth.  The timing was not in my control.  The publication of his book and then the way he made this such an issue out of this whole campaign, his Vietnam service, and then some recent media discussions of all of those areas of his service that have been the matter of debate, my name has surfaced.  And I just felt that it wasn't fair for me to continue to not – what I finally determined to be – to not do my duty, and just step forward, and say what I knew of that night, and not watch my colleagues continue to get beat up about he [I] wasn't there, and a lot of other things that I'm not even going to mention.  In the print and the TV media.

Myers:  …So you're not calling John Kerry a liar?

Schachte:  All I'm telling you is what I know happened that night and who I told about it and what- not… I'm not into name-calling.  I just want to tell you what I knew that happened that night.                       

Myers:  In your mind, John Kerry showed courage just going out on the mission.

Schachte:  Sure.          

Myers:  You mentioned that you don't have a political motive.  What have you done politically since you've been out of-- retired from the Navy?…

Schachte:  Yeah, well, I guess the first thing I did when I retired – I was working for the Mayor of Charleston who was running for Governor.  He's a Democrat.  And I was his statewide get-out-the-vote coordinator for that election.  Unfortunately, we lost in the primary or in the primary runoff.  I have contributed to Democratic Senators, one in particular from my own state.  And have voted Democrat or Republican, depending on the person and the issues.  I don't consider myself a partisan person.  And I really haven't had any active involvement in politics other than that time when I was helping the person running for Governor in South Carolina in 1994.

Myers:  What about President Bush?           

Schachte:  …First of all, let me tell you, I went to a number of rallies for Senator McCain, my wife and I.  In fact, at the request of a long-time personal friend, I helped sponsor a luncheon for Senator McCain and made a financial contribution that went along with sponsorship.  I did not go to the luncheon.  And we were -- I was discussing these matters with my wife.  And finally decided that I-- I was going to fully support George Bush.  And before the election I got a call from a fellow general officer asking me if I was supporting Bush.  And I said, "Yes, I was."  And that I had contributed financially.

And he said they were going to put together a letter entitled ‘Veterans for Bush.’  And I said, ‘I'll be glad to sign that letter, but only if I can edit it.’  And of course, they agreed to that.  And – that was really the extent of my active involvement with President Bush in the primary campaign.

Myers:  You said you have contributed to him since you retired from the Navy?

Schachte:  Yes, I have.                       

Myers:  How much total?           

Schachte:  Total, I don't know.  I gave him $1,000 when he ran the first time.  And $1,000 so far this year.

Myers:  Have you had any relationship or any contact with his campaign?

Schachte:  Oh, absolutely not.  I don't know that I know anybody in his campaign.  And that, by the way, that's one thing that is really -- it's difficult to get beyond those accusations that we're somehow puppets for this campaign.  I mean that really strikes at the heart of your own personal honor.  I mean I can't speak for others.  And I've tried to keep that -- or I shouldn't have said anything now.  But -- yeah, I know where you're going with that.  But that answer's absolutely not.

Myers:  So you're not doing this to help President Bush?

Schachte:  For Lord's sake, no.  Would I invite what's going to happen? (LAUGHS) I mean, I-- no. Absolutely not.                       

Myers:  …you've been around this town.  I mean, why risk tarnishing your own reputation by wading into this morass?           

Schachte:  It is a matter of personal honor.  I'm sorry.  There are times in life when you have to do what you know is right regardless of the personal consequences.                       

Myers:  You told me before that one of the reasons you wanted to-- decided to speak out…is [because of] some of the things that were being said about you by the Kerry people on television…

Schachte:  Well, that was the thing that pushed me over the side.  But I'd rather not get involved in those specifics.  I mean that in a sense is history.  And I realize that I had to do my duty.  I had to step up and be heard.  Only on the only thing that I can talk about – which was this experience.

Myers:  So you're not saying that John Kerry was, quote, ‘unfit for command?’

Schachte:  Listen, who is fit for command in the context of Commander-in-Chief is up to the American people to decide…                       

Myers:  You said you are not a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Schachte:  I admire them, but I'm not a member.                       

Myers:  Okay.  But you do support their cause.           

Schachte:  I support men that are willing to stand up and put up with what they've been putting up with just to tell the truth – of what they know to be the truth.  And this is America.  I mean that's what we do here.                       

Myers:  Do you worry that your own reputation could be tarnished by getting involved in this?

Schachte:  Oh, of course.  Absolutely.  And I knew that consequence was looking me dead in the face.  But I also knew that it's not a higher calling.  But there are times in life when you have to do what you know is right regardless of the personal consequences.  And it's-- it's not easy.  And the reason I stayed out of this from the beginning is because I didn't want to get wrapped up into whatever kind of frenzy was going to follow.  But I also knew that there were people who knew from what I told them of what happened that night.  And I thought that would take care of it… 

Myers:  Some people will say, ‘Look, you contributed money to the President's campaign.’           

Schachte:  Yeah.

Myers:  Here it is the closing weeks of a very tight election.  That this is all about politics.           

Schachte:  Well, see that's-- that's the probably the worst thing you could say to me.  That I'm some kind of a political operative.  That I would throw my reputation to the wolves to stand up for something that – as the inference is – is not true and expose my family to everything… I wouldn't do that.  And I don't think anybody would do that. 

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