The following interview was conducted via telephone with William Zaladonis, an engineman third class who served with John Kerry in Vietnam and was aboard the boat during the incident that earned Kerry his first Purple Heart. It has been partially edited for clarity.
Lisa Myers: What were your dates of service in Vietnam?
William Zaladonis: August 26, 1968 to August 26, 1969.
Myers: And your rank?
Zaladonis: I was an engineman third class…
Myers: In what period did your service overlap with John Kerry’s?
Zaladonis: I believe, I can't swear, that-- but it was December-- November-December time frame. I want to say about two months total, over November to January…
Myers: As you know, we’re specifically interested in the incident with John Kerry’s first Purple Heart. …available military documents record the date of that incident as December 2. Were you serving with John Kerry that day?
Zaladonis: I'm sure that I was, yes. I don't know the dates. I had no reason to pay attention to dates – the only one I was worried about was Aug. 26, 1969. [Editor'sNote: the scheduled end date of Zaladonis’ term of service]
Myers: Do you recall a skimmer mission, with Kerry about that time period? [“skimmer” is a type of small water craft used by U.S. forces in Vietnam]
Zaladonis: Yes, I do.
Myers: Can you tell me what happened, just starting from the time that you go out on a swift boat? [“swift boat” was the common name for Patrol Craft Fast vessels (PCFs) used by the U.S. Navy in Vietnam]
Zaladonis: We towed the skimmer behind the boat and we went to this area. Not sure exactly where it was, I think it was somewhere north of Cam Ranh Bay, and they let us off into the skimmer. We had some intelligence that said that the VC [Vietcong enemy fighters] were using an area to cross and to transfer their contraband and stuff like that, and so we wanted to go check it out. And we went in there and we, um-- there was a lot of fisherman in this area. It was a free-fire zone – they weren't supposed to be there. So we spent the night taking these people, ferrying them back and forth to the swift boat. And I assume they were interrogating them – turning them loose or whatever. But then, later that night, we ran into– there was about five or six sampans, small junks crossing at the same time, and we challenged them – John saw them through the starlight scope – and we challenged them and we popped a flare and they refused to stop. They hit the beach and took off. So we opened up on them and, uh, after a few seconds of that-- and our cover was blown so we got out of there…
Myers: What happens when…you all start firing?
Zaladonis: Right, we started firing. I had an M-16 machine gun. I was on the bow of the boat and I opened up on them, and John didn't like the area I was shooting at and he directed me to fire more to the right. And I had muzzle flashes in front of my eyes so it was hard for me to see, because it was like having flashbulbs going off in front of your face – you know, hundreds of them at the same time. And I just couldn't see. So he kind of directed my fire. And from what I remember, he was firing an M-16 and it either jammed or he ran out of ammo. And he bent over to pick up another one and then he got hurt, as he was bent over. As far as I can remember.
Myers: How did he get hurt?
Zaladonis: I'm not sure. I'm not sure at all.
Myers: How did you know he was hurt?
Zaladonis: Because I found out later that when he bent over to pick up that rifle was when he got hurt. I guess we discussed that on the way back to the swift boat.
Myers: Do you recall was there enemy fire that night?
Zaladonis: I'm not sure. I don't really remember. But it was so hard for me to tell. I can't say there was or there wasn't. I believe Mr. Kerry thought that there was, but I was busy with that M-60 and I was trying to empty all my ammo out as quick as possible, and get the heck out of there. It was a pretty scary situation…
I can't say we weren't fired on, but I can't really tell if we were. I didn't see any tracers, but that doesn't mean anything ‘cause if they were using small arms there wouldn't have been any tracers.
Myers: But if you weren’t sure how you were fired on, how can you know how [John] Kerry was hurt?
Zaladonis: I didn't [know how he was hurt]. I just know that he was hurt. I don't remember the particulars. It was 35 years ago. And, you know, up until recently, I hadn't thought about it a whole lot…
Myers: Was this the only skimmer mission you were on?
Zaladonis: Yes, ma'am. It was the only one I was on. And I'm fairly sure it was the only one that John Kerry was on – and the only one that Pat Runyon was on also. [Pat Runyon was an enlisted man serving with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam during the same period. He agrees with Kerry’s and Zaladonis’ accounts that he, Kerry and Zaladonis were the only three on the skimmer the night of the incident.]
Myers: So there was not a second officer with you on the mission?
Zaladonis: No. Not at all.
Myers: Do you recall a person by the name of Bill Schachte?
Zaladonis: I've only heard his name recently because I've heard that he claimed he was on the skimmer with us.
Myers: Mr. Schachte claims he was on the skimmer with John Kerry that night.
Zaladonis: Right. Well, he claims that but he's wrong. The night that I'm talking about it was just myself, John Kerry and Pat Runyon. And I don't know how else I can say that. That's all there was on the boat. He may have been on the swift boat.
Myers: It was 35 years ago; how certain are you that Bill Schachte was not there that night?
Zaladonis: I'm absolutely positive. Absolutely positive. I don't remember every incident or everything that happened that night. But I do remember who was on the boat and remember it very plainly. Very plainly… Like I said, it was one of the scariest nights I've had in my life. And Pat and I have shared this story a few times since we've been out of the Navy. We've been very good friends ever since we've been—when we were in the Navy and out – and this is something that we talked about every now and then.
Myers: Is there any way in your view that John Kerry's wounds could have been accidentally self-inflicted?
Zaladonis: I don't see how. I don't see how he possibly could have been accidentally [hurt] – if he’d have stepped in the line of fire of my M-60 he wouldn't be here to talk about it. I only remember popping a flare and the flare worked so it didn't explode or anything on the skimmer – it did its job. So, I don't understand how he could have possibly had a self-inflicted wound.
Myers: Do you think John Kerry deserved a Purple Heart for that work?
Zaladonis: Well, I’ll tell you, if I'd have been hurt that night, I’d have probably thought I'd deserved one too. I'm sure he deserved it. I'm sure he deserved it…
Myers: How badly [was] John Kerry injured that night?
Zaladonis: I don't know how badly he was injured. I knew it wasn't life- threatening. And I know that when we got back to the swift boat he went to the pilothouse and I went to the fantail. Myself and Runyon went back to the fantail and we both smoked back then so we went back there and smoked. And we were talking to the swift boat crew. And it was dark, so we really couldn't see. We weren't turning on any lights. So, I'm not sure exactly how bad it was – I knew it was not life-threatening, though, and I knew he wasn't going to lose his arm or anything like that.
Myers: How do you feel when you hear that someone – that Admiral Schachte is saying that he was on that boat?
Zaladonis: I just feel that he's mistaken. He said that he did a bunch of those missions and I think he’s just got them mixed up. I only did one. And he said he did a bunch of them, like 10 of them or something like that. So he's got us confused with somebody else. I only did one. And it was me and Pat and John Kerry. And that's it. And I can't say it any other way.
Myers: Are you familiar with a commander named Grant Hibbard in Vietnam? [on the date of the incident, then-Lt. Cmdr. Grant Hibbard was commanding officer of Coastal Division 14, to which both Kerry and Zaladonis were assigned as of the date of the incident]
Zaladonis: I knew of him. I didn't know him personally.
Myers: Did you ever discuss what happened on the skimmer with Commander Hibbard?
Zaladonis: No. Mr. Hibbard wouldn't have had any reason to speak to me unless I was being court martialed or something. [LAUGHS]
Myers: Were you aware that initially there was some resistance to giving John Kerry a Purple Heart for this?
Zaladonis: No, I wasn't aware of that at all… Most of the time when you get any type of award in Vietnam you get it because they give it to you – you don't get it because you want it. You don't go asking for stuff like this. You either – you know, you win it or you don't…
Myers: You don’t remember anything about ‘Batman’ and ‘Robin’ code words?
Zaladonis: No, no…
Myers: Why do you think that you and Mr. Schachte have dramatically different accounts of that incident?
Zaladonis: Well, it's like I said. He was on a bunch of those skimmer missions. I was on one. I think he's just got one or two mixed up. But like I said, I was just on one, so it’s very vivid in my memory. I think he said he was involved with about 10 of them. So to me it's just like separate patrols on a swift boat. I can't remember them all. I went on so many. And I've been on so many boats I can't even remember half of the boats officers I rode with.