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updated 8/27/2004 7:15:10 PM ET 2004-08-27T23:15:10

Another Vietnam swift boat veteran has come out this week to add his voice to a growing debate over what exactly happened the night Kerry earned one of his Purple Hearts. This time one of his superiors is contradicting Kerry's own story.

Dec. 2, 1968 was the date of one of Kerry’s first river missions in Vietnam — a night operation in a small skimmer.

This is how Kerry describes what happened that night, for which he was awarded his first Purple Heart: “The medical records show that I had shrapnel removed from my arm. We were in combat. We were in a very, very—probably one of the most frightening—if you ask… the two guys who were with me, was probably the most frightening night that they had that they were in Vietnam.”

But now, retired Admiral William Schachte (US Navy, Ret.) claims that he was Kerry’s superior that night, and that Kerry’s account is not true.

“I was in command of those missions and I was in the boat that night,” says Schachte.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Schachte says he and Kerry and an enlisted man were on the boat that night... when he thought he saw movement on the shore and opened fire.

“My gun jammed after the first burst and I was trying to clear my weapon. John’s gun apparently jammed too,” says Schachte.  “I heard the old familiar ‘Thump-pow!’ and I look, and John had fired the M-79 grenade launcher. And there was silence. That’s when I realized that he had nicked himself.”

Schachte claims Kerry accidentally hurt himself when he fired the grenade launcher too close to the boat and shrapnel came back and hit his arm.

Lisa Myers: You have absolutely no doubt that he injured himself accidentally?”

Adm. William Schachte: There was no other fire. There were no muzzle flashes. There was nothing coming at us from the beach.

Myers: There was no enemy fire involved.

Schachte: None.

Myers: You’re absolutely certain?

Schachte: Yes.

Myers: 36 years later?

Schachte: Hey, listen, when somebody’s shooting at you, you know it.

Myers: But you are, in a sense, saying Senator Kerry is lying and did not deserve his 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 Schachte has no documents to back up his claim to have been with Kerry that night, and when interviewed briefly last year did not make such a claim.  And everyone involved shares his memory of what happened.

The skipper of another boat that night, Mike Voss, tells NBC, “I’m pretty cetain Schachte was there in the skimmer. “ But Voss won’t take sides on what actually happened, saying, “I don’t know what went on in the skimmer… I’m trying to stay neutral.”

Two other officers—both Kerry critics—support Schachte’s account, saying he gave the same account immediately after the mission.

But not everyone involved shares Schachte’s memory of what happened.

“Well, he claims that but he is wrong,” says Bill Zaladonis. Bill Zaladonis and another enlisted man are equally adamant that Kerry is telling the truth. They say they were in that boat with Kerry that night and  Schachte was not.  

Zaladonis says he’s not sure exactly how Kerry was wounded or if there was enemy fire, but remembers Kerry opening fire on Vietnamese on the shore.  “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.”

“From what I remember, he was firing an M-16 and it either jammed, or ran out of ammo. He bent over to pick up another one, and then he got hurt as he was bent over. As far as I can remember.”

Still, key questions remain about Kerry’s account.  If there was combat...why no “after action” report, as exists for other Purple Hearts?

Schachte says it’s because he did not file such a report because there was no enemy action.  “The division commander said, ‘fine, understand – no after-action report required.”

But Kerry blames the lack of a report on Navy recordkeeping.

Another question: Why was this Purple Heart awarded 3 months later?

Both Schachte and Grant Hibbard, then Kerry’s commanding officer then and now a Kerry critic, claim they wouldn’t put Kerry in for the award and someone else must have approved it, after they left the country.

But Schachte’s timing and motives also can be questioned.    

Myers: “It’s been 35 years, 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.’”

Schachte says he was shocked when he read an excerpt of the authorized biography— including Kerry’s version of his first Purple Heart.

The Kerry campaign charges this is partisan, noting Schachte has endorsed and twice contributed to President Bush.

“It’s difficult to get beyond those accusations that we’re somehow puppets for this campaign,” says Schachte. “We’re somehow puppets for this campaign? I mean, that really strikes at the heart of your own personal honor.”

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