Navy records appear to support Kerry's version

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Navy task force overseeing John Kerry’s swift boat squadron in Vietnam reported that his group of boats came under enemy fire during a March 13, 1969, incident that three decades later is being challenged by the Democratic presidential nominee’s critics.

The March 18, 1969, weekly report from Task Force 115, which was located by The Associated Press during a search of Navy archives, is the latest document to surface that supports Kerry’s description of an event for which he won a Bronze Star and a third Purple Heart.

The Task Force report twice mentions the incident five days earlier and both times calls it “an enemy initiated firefight” that included automatic weapons fire and underwater mines used against a group of five boats that included Kerry’s.

Task Force 115 was commanded at the time by retired Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann, the founder of the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has been running ads challenging Kerry’s account of the episode.

A member of the group, Larry Thurlow, said Tuesday he stood by his assertion that there was no enemy fire that day. Thurlow, the commander of another boat who also won a Bronze Star, said task force commanders probably relied on the initial report of the incident. Thurlow says Kerry wrote that report.

The document, part of thousands of pages of records housed at the Naval Historical Center, is one of several that say Kerry and other servicemen were shot at from the banks of the Bay Hap River on March 13, 1969. The Associated Press located the document Tuesday during a search of available records.

Earlier this month, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aired a television ad claiming Kerry lied about the circumstances surrounding his medals. Several members of the group who were aboard nearby boats that March 13 said in the ad and in affidavits that there was no enemy gunfire during the incident.

The anti-Kerry group has not produced any official Navy documents supporting that claim, however. The man Kerry rescued, Jim Rassmann, and the crew of Kerry’s boat all say there was gunfire from both banks of the river at the time.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Ginsberg, a lawyer for the Bush campaign, acknowledged that he has given legal advice to the anti-Kerry group and resigned from his campaign post. Ginsberg said he never told the campaign what he discussed with the group or vice versa, and doesn’t advise the group on ad strategies.

The Kerry campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing the Bush campaign and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth of illegally coordinating the group’s ads. The Bush campaign and the veterans group say there was no coordination.

Kerry is the subject of complaints by the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee accusing his campaign of illegally coordinating anti-Bush ads with outside groups on the Democratic side, allegations he and the groups deny.

Kerry has denounced the assertions from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as lies made as part of a Republican smear campaign. Most of the group’s members and early financial backers are Republicans and one member who appeared in an ad, Ken Cordier, was a volunteer member of the Bush campaign. The campaign cut its ties with Cordier last week.

President Bush has said his campaign had nothing to do with the veterans group and said all such advertising by outside groups should cease. An anti-Bush group has run television ads saying Bush shirked his duty in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war.

Kerry highlighted his Vietnam service during the Democratic convention last month, recounting the March 13 incident and having Rassmann join him on stage.

On that day in 1969, Kerry’s PCF-94 was part of a five-boat group heading downriver. An underwater mine exploded underneath another boat, PCF-3, injuring its entire crew. Kerry’s boat was then hit by another explosion that knocked Rassmann, an Army Green Beret, into the water. Kerry hurt his right arm in the explosion.

Kerry turned his boat around to rescue Rassmann, pulling the soldier into the boat with his injured right arm, while the other boats rushed to help PCF-3. All the official Navy reports on the incident say the boats were under heavy fire from the riverbanks at the time. Those records include the official after-action report, citations for Bronze Stars awarded for heroism that day and now the Task Force 115 report.

The weekly report cites the incident twice, referring to its code name of Sea Lords 358. The first reference says the boats “encountered an enemy initiated firefight with water mines and automatic weapons fire.” The second reference also mentions “an enemy initiated firefight ... with water mines and automatic weapons.”

Thurlow, the commander of another swift boat who won a Bronze Star for helping the crew of PCF-3, insists there was no enemy gunfire during the incident. The citation and recommendation for Thurlow’s Bronze Star, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also mention enemy fire, however.

Thurlow’s medal recommendation, for example, says he helped the PCF-3 crew “under constant enemy small arms fire.” That recommendation is signed by George Elliott, another member of the anti-Kerry group. It lists as the only witness for the incident Robert Eugene Lambert, an enlisted man who was not on Kerry’s boat who also won the Bronze Star that day.

Thurlow stood by his claim that there was no gunfire that day and said his Bronze Star documents were wrong.

Kerry’s campaign has released copies of the after-action report and Kerry’s Bronze Star nomination and citation for the incident, but not the weekly report.