2004-08-19 10:52:41 UTC
Fellow Skipper's Citation Refers To Enemy Fire
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page A01
Newly obtained military records of one of Sen. John F. Kerry's most
vocal critics, who has accused the Democratic presidential candidate
of lying about his wartime record to win medals, contradict his own
version of events.
In newspaper interviews and a best-selling book, Larry Thurlow, who
commanded a Navy Swift boat alongside Kerry in Vietnam, has strongly
disputed Kerry's claim that the Massachusetts Democrat's boat came
under fire during a mission in Viet Cong-controlled territory on March
13, 1969. Kerry won a Bronze Star for his actions that day.
But Thurlow's military records, portions of which were released
yesterday to The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act,
contain several references to "enemy small arms and automatic weapons
fire" directed at "all units" of the five-boat flotilla. Thurlow won
his own Bronze Star that day, and the citation praises him for
providing assistance to a damaged Swift boat "despite enemy bullets
flying about him."
As one of five Swift boat skippers who led the raid up the Bay Hap
River, Thurlow was a direct participant in the disputed events. He is
also a leading member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a public
advocacy group of Vietnam veterans dismayed by Kerry's subsequent
antiwar activities, which has aired a controversial television
advertisement attacking his war record.
In interviews and written reminiscences, Kerry has described how his
50-foot patrol boat came under fire from the banks of the Bay Hap
after a mine explosion disabled another U.S. patrol boat. According to
Kerry and members of his crew, the firing continued as an injured
Kerry leaned over the bow of his ship to rescue a Special Forces
officer who was blown overboard in a second explosion.
Last month, Thurlow swore in an affidavit that Kerry was "not under
fire" when he fished Lt. James Rassmann out of the water. He described
Kerry's Bronze Star citation, which says that all units involved came
under "small arms and automatic weapons fire," as "totally
"I never heard a shot," Thurlow said in his affidavit, which was
released by Swift Boats Veterans for Truth. The group claims the
backing of more than 250 Vietnam veterans, including a majority of
Kerry's fellow boat commanders.
A document recommending Thurlow for the Bronze Star noted that all his
actions "took place under constant enemy small arms fire which LTJG
THURLOW completely ignored in providing immediate assistance" to the
disabled boat and its crew. The citation states that all other units
in the flotilla also came under fire.
"It's like a Hollywood presentation here, which wasn't the case,"
Thurlow said last night after being read the full text of his Bronze
Star citation. "My personal feeling was always that I got the award
for coming to the rescue of the boat that was mined. This casts doubt
on anybody's awards. It is sickening and disgusting."
Thurlow said he would consider his award "fraudulent" if coming under
enemy fire was the basis for it. "I am here to state that we weren't
under fire," he said. He speculated that Kerry could have been the
source of at least some of the language used in the citation.
In a telephone interview Tuesday evening after he attended a Swift
Boat Veterans strategy session in an Arlington hotel, Thurlow said he
lost his Bronze Star citation more than 20 years ago. He said he was
unwilling to authorize release of his military records because he
feared attempts by the Kerry campaign to discredit him and other
The Post filed an independent request for the documents with the
National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which is the central
repository for veterans' records. The documents were faxed to The Post
by officials at the records center yesterday.
Thurlow and other anti-Kerry veterans have repeatedly alleged that
Kerry was the author of an after-action report that described how his
boat came under enemy fire. Kerry campaign researchers dispute that
assertion, and there is no convincing documentary evidence to settle
the argument. As the senior skipper in the flotilla, Thurlow might
have been expected to write the after-action report for March 13, but
he said that Kerry routinely "duked the system" to present his version
For much of the episode, Kerry was not in a position to know firsthand
what was happening on Thurlow's boat, as Kerry's boat had sped down
the river after the mine exploded under another boat. He later
returned to provide assistance to the stricken boat.
Thurlow, an oil industry worker and former teacher in Kansas, said he
was angry with Kerry for his antiwar activities on his return to the
United States and particularly Kerry's claim before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee that U.S. troops in Vietnam had committed war
crimes "with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
" 'Upset' is too mild a word," said Thurlow, a registered Republican,
of his reaction to Kerry then. "He did it strictly for his own
personal political gain, and it directly affected every single one of
us as we were trying to put our lives together."
Two other Swift boat skippers who were direct participants in the
March 13, 1969, mine explosion on the Bay Hap, Jack Chenoweth and
Richard Pees, have said they do not remember coming under "enemy
fire." A fourth commander, Don Droz, who was one of Kerry's closest
friends in Vietnam, was killed in action a month later.
The incident featured prominently in an anti-Kerry television ad
produced by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth earlier this month. "John
Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star," says Van Odell, a gunner on
PCF-23, one of the boats that came to the rescue of the stricken boat.
"I know. I was there."
The Bronze Star controversy is also a major focus of an anti-Kerry
book by John E. O'Neill, "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak
Out Against John Kerry," which will hit No. 2 on The Post's bestseller
list this weekend. The book accuses Kerry of "fleeing the scene" and
lying repeatedly about his role.
Members of Kerry's crew have come to his defense, as has Rassmann, the
Special Forces officer whom he fished from the river. Rassmann says he
has vivid memories of being fired at from both banks after he fell
into the river and as Kerry came to his rescue. The two had an
emotional reunion on the eve of the Iowa Democratic caucuses in
January, an event that some political analysts believe helped swing
votes to Kerry at a crucial time.
The Bronze Star recommendations for both Kerry and Thurlow were signed
by Lt. Cmdr. George M. Elliott, who received reports on the incident
from his base in the Gulf of Thailand. Elliott is a supporter of Swift
Boat Veterans for Truth and has questioned Kerry's actions in Vietnam.
But he has refused repeated requests for an interview after issuing
conflicting statements to the Boston Globe about whether Kerry
deserved a Silver Star. He was unreachable last night.
Money has poured into Swift Boat Veterans for Truth since the group
launched its television advertisement attacking Kerry earlier this
month. According to O'Neill, the group has received more than $450,000
over the past two weeks, mainly in small contributions. The Dallas
Morning News reported yesterday that the organization has also
received two $100,000 checks from Houston home builder Bob Perry, who
backed George W. Bush's campaigns for Texas governor and for
Bush campaign officials have said they have no connection to Swift
Boat Veterans for Truth, which is not permitted to coordinate its
activities with a presidential campaign under federal election law.