"The critics have taken pains to
say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version
of events has splashed doubt on all of us.
It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know
to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there."
- William Rood, former Navy Commander
and Swift Boat Captain pictured above with John Kerry on 02/28/1969.
28, 1969: ON THE DONG CUNG RIVER
vets not there that day
Published August 21, 2004
There were three swift boats on the river that day in Vietnam more than 35 years
agothree officers and 15 crew members. Only two of those officers remain to talk
about what happened on February 28, 1969.
One is John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate who won a Silver Star for what
happened on that date. I am the other.
For years, no one asked about those events. But now they are the focus of skirmishing in a
presidential election with a group of swift boat veterans and others contending that Kerry
didn't deserve the Silver Star for what he did on that day, or the Bronze Star and three
Purple Hearts he was awarded for other actions.
Many of us wanted to put it all behind usthe rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever
since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry's
serviceeven those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where I work.
But Kerry's critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the
accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they're not
trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has
splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there
to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were
Even though Kerry's own crew members have backed him, the attacks have continued, and in
recent days Kerry has called me and others who were with him in those days, asking that we
go public with our accounts.
I can't pretend those calls had no effect on me, but that is not why I am writing this.
What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who
deserved to be honored for what they did. My intent is to tell the story here and to never
again talk publicly about it.
I was part of the operation that led to Kerry's Silver Star. I have no firsthand knowledge
of the events that resulted in his winning the Purple Hearts or the Bronze Star.
But on Feb. 28, 1969, I was officer in charge of PCF-23, one of three swift
boatsincluding Kerry's PCF-94 and Lt. j.g. Donald Droz's PCF-43that carried
Vietnamese regional and Popular Force troops and a Navy demolition team up the Dong Cung,
a narrow tributary of the Bay Hap River, to conduct a sweep in the area.
The approach of the noisy 50-foot aluminum boats, each driven by two huge 12-cylinder
diesels and loaded down with six crew members, troops and gear, was no secret.
Ambushes were a virtual certainty, and that day was no exception.
Instructions from Kerry
The difference was that Kerry, who had tactical command of that particular operation, had
talked to Droz and me beforehand about not responding the way the boats usually did to an
We agreed that if we were not crippled by the initial volley and had a clear fix on the
location of the ambush, we would turn directly into it, focusing the boats' twin
.50-caliber machine guns on the attackers and beaching the boats. We told our crews about
The Viet Cong in the area had come to expect that the heavily loaded boats would lumber on
past an ambush, firing at the entrenched attackers, beaching upstream and putting troops
ashore to sweep back down on the ambush site. Often, they were long gone by the time the
troops got there.
The first time we took firethe usual rockets and automatic weaponsKerry
ordered a "turn 90" and the three boats roared in on the ambush. It worked. We
routed the ambush, killing three of the attackers. The troops, led by an Army adviser,
jumped off the boats and began a sweep, which killed another half dozen VC, wounded or
captured others and found weapons, blast masks and other supplies used to stage ambushes.
Meanwhile, Kerry ordered our boat to head upstream with his, leaving Droz's boat at the
It happened again, another ambush. And again, Kerry ordered the turn maneuver, and again
it worked. As we headed for the riverbank, I remember seeing a loaded B-40 launcher
pointed at the boats. It wasn't fired as two men jumped up from their spider holes.
We called Droz's boat up to assist us, and Kerry, followed by one member of his crew,
jumped ashore and chased a VC behind a hoocha thatched hutmaybe 15 yards
inland from the ambush site. Some who were there that day recall the man being wounded as
he ran. Neither I nor Jerry Leeds, our boat's leading petty officer with whom I've checked
my recollection of all these events, recalls that, which is no surprise. Recollections of
those who go through experiences like that frequently differ.
With our troops involved in the sweep of the first ambush site, Richard Lamberson, a
member of my crew, and I also went ashore to search the area. I was checking out the
inside of the hooch when I heard gunfire nearby.
Not long after that, Kerry returned, reporting that he had killed the man he chased behind
the hooch. He also had picked up a loaded B-40 rocket launcher, which we took back to our
base in An Thoi after the operation.
John O'Neill, author of a highly critical account of Kerry's Vietnam service, describes
the man Kerry chased as a "teenager" in a "loincloth." I have no idea
how old the gunner Kerry chased that day was, but both Leeds and I recall that he was a
grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore.
The man Kerry chased was not the "lone" attacker at that site, as O'Neill
suggests. There were others who fled. There was also firing from the tree line well behind
the spider holes and at one point, from the opposite riverbank as well. It was not the
work of just one attacker.
Our initial reports of the day's action caused an immediate response from our task force
headquarters in Cam Ranh Bay.
Known over radio circuits by the call sign "Latch," then-Capt. and now retired
Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann, the task force commander, fired off a message congratulating the
three swift boats, saying at one point that the tactic of charging the ambushes was a
"shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy" and that it "may be
the most efficacious method of dealing with small numbers of ambushers."
Hoffmann has become a leading critic of Kerry's and now says that what the boats did on
that day demonstrated Kerry's inclination to be impulsive to a fault.
Our decision to use that tactic under the right circumstances was not impulsive but was
the result of discussions well beforehand and a mutual agreement of all three boat
It was also well within the aggressive tradition that was embraced by the late Adm. Elmo
Zumwalt, then commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam. Months before that day in February,
a fellow boat officer, Michael Bernique, was summoned to Saigon to explain to top Navy
commanders why he had made an unauthorized run up the Giang Thanh River, which runs along
the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Bernique, who speaks French fluently, had been told by a
source in Ha Tien at the mouth of the river that a VC tax collector was operating
Ignoring the prohibition against it, Bernique and his crew went upstream and routed the
VC, pursuing and killing several.
Instead of facing disciplinary action as he had expected, Bernique was given the Silver
Star, and Zumwalt ordered other swifts, which had largely patrolled coastal waters, into
The decision sent a clear message, underscored repeatedly by Hoffmann's congratulatory
messages, that aggressive patrolling was expected and that well-timed, if unconventional,
tactics like Bernique's were encouraged.
What we did on Feb. 28, 1969, was well in line with the tone set by our top commanders.
Zumwalt made that clear when he flew down to our base at An Thoi off the southern tip of
Vietnam to pin the Silver Star on Kerry and assorted Bronze Stars and commendation medals
on the rest of us.
Error in citation
My Bronze Star citation, signed by Zumwalt, praised the charge tactic we used that day,
saying the VC were "caught completely off guard."
There's at least one mistake in that citation. It incorrectly identifies the river where
the main action occurred, a reminder that such documents were often done in haste and
sometimes authored for their signers by staffers. It's a cautionary note for those trying
to piece it all together. There's no final authority on something that happened so long
agonot the documents and not even the strained recollections of those of us who were
But I know that what some people are saying now is wrong. While they mean to hurt Kerry,
what they're saying impugns others who are not in the public eye.
Men like Larry Lee, who was on our bow with an M-60 machine gun as we charged the
riverbank, Kenneth Martin, who was in the .50-caliber gun tub atop our boat, and Benjamin
Cueva, our engineman, who was at our aft gun mount suppressing the fire from the opposite
Wayne Langhoffer and the other crewmen on Droz's boat went through even worse on April 12,
1969, when they saw Droz killed in a brutal ambush that left PCF-43 an abandoned pile of
wreckage on the banks of the Duong Keo River. That was just a few months after the birth
of his only child, Tracy.
The survivors of all these events are scattered across the country now.
Jerry Leeds lives in a tiny Kansas town where he built and sold a successful printing
business. He owns a beautiful home with a lawn that sweeps to the edge of a small lake,
which he also owns. Every year, flights of purple martins return to the stately birdhouses
on the tall poles in his back yard.
Cueva, recently retired, has raised three daughters and is beloved by his neighbors for
all the years he spent keeping their cars running. Lee is a senior computer programmer in
Kentucky, and Lamberson finished a second military career in the Army.
With the debate over that long-ago day in February, they're all living that war another
Copyright © 2004, Chicago