Democrats & Liberals Archives

Bronze Star

My intent with this entry is to bring some of the more fragmented accounts of certain missions into greater relief. In the speed of commentary and article postings, it sometimes helps to get everybody on the same page as to the sequence of events.

I’m going to start with the Bronze star episode, and then move from there in subsequent article. I think an examination of the facts will be of value.

This graphic is helpful.

The Date is March 13, 1969, the location on the Bay Hap river, which feeds into the Gulf of Thailand at the end of the tip of Vietnam, which is called the Cau Mau Peninsula. Five Boats are involved: PCF-94, Kerry's boat; PCF-43, Don Droz's boat; PCF-3, under Lt. JG Pees; PCF-23, Chenoweth's boat; and PCF-51, under SwiftVet Thurlow. It's after 2:45 P.M., and the Column of boats is moving past a fishing weir, set up across the river.

It's this weir that slow them down, and forces them to split up to move past the fishing nets to the left and the right. Kerry's boat is in the lead, so it is the first through, with PCF-43 behind it. The other boats follow the same paths so they can avoid the entangling net. Kerry's boat passes the fishing nets unharmed. PCF-3, is not so lucky.

"My God, I've never seen anything like it," Chenoweth wrote in what he says is a diary recorded soon after the events. "There was a fantastic flash, a boom, then the 3 boat disappeared in a fountain of water and debris. I was only 30 yards behind." Assuming that they had run into a Vietcong ambush, Chenoweth wrote, "we unleashed everything into the banks."

A later intelligence report established that the mine was probably detonated by a Vietcong sympathizer in a foxhole who hit a plunger as the Swift boats passed through the fishing weir.

Aboard the 3 boat, Pees remembered in an interview being "thrown up in the air" into the windscreen of his pilothouse and landing "kind of dazed," his legs numb, lap covered with blood. When it was over, Pees and three members of his crew would be medevaced to a Coast Guard cutter offshore with serious head and back injuries.

Washington Post

According to the official spot report, Pees suffered a head injury, and definitely was out of things enough that he couldn't retake control of his own boat.

Medeiros, a crewman on PCF-94 says that Kerry's boat was going at "full speed" when the mine hit, and simply continued down the river. At some point, Kerry's boat gets hit by an explosion of some kind. Some wags have said that Kerry's hauling ass is what dumped Rassmann in the drink, but if you really look at the layout of the boat in the graphic provided, you'd find that unlikely. Rassmann was far towards the bow, on the side of the enclosed pilot house, in which Kerry was inside of. Simple physics would tell you that for Rassmann to get dumped that way, Kerry would have had to have taken a strong turn to the right. Right into the right bank of the river, right?

There is a question as to whether it was a mine of some kind, or an explosive round of another kind. One possibility that came to my mind is that if one mine was manually operated, so could another one. Here, physics again affects the way events might have unfolded- A mine detonated closely might do tons of damage. One detonated prematurely would find its blast attenuated. With all the gunfire that was going on, the person on this mine, if it exists, may very well have panicked.

That said, Rassman was still knocked overboard, and Kerry still slammed against the side of the pilothouse. The blood cited in the report may very well have come from a close encounter with projecting objects. As for the confusion about contusions, the word is indeed synonymous with bruise, but a bruise itself can be any closed wound resulting from an crush impact. It doesn't mean it was serious, but it also doesn't mean it was a pipsqueak injury:

Concerns: Even if there's no fracture, a contusion occasionally can be serious. If swelling becomes severe, circulation can be cut off downstream from the injury. (This is called compartment syndrome.) A contusion that severely bruises a nerve can leave permanent numbness.
Utah Mountain Biking First Aid

I'd imagine an explosion impacting the side of the boat would give a pretty serious jolt. The damage was serious, windows blown out, engine and screws damaged, bilge pump damaged, electronics shorted out. I wouldn't be surprised if Kerry came into contact with broken glass from the windows, which would explain the blood that was seen. Was Kerry interested in letting the enemy take the second shot? Would you be? They kept going. But not too long, because soon enough, they were back to pick up Rassmann. and do so ahead of the others.

Rassmann remembers several boats coming back up the river toward him. But Chenoweth believes that the rescue must have taken place fairly close to the other boats, which had been drifting slowly downriver. In his diary, he said, he wrote that "we spotted a man overboard, started to pick him up, but 94 [Kerry's boat] got there first."

The Swiftboat Veterans of this group form a cluster. The lead officers of this group are the ones who Piloted PCF-3(Pees) and the two boats that helped them, PCF-23(Chenoweth). amd PCF-51(Thurlow). Thurlow distinguished himself here, boarding the still moving vessel, checking on the people aboard and trying to regain control of it. Before he could, though, PCF-3 ran aground and Thurlow was thrown overboard. This is where Robert Lambert, witness to Thurlow's bronze star and the guy who lifted Lambert out of the drink comes into the picture. Robert Lambert is one of the guys who says that there was gunfire from the banks of the river. He speaks up in this article is in the Mail Tribune.

His account is telling, for though the man condemns Kerry's stateside activities, and has no intention of voting for Kerry, he says there was gunfire directed at them. That, and he reveals another fact of significance- "He doesn't recall having met Kerry." This is the kind of source material I love- clear logical implications.

Overall, the verdict is mixed about gunfire, but where it is cited, an interesting pattern arises. Those who were shooting back remember it, those who were busy saving PCF-3 do not. While taking a Neuroscience course at Baylor, the subject of memory was a big part of things. One principle of how memory works is intentionality. We tend to remember best the things that we were focused on. Robbery victims remember guns more than faces.

I would say that Thurlow had different things on his mind than just gunfire. If the firefight was short enough, Thurlow's task of saving the ship would probably take precedence over the firefight. Chenoweth is likely the same way. For those whose actions centered around responding to the ambush, that would take precedence. With different tasks, different specialities, and different vantage points on the ambush, it is quite possible for people to take on points of view that seem to be mutually exclusive. Logic, though does not reign in the real world, but rather the informal operations and subjective experiences of the everyday. With a little prompting, Thurlow's contradicting story can be said to be true, from a certain point of view.

But as all movie fans know, that's quite a bit of a qualifier, and no guarantor of the truth. In one story, Vader is the father's murderer, in the other, Vader is Luke's father, who destroyed the good man he was when he fell to the dark side. What can be true from a certain point of view can turn out to be false if examined on the facts. We can never be certain, but the truth is never absolutely beyond our reach. Given the extent of the documentation and the witness who have backed up Kerry, it can be said that the Swiftvet's story may very well be true- but only from a certain point of view.

What strikes me oddly, and ultimately rubs me the wrong way about the Swiftvets are the exclusively negative assessments of Kerry's actions, especially given the glowing marks given by his accusers in times past It is a valid question, for the swiftvets- when did you start remembering things right? All too conveniently, it seems the response to that question is right here and right now. The timing couldn't be better, or more suspicious, here too quick after much too long.

Given that the burden of proof rests on accusers, it might have been better for the Swiftvets to have gotten their facts straight before ever challenging their opponents. Unfortunately, they chose to be unprepared. It is a pattern that will play out again and again, As I will show you in later posts.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at August 28, 2004 12:36 AM