Chicago The commander of a Navy Swift boat who served alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry during the Vietnam War stepped forward Saturday to dispute attacks challenging Kerry's integrity and war record.
William Rood, an editor on the Chicago Tribune's metropolitan desk, said he broke 35 years of silence about the Feb. 28, 1969, mission that resulted in Kerry's receiving a Silver Star because recent portrayals of Kerry's actions published in the best-selling book "Unfit for Command" are wrong and smear the reputations of veterans who served with Kerry.
Rood, who commanded one of three Swift boats during that 1969 mission, said Kerry came under rocket and automatic weapons fire from Viet Cong forces and that Kerry devised an aggressive attack strategy that was praised by their superiors. He called allegations that Kerry's accomplishments were "overblown" untrue.
"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," Rood said in a 1,700-word first-person account published in today's Chicago Tribune.
Rood's recollection of what happened on that day at the southern tip of South Vietnam was backed by key military documents, including his citation for a Bronze Star he earned in the battle and a glowing after-action report written by the Navy captain who commanded his and Kerry's task force, who is now a critic of the Democratic candidate.
Rood's previously untold story and the documents shed new light on a key historical event that has taken center stage in an extraordinary political and media firestorm generated by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Allegations in the book, co-authored by one of the leaders of the group, accuse Kerry of being a coward who fabricated wartime events and used comrades for his "insatiable appetite for medals." The allegations have fueled a nearly two-week-long TV ad campaign against the Democratic nominee. Talk radio and cable news channels have feasted on the story.
Animosity from some veterans toward Kerry goes back more than 30 years, when Kerry returned from Vietnam to take a leadership role in the anti-war group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Anger reached a boiling point with Kerry's presidential nomination and his own highlighting of his service during the war, a centerpiece of his campaign strategy against President Bush, who spent the war stateside in the Air National Guard in Texas and Alabama.
A poll released Friday by the National Annenberg Election Survey reported that more than half the country has heard about or seen TV ads attacking Kerry's war record, a remarkable impact for ads that have appeared in only a handful of states.
Kerry, Bush responses
Kerry strongly disputes the allegations, and on Saturday a spokesman for his campaign, David Wade, responded to Rood's account by saying, "The truth is being told, and it's the same and only truth documented by the Navy 35 years ago and remembered by those veterans without a Bush political ax to grind."
Wade added that "the real truth being told by veterans who've had the courage to stand up to the Bush Republican attack machine is all the honor John Kerry needs in his life."
The Bush campaign has denied any association with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth but so far has refused to condemn the book and the group's TV ads. It had no direct comment Saturday on Rood's version of events, instead criticizing the Kerry campaign for alleging that the Bush team was providing tacit support to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and for not repudiating all advertising by so-called 527 groups, political organizations barred by law from coordinating their efforts with campaigns.
"John Kerry knows that attack is false and baseless," said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. "John Kerry knows that the president has said (Kerry's) service was noble service. John Kerry knows that there is no connection between the Bush campaign and this 527 and ... that President Bush has called on Sen. Kerry to join him in condemning all of the shadowy 527 groups that are advertising."
Schmidt said Kerry "has remained silent" while pro-Democratic 527 groups have run $62 million worth of attack ads targeting Bush.
Kerry's campaign sought to turn up the heat on Bush through an e-mail effort targeting veterans. The effort resurrects Arizona Sen. John McCain's complaints during the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary about Bush's failure to disavow attacks on McCain's actions as a prisoner of war.
Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, said Bush's refusal to disavow the advertising by the swift boat veterans group was "an unfortunate and classic move by a Bush-Rove campaign," citing the president's senior political adviser, Karl Rove.
A report in Friday's New York Times disclosed connections between the anti-Kerry vets and the Bush family, Bush's chief political aide Karl Rove and several high-ranking Texas Republicans. Some of the recent accounts from veterans critical of Kerry have been contradicted by their own earlier statements, the Times reported.
Rood's account also sharply contradicts the version currently put forth by the anti-Kerry veterans. Rood, 61, wrote that Kerry had personally contacted him and other crew members in recent days asking that they go public with their accounts of what happened on that day.
Rood said that, ever since the war, he had "wanted to put it all behind us -- the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. ... I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry's service -- even those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune."
"I can't pretend those calls (from Kerry) had no effect on me, but that is not why I am writing this," Rood said. "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."
Rood declined requests from a Chicago Tribune reporter to be interviewed for this article. Rood wrote that he could testify only to the February 1969 mission and not to any of the other battlefield decorations challenged by Kerry's critics -- a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts -- because Rood was not an eyewitness to those engagements.
In February 1969, Rood was a lieutenant junior grade commanding PCF-23, one of the three 50-foot aluminum Swift boats that carried troops up the Dong Cung, a tributary of the Bay Hap River. Kerry commanded another boat, PCF-94 and Lt. j.g. Donald Droz, who was killed in action six weeks later, commanded PCF-43. Ambushes from Viet Cong fighters were common because the noise from boats, powered by twin diesel engines, practically invited gunfire. Ambushes, Rood said, "were a virtual certainty."
Change in strategy
Before this day's mission, though, Kerry, the tactical commander of the mission, discussed with Rood and Droz a change in response to the anticipated ambushes: If possible, turn into the fire once it is identified and attack the ambushers, Rood recalled Kerry saying. The boats followed that new tactic with great success, Rood said, and the mission was highly praised.
In the book "Unfit for Command," Kerry's critics maintained otherwise. The book's authors, John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi, wrote that Kerry's attack on the Viet Cong ambush displayed "stupidity, not courage." The book was published by Regnery, a conservative publisher that has brought into print many books critical of Democratic politicians and policies.
"The only explanation for what Kerry did is the same justification that characterizes his entire short Vietnam adventure: the pursuit of medals and ribbons," wrote Corsi and O'Neill. Later in the war, O'Neill commanded the same Swift boat Kerry had led. O'Neill is now a leader of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
In the book, O'Neill and Corsi said Kerry chased down a "young Viet Cong in a loincloth ... clutching a grenade launcher which may or may not have been loaded."
Rood recalled the fleeing Viet Cong was "a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore." There were other attackers as well, he said, and his boat and Kerry's boat took significant fire.
Praise, then criticism
After the attack, the task force commanding officer, then-Capt. Roy Hoffmann, sent a message of congratulations to the three Swift boats, saying their charge of the ambushers 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," Rood said.
In the official after-action message, obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Hoffmann wrote that the tactics developed and executed by Kerry, Rood and Droz were "immensely effictive (sic)" and that "this operation did unreparable (sic) damage to the enemy in this area."
"Well done," Hoffmann concluded in his message.
But more than three decades later, Hoffmann, now a retired rear admiral, has changed his story. Today he is one of Kerry's most vocal critics, saying the attacks against the ambushers 35 years ago call into question Kerry's judgment and show his tendency to be impulsive.
Asked for his response to Rood's account, O'Neill argued that the former Swift boat skipper's version of events is not substantially different from what appeared in his book. The account of the Feb. 28 attack draws heavily on reporting from The Boston Globe, O'Neill said.
He said the congratulatory note from Hoffmann was based on the belief that Kerry was under heavy fire from the Viet Cong. But O'Neill claimed that "didn't happen." Had Hoffmann known the true circumstances of events that day, O'Neill said, he would not have issued the congratulatory note. Attempts to reach Hoffmann for comment were unsuccessful.
In his eyewitness account, Rood describes coming under rocket and automatic weapons fire from Viet Cong on the riverbank during two separate ambushes of his boat and Kerry's boat.
O'Neill said in a statement Saturday that, unlike Rood, most of the officers who served with Kerry do not support him.
"Bill Rood is one of 23 officers who served with John Kerry at An Thoi," O'Neill said. "Seventeen of those officers have condemned John Kerry."
He called Rood's criticism of "Unfit for Command" "extremely unfair" and said Rood declined to be interviewed for the book he and Corsi wrote.
"We strongly stand by the different judgments we reached as to the advisability of beaching the Kerry boat and chasing the wounded, fleeing Viet Cong teenager," O'Neill said in the statement. "We also stand by our judgment that while the action involved a degree of courage, it was not compatible with the description given to senior command nor worthy of the Silver Star. We are joined in that judgment by many Vietnam veterans who expressed similar views."
Praise for the mission led by Kerry came from Navy commanders who far outranked Hoffmann. Rood won a Bronze Star for his actions on that day. The Bronze Star citation from the late Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, then commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam, singled out the tactic used by the boats and said the Viet Cong were "caught completely off guard."
Long-held hard feelings
The war about the war between O'Neill and Kerry has raged for more than three decades. O'Neill, who became a lawyer in Houston after returning from Vietnam, was recruited by the Nixon administration in 1971 to serve as a political counterweight to Kerry, who by then had left the military and was a vocal critic of the war.
The two debated the war on the Dick Cavett television show in 1971, with O'Neill accusing Kerry of the "attempted murder of the reputations of 2 1/2 million" Vietnam veterans.
Rood acknowledged in his first-person account that there could always be errors in recollection, especially with the passage of more than three decades. His Bronze Star citation, he said, misidentifies the river where the main action occurred.
That mistake, he said, is a "cautionary note for those trying to piece it all together. There's no final authority on something that happened so long ago -- not the documents and not even the strained recollections of those of us who were there.
"But I know that what some people are saying now is wrong," Rood wrote. "While they mean to hurt Kerry, what they're saying impugns others who are not in the public eye."