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The Fourth Man on the Boat By: Robert Novak
The Chicago Sun-Times | Monday, August 30, 2004


NEW YORK -- Retired Rear Adm. William L. Schachte Jr. said Thursday in his first on-the-record interview about the swift boat veterans dispute that "I was absolutely in the skimmer" in the early morning on Dec. 2, 1968, when Lt. (j.g.) John Kerry was involved in an incident that led to his first Purple Heart.

"Kerry nicked himself with a M-79 [grenade launcher]," Schachte said in a telephone interview from his home in Charleston, S.C. He said, "Kerry requested a Purple Heart."

Schachte, also a lieutenant junior grade, said he was in command of the small boat called a Boston whaler or skimmer, with Kerry aboard in his first combat mission in the Vietnam War. The third crew member was an enlisted man, whose name Schachte did not remember.

Two enlisted men who appeared at the podium with Kerry at the Democratic National Convention in Boston have asserted that they were alone in the small boat with Kerry, with no other officer present. Schachte said it "was not possible" for Kerry to have gone out alone so soon after joining the swift boat command in late November 1968.

Kerry supporters said no critics of the Democratic presidential nominee ever were aboard a boat with him in combat. Washington lawyer Lanny Davis has contended that Schachte was not aboard the Boston whaler and says the statement that Schachte was aboard in Unfit for Command undermines that critical book's credibility.

Schachte until now has refused to speak out publicly on this question and agreed to give only two interviews. One was a television interview with Lisa Meyers of NBC News, for broadcast Thursday night. The second was a print interview with me, for publication today.

Schachte described the use of the skimmer operating very close to shore as a technique that he personally designed to flush enemy forces on the banks of the Mekong River so that the larger swift boats could move in. Around 3 a.m. on Dec. 2, Schachte said, the skimmer -- code-named "Batman" -- fired a hand-held flare. He said that after Kerry's M-16 rifle jammed, the new officer picked up the M-79 and, "I heard a 'thunk.' There was no fire from the enemy," he said.

Patrick Runyon and William Zaladonis are the two enlisted men who said they were aboard the skimmer and did not know Schachte. However, two other former officers interviewed Thursday confirmed that Schachte was the originator of the technique and always was aboard the Boston whaler for these missions.

Grant Hibbard, who as a lieutenant commander was Schachte's superior officer, confirmed that Schachte always went on these skimmer missions and said, "I don't think he [Kerry] was alone" on his first assignment. Hibbard said he had told Kerry to "forget it" when he asked for a Purple Heart.

Ted Peck, another swift boat commander, said, "I remember Bill [Schachte] telling me it didn't happen" -- that is, Kerry getting an enemy-inflicted wound. He said it would be "impossible" for Kerry to have been in the skimmer without Schachte.

"I was astonished by Kerry's version" [in his book Tour of Duty] of what happened Dec. 2, Schachte said Thursday. When asked to support the Kerry critics in the swift boat controversy, Schachte said, "I didn't want to get involved." But he said he gradually began to change his mind when he saw his own involvement and credibility challenged, starting with Davis on CNN's "Crossfire" on Aug. 12.

The next time he saw Kerry after the first Purple Heart incident, Schachte said, was "about 20 years" later on the U.S. Senate subway in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building. "I called, 'Hey, John.' He replied, 'Batman.' I was absolutely amazed by his memory." He said they "talked about having lunch" but never did it.

Schachte said he never has been contacted by or talked to anybody in the Bush-Cheney campaign or any Republican organization. He said he has been a political independent who votes for candidates of both parties.


Robert Novak is a long-running political columnist and co-host of CNN's Crossfire.


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