An unprecedented meeting of Vietnam war Swift Boat veterans was held Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, May 4th, to oppose Sen. John F. Kerry's candidacy for the presidency on the grounds that he was "unfit" to be Commander-In-Chief. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT), led by Admiral Roy Hoffman (USN ret.), the former commander of Swift Boats operations in South Vietnam, joined nearly two dozen other Swift veterans in their opposition to Kerry's presidential ambitions.
This new group issued an "open letter" to Senator Kerry in which they told him, in very blunt terms, why they opposed him for the presidency. This message was repeated in individual presentations at the press conference. Members of SBVT charged Kerry with several acts of betrayal of their sacrifices and honor, saying:
"It is our collective judgment that, upon your return from Vietnam, you grossly and knowingly distorted the conduct of the American soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen of that war (including a betrayal of many of us, without regard for the danger your actions caused us).
"Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own con-duct in this war.
"We believe you continue this conduct today, albeit by changing from an anti-war to a 'war hero' status. You now seek to clad yourself in the very medals that you disdainfully threw away in the early years of your political career. In the process, we believe you continue a deception as to your own conduct through such tactics as the disclosure of only carefully screened portions of your military records. Both then and now, we have concluded that you have deceived the public, and in the process have betrayed honorable men, to further your personal political goals.
”Your conduct is such as to raise substantive concerns as to your honesty and your ability to serve, as you currently seek, as Commander-in-Chief of the military services.
"Senator Kerry, we were there. We know the truth. We have been silent long enough. The stakes are too great, not only for America in general but, most importantly, for those who have followed us into service in Iraq and Afghanistan. We call upon you to provide a full, accurate accounting of your conduct in Vietnam."
More than 200 Swift Boat officers and men signed the letter to Kerry, including all of Kerry's commanding officers, in response to a query sent out by Admiral Hoffman, former Lt. Cdr. John O'Neill (also of Kerry's Coastal Division 11), and others. The reply letters authorizing the use of their names were often as damning of Kerry's behavior as was the open letter itself.
Three of the email endorsements said a whole mouthful about the quality and caliber of the Swift Boat crews who served out their entire tours of duty despite serious wounds. The briefest one simply said: "Yes, I wish to join you. Lt. Thomas A. Withey, OINC (Cat Lo 67-68), Silver Star, Purple heart (I spent 2-1/2 months in a hospital then returned to Viet Nam for remainder of 12 mo. tour)."
From John Howell "Gremlin" came the following message: "Admiral, in response to your query concerning awards received in the RVN (Republic of Vietnam), aside from the normal stuff, I received the Navy Unit Citation and the Combat Action Ribbon. I did get cut a few times, but I forgot to recommend myself for a Purple Heart. Sorry about that."
And finally, from Thomas Mason, came the following:
". . . I would like to add a resounding YES to your request. My name is Tom Mason and I was OinC of PCF-49. I was wounded on 20 Jun 1967 at Duc Pho while patrolling out of Chu Lai. I was medevaced to CONNUS for further treatment. I received a Purple Heart amongst other awards. I subsequently returned to Vietnam 3 more times to work with CTF's 116 and 117 and finally left the service as a Lt. in 1971. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to speak out against an injustice and false position that needs to be explored. I hope the medical records are also released whenever."
None of these statements appeared in three newspaper stories covering the press conference though statements of those who participated in it were included in each paper.
Adm. Hoffman, at the opening of the press conference, stated quite forcefully, "I do not believe John Kerry is fit to be Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces. This is not a political issue. It is a matter of honesty. It is a matter of his judgment, truthfulness, reliability, loyalty and trust - all absolute tenets of command."
Then, one after another, the Swift Boat vets, led by John O'Neill who had just undergone a kidney donation operation for his wife, gave their own statements, ranging from one sentence to a lot more. O'Neill said, "We don't understand why Kerry would make the centerpiece of his campaign an exaggerated account of his four month service in Vietnam 33 years ago, but since he is, we believe the American public is entitled to the truth about his service and about his charges about war crimes and atrocities." O'Neill, who served 11 months on Swifties, took charge of the same Swift Boat Kerry commanded a few months earlier. He had previously served two years in naval operations in and near South Vietnam.
Capt. Charley Plumly (USN ret), referred to Kerry's "turncoat performance in 1971" while Andy Carr said, "I cannot remain silent. Our men and women who are serving today deserve no less" than to know the truth about Kerry's actions.
Lt. Bob Elder said, "I signed this letter because I felt a deep sense of betrayal" by Kerry, citing him with being the “field general” of opposition at home.
Grant (Skip) Hibbard, who served on Kerry's boat, told the gathering that "the rules of engagement were very strict", and that "often they didn't fire if there was the possibility of civilian casualties". Hibbard doesn't say much, but he fired off a broadside when he stated, "He (Kerry) proceeded to betray his former crewmates."
And finally, one name sure to ring loudly in everyone’s memory, Lt. Cdmr. James Zumwalt, USMC (ret), grandson of the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Sr. and son of the late Elmo Zumwalt, Jr, told the conference that he had "returned home honored to have served" in Vietnam but he remembered his late father's distrust of Kerry for the comments he made about how the Swift Boat veterans and other men had committed "war crimes.”
As one who knew John O'Neill 33 years ago when John joined Vietnam Veterans For A Just Peace (of which this writer was a cofounder), I found him to be a feisty, proud combat veteran of service in and around South Vietnam. He has consistently felt that Sen. Kerry's statements about American servicemen being rapists and mass murderers (i.e. war criminals), more than the issue of his short-term service/Purple Hearts, was a betrayal of their fellow American soldiers, sailors, and airmen who continued to fight and serve in Vietnam after Kerry had left. It was this honor that O'Neill and the signers of the "open letter" were defending, and after 33 years of silence, the Vietnam veteran was back to reclaim their honor.
I personally was glad to see that O'Neill had lost none of the spunk he had shown in Vietnam, and then in the media/political arena of American election politics of 1972. And finally, I was in a room with real heroes, a quiet "band of brothers" who would be quiet no more, if only to defend the honor of those who fell on the field of battle and could not be there to speak for themselves.