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September 03, 2004

Kerry: The Sampan Incident

I thought it would be good to sort this Kerry story out a bit, even though I've no new insights to add. It is, by the way, unconnected with medals, though it has relevance on whether Kerry was a good officer and whether he lied to his superiors....


(1) According to the pro-Kerry Brinkley book, one night his boat mistakenly opened fire on a noncombatant sampan (after firing warning shots) and killed a man and a child. This is bad enough in itself-- it says that Kerry's control of his crew was loose enough that he couldn't stop them from shooting civilians by accident.

(2) Kerry's official report contradicts version (1), because it says five Viet Cong were killed and two captured in a fight with the sampan.

(3) Crew member Gardner says that Kerry was below deck, supposedly monitoring the radar but apparently neglecting it, since a sampan appeared, the Swift boat threw on its lights and Gardner shouted a warning and then opened fire because he thought he saw someone in the sampan picking up a weapon. Only then did Kerry appear and tell everyone to stop firing or they'd be court- martialed.

Details follow, from the August 19 Washington Times article by O'Neill and Corsi:

Kerry recounts that the Swift Boat under his command, PCF 44, and another, PCF 21, were patrolling a shallow channel on a pitch-black night and continually running aground.

For "Tour of Duty" (William Morrow, 2004), Brinkley drew his account from Kerry's journals and subsequent explanations, noting that "neither Swift's search or boarding lights were working properly."

" 'Many minutes of silent patrolling had gone by when one of the men yelled, "Sampan off the port bow," Kerry wrote [in his journal]. 'Everybody froze, and we slowed the engines quickly. But the sampan was already by us and wasn't stopping. It was past curfew, and nothing was allowed in the river. I told the gunner to fire a few warning shots, and in the confusion, all guns opened up. We moved in on the sampan and taking one of the battle lanterns off the bulkhead, shone it on the silhouette of the craft that was now dead in the water.' "


"But knowing that they were following official Navy policy didn't make it any easier to deal with what the crews saw next. 'The light revealed a woman standing in the stern of the sampan with a child of perhaps two years or less in her arms,' Kerry wrote. 'Neither [was] harmed. We asked her where the men from the stern were, as one of the gunners was sure that he had seen someone moving back there. She gesticulated wildly, and I could see traces of blood on the engine mounting. It was obvious that they had been blown overboard.

"'Then somebody said there was a body up front, and we moved in closer to see the limbs of a small child limp on the stacks of rice. She had already covered it, and when one of the men asked me if I wanted it uncovered I said no, realizing that the face would stay with me for the rest of my life and that it was better not to know whether there was a smile or a grimace or whether it was a girl or boy.' "

O'Neill and Corsi make this comment on that, the Kerry account:

... Kerry, according to one of his own accounts, appears to have lost control of his boat after crazily ordering that "warning shots" be fired at a small sampan with heavy .50-caliber weapons, instead of the numerous small-caliber weapons on board. ...

(2) O'Neill and Corsi also note the disjunction between the Brinkley book Kerry story and the official Navy documents we have available:

Critically important is the fact that Kerry filed a phony after-action operational report concealing the fact that a child had been killed during the attack on the sampan and inventing a fleeing squad of Viet Cong . The operational report is one of the important missing documents that Kerry neglects to make public on his campaign Web site.

Here is what we do have from the Navy:

The Commander Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam (CTF 115) Quarterly Evaluation Report of March 29, 1969, states: " ... 20 January PCFs 21 and 44 operating in An Xuyen Province ... engaged the enemy with a resultant GDA of one VC KIA (BC) [body count], four VC KIA (EST) and two VC CIA ."

This is Kerry's victory: killing in action (KIA) five imaginary Viet Cong, capturing in action (CIA) two Viet Cong (an exaggeration of the mother and baby who were actually rescued from the sampan) and simply omitting the dead child from the body count (BC) and the estimate (EST).

Roy F. Hoffmann, then commander of Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam, CTF 115, received Kerry's false report of probably killing five Viet Cong and capturing two others. Hoffman sent Kerry a congratulatory message.

(3) But neither Kerry version squares with what Steve Gardner, a member of his crew, says:

Gunner Steve Gardner sat above Kerry on the double .50-caliber mount that night in January 1969.

PCF 44, engines shut off, lay in ambush near the western mouth of the Cua Lon River. The boat's own generator was operating and its radar was on, with Kerry supposedly in the pilothouse monitoring the radar.

Although the radar was easily capable of picking up the sampan early, Kerry gave no warning to the crew and did not come out of the pilothouse. Instead, first an engine noise and then a sampan suddenly appeared in front of the boat -- still no Kerry.

The PCF lights were thrown on -- still no Kerry. The sampan was ordered to stop by the young gunner, Gardner -- still no Kerry.

According to Gardner, there was no order to fire warning shots , as Kerry claimed. Indeed, there was no Kerry until it was over. When an occupant of the sampan appeared to Gardner to reach for or hold a weapon, he opened up (as did others), killing the father and, unintentionally, a child.

Then Kerry finally appeared; he ordered the crew to cease-fire and then threatened them with courts-martial.

This account is made more credible because it reflects badly on its narrator -- Steve Gardner, who gets the responsibility and blame for killing the child. (Gardner apparently accepts this, but says that he made a justifiable, if mistaken, decision.) And maybe Kerry could come out of this version better than it seems-- maybe he was not sleeping like Jonah during the storm, which is what I read into this. Kerry might have some good reason for staying below and not warning the crew. But Kerry won't talk.

Posted by erasmuse at September 3, 2004 11:48 PM

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