Heroism, and growing concern about war

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 6/16/2003

The Christmas Eve truce of 1968 was three minutes old when mortar fire exploded around John Forbes Kerry and his five-man crew on a 50-foot aluminum boat near Cambodia. ''Where is the enemy?'' a crewmate shouted.

In the distance, an elderly man was tending his water buffalo -- and serving as human cover for a dozen Viet Cong manning a machine-gun nest.

"Open fire; let's take 'em," Kerry ordered, according to his second-in-command, James Wasser of Illinois. Wasser blasted away with his M-60, hitting the old man, who slumped into the water, presumably dead. With a clear path to the enemy, the fusillade from Kerry's Navy boat, backed by a pair of other small vessels, silenced the machine-gun nest.

When it was over, the Viet Cong were dead, wounded, or on the run. A civilian apparently was killed, and two South Vietnamese allies who had alerted Kerry's crew to the enemy were either wounded or killed.

On the same night, Kerry and his crew had come within a half-inch of being killed by "friendly fire," when some South Vietnamese allies launched several rounds into the river to celebrate the holiday.

To top it off, Kerry said, he had gone several miles inside Cambodia, which theoretically was off limits, prompting Kerry to send a sarcastic message to his superiors that he was writing from the Navy's "most inland" unit.

Back at his base, a weary, disconsolate Kerry sat at his typewriter, as he often did, and poured out his grief. "You hope that they'll courtmartial you or something because that would make sense," Kerry typed that night. He would later recall using court-martial as "a joke," because nothing made sense to him -- the war policy, the deaths, and his presence in the middle of it all.

To his crew, Kerry was one of the most daring skippers in the US Navy, relentlessly and courageously engaging the enemy. But the battles and moral dilemmas were in shades of gray, and Kerry to this day wrestles with the scenes of death he commanded.

In an intense three months of combat following that Christmas Eve battle, Kerry often would go beyond his Navy orders and beach his boat, in one case chasing and killing a teenage Viet Cong enemy who wore only a loin cloth and carried a rocket launcher. Kerry's aggressiveness in combat caused a commanding officer to wonder whether he should be given a medal or court-martialed.

Kerry would watch in despair as a crewmate killed a boy who may or may not have been an innocent civilian. He would angrily challenge a military policy that risked the death of noncombatants. And he would try to escape the fate of five of his closest friends, all killed in combat.

Along with Kerry's unquestionable and repeated bravery, he also took an action that has received far less notice: He requested and was granted a transfer out of Vietnam six months before his combat tour was slated to end on the grounds that he had earned three Purple Hearts. None of his wounds was disabling; he said one cost him two days of service and the other two did not lead to any absence.

No period better captures the internal conflicts besetting John Kerry than Vietnam. He enlisted as a Navy officer candidate despite his criticisms as Yale's class orator of America's intervention in Southeast Asia. He would become a war hero, recipient of the Silver and Bronze stars, but would also become an antiwar leader, causing some former crewmates to feel he had betrayed them.

In an effort to understand a fuller picture of Kerry's combat in Vietnam, the Globe examined thousands of recently declassified Naval documents; interviewed sailors who served alongside Kerry; conducted four interviews with Kerry; and read some previously unreleased journal entries and letters selected by the senator.

A dangerous assignment

Kerry initially thought about enlisting as a pilot. But his father, Richard Kerry - a test pilot who served in the Army Air Corps - warned him that if he flew in combat, he might lose his love of flying. So Kerry, who sought in so many ways to emulate John Fitzgerald Kennedy, took to the water, just as his idol served on a World War II patrol boat, the 109.

Kerry served two tours. For a relatively uneventful six months, from December 1967 to June 1968, he served in the electrical department aboard the USS Gridley, a guided-missile frigate that supported aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin and was far removed from combat.

"I didn't have any real feel for what the heck was going on [in the war]," Kerry has recalled. His ship returned to its Long Beach, Calif., port on June 6, 1968, the day that Robert F. Kennedy died from a gunshot wound he received on the previous night at a Los Angeles hotel. The antiwar protests were growing. But within five months Kerry was heading back to Vietnam, seeking to fulfill his officer commitment despite his growing misgivings about the war.

Kerry initially hoped to continue his service at a relatively safe distance from most fighting, securing an assignment as "swift boat" skipper. While the 50-foot swift boats cruised the Vietnamese coast a little closer to the action than the Gridley had come, they were still considered relatively safe.

"I didn't really want to get involved in the war," Kerry said in a little-noticed contribution to a book of Vietnam reminiscences published in 1986. "When I signed up for the swift boats, they had very little to do with the war. They were engaged in coastal patrolling and that's what I thought I was going to be doing."

But two weeks after he arrived in Vietnam, the swift boat mission changed -- and Kerry went from having one of the safest assignments in the escalating conflict to one of the most dangerous. Under the newly launched Operation SEALORD, swift boats were charged with patrolling the narrow waterways of the Mekong Delta to draw fire and smoke out the enemy. Cruising inlets and coves and canals, swift boats were especially vulnerable targets.

Originally designed to ferry oil workers to ocean rigs, swift boats offered flimsy protection. Because bullets could easily penetrate the hull, sailors hung flak jackets over the sides. The boat's loud engine invited ambushes. Speed was its saving grace -- but that wasn't always an option in narrow, heavily mined canals.

The swift boat crew typically consisted of a college-educated skipper, such as Kerry, and five blue-collar sailors averaging 19 years old. The most vulnerable sailor sat in the "tub" -- a squat nest that rose above the pilot house -- and operated a pair of .50-caliber machine guns. Another gunner was in the rear. Kerry's mission was to wait until hidden Viet Cong guerrillas started shooting, then order his men to return fire.

Unofficially, Operation SEALORD was dubbed ZWI, for "Zumwalt's Wild Idea." Navy Admiral Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt was frustrated that the coastal patrols had failed to stop the infiltration of arms via the Mekong Delta waterways. Communist forces effectively controlled the river supply route because US forces weren't supposed to go into Cambodia, and the rivers of the Mekong Delta were considered too dangerous for American boats. When Zumwalt decorated an officer who took the extraordinary risk of running the rivers, Kerry took notice.

Under Zumwalt's command, swift boats would aggressively engage the enemy. Zumwalt, who died in 2000, calculated in his autobiography that these men under his command had a 75 percent chance of being killed or wounded during a typical year. (This wasn't just a statistical concern; one of the swift boat sailors was his son, Lieutenant Elmo Zumwalt III. )

Kerry experienced his first intense combat action on Dec. 2, 1968, when he "semi-volunteered for, was semi-drafted" for a risky covert mission in which he essentially was supposed to "flush out" the enemy, using a little Boston Whaler named "Batman." A larger backup craft was called "Robin."

Unfortunately, Robin had engine trouble, and Batman's exit was delayed until the boats could depart in unison. The Batman crew encountered some Viet Cong, engaged in a firefight, and Kerry was slightly wounded on his arm, earning his first Purple Heart on his first day of serious action.

"It was not a very serious wound at all," recalled William Schachte, who oversaw the mission and went on to become a rear admiral.

Kerry commanded his first swift boat, No. 44, from December 1968 through January 1969, a period that is often overlooked because he did not receive any medals while serving on this craft. But he first learned to skipper on the 44, and he conducted the wrenching Christmas Eve mission in which the old man in the river was probably killed in the crossfire.

Kerry said in a recent interview that he didn't remember anything about the elderly man in the water, noting that he sometimes couldn't see all of the action. But Wasser, who says his memory of the event remains vivid, reminded Kerry about it when the pair met earlier this year and talked about the mission for the first time in many years. Wasser remains haunted by the image of the man being shot: "I don't even enjoy Christmas anymore," he said.

In the free fire zone

The possibility of killing innocent civilians haunted Kerry. With many of the South Vietnamese waterways in ''free fire zones'' - meaning that the US Navy was authorized to shoot anyone who was violating a curfew - the likelihood that innocent villagers could be killed was high.

One of Kerry's crewmates on swift boat No. 44 said such an event happened. Drew Whitlow of Arkansas said he was on patrol with Kerry when Whitlow spotted movement along the shore and yelled, "I'm going to fire!" The quiet river exploded in gunfire, with people on the shoreline dropping, dead or wounded, and no fire being returned.

Whitlow recalled the scene: "This is a free fire zone, I will fire, I will put rounds in, I'm doing my thing, I'm feeling Mr. Macho. But then when you get close, you see the expressions of the village people, people waving their arms, saying, `No, no, no! Wait a minute, hold this off.' I ended up putting a few down, and then I found out it was friendlies."

To make matters worse, a mortar round ricocheted back at the boat and wounded three crewmen.

Kerry, asked about Whitlow's account, said he had no recollection of the episode and wondered whether Whitlow was confusing it with another event or whether he was with Whitlow on that occasion. Naval records do not resolve the matter. After being told about Whitlow's recollection by the Globe, Kerry discussed the matter with Whitlow and said he still doesn't remember it.

But Kerry does recall a harrowing incident, which he has never previously publicly discussed, in which he said a crew member shot and killed a Vietnamese boy of perhaps 12 years of age.

A member of Kerry's crew announced he was shooting, and the air filled with the ack-ack-ack of gunfire. The rounds blasted into a sampan, hurling the child into the rice paddy. The mother screamed as the flimsy craft began to sink, and Kerry, shining a searchlight, yelled, "Cease fire! Cease fire!"

Kerry said his crew rescued the mother, took her aboard the Navy vessel for questioning, and left the child behind. Due to the dangerous location, and the possibility that the gunfire had drawn the notice of Viet Cong, Kerry never had a chance to see whether the woman was hiding weaponry in the sunken boat, and does not know to this day whether his crew faced a real threat.

"It is one of those terrible things, and I'll never forget, ever, the sight of that child," Kerry said. "But there was nothing that anybody could have done about it. It was the only instance of that happening.

"It angered me," Kerry said. "But, look, the Viet Cong used women and children." He said there might have been a satchel containing explosives. "Who knows if they had -- under the rice -- a satchel, and if we had come along beside them they had thrown the satchel in the boat. ... So it was a terrible thing, but I've never thought we were somehow at fault or guilty. There wasn't anybody in that area that didn't know you don't move at night, that you don't go out in a sampan on the rivers, and there's a curfew."

The details of the episode are murky, however, because none of Kerry's crewmates remembers it the way Kerry does. The closest recollection comes from William Zaladonis, a crewmate on No. 44 who vividly recalls killing a 15-year-old boy, but does not remember a mother being rescued. "I myself took out a 15-year-old" when the crew came across a sampan in a free-fire zone, Zaladonis said. "It was all legitimate. We told them to stop. When we fired across the bow, people started jumping from the boat. At that time my officer, whoever it was, told me to open up on them, and I did. And there was one body still in the boat, a 15-year-old kid. But over there, 15-year-old kids were soldiers."

'Days of hell'

In any case, Kerry said he was appalled that the Navy's ''free fire zone'' policy put civilians at such high risk. So, on Jan. 22, 1969, Kerry and several dozen fellow skippers and officers traveled to Saigon to complain about the policy in an extraordinary meeting with Zumwalt and the overall commander of the war, General Creighton W. Abrams Jr. ''We were fighting the [free fire] policy very, very hard, to the point that many of the members were refusing to carry out orders on some of their missions, to the point where crews were starting to mutiny, [to] say, `I would not go back in the rivers again,''' Kerry recalled during a 1971 television appearance on the Dick Cavett Show.

But Kerry went back in the rivers. Indeed, it was after this meeting that he began his most deadly round of combat. Within days of the Saigon meeting, he joined a five-man crew on swift boat No. 94 on a series of missions in which he won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and two of his three Purple Hearts. Starting in late January 1969, this crew completed 18 missions over an intense and dangerous 48 days, almost all of them in the dense jungles of the Mekong Delta.

Kerry's crew included engineman Eugene Thorson, later an Iowa cement mason; David Alston, then the crew's only African-American and today a minister in South Carolina; petty officer Delbert Sandusky of Illinois; rear gunner and quartermaster Michael Medeiros of California; and the late Tom Belodeau, who joined the crew fresh out of Chelmsford High School in Massachusetts. Others rotated in and out of the crew.

The most intense action came during an extraordinary eight days of more than 10 firefights, remembered by Kerry's crew as the "days of hell."

On Feb. 20, 1969, Kerry earned his second Purple Heart after sustaining a shrapnel wound in his left thigh. According to a previously unreported Navy report on the battle, a two-boat patrol spotted three men on a riverbank who were wearing black pajamas and running and engaged them in a firefight. While not criticizing this engagement, the Navy report did challenge the decision of unnamed skippers to fire at other "targets of opportunity" in the area.

"Area seemed extremely prosperous and open to psyops action, minimum number of defensive and no offensive bunkers detected," the report said. The naval official who wrote the report concluded: "Future missions in this area should be oriented toward psyops rather than destruction."

The destruction included 40 sampans, 10 hut-style hootches, three bunkers, and 5,000 pounds of rice. The crews from two swift boats had expended more than 14,000 rounds of.50-caliber ammunition. No enemy casualties were reported.

In a recent interview, Kerry dismissed the report's questioning of firing at targets of opportunity. "The problem is ... three guys are ducking behind a bank, and you start taking arms fire," Kerry said. "At any place, at any time, anybody could turn around and kill you. That was the problem with the war."

Five days later Kerry's boat was on patrol when a supporting helicopter ran out of ammunition. Instead of retreating, Kerry turned his boat directly toward hidden snipers, then beached the boat, and ordered an assault party onshore. This was not standard procedure. The swift boat crews weren't trained to fight on the muddy landscape; their shoes were closer to deck wear than combat boots.

None of that deterred Kerry. With a second swift boat providing support, Medeiros and Kerry rushed ashore and found what they thought was a Viet Cong guerrilla inside a bunker. After Kerry sought a surrender, Medeiros threw a grenade. The two assumed an enemy had been killed, although Medeiros said he never saw the victim and wonders now whether it could have been an animal.

The next day Kerry's swift boat convoy detected five Viet Cong in the river. Some of them appeared to be dead, but they were actually playing dead in an effort to stall the swift boat crews. It was a trap, and the swift boats came under rocket fire from the shore. The crews managed to capture the five guerrillas and sped away.

On the following day, Feb. 27, Kerry's boat was nearly hit in a rocket attack, and a crew member was shot.

Ambush in the Mekong Delta

This exhausting and harrowing week was only the beginning for Kerry. On Feb. 28, 1969, Kerry's boat received word that a swift boat was being ambushed. As Kerry raced to the scene, his boat became another target, as a Viet Cong B-40 rocket blast shattered a window. Kerry could have ordered his crew to hit the enemy and run. But the skipper had a more aggressive reaction in mind. Beach the boat, Kerry ordered, and the craft's bow was quickly rammed upon the shoreline. Out of the bush appeared a teenager in a loin cloth, clutching a grenade launcher.

An enemy was just feet away, holding a weapon with enough firepower to blow up the boat. Kerry's forward gunner, Belodeau, shot and clipped the Viet Cong in the leg. Then Belodeau's gun jammed, according to other crewmates (Belodeau died in 1997). Medeiros tried to fire at the Viet Cong, but he couldn't get a shot off.

In an interview, Kerry added a chilling detail.

"This guy could have dispatched us in a second, but for ... I'll never be able to explain, we were literally face to face, he with his B-40 rocket and us in our boat, and he didn't pull the trigger. I would not be here today talking to you if he had," Kerry recalled. "And Tommy clipped him, and he started going [down.] I thought it was over."

Instead, the guerrilla got up and started running. "We've got to get him, make sure he doesn't get behind the hut, and then we're in trouble," Kerry recalled.

So Kerry shot and killed the guerrilla. "I don't have a second's question about that, nor does anybody who was with me," he said. "He was running away with a live B-40, and, I thought, poised to turn around and fire it." Asked whether that meant Kerry shot the guerrilla in the back, Kerry said, "No, absolutely not. He was hurt, other guys were shooting from back, side, back. There is no, there is not a scintilla of question in any person's mind who was there [that] this guy was dangerous, he was a combatant, he had an armed weapon."

The crewman with the best view of the action was Frederic Short, the man in the tub operating the twin guns. Short had not talked to Kerry for 34 years, until after he was recently contacted by a Globe reporter. Kerry said he had "totally forgotten" Short was on board that day.

Short had joined Kerry's crew just two weeks earlier, as a last-minute replacement, and he was as green as the Arkansas grass of his home. He said he didn't realize that he should have carried an M-16 rifle, figuring the tub's machine guns would be enough. But as Kerry stood face to face with the guerrilla carrying the rocket, Short realized his predicament. With the boat beached and the bow tilted up, a guard rail prevented him from taking aim at the enemy. For a terrifying moment, the guerrilla looked straight at Short with the rocket.

Short believes the guerrilla didn't fire because he was too close and needed to be a suitable distance to hit the boat squarely and avoid ricochet debris. Short tried to protect his skipper.

"I laid in fire with the twin .50s, and he got behind a hootch," recalled Short. "I laid 50 rounds in there, and Mr. Kerry went in. Rounds were coming everywhere. We were getting fire from both sides of the river. It was a canal. We were receiving fire from the opposite bank, also, and there was no way I could bring my guns to bear on that."

Short said there is "no doubt" that Kerry saved the boat and crew. "That was a him-or-us thing, that was a loaded weapon with a shape charge on it. ... It could pierce a tank. I wouldn't have been here talking to you. I probably prayed more up that creek than a Southern Baptist church does in a month."

Charles Gibson, who served on Kerry's boat that day because he was on a one-week indoctrination course, said Kerry's action was dangerous but necessary. "Every day you wake up and say, `How the hell did we get out of that alive?"' Gibson said. "Kerry was a good leader. He knew what he was doing."

When Kerry returned to his base, his commanding officer, George Elliott, raised an issue with Kerry: the fine line between whether the action merited a medal or a court-martial.

"When [Kerry] came back from the well-publicized action where he beached his boat in middle of ambush and chased a VC around a hootch and ended his life, when [Kerry] came back and I heard his debrief, I said, `John, I don't know whether you should be court-martialed or given a medal, court-martialed for leaving your ship, your post,"' Elliott recalled in an interview.

"But I ended up writing it up for a Silver Star, which is well deserved, and I have no regrets or second thoughts at all about that," Elliott said. A Silver Star, which the Navy said is its fifth-highest medal, commends distinctive gallantry in action.

Asked why he had raised the issue of a court-martial, Elliott said he did so "half tongue-in-cheek, because there was never any question I wanted him to realize I didn't want him to leave his boat unattended. That was in context of big-ship Navy -- my background. A C.O. [commanding officer] never leaves his ship in battle or anything else. I realize this, first of all, it was pretty courageous to turn into an ambush even though you usually find no more than two or three people there. On the other hand, on an operation some time later, down on the very tip of the peninsula, we had lost one boat and several men in a big operation, and they were hit by a lot more than two or three people."

Elliott stressed that he never questioned Kerry's decision to kill the Viet Cong, and he appeared in Boston at Kerry's side during the 1996 Senate race to back up that aspect of Kerry's action.

"I don't think they were exactly ready to court-martial him," said Wade Sanders, who commanded a swift boat that sometimes accompanied Kerry's vessel, and who later became deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. "I can only say from the certainty borne of experience that there must have been some rumbling about, `What are we going to do with this guy, he turned his boat,' and I can hear the words, `He endangered his crew.' But from our position, the tactic to take is whatever action is best designed to eliminate the enemy threat, which is what he did."

Indeed, the Silver Star citation makes clear that Kerry's performance on that day was both extraordinary and risky. "With utter disregard for his own safety and the enemy rockets," the citation says, Kerry "again ordered a charge on the enemy, beached his boat only 10 feet from the Viet Cong rocket position and personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy. ... The extraordinary daring and personal courage of Lt. Kerry in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire were responsible for the highly successful mission."

Michael Bernique, who was revered as one of the gutsiest swift boat commanders, marveled at Kerry's brazen approach to battle. Bernique recalled how Kerry one day "went ashore in an area that I thought might be mined. I said, `Get the blankety-blank out of there.' John just shrugged his shoulders and left. John just was fearless.

"If you are asking, `Was he foolhardy?' -- he survived," Bernique said. "I don't recall anybody saying they didn't want to serve with him. I would not have worried about my back if John was with me."

Roy Hoffmann, who commanded the coastal division in which Kerry served, worried about Kerry, at least at the beginning. He said Kerry and some other skippers initially "had difficulty carrying out direct orders. You know, they were playing the cowboy a little bit. John Kerry was one of them. You don't go out on your own when you are given certain type of patrols, and we were having difficulty with that."

Hoffmann said the problem was corrected and he supported the actions on the day Kerry won the Silver Star. "It took guts, and I admire that," Hoffman said.

Leaving Vietnam

A couple of weeks later, on March 13, 1969, a mine detonated near Kerry's boat, wounding Kerry in the right arm, according to the citation written by Zumwalt. Guerrillas started firing on the boats from the shoreline. Kerry then realized that he had lost overboard a Green Beret who is identified only as "Rassman."

"The man was receiving sniper fire from both banks," according to Kerry's Bronze Star citation from that day. "Lt. Kerry directed his gunners to provide suppressing fire, while from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain, with disregard for his personal safety, he pulled the man aboard. Lt. Kerry then directed his boat to return and assist the other damaged craft and towed the boat to safety. Lt. Kerry's calmness, professionalism and great personal courage under fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the US Naval Service," Zumwalt's citation said.

Kerry had been wounded three times and received three Purple Hearts. Asked about the severity of the wounds, Kerry said that one of them cost him about two days of service, and that the other two did not interrupt his duty. "Walking wounded," as Kerry put it. A shrapnel wound in his left arm gave Kerry pain for years. Kerry declined a request from the Globe to sign a waiver authorizing the release of military documents that are covered under the Privacy Act and that might shed more light on the extent of the treatment Kerry needed as a result of the wounds.

"There were an awful lot of Purple Hearts -- from shrapnel, some of those might have been M-40 grenades," said Elliott, Kerry's commanding officer. "The Purple Hearts were coming down in boxes. Kerry, he had three Purple Hearts. None of them took him off duty. Not to belittle it, that was more the rule than the exception."

But Kerry thought he had seen and done enough. The rules, he said, allowed a thrice-wounded soldier to return to the United States immediately. So Kerry went to talk to Commodore Charles F. Horne, an administrative official and commander of the coastal squadron in which Kerry served. Horne filled out a document on March 17, 1969, that said Kerry "has been thrice wounded in action while on duty incountry Vietnam. Reassignment is requested ... as a personal aide in Boston, New York, or Wash., D.C. area."

The document notes that Kerry was "presently on full-duty status and available for reassignment."

Horne, in a telephone interview, said the transfer request was allowed under then-existing naval instructions and was "above board and proper." Transfer was not automatic and was subject to approval by the Bureau of Naval Personnel, he said.

"I never once in any way thought my decision was wrong," Horne said. "To get three Purple Hearts and not be killed is awesome."

Kerry, asked whether he is certain a rule enabled him to leave Vietnam after three Purple Hearts, responded: "Yep. Three and you're out."

For the past several weeks, Kerry's staff said it has been unable to come up with a Navy document to explain that assertion. On Friday, however, the National Archives provided the Globe with a Navy "instruction" document that formed the basis for Kerry's request. The instruction, titled 1300.39, says that a Naval officer who requires hospitalization on two separate occasions, or who receives three wounds "regardless of the nature of the wounds," can ask a superior officer to request a reassignment. The instruction makes clear the reassignment is not automatic. It says that the reassignment "will be determined after consideration of his physical classification for duty and on an individual basis." Because Kerry's wounds were not considered serious, his reassignment appears to have been made on an individual basis.

Moreover, the instruction makes clear that Kerry could have asked that any reassignment be waived.

The bottom line is that Kerry could have remained but he chose to seek an early transfer. He met with Horne, who agreed to forward the request, which Horne said probably ensured final approval. The Navy could not say how many other officers or sailors got a similar early release from combat, but it was unusual for anyone to have three Purple Hearts.

Kerry's early departure meant that he was leaving behind a crew that had suffered through many bloody battles with him. Worried that crew members would be killed, he arranged for them to receive a safer assignment. When one crew member, Medeiros, tried to stay, Kerry "came and talked to me and said, `I really would like you to go. ... I'd like to know you are safe, or safer."'

Then, at the beginning of April 1969, Kerry left Vietnam. "I thought it was time to tell the story of what was happening over there," Kerry said. "I was angry about what happened over there, I had clearly concluded how wrong it was."

By this point, five of Kerry's closest friends had died in combat, including Yale classmate Richard Pershing. Then, just days after Kerry left, another friend, Donald Droz -- a fellow skipper who had provided support for Kerry on the day he won the Silver Star -- died in a fiery ambush. Droz had an infant daughter.

The mounting losses made no sense to Kerry. The boats went up a river, showed the US flag, perhaps killed some enemy, and returned to base without taking any territory. Six months earlier, Kerry had been a gung-ho skipper eager to lead his men and be a hero. Now he felt the mission had changed. He replaced his dream of a life in politics with a path of protest.

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