Steve Gardner will not forget the night as long as he lives. It was mid-January 1969. He was manning the double .50 caliber machine-gun mount in Lt. John Kerry's swift boat. "The PCF 44 boat, engines shut off, lay in ambush near the western mouth of the Cua Lon River," writes John O'Neill in his best-seller "Unfit for Command."
Kerry was in the pilothouse monitoring the radar. But, Gardner claims, Kerry had given his crew no heads-up when, suddenly, a sampan appeared right in front of them. The swift boat lights were thrown onto the sampan. Kerry, however, still had said nothing and was nowhere in sight. Gardner yelled to the sampan to stop. No reaction.
Then, as Gardner and crew thought they saw a man on the sampan holding or reaching for a weapon, they cut loose with the machine guns.
But when the crew boarded the sampan, they found no man on the boat, just a woman clutching a child no more than 2 years old and the shattered body of a boy. The man who had been piloting the sampan was believed to have been blasted into the water.
Here was a tragedy of war. But it is the contention of O'Neill and Gardner that Kerry bears responsibility for the boy's death. Had he been on the radar, he could have seen the sampan at a distance and ordered the crew to fire a warning shot. A slow-moving sampan was no threat to a swift boat that could shoot it to pieces from half a mile away. Nor could a sampan run away from a swift boat. While that child was killed in the fog of war, writes O'Neill, there should have been an inquiry:
"The inquiry would have focused on why the sampan was not detected early and why normal measures like a flare or small-caliber warning shot were not used. To be fair, it is likely that the purpose of such an inquiry would not be to fix blame on anyone, but to avoid future miscalculation. And the major questions would have been: Where was Kerry? Why was there no warning? Why was a gunner's mate making the critical life-and-death decision instead of the officer in charge?"
Kerry has offered his own versions of the sampan incident.