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.
In one version, Kerry gave an order "to fire a few warning shots," but the crew opened up with machine guns. In "Tour of Duty" by Douglas Brinkley, Kerry explains that, because of the after-dark curfew, the river was a free-fire zone and, in some instances, boats had gotten close to U.S. patrol craft to throw bombs into their pilothouses. Yet the sampan had gone past the Swift Boat before the guns opened up.
We will probably never know exactly what happened that night. But a Boston Globe biography of Kerry cites a Navy report of a Jan. 20, 1969, "incident" involving an attack by Kerry's swift boat on a sampan:
"(W)hile Kerry said in a 2003 interview that he wasn't sure when the boy in the sampan was killed, a Navy report says a similar-sounding incident took place on January 20, 1969. The crew of No. 44 'took sampan under fire, returned to capture 1 woman and a small child, one enemy KIA (Killed in Action) ... believe four occupants fled to beach or possible KIA.'"
Was this the action in which Kerry was involved that night on the Cuan Lon River, the Globe asked his campaign. It did not respond.
Writes O'Neill, "The Commander Coastal Survey for Vietnam ... 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 (VQ 810650/44)."
In this report, writes O'Neill, the sampan incident is depicted as "Kerry's victory -- killing five imaginary Viet Cong, capturing two Viet Cong in action (an exaggeration of the mother and the babe in arms who were actually rescued from the sampan) and omitting the dead child."
On getting word of five dead V.C. at Kerry's hands with two more captured, Adm. Roy Hoffman sent his congratulations. "Upon learning of what Kerry had actually done," says O'Neill, "Hoffman recently expressed his contempt for Kerry as a liar, false warrior and fraud." As have other former Kerry commanders and comrades.
Surely the contempt the Swift Boat veterans have for Kerry is in part due to his slandering them as war criminals before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And we shall probably never know for certain the full truth about the firing that night on the sampan.
But Kerry should be asked whether he wrote a report saying five VC were killed and two captured, when Steve Gardner, the man who fired the guns, says one man was blown overboard, one child was killed, and only a baby and its terrified mother were taken into custody.