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Tour of Duty: John Kerry in Vietnam (very long)
The Atlantic Monthly ^ | December 2003 | Douglas Brinkley

Posted on 01/14/2004 12:14:34 PM PST by Publius

Senator John F. Kerry often cites his service in Vietnam as a formative element of his character. A new account of his time there—based on interviews with those who knew him well, and on his never-before-published letters home and his voluminous "war notes"—offers the first intimate look at a traumatic and life-altering experience.

As he campaigns for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John F. Kerry often cites his experience as a U.S. Navy patrol-boat skipper in Vietnam as a formative element of his character. Next month the historian Douglas Brinkley will publish the first full-scale, intimate account of Kerry's Navy career. In writing that account Brinkley has drawn on extensive interviews with virtually everyone who knew Kerry well in Vietnam, including all but one of the men still living who served under him. Kerry also turned over to Brinkley his letters home from Vietnam and his voluminous "war notes"—journals, notebooks, and personal reminiscences written during and shortly after the war. This material was provided without restriction, to be used at Brinkley's discretion, and has never before been published.

John Kerry enlisted in the Navy in February of 1966, months before he graduated from Yale. In December of 1967 Ensign Kerry was assigned to the guided-missile frigate USS Gridley; after five months of service in the Pacific, with a brief stop in Vietnam, he returned to the United States and underwent training to command a Swift boat, a small craft deployed in Vietnam's rivers. In June of 1968 Kerry was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade), and by the end of that year he was back in Vietnam, where he commanded, over time, two Swift boats. He received the Purple Heart three times for wounds suffered in action, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Navy's Silver Star for gallantry in action. Kerry was discharged from the Navy in January of 1970, and soon became one of the most prominent spokesmen for the antiwar movement.

The following excerpts are drawn from Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.

An Incomprehensible Moment

On the afternoon of February 26, 1968, the twenty four-year-old Ensign John Kerry was on watch on the bridge of the USS Gridley. His ship had just left Midway Island en route to the Philippines as part of a convoy that also included the USS Turner Joy, made famous by the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident. The Gridley's executive officer approached Kerry and asked if he had a friend named Pershing. There could be only one reason for the question, and Kerry did not want to hear it. His stomach went hollow, and he slumped onto a railing for balance. "I knew immediately it was all over but even when I read the telegram it took moments to sink in," Kerry wrote to his parents of the instant he learned—from his future wife Julia ("Judy") Thorne—that his close college friend Dick Pershing was dead. "Then I just ... cried—a pathetic and very empty kind of crying that turned into anger and bitterness. I have never felt so void of feeling before—so numb."

The dashing twenty-five-year-old Pershing, a second lieutenant with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, had been killed in combat on February 17 near the hamlet of Hung Nhon, 400 miles north of Saigon. His platoon had been slogging through mud in search of a lost comrade when the ambush occurred. "Shift over to the left!" Pershing was said to have shouted as he tried to wave his men away from the danger. Just then a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into a dike a few feet in front of him, hurling Pershing into the air, his body torn apart by grenade fragments. He died instantly. The charmer of John Kerry's circle had become a statistic: another American soldier had given his life for his country.

Pershing's death brought out a profound sadness in Kerry. Memories of his liveliest friend kept flashing through his mind, especially of the boyish mischievousness that bordered on irresponsibility and had so perfectly balanced Kerry's serious leanings at Yale. In the pursuit of fun, nothing had been off-limits to Dick Pershing. Yet when it had come time for Pershing to serve, the life of the party had offered himself unhesitatingly. By the time he got to Vietnam, Pershing had remade himself into the perfect paratrooper, rock-solid in body and stalwart in spirit. And now he was gone—and for what? "Pershing's death was just one more major-league souring for John, of figuring out what the hell Vietnam was all about," explains David Thorne, another Yale classmate (and Julia's twin brother), who was still in Navy training off the coast of San Diego when he got the news. "Why did Dick have to die for this? That's what John wanted to know."

Kerry blamed the Johnson Administration. The very week Pershing was killed, General Earle G. Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his eleventh inspection tour of South Vietnam. Kerry suspected that Wheeler would return with the same message as always, telling the American people that their great nation was winning another war, and write up some overoptimistic reports for the White House. What Wheeler wouldn't mention was that 543 U.S. soldiers had been killed the week Pershing died. Nor would he note the 2,457 wounded.

It pleased Kerry, later, to learn that Dick Pershing had been buried next to his legendary grandfather, the World War I U.S. Army general John "Black Jack" Pershing, in a scenic spot in Arlington National Cemetery. That seemed right. It spoke of a great continuum of duty, honor, and country. But Kerry also could not help feeling that some in the Pentagon were doing their servicemen a lethal injustice by sending a new wave of young people to die in a conflict that at least a few in the Defense Department did not believe could be won—as Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's resignation in November of 1967 clearly indicated.

Once the fact of Pershing's death had sunk in, Kerry, as he tended to do, poured out his feelings on paper. "With the loss of Persh something has gone out of me," he wrote to his parents at the end of February. "Persh was an unbelievable spark in all of us and we took for granted that we would always be together—go crashing through life in our unconquerable fashion as one entity. Now that is gone in one incomprehensible moment. Time will never heal this—it may alleviate—but it will never heal."

In a similar but even more passionate vein Kerry expressed his anguish in a letter to Judy Thorne.

”There are so many ways this letter could become a bitter diatribe and go rambling off into irrational nothings. I don't know really where to begin—everything is so hollow and ridiculous, so stilted and so empty. I have never in my life been so alone with something like this before. I feel so bitter and angry and everywhere around me there is nothing but violence and war and gross insensitivity. I am really very frightened to be honest because when the news sunk in I had no alternatives but to carry on in the face of trivia that forced me to build a horrible protective screen around myself. Something that has never happened to my feelings before. I could not even allow myself the right to think about what was happening as much as everything inside me wanted to. I was standing watch on the bridge when the executive officer called me over and after an ominous pause asked if I had a friend called Pershing. I just stood there frozen and then read your telegram knowing already in my heart the Godawful wasteful stupid thing that had happened ...

”Right now everything that is superficial and emotional wants to give up and just feel sorry but I can't. I am involved in something that keeps pushing on regardless of the individual and which even with what has happened must, I know deep, deep down inside me, be coped with rationally and with strength. I do feel strong and despite emptiness and waste, I still have hope and confidence. There is a beast in me that keeps pushing me on saying Johnny you can't let go because of this—Johnny you find some sense from this—Johnny you are too strong to stop now—something keeps me going harder than before. Judy, if I do nothing else in my life I will never stop trying to bring to people the conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this kind. I don't mean this in an all-consuming world saving fashion. I just mean that my own effort must be entire and thorough and that it must do what it can to help make this a better world to live in. I have not lost faith—on the contrary—I have gained a conviction and desire greater than ever before—and now, a sense of inevitability—a weighty fatalism that takes worry out of the small actions of late and makes the personal much more important.

”The world I am part of out there is so very different from anything you, I, or our close friends can imagine. It is filled with primitive survival, with destruction of an endless always seemingly pointless nature and forces one to grow up in a fast—no holds barred fashion. In the small time I have been gone, does it seem strange to say that I feel as though I have seen several years experience go by. Wherever we go we see B-52's flying overhead going and returning from strikes on the Guam-Vietnam route. Two aircraft carriers are now in port to reload ammunition, rest the crew, and repair airplanes and the talk is of pilots lost and [air] strikes that were successful for the number of lives taken or unsuccessful for the number of lives lost—both the same and both creating the same hole and sorrow for some unsuspecting person somewhere. Small boats tear around the harbor practicing maneuvers, we train nearly every day for any eventuality. Everything is hot and fast—there is no joking like there was back in California. No matter where one is—no matter what job—you do not and cannot forget that you are at war and that the danger is ever present—that anyone could at some time for the same stupid irrational something that stole Persh be gone tomorrow.”

"Let Us Alone"

A gentle wind blew across the harbor as Kerry's transport landed at the base of Monkey Mountain in the South Vietnamese port city of Danang. It was the spring of 1968. Kerry debarked anxious about the prospect of wandering around, yet quickly found himself at ease: the echoes of its colonial past made Danang a much less alien landscape to him than, say, the Philippines had been. Overlying the architectural remnants of French colonial rule were the unmistakable marks of the American empire. The handiwork of U.S. construction firms such as Raymond International and Morrison-Knudsen appeared everywhere. B-52 long-range jet bombers howled across the sky to the northeast, and U.S. Army helicopters touched down to the west. Pentagon-issue sandbags were stacked near the water, in case the tide rose too high. To Kerry's surprise, he saw far more barbed wire than bamboo.

The Americanization of South Vietnam was inescapable. But what really caught Kerry's attention was a fifty-foot American-made aluminum patrol craft fast (PCF), commonly called a "Swift boat" after the acronym for "shallow water inshore fast tactical" craft. Originally created as a water taxi to serve the offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, the boat had been adopted by the Navy and turned into a light, twenty-three-knot patrol vessel, armed with fifty-caliber machine guns and an eighty-one-millimeter mortar. The boat Kerry saw gleamed with the possibilities of JFK's PT-109. "Tied up to the same wharf we got off at was a small swift boat and I thought jealously of my own desires to have one," Kerry wrote in a letter to his parents. "This one apparently had been given to the Vietnamese navy and they were using it for coastal surveillance." He had already applied for Swift-boat duty and was awaiting his assignment orders. Seeing the boat only confirmed his ambition to train at the top-notch Coronado naval station, back in San Diego.

Kerry had little company in his wish to volunteer for Swift-boat school. A number of the men on the Gridley had already seen enough of combat, and preferred to stay out of harm's way to whatever extent possible.

As he walked along the Danang waterfront, Kerry was startled to see Maoist graffiti spray-painted on walls, and shocked by the gruesome sight of a pile of dead Vietcong awaiting mass burial. "The thoughts of what must have taken place turned my stomach," he wrote in a letter to his parents. For 2,000 years th