In November 1968, I may have met a certain young Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Mekong Delta. At the same time, I met many young officers of the Riverine Assault Force while I was a war correspondent in Vietnam. I have forgotten many names and many faces, although I mentioned the names of several of them in my articles and in my war notebooks. Most probably, one of them was Lt. John Kerry. Lt. Kerry included, those young Navy officers on hazardous duty on the Mekong River were all heroes. They risked their lives daily, and they went out on their dangerous missions with courage and a sense of duty that to this day still astounds me. I know how dangerous it was–I was there with them.
In a sense, I had volunteered to cover the Vietnam conflict for my newspaper. I was not an American citizen at that time, but Vietnam was at the epicenter of my reporting from the United States. I had to see it with my own eyes, as I felt the need to understand whether that war was just, and, most importantly, whether it was winnable. I remember talking about the conflict in South East Asia with President Lyndon Johnson as one of a group of half dozen foreign correspondents in Washington. The meeting had taken place at a private residence in Georgetown. The president had taken a piece of paper with the text of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution out of his wallet and was reading us the language that had authorized him to intervene in Vietnam. He was a powerfully persuasive man, but his painfully aging, furrowed face betrayed the enormous pressure bearing upon him and, I can surmise after so many years, the weight of the deception that prompted that resolution.
Like John Kerry, who had accepted a commission to serve as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve, I had gone to Vietnam with a strong conviction that American power and determination would prevail, and that North Vietnam would be denied its objective of annexing South Vietnam. The United States had just elected a new president, Richard Nixon, who claimed to have a plan to end the conflict. The question was whether the relentless application of American military strength would force Hanoi to negotiate an end to the conflict. Nixon would have a go at it, but nobody could tell for how long.
I chose to go to the Mekong Delta because that area had become a most unusual theater of operations in the history of warfare. The Mobile Riverine Force was an unusual symbiosis of navy and army units with the mission of denying the Viet Cong the use of the main riverway and the myriad of canals that make up the Mekong river delta. The force itself was made up of four support ships – called APBs – anchored in the river with a contingent of Monitors and Alpha boats for round-the-clock river operations. Like the battle ship of Civil War fame, the modern Monitor was protected by heavy steel plates and it carried cannons and lighter guns–plus a formidable weapon called the Zippo, a long range flamethrower. The Alpha boats were light and fast, but their aluminum hulls made them highly vulnerable. In practice, they were used as decoys to attract Viet Cong fire, thus allowing other army and navy units to engage the enemy in extended firefights.
This is what Lt. j.g. John Kerry and his mates were doing: waiting to be ambushed in the canals. And any ambush could be deadly as the enemy was well hidden in the thick vegetation flanking the canals; the Viet Cong could open up with B-40 or RP-7 rockets at any moment. A direct hit would be enough to “buy the farm.” I was justifiably tense as I sat on the bridge while the captain calmly laid out for me what could possibly happen. I had not volunteered for hazardous duty, and my editors knew nothing about my decision to risk my life in the Mekong Delta. After making it back safely to the support ship, the USS Benewah, I spent many hours talking to young Navy officers. Some were graduates of Annapolis, some had just like Kerry volunteered for the Navy Reserve, and some came from ROTC. One overwhelming impression stuck in my mind: how young they were and how awesome were the responsibilities that the Navy had entrusted to them. In my notes I reported a conversation with Lt. David Miller from Alabama, a 25-year old soft-spoken Southern gentleman and commanding officer of a flotilla of Alpha boats. He had come to the Navy from an ROTC unit, and after attending two summer courses for reserve officers had been assigned to the Mekong.
“I had to grow up real fast as a commanding officer,” he admitted in a self-deprecating tone.
Almost every day, one or more of his boats were shot up in the canals. At least once a week, a young sailor or two got killed. Among all the fallen, he could not forget a boat captain who died at the helm when a rocket went right through his stomach. I was chatting with both officers and enlisted men in the mess halls of the mother ship, bunking with them in very close quarters, and invariably I found their spirits high even though death was always knocking at the door. Indeed, they grew up fast perhaps because they had to make fast decisions in those treacherous canals. You can always feel the impending doom of a battlefield but the Mekong was no ordinary war theater. One could do crazy things out there, all the while listening to the armed forces radio that was covering the NFC and AFC games back home. I could hear a few sailors scream–and when I nervously asked what was going on I was told that the Raiders had just scored. It was surreal. War, after all, is full of absurdities.
When I left the Benewah by chopper, the Commodore gave me a medal of sorts, a round pin depicting a Roman trireme with the inscription Riverine Assault Force – TF 117. It was no war medal, but I accepted it with pride because it spoke to me of the ancient glory of my city, Rome. It took bravery for men to go out on a trireme, aiming to ram and assault enemy vessels, just as patrolling on an Alpha boat.
As I look now over my war notebooks and wonder if one of those youthful clean faces that I saw on the Mekong River belonged to Lt. Kerry, I am acutely conscious of another absurdity unfolding at a time when America is fighting yet another unwinnable war in another far away country, Iraq. In my mind, I find it absurd that the proponents of this pre-emptive conflict and their political hucksters can raise malevolent doubts about the service of one of those young officers whom I met on the Benewah, 36 years ago.
In fact, it is even more absurd when I stop and think that the same people who started this war–Vice President Cheney, White House mastermind Karl Rove, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz and the other neo-cons–found refuge in cushy jobs, in high draft numbers, or in National Guard duties during the Sixties to avoid serving in Vietnam.
These are the same men that now question whether Lt. Kerry was indeed wounded and whether his three Purple Hearts were justified. Apart from the fact that Kerry still carries a piece of shrapnel in his left thigh and that his wounds are precisely documented by Navy doctors, what matters is that for months the 24-year-old lieutenant put his life on the line in those canals. I know the feeling of waiting for incoming rockets. And so do the present day soldiers and Marines who are committed to their duty in Iraq. I respect and admire them, just as I condemn those who do not have the decency to respect and admire John Kerry’s courage and gallantry.
Marino de Medici
Former U.S. Correspondent