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John Kerry's Skimmer Scam

By Thomas Lipscomb

As the Kate Zernike front page Memorial Day weekend New York Times story indicates, a number of Kerry supporters were disappointed that Kerry had not vigorously defended himself against the charges of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 Presidential campaign. According to Zernike some "are compiling a dossier that they say will expose every one of the Swift boat group's charges as a lie and put to rest any question about Mr. Kerry's valor in combat."

That might not only be a difficult task but it could backfire badly. As Vanity Fair's acerbic columnist Michael Wolff said in the 3-minute 2-second trailer to a Kerry-sponsored (and Kerry-censored) documentary campaign film by respected producer Steve Rosenbaum, Inside the Bubble, the real problem with the Swift Boat claims was they were "largely true." And as former Dean of the Stanford Law School Bayless Manning has cautioned enthusiastic advocates, "As an attorney, you needn't worry too much about the lies told by your opponents. Your real danger is the lies told by your client." Ask the ghost of Alger Hiss.

In the Times piece, Kerry makes a great deal of the "skimmer" operation. It is worth looking at closely. According to Kerry's accounts in both Michael Kranish's Boston Globe reporting, the Brinkley account of TOUR OF DUTY, and the Zernike Times piece, Kerry, an officer stationed at Coastal Division 14 at Cam Ranh Bay, still in training before being assigned a Swift boat, who had never been in combat before, "volunteered for a special mission on what the Navy called a skimmer but he knew as a Boston Whaler." Coastal Division 14 operations officer Bill Schachte, who says he was glad to have Kerry volunteer, agrees so far.

Kerry claims he was joined on the mission by two enlisted men, William Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon, and they confirm that. None of the three had ever been on a skimmer mission before. According to Grant Hibbard, the commander of Coastal Division 14 under whom all these men served, "These missions were originally designed and executed by my executive officer, Bill Schachte, who served as my operations officer."

The purpose of the missions is not in dispute. According to Schachte:

"I had gotten Hibbard's permission to conduct some skimmer missions out of our base when we appeared to have actionable intelligence. The bombing pause of North Vietnam was on and we expected more infiltration traffic of supplies down the coast, particularly at night.

We would generally tow a 'skimmer' (a Boston Whaler stripped down for a lower silhouette) behind a Swift boat into a likely area leaving the noisier Swift boat offshore and taking the skimmer in quietly to observe and fire on targets of opportunity. The areas we operated in were 'free fire zones.' All personnel in the specified area we investigated presumed to be enemy and having been selected by intel as worth taking a look at."

Schachte says he designed the missions for two officers and one enlisted man to run the boat. He commanded forward with an M-60 7.62 machine gun, the other officer would carry an M-16 with a starlight scope scanning the shoreline or an M-14 with an infrared scope if it was cloudy. He wanted two officers because as an intelligence-generated mission he wanted to make sure two men on the boat had been cued in at the 4PM operations meeting on what to look for in the area to be explored. Enlisted men did not attend that meeting.

Schachte's regular call sign on the radio was "Bacardi Charlie," but when he ran the occasional skimmer missions Schachte took on a distinctive new call sign "BATMAN" and the supporting Swift boat, whoever was in command, was "ROBIN."

Schachte says he personally led seven out of the eight skimmer missions he ran at Cam Ranh, and the one he didn't lead was not led by what Hibbard terms "a 'rookie' who knew nothing about the concept or tactics involved to command the skimmer." Schachte points out that if he had risked the lives of two enlisted men with a green officer on a difficult night mission like this he should have been reprimanded. Kerry, after all, was an "officer in training" at Coastal Division 14. Kerry had never had a command and had not yet been released to a first command of his own. His job was to go on missions with veterans and learn.

In fact, the one mission Schachte didn't lead was led by veteran Swift boat skipper Tedd Peck, two nights after the Kerry mission, to the same place, with Peck as leader with two other officers, Stephen Hayes and Mark Janes. In advance of the mission, according to Peck, "Schachte made us go down and have a gunner's mate train us with the M-60 machine gun which was not part of the Swift boat arsenal at the time, but was the main armament of the skimmer. It took two hours and we finished it just before we left on the mission."

According to the Times account: "Bill Schachte was not on that skimmer," Mr. Kerry says firmly. "He was not on that skimmer. It is a lie to suggest that he was out there on that skimmer... .The three guys who in fact were in the boat all say he wasn't there and will tell you he wasn't there. We know he wasn't there, and we have all kinds of ways of proving it."

Let's take a look at the "all kinds of ways." One of the "ways" would be for Kerry to disclose how he was ordered on this mission and by whom, but he has never done so. According to Coastal Division 14 commander Hibbard, every mission was assigned by Schachte. Does Kerry expect us to believe Schachte assigned him, in the face of his and Hibbard's statements, and they are both lying about it?

In that case, who was in command of the Kerry mission and where is the after action report? Does Kerry claim that as a trainee he was placed in command over an experienced Swift boat commander with his own boat like Mike Voss? Kerry hasn't told us about that either. And what about Mike Voss's statement to Lisa Myers of NBC that "I'm pretty certain Schachte was there in the skimmer?"

Certainly, training on the M-60 seems to have been essential enough to operations officer Schachte to have three officers grubbing around in the dirt training with an M-60 the afternoon of their night mission. But Patrick Runyon, one of Kerry's claimed crew, honestly admits he "was never trained on one." Runyon said that on the mission with Kerry, he and Zaladonis traded off on running the boat and manning the M-60. William Zaladonis isn't sure he agrees with Runyon about the trade off, but claimed to me that he was trained on an M-60 at Swift Boat School in California by the Marines at Camp Pendleton. My survey of over a dozen attendees, both pro and anti-Kerry, finds none who trained at Pendleton.

What about the mission itself on December 2-3 1968? Schachte reports that after creeping around the shoreline of empty Nha Trang Bay in the dark and finding nothing, he thought he saw movement on shore around 3AM, popped a parachute flare, and fired his M-60 where he saw the movement until it jammed while Kerry fired his M-16. When Kerry's M-16 stopped, Schachte heard the distinctive "POW" of an M-79 grenade launcher. Now they had made such a spectacular son et lumiere announcement of their once secret mission, Schachte decided to get out of there, back to Voss's supporting Swift boat, and home. The mission was a bust. No enemy action, not even the sighting of enemy, with rookie Kerry claiming he had been wounded in the arm and demanding his purple heart.

Kerry and his men describe a magical mystery tour - that same night and that same time in a parallel universe - in a traffic-jammed Nha Trang Bay that apparently had scheduled a starlight sampan regatta that evening. According to Kerry's account to Brinkley, "Most of the night had been spent being scared shitless by fishermen whom we would suddenly creep up on out of the darkness..." In Brinkley's summary, "For the next four hours Kerry's Boston Whaler, using paddles, brought boatloads of fisherman they found in sampans... back to the Swift. It was tiring work."

"Tiring work?" If you ever tried to paddle an almost 15-foot long Boston Whaler with three in crew, loaded with arms, ammunition, and a bunch of jabbering Vietnamese fishermen crammed onboard, 2 ½ miles out to a Swift boat a number of times in monsoon seas you would enthusiastically agree and want to shoot the idiot who refused to use the engine.

But wait a minute... . Didn't Kerry point to the phony "photograph of the skimmer being towed behind his Swift boat, insisting that it could barely fit three people, himself and two others"?

How many Vietnamese fishermen can you put on an armed skimmer with a three-man crew and still paddle miles out to a Swift boat without swamping it in a heavy monsoon chop? According to my interview with Bill Zaladonis, "three to four." Why do this? According to Zaladonis's interview with Lisa Myers, "I assume they were interrogating them - turning them loose or whatever." "Whatever," indeed.

And there's more. After four hours of playing galley slave for the U.S. Navy, "Suddenly it was scary as hell," according to Kerry in Brinkley. A group "of five or six sampans" (according to Zaladonis in Myers) glide into Kerry's starlight scope, beach their craft, and once Kerry pops a flare Brinkley says "they sprang for cover like a herd of panicked gazelles Kerry had once seen on Wild Kingdom."

And the wild rumpus commenced. "The air was full of explosions," Kerry and crew ran like hell strafing the shore as they went, Kerry experiences his wounding, and heads back to the Swift boat and home. Neither of his claimed crew members confirmed any enemy fire, yet they both "assumed" Kerry had been wounded by it. Curiouser and curiouser.

Kerry's summary of the mission? Here is what he told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press":

"We were in combat. We were in a very, very--probably one of the most frightening--if you ask anybody who was with me, the two guys who were with me, was probably the most frightening night that they had that they were in Vietnam... ."

Kerry in TOUR OF DUTY:

"It was a half-assed action that hardly qualified as combat, but it was my first... . ... [A] minor skirmish, but since I couldn't put my finger on what we really accomplished or on what had happened, it was difficult to feel satisfied. "

Finally, Kerry in TOUR OF DUTY a la recherche... from his "journal" nine days after "whatever" happened in Na Trang Bay:

"A cocky feeling of invincibility accompanied us up the Long Tau shipping channel because we hadn't been shot at yet, and Americans at war who haven't been shot at are allowed to be cocky."

Take your pick.

Poor Schachte, who had had a boring evening ending in a blown mission - somehow in the same time and place in that parallel universe to Kerry's "frightening" magical mystery tour - got debriefed by the Coastal Division 14 commander Hibbard, filed no after action report since there was no enemy action, told Hibbard Kerry wanted a Purple Heart, and hit the sack, mildly disgusted.

Kerry got back in the same time and same place, and filed no after action report. Neither did Mike Voss, despite an action as described by Kerry that certainly merited one and would have guaranteed him an automatic purple heart with no problems with either Hibbard or Schachte had he filed one. In fact, according to Hibbard, it would have been the only after action report filed on one of Schachte's skimmer missions which weren't as effective as he and Schachte had hoped. Schachte disagrees and is convinced there must have been "one or two."

Kerry reported to Navy doctor Louis Letson the next morning after duty hours began at 8 AM. Schachte had told him, "No enemy action, no purple heart." Kerry's appeal to Hibbard brought the rejoinder "I have seen rose thorn injuries worse than that. No enemy action, no purple heart." Surely a doctor would be more understanding, not that it mattered. Only Kerry's direct commanders could approve the award.

Kerry lay down on Letson's examination table and told Letson: "We were involved in a fire fight and we received fire from shore." One of the four or five men hanging around the dispensary out of Kerry's sight lowered his head and began to wag an emphatic "no" and stifle a laugh. Letson found ¼ inch fragment sticking out of Kerry's upper arm. It looked like wire about the diameter of a toothpick, he pulled it out with his forceps and flipped it with a tiny "klink" into a steel basin held by his Hospitalman, Jesus Carreon, to the applause of the appreciative audience. Letson was so amused he took a photo of Carreon holding the basin with the ½ inch fragment barely visible in the bottom of it.

As usual, whether Letson prescribed APC pills, ointment for a burn, cut out an ingrown toenail or any other medical action, Carreon dutifully noted in the medical record form Letson's treatment: "3 DEC 1968 U.S. NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY CAM RANH BAY RVN FPO Shrapnel in left arm above elbow. Shrapnel removed and apply Bacitracin dressing. Ret to duty."

Letson says he slapped a bandaid on the wound. When he looked back in a few minutes later, Carreon was winding layers of gauze over the bandaid achieving quite a dramatic effect. Why? According to Letson "Carreon said Kerry was afraid the bandaid would come off." Tedd Peck was dying to see "the purple heart wound" but Kerry wouldn't show it to him.

Months later, Kerry's commanders Hibbard and Schachte had been rotated elsewhere, as had Kerry. In transit, Kerry was now in possession of his medical records file jacket including the form Carreon had filed out. And he apparently found someone to pay what he obviously thought was proper attention to what most people at Cam Ranh had regarded as an unintentionally self-inflicted wound by an improperly fired M-79 grenade launcher, if not a bad joke about a delusional rookie officer. The timing of the first purple heart request tells all.

No reasonable explanation has yet been offered for the grant of Kerry's first purple heart. Tedd Peck dissolves into laughter recalling a dispirited Schachte heading into the officers' club for a drink the day after the mission muttering that Kerry was threatening "to write his Congressman if he didn't get his purple heart," knowing the bales of quadruplicate paperwork that would ensue.

Twenty years later, in 1988, Rear Admiral William Schachte , then assistant JAG to the Department of the Navy was waiting with a friend for the Capitol subway train in the basement of Russell Senate Office Building. The friend he was with was eager to introduce him to another veteran of Swift boats who was waiting also. It was Senator John Forbes Kerry.

"Bill Schachte was not on that skimmer," Mr. Kerry firmly told The New York Times. "He was not on that skimmer. It is a lie to suggest that he was out there on that skimmer... ."

On seeing Admiral Schachte, resplendent in his dress blues, gold braid and decorations, Kerry broke out in a broad grin and pointing his finger said: "BATMAN.".

How could he know?

Thomas Lipscomb is an independent investigative reporter whose work was entered for the Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2005. He is a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future (USC) tom@digitalfuture.org

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