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Sunday, August 22, 2004

The new Jim Russell version of the Bay Hap River action, the Rassmann rescue, and Kerry's Bronze Star

Stop the presses!  I actually agree for once with Josh Marshall!

Dr. Marshall's Talking Points Memo today links a letter to the editor in the Telluride Daily Planet (I didn't make that up; who knew all these years that Superman's "Metropolis" was actually in Colorado?) from a Mr. Jim Russell, who says he was a first-person witness to the Bay Hap River action that resulted in Sen. Kerry's Bronze Star.  Of this, Dr. Marshall writes,

Now, the demand for folks who were on that piece of water that day must be pretty intense at the moment. And it would seem odd that anyone at this point has yet to be contacted and chatted up by the press.

I have no way of knowing whether this guy was where he says he was on that day. And it could be a hoax. But I did call the editor of the paper, Suzanne Cheavens. She says she knows the guy (small town, I guess), knows he's a Vietnam vet, and vouched for his credibility.

Some reporter should see if they can track this down and confirm or dispute that he was there on the day in question.

I agree.

On to the substance of what Mr. Russell wrote:

This happened on March 13, 1969. I was assigned as Psychological Operation Officer for the Swift Boat group out of An Thoi, Vietnam, from January 1969 to October 1969. As such, I was on No. 43 boat, skippered by Don Droz who was later that year killed by enemy fire. We were second in line while exiting the river and going through the opening in a fish trap when a mine blew up under the No. 3 boat directly in front of us and we started taking small arms fire from the beach. Almost immediately, another mine went off somewhere behind us. All boats, except the one hit, immediately wheeled toward the beach that most of the fire came from (a tactic devised by Lt. Kerry, I later learned) and commenced showering the beaches with so much lead, that it could probably be now mined there. The noise was of course, deafening.

Three things that are forever pictured in my mind since that day over 30 years ago are: (1) The No. 3, 50-foot long, Swift boat getting huge, huge air; John Kerry thought it was about two feet. (He was farther away from it than I). I think it was at least four feet and probably closer to six feet; (2) All the boats turning left and letting loose at the same time like a deadly, choreographed dance and; (3) A few minutes later, John Kerry bending over his boat picking up one of the rangers that we were ferrying from out of the water. All the time we were taking small arms fire from the beach; although because of our fusillade into the jungle, I don't think it was very accurate, thank God. Anyone who doesn't think that we were being fired upon must have been on a different river.

Let's assume at least for the moment that Mr. Russell was indeed on Lt. Droz' PCF 43.  Kerry's defenders will doubtless want to highlight Mr. Russell's statement that "we started taking small arms fire from the beach" immediately after the mine explosion.

But other parts of Mr. Russell's version immediately strike me as rather odd:

  • As far as I know, no other eyewitness has claimed that after the first mine exploded under PCF 3, "[a]lmost immediately, another mine went off somewhere behind us."  (Emphasis added.)  Kerry and his partisans have at various times claimed that there was another explosion near PCF 94, Kerry's boat — perhaps another mine or, per Sandusky's latest guess, a rocket, that may or may not have been responsible for Rassmann going overboard — but after that boat had sped off some considerable distance ahead (downriver, to the southeast), not behind. 

  • Mr. Russell describes Sen. Kerry as rescuing a "ranger"; Mr. Rassmann was not a ranger as I understand it, but rather Special Forces (Green Beret).

  • Mr. Russell says that "[a]ll boats, except the one hit, immediately wheeled toward the beach that most of the fire came from ... and commenced showering the beaches."  He repeats this, asserting that "forever pictured in my mind" (presumably not, however, "seared — seared") since that day has been the image of "[a]ll the boats turning left and letting loose at the same time like a deadly, choreographed dance."  But everyone else, including Sen. Kerry and his crew, seems to agree that Sen. Kerry's boat left the immediate area for at least some period immediately after the mine blast under PCF 3, while the remaining three boats laid down suppressive fire.  And how could Mr. Russell have missed this?  PCF 43 was right behind Kerry's PCF 94, according to other accounts.

  • Mr. Russell describes as another memory that the boats "wheeled toward the beach."  I'm left wondering whether he read, and perhaps read too much into, Mr. Rood's account of the Silver Star ambushes, and been influenced by that.  No other witness, as far as I can recall, has claimed that during the Bay Hap River action, any boats turned toward either shore; and based on my admittedly limited understanding of their configurations, that actually would have reduced, rather than increased, the amount of firepower any of them could have brought to bear on shorebound attackers.

  • Mr. Russell twice refers to "small arms fire from the beach" — not both shores, as various Kerry supporters have claimed at various times.  He's specific — it was the "left" shore. 

  • Although he describes PCF 94's and Kerry's rescue of Rassmann as "a few minutes later," he insists that "all that time" they were taking small arms fire.  He presumably explains the absense of wounded Americans or bullet holes in their boats with the assertion that "because of our fusillade into the jungle, I don't think it was very accurate, thank God."  So if Mr. Russell's recollection is accurate, one or more VC from one beach fired small arms more or less continuously for several minutes at the three swift boats that were stationary around the stricken PCF 3 — inaccurately, and notwithstanding suppressive fire from twin .50-caliber machine guns and other formidable weapons aboard each of at least three swift boats.  If so, these were indeed persistent, brave, and very, very lucky VC sniper(s), albeit very inaccurate ones, to keep firing wildly (and thereby drawing countering suppressive fire), yet to no good effect, in the face of that kind of return fire.

  • Mr. Russell says nothing about the rescue efforts for PCF 3 and its injured crewmen, although presumably he would have been in the middle of that during the hour and a half it took to secure the wounded and overboard sailors and rig PCF 3 for towing back to base.  Although his account is silent on the subject, it seems fair to presume that at some point, the shooting must have died down.

I confess I don't quite know what to make of this.  For Lt. Kerry's rescue of Rassmann to be deemed significantly more valorous than Sen. Kerry's rescue of Licorice the Unlucky Hamster some years later, the key question is whether he braved enemy fire to do so.  Mr. Russell can be added to the list of eyewitnesses who claim that he did, I suppose, assuming his bona fides check out. 

The balance of Mr. Russell's letter to the editor is an impassioned plea to the SwiftVets to stop questioning Sen. Kerry's combat record, which he characterizes as " evil extreme right wing attacks."  He believes that the SwiftVets "are being used by these unpatriotic right wing extremist political operatives," and that since the Bush administration hasn't "disavowed itself or distanced itself in anyway from any of these scurrilous attacks, past or present," therefore the Bush administration is "truly responsible for these attacks."  Okay, that's fine; like anyone else, Mr. Russell's entitled to have his own politics and perhaps it's to his credit that he makes no effort to conceal them.  I'm unpersuaded, but then I have obviously different political views; and I no more dismiss out of hand Mr. Russell's factual recollections because of his obviously pro-Kerry politics than I'd dismiss any of the SwiftVets' recollections simply because in their personal politics they may support Dubya. 

Rather, it's the internal inconsistencies in Mr. Russell's own story, and the inconsistencies between it and other pro-Kerry witnesses, that I'd suggest are far more relevant to the question of his, and their, credibility.  So far, Mr. Russell's seems to be yet another mutually inconsistent accounting for events, even among the Kerry supporters — which frankly detracts somewhat from the credibility of all of them.

Update:  A reader points out that both Mr. Rood's and Mr. Russell's accounts are in the Sunday versions of their respective newspapers' online editions.  I don't know whether Mr. Rood's version, which was available over the internet by at least mid-day yesterday (Saturday), had appeared before Mr. Russell's letter to the editor was submitted or went to press.  My speculation that one influenced the other was based on Mr. Russell's "I later learned" parenthetical, and may be entirely off-base.  (I've also made a slight edit to my description of the weaponry aboard the swift boats which I think makes it more accurate.)

Posted by Beldar at 08:37 PM in Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink


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Tracked on Aug 23, 2004 8:18:17 AM


(1) antimedia made the following comment | Aug 22, 2004 10:10:58 PM | Permalink

I'm willing to bet the guy wasn't even there. There weren't any "beaches" in the canals. In fact, Rassmann's account of being fired on in the water isn't credible, because he would have been at least two feet below the banks of the canal, and any fire from either side of the canal would have been above his head. Just look at any pictures of Swift boats in canals, and you can see the account is silly.

The canals in Vietnam went through mangrove swamps and jungle, not sandy beaches. It looks like we're now bringing the kooks out of the woodwork.

(2) CERDIP made the following comment | Aug 22, 2004 10:28:41 PM | Permalink


"...mine blew up under the No. 3 boat directly in front of us..."

I s'pose so, if you consider ~75 yards to port to be "directly in front."

(3) Polaris made the following comment | Aug 22, 2004 10:44:22 PM | Permalink


There's more. If you have fired a semiautomatic weapon, 75 yards (the width of the canal at this point) is point blank range even for man-sized targets much less for something the size of a swiftboat.

If they were taking small arms fire, then the boats should have looked like swiss cheese even if the fire was inaccurate. That would be reflected in the casualty and logistics reports; they are not.


(4) Phelps made the following comment | Aug 22, 2004 11:16:23 PM | Permalink

I'd like to see someone like Jug Burkett do a check on this guy's records. A Form 180 would be in order right off the bat (like Thurlow has already signed in response to "you weren't really there" allegations.)

(5) jim made the following comment | Aug 22, 2004 11:42:06 PM | Permalink

There are still a few more issues here worth developing.

1. Kerry took off after the mine explosion under nearby PCF #3, sustaining 'withering fire' from both banks for ~5,000 meters. In my book, that's 3.2 miles and several minutes before they noticed either that the firing had stopped, NO ONE HAD FOLLOWED THEM, they were ordered back by radio and/or Rassmann was missing. So to run away and return to the scene, Kerry traversed nearly 7 miles!! Even at full throttle, that certainly would consume some time.

2. Which boat was Rassmann really on initially? While they had 'buddied up' earlier in the day over the 'brown rice' incident when Kerry inflicted himself with an ass load of rice by not moving fast or far enough away from his own grenade and Rassmanns' destroying the rice cache, it would be better if Rassmann were not on Kerry's boat when the mine went off.

If Rassman was on PCF #3, he would have been blown off by the explosion, as were others who were onboard, still nearby the covering boats, and would have REASON for ducking below water to escape the boats maneuvering aggressively in to protect PCF #3, as he has sometimes described.

If Rassmann was on Kerry's boat and somehow blown off, that means Kerry had close to 3.2 miles to detect a man was missing! And would then be derelict. SF/Infantry practice is to count or send up a count ANY TIME contact is made or hazard experienced. Tell me the Navy SOP's allow for that length of time to lapse, witless about a man overboard? Highly unlikely.

Where was he picked up? How far from #3's initial position? That would help to better infer what boat he was on. BTW, SF requires everyone to be drownproofed and also to practice and be able to swim in full uniform with boots and some gear. If he was seen as functioning capably in the water, that might account for why he was not picked up immediately when others in the water were in worse shape or non-swimmers. There could have been quite a few Nung in either/both of those conditions. That would also allow time for Kerry to return to the scene from some distance and eventually make pick-up.

3. What of the other Army Lt. identified as an advisor to the Nung? SF or what other? Who was in command of that Nung element and who wrote the Army's mission AAR? How can THAT be obtained?

4. While it was clear Kerry was fairly junior and relatively inexperienced, who was in command of this op on the Navy side? Cardinal rule is that there is always a clear chain of command (therefore responsibility) and order of command assumption, even if only by seniority. Who led, who followed, in what order, and what was Kerry's slot in that chain?

Points to ponder. After a few drinks and a long day, that's as far as I go. I'll be back to contemplate it more seriously in the AM. But please give it some thought on your own and see where it takes you.

(6) Anony Mous made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 12:08:15 AM | Permalink

Since there were twin 50 calibers in the tub and twin 50 calibers on the fantail, what would be the point of using the "Kerry technique" of pulling into the "beach". As someone pointed out up thread, the "Kerry technique" cuts your firepower in half. Kerry is the only commander stupid enough to do that. (For those who don't already know, the mounted machine guns were on turrents, thereby they could be pointed in different directions.) No Duh!!!

(7) Fresh Air made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 12:41:04 AM | Permalink

This guy has serious credibility problems, Beldar. Sounds like he has conflated the Rood story concerning the Silver Star with the Rassman rescue, which was the Bronze Star incident.

There were no beaches involved in the Bronze Star incident. How do you mount an ambush like Kerry described in Brinkley's book from a beach? Don't you need some cover? Were these "beaches" lining the banks of the canal? No way! Look at Muharsky's blog or any of the others. The canals were wooded; that's what made them so dangerous.

There has never been a credible report of a second mine, and Rassman fell of Kerry's boat, not PCF-3.

I'm with antimedia. The guy's a flake.

(8) Polaris made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 1:51:43 AM | Permalink


Here's something else. PCFs communicated via tactical radio right? There would be radio operator logs. I used to be in military communications intelligence and *all* communications is logged. The radio records should still be available in the national archives. At the very least the radio operator's LOG should be (which would record which messages got sent when).


(9) ed made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 6:59:31 AM | Permalink


1. Psy Ops officer?

I've never heard of a single officer that would ever start a story by NOT revealing their rank. So what was he? He doesn't even include his actual rank in his signature?

2. I googled every combination of "Jim Russell", "An Thoi", "swift boat", "swift", "boat", "psy ops", "psychological" and "operations". And got nothing. No hits at all.

I remember reading about the SWIFT boats trying out psy ops, which turned out to be a complete failure. Nice in theory but in reality running a 50' boat slowly through the canals while blaring out nonsense from a bunch of loudspeakers wasn't all that effective.

Yet this guy isn't mentioned anywhere? There's a couple Russell's mentioned, but no Jim Russell.

3. So why was a Psychological Operations Officer on that SWIFT boat during that particular operation? He doesn't actually say. Is this normal? Did he go out all the time? Was this unusual? He includes barely anything at all in this letter of his. He certainly doesn't include anything remotely resembling a bona fides.

(10) ed made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 7:01:57 AM | Permalink


My father lives in Montrose, which is fairly close to Telluride. I'll ask him about Jim Russell. Aren't that many Vietnam veterans in that area.

(11) ed made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 9:08:02 AM | Permalink


"I was on No. 43 boat, skippered by Don Droz who was later that year killed by enemy fire. We were second in line while exiting the river and going through the opening in a fish trap when a mine blew up under the No. 3 boat directly in front of us"

Interesting. Very Interesting.

WAPO graphic

Yet according to this Washington Post graphic PCF 43 was behind PCF 94. NOT PCF 3. Since, according to the WAPO, PCF 3 split off from the formation to pass to the left of the fishing weir it could hardly be "directly in front of us". That doesn't make any sense at all.

(12) PTG made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 10:26:26 AM | Permalink

Holy S--t:

That Washington Post graphic absolutely supports the version of events set forth in "Unfit for Command" and absolutely refutes Rassmann's version! It shows that the other Swift Boats did not leave and it shows that he could not have been alone when he surfaced.

This is a major concession by a publication that is certainly not known for being a Republican extremist organization!

(13) James Walling made the following comment | Aug 23, 2004 12:22:11 PM | Permalink

PTG, I don't understand is WASPO running two graphics now. The one I just went two show Rassmann falling off after Kerry's boat is hit with an unidentified explosion and him falling off alone. Did the WASPO change the graphic?

(14) ed made the following comment | Aug 24, 2004 3:16:28 PM | Permalink


Actually reviewing the graphic also adds something else to thie mix of madness.

1. The WAPO graphic shows a break between PCF 94's actions and the fishing wier. I.e. there's additional distance that couldn't be depicted. This distance is, according to multiple sources, anywhere from several hundred meters to a few kilometers.

2. Jim Russell claims to have been on PCF 43, which didn't follow PCF 94 up the canal but rather stayed with her sister boats to perform rescue operation PCF 3.

3. The WAPO graphic shows Rassman having been thrown off PCF 94 down the canal past the fishing weir.

4. The WAPO graphic shows PCF 94 turning around and coming back to pick up Rassman, again further down the canal past the fishing weir.

5. So how did Jim Russell, on PCF 43, witness PCF 94 first throwing Rassman off the boat and then later on picking him up?

6. It was PCF 23 that was just barely beaten to picking up Rassman when PCF 94 returned to do so.


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