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Friday, September 03, 2004

Roy Rogers, Rambo, and Rassmann: What happened to Belodeau's weapon on 13Mar69, and what replacement was Rassmann bringing him?

I may be late in noticing this quote from Jim Rassmann in an August 19th press release on Kerry's campaign website (ellipsis in original; boldface mine):

"The [enemy] fire was strong enough to knock out Tommy Belodeau’s machine gun.…  I was in the middle of the firefight," Rassmann has said of the false claims that there was no fire that day and that other boats rescued people from the water.  "There was one person in the water that day and that was me, anyone who is telling you otherwise is giving you a lie."

This is almost certainly nonsense.

Let's give Mr. Rassmann a large benefit of the doubt when he said there was only "one person in the water that day."  Perhaps he meant in his immediate area, excluding the injured crewmen who'd been blown off Lt. Pees' PCF 3 and those like Larry Thurlow who jumped into the water to rescue them.

But I haven't been able to find any reference in Mr. Rassmann's other statements about the "firefight" — for example, his August 10 WSJ op-ed, or his quotations in Michael Dobbs' August 22 WaPo article, or his quotations in Jeff Barnard's January 24 AP article — that are consistent with Mr. Rassmann's assertion in this press release that enemy fire "[knocked] out" Belodeau's M-60 machine gun on the bow of PCF 94.  In the Dobbs article, for example, we read (boldface mine):

Almost simultaneously [with the explosion of the mine under Pees' PCF 3], Kerry's forward gunner, Tommy Belodeau, began screaming for a replacement for his machine gun, which had jammed. Rassmann grabbed an M-16 and worked his way sideways along the deck, which was only seven inches wide in places.

The Barnard article is silent as to what happened to Belodeau's M-60, but says (boldface mine):

Rassmann recalls sidling along the deck next to the pilot house, a rifle in each hand, intending to give one to the bow gunner [Belodeau], when a second mine detonated, launching him into the water....

In the Belodeau Eulogy, Sen. Kerry doesn't claim that Belodeau's gun was knocked out by enemy fire, although Kerry said there (boldface mine):

We were receiving incoming rocket and small arms fire and Tommy was returning fire with his M-60 machine gun when it literally broke apart in his hands.  He was left holding the pieces unable to fire back while one of the Green Berets [Rassmann] walked along the edge of the boat to get Tommy another M-60.  As he was doing so, the boat made a high-speed turn to starboard and the Green Beret kept going — straight into the river....

Now this contains its own inprobabilities.  While an M-60 could be carried and fired by one man — think Rambo — it's a heavy weapon that was often mounted on a jeep, helicopter, or boat (as Belodeau's M-60 probably was), or else used with its own bipod:


It seems rather more likely that Rassmann was carrying an M-16 assault rifle in each hand — his own, plus a spare to give to Belodeau — than that he was lugging his own M-16 plus another M-60 for Belodeau.

Moreover, it seems rather more likely that Belodeau's M-60 jammed, or even that it broke apart from its own vibrations, than that it was shot apart in his hands by VC fire from the riverbanks — managing to hit only Belodeau's weapon, without hitting him, or anyone else, or the boat, would be a trick worthy of Roy Rogers on his best day.

So what does it say about Rassmann's credibility that he relies on trick-shooting VC to try to justify his claims of being under enemy fire?

Posted by Beldar at 06:23 PM in Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Roy Rogers, Rambo, and Rassmann: What happened to Belodeau's weapon on 13Mar69, and what replacement was Rassmann bringing him? and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Patrick R. Sullivan made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 7:36:19 PM | Permalink

A little googling gets us:

"The M60 medium/universal machine gun was designed in the late 1940's and its initial design strongly borrows from WW2 German developments - the MG42 belt feeding mechanism and the FG42 gas-driven action. The M60 was adopted by US military in 1950 and served until it was replaced by FN MAG/M240.

"M60 is a gas-operated, belt-fed, automatic weapon. It features interchangeable barrel, integral folding bipod and provisions to be mounted on tripods and vehicle mounts.

"M60 was barely adequate to its intended mission, and has some drawbacks: the bipods and the gas chamber were permanently attached to the barrel, so qiuick replacement of the hot barrel in the battle conditions was 'tricky' at least, and required the shooter to war heat-protecting gloves. The barrel should be changed after 200 rounds of the rapid fire. Another drawback (at least, it is known from my sources) was fragility of many of the parts in the operating group. Key among these, and inherent in the design, was the firing pin, which seemed almost guaranteed to break right behind the forward shoulder. The total acceptance troops of the M60 was not too god."

(2) The Raving Atheist made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 7:40:39 PM | Permalink

Oliver Stone has just analyzed the film of the incident: the machine gun went back and to the left, back and to the left, back and to the left . . .

(3) Jenjis Kahn made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 8:08:44 PM | Permalink

I think you mean 13March69 in the title, no?

(4) Todd made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 8:18:04 PM | Permalink

Beldar, when you refer to Rassmann's credibility, are you suggesting that he's lying or that he is just confused?

The totality of the evidence on that particular incident is that the Swiftees were not under fire. With no physical damage other than the 3 bullet holes in Thurlow's boat (accounted for, not entirely satisfactorily, by Thurlow) and no injuries related to gunfire, it's hard to understand how they could have been under fire. I had charitably assumed until now that all these "there was fire" guys were just confused. Could they be lying?

And what happened to Butch Vorphal? Did any of the MSM ever follow up with him?

Frankly, I have never seen the MSM so obviously take sides in a Presidential election. Their failure to fully investigate these issues is shameful.

(5) Alan made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 8:30:37 PM | Permalink

The M-60 is a pretty substantial weapon but is liable to jamming on occasion. In combat, the barrel was often changed by yanking it out using the tripod legs since it would get red hot after about 800 rounds or so (who counts in combat, anyway?)

(6) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 8:39:30 PM | Permalink

Jenjis Kahn — heh, summoned from the grave by Kerry's eloquent pronunciation no doubt? — you're right. Thanks for the catch, I've edited the title of the original post to make the correction.

Todd, I'm still reluctant to point the "liar finger" at Mr. Rassmann. Perhaps he was just confused; perhaps he read the Belodeau Eulogy and was confused and influenced by Kerry saying Belodeau's weapon "broke apart." But this one looks like an awfully tall tale, whether it's attributed to confusion, failing memory, deliberate misstatement, or whatever.

(7) Norman Rogers made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 9:22:29 PM | Permalink

I think the key to understanding the March 13th incident -- and the best way to underscore its significance -- is to allow that all accounts have some truth to them. This is often the case in battle narratives -- different people see different things and it's the job of a military historian to try piece the whole from the parts.

The key to this analysis is that it doesn't really matter if there was some enemy fire or not -- what matters is the maximum duration of any enemy fire that night.

Let's assume that SOME people did see SOME muzzle flashes from one or both sides of the river -- just after the 3 boat was blown out of the water. By all accounts three of the undamaged boats immediately began laying down suppressing fire, while Kerry fled downstream.

The suppressing fire could not have endured for more than a couple of minutes. The boats would not have had enough ammunition ready for their guns to sustain anything longer. And, by all accounts when the Swift boats ceased firing, the night was still and the rescue operations began. Thurlow concentrated on the 3 boat and the other two boats that had not fled engaged the rescue of the wounded and semi-concious crewman in the river.

Kerry came back upstream and rescued Rassman. But he could not have gone 5,000 yards down and back (10,000 yards in all) in less than ten minutes (nearly six miles at thirty mph).

Kerry could NOT have been underfire when he pulled Rassmann from the water.

All five boats remained on the scene for another hour-and-fifteen minutes, tending to the wounded and patching the 3 boat and securing it for tow. All sides admit there was no firing during the extended rescue operations.
So it really doesn't matter if there was ANY enemy fire that night. It only matters that there could NOT have been enemy fire when Kerry belatedly returned to pick up the guy who had fallen from Kerry's boat.

By any measure, this is not the stuff of heroism, (although it certainly IS in the line of duty), and Kerry is absolutely not entitled to ANY citation.

On the other hand, there might well have been enemy fire when Thurlow leaped into the damaged 3 boat -- that's the stuff of heros!

(8) James B. Shearer made the following comment | Sep 3, 2004 11:46:40 PM | Permalink

Here is a scenario where Kerry was under fire when he rescued Rassmann.

According to Lambert's account when the mine went off under the 3 boat it did not leave the boat dead in the water. Instead it continued down river under power but with no one at the helm. Lambert then manuvered his boat along side allowing Thurlow to jump into the 3 boat to assist. Thurlow later fell in the river when the 3 boat ran into a sandbar bringing it to a halt. This would have been some distance down river and out of the ambush zone.

Meanwhile Rassmann has fallen off Kerry's boat soon after the initial explosion. By the time anyone notices he is missing all the boats are down river leaving Rassmann alone as he claims. Kerry then returns to the ambush zone and picks up Rassmann under fire.

Of course this is not the only possibility but it seems as consistent with the witness accounts as the anti-Kerry scenarios being proposed.

(9) jaed made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 2:23:02 AM | Permalink

What about the people who fell off PCF-3 when the mine exploded, under that scenario? They would in that case be in the same area as Rassman - having fallen off *before* the boat continued downstream - and therefore rescue operations would have been going on in the vicinity.

Todd, I'm still reluctant to point the "liar finger" at Mr. Rassmann.

I was; I figured there was plenty of room for confusion without anyone involved being deceitful. The insistent comment that "There was one person in the water that day and that was me" has my reluctance down to a pretty low level, though I could be convinced otherwise. Does anyone have Thurlow's citation? Does it discuss sailors overboard from PCF-3?

(10) Steel Turman made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 2:39:03 AM | Permalink

I have been waiting for someone to bring up the issue of trying to carry an M60 around on a moving boat. Now ask yourself this ... is it EVEN possible to 'walk' alongside the wheelhouse with an M60? I DON'T THINK SO. I had a hard time just skirting along that space all by myself. Much less with a 4' foot long piece of s**t that weighs 50 - 60 pounds.

(11) Norman Rogers made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 6:01:04 AM | Permalink

James, by all accounts the 3 boat was turning in slow circles after the mine detonation -- one engine dead, the other at 500 rpm.

The only boat to go downstream (5,000 yards) was Kerry's.

Rassmann may well have been a hundred yards or more from the wounded 3 boat crewmen (Kerry's boat went past the weir on the opposite bank -- 50 or 60 yards away). And if Rassmann was tossed as Kerry hit the gas, he may have been a little downstream.

This fits with the known fact that Rassmann was the last to be picked up -- by Kerry, on his return to the scene just as another boat had moved to within 20 yards of Rassmann. The other boats concentrated on the wounded and unconcious 3 boat crewmen, first.

(12) Norman Rogers made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 6:01:58 AM | Permalink

James, by all accounts the 3 boat was turning in slow circles after the mine detonation -- one engine dead, the other at 500 rpm.

The only boat to go downstream (5,000 yards) was Kerry's.

Rassmann may well have been a hundred yards or more from the wounded 3 boat crewmen (Kerry's boat went past the weir on the opposite bank -- 50 or 60 yards away). And if Rassmann was tossed as Kerry hit the gas, he may have been a little downstream.

This fits with the known fact that Rassmann was the last to be picked up -- by Kerry, on his return to the scene just as another boat had moved to within 20 yards of Rassmann. The other boats concentrated on the wounded and unconcious 3 boat crewmen, first.

(13) Warthog made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 6:57:23 AM | Permalink

FWIW. The M-60 machine gun is an infantry weapon. It's heavier than an M-16 but easily carried by a single individual. It's the ammo load that gets burdensome.

(14) Cap'n DOC made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 7:34:57 AM | Permalink

In the outfit I was with, the M60 guy had someone carrying (sometimes two guys, depending on the mission) the ammo, whilst he carried maybe 30-40 belted rounds.

AFA anyone being a Swiftie having knowledge of the forms that Kerry will not release - Corpsmen were not Swifties. There was no room on the skimmers or the swifts for a corpsman. If there was injuries or wounds sustained, it was up to the crew to deal with until they could get back to an Aidstation or Sickbay.

(15) Robert Monical made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 9:28:37 AM | Permalink

FWIW 2, an M60 and an M16 can be carried in one hand for short distances.

(16) ncoic6 made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 12:55:20 PM | Permalink

Norman Rodgers makes an important point, most likely "all accounts have some truth in them." Of all the cited SBVets, Vorphal might prove the most compelling depending on his memory and credibility. By the one account we have, he was knocked out for a short while and later MEDEVACed with a "back injury". Vorphal likely was on his back the entire time after he came to on PCF #3. As such, he had only auditory input as to what was going on around him and would have been most aware of any continuing gunfire about the PCF#3 or nearby had it taken place.

It is entirely reasonable that the VC, having observed the 5 PCFs going upstream knew that they were going to come back downstream and set the mine on the left opening of the weir. It is not clear whether they would have set another mine at the other opening, the right side of the weir where PCF94 was later going to pass through. Having set at least one mine, near the river bank, it is reasonable that some VC snipers waited in ambush,at least on the one side, for an easy pick and that there could have been inital hostile fire which was quickly supressed. Rogers is probably correct that Kerry could not have been under fire by the time he pulled Rassman out. Does anyone know what the more likely scenario was? Two openings on the weir, with a mine at each opening? Or just one mine on one opening giving PCFs a 50/50 chance of getting through unscathed?

Lambert's account backs up Thurlow on everything (as the bullet holes being received the previous day etc.)except on the issue of hostile fire, and Lambert is imprecise as to the duration of the fire. The problem is this. Lambert contacted the newspaper, not vice-versa. Lambert was then interviewed by a reporter who did not have sufficient knowledge of the underlying issues to ask meaningful follow-up questions. It would interesting to have a trained investigator talk to Lambert to ascertain the extent of his recollection of these events.

Meanwhile biographer Brinkley, in American History magazine, writes that after the mine detonated under PCF3 "the boat started zigzagging from the banks to the middle of the river." Brinkley doesn't say where this account came from. A bit earlier he writes that "Rassman's" "PCF-3" hit the mine. In context, this would seem to be confusion error on Brinkley's part that was not caught prior to publication. Later, Brinkley has Rassman blown overboard (in context) from Kerry's boat. Brinkley's error was facilitated by his not interviewing Rassman prior to publication of ToD. One wonders how the text would have read, had Brinkley been able to interview Rassman.

Rassman has given different accounts which undermine the credibility (not necessarily sincerity) of his claims. When asked by Thurlow on CNN (Judy Woodruff)(5 Aug 04) why there were no bullet holes in the PCFs, Rassman had no answer except that he knew that he was being shot at.

Rassman signed an article that was printed in the Wall Street Journal. This doesn't necessarily mean that he wrote it, and if he wrote it, you can rest comfortable that it was vetted past some Kerry lawyers. This account supports the official Kerry version that: a.) he was blown off PCF94 by a "second blast", and b.) that he was under fire when rescued by Kerry.

However, when speaking extemporaneously to a group of Oregonians,(29 Jul - Oregon Live), with a reporter present taking notes, Rassman, according to the article, "gave a detailed retelling" to his audience (it would be nice to have a tape of that, and maybe someone does). Rassman said the he remembers "eating a chocolate chip cookie, when an explosion under a nearby boat blew him into the Bay Hap River and caused Kerry to smash his arm." It is possible that the reporter misheard what Rassman said. Or maybe the reporter recorded the speech. But if Rassman's comments were accurately printed, this should raise serious questions even among some of Kerry's staunchest supporters.

(17) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 4:51:29 PM | Permalink

Some nice points, ncoic6, many of which I agree with. Brinkley's writings about the Rassmann rescue are a dog's breakfast, in which at least some of the obvious mistakes — in particular, the bits from the magazine/History.net's slight reworking of Chapter Twelve of ToD — may be due to errors induced in editing, which errors in turn may be due to typos in ToD (e.g., the reference to "PCF-35," which wasn't there that day at all). (I did a lengthy comparison of the facts asserted in the History.net article and in the corresponding chapter of ToD in a previous comment — one that in retrospect I wish I'd done as a new post instead.)

Or we could follow Occam's Razor, in which case the explanation is that Brinkley doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.

(18) jaxinman made the following comment | Sep 4, 2004 7:59:22 PM | Permalink

Also FWIW: as pointed out by warthog, the M-60 is an Infantry weapon and as such it is fairly easy to tote around. Perhaps a bit heavy, but there is a folding handle on the top so you can carry it like a satchel.

I doubt that there was a spare M-60 on board the swiftboat and it is more likely that Rassman carried a spare M-16 of which there would likely be one or more spares around. It might have even been Belodeau's issued M-16. It was common for example for helicopter M-60 gunners to also carry their issued weapons aboard in case for example they were downed and needed a weapon to escape. It wouldn't surprise me if swiftboat gunners did the same thing. Heck, if you have the transport you want to have all the weaponry you can handle.

It is not surprising that Rassman would be confused about incoming small arms fire in the situation as described. He himself admits that he spent much of the time under water avoiding what he thought was incoming. It's believable that he truely believes he was under fire. It's a little less believable, but certainly possible, that he mistook M-60, 50cal, and M-16 friendly fire for AK-47. An AK-47 sound is very distinctive and there is no mistaking it particularly if it is firing at you. I can assure you that anyone who has been there can pick it out of a crowd.

Also, just a minor point, I believe Thurlow's account of the incident does not describe any of the PCF-3 crew being blown into the water, but injured and some unconscious on the swiftboat which was running out of control. Thurlow himself did go into the water at one point being thrown from the PCF-3 after he first boarded it and then climbed back to render aid. His actions were truely heroic as described and likely merited the Bronze Star ("with V") that he received for that action.

That is his reported rationale for not questioning his citation even though it, as he claims, falsely claims enemy fire. He says that if he thought that receiving enemy fire was required for the "V" he would have not accepted the medal. As I understand it, he was not actually awarded the medal, like in a formal military ceremony. It was mailed to him four months later after he had returned home and I think was out of the military. He says he has no idea who wrote up the citation.

(19) James B. Shearer made the following comment | Sep 5, 2004 1:53:29 AM | Permalink

jaed, in my scenario no one is blown off the 3 boat by the mine. Lambert doesn't mention anyone and neither do the statements by Thurlow and Odell on the swiftvets site. Are you aware of a first hand statement stating otherwise?

Beldar, in your post you say people were blown off the 3 boat by the mine and that Thurlow jumped into the water to rescue them. What is your source for this?

Norman Rogers, what are your sources ("by all accounts") that the 3 boat was going in slow circles after the mine explosion. Lambert has it "running wide open" and Thurlow has it "dead in the water".

Is anyone specific known to have been in the water at any time besides Thurlow and Rassmann?

(20) Norman Rogers made the following comment | Sep 5, 2004 8:12:45 AM | Permalink

For James and Jaxinman,

I listened to interviews of both O'Neill and Thurlow (O'Neill's information is based on Thurlow's and others' accounts). They claim there were (I think) two PCF-3 crewmen semi-concious in the water. These were the men who were rescued first.

And Thurlow leaped into the 3 boat (on his second try) and cut the engines -- he's the source for the reports that one engine was dead and the other ar 500 rpm's -- and the boat turning in circles. After he killed the engines, the boat was dead in the water and he set about tending to the injured and plugging the holes below deck (the boat was hulled by the mine).

OBTW, here's this from today's Sunday Telgraph.

(21) recon made the following comment | Sep 5, 2004 3:52:21 PM | Permalink

Weight of a then-standard M-60 without an attached ammo belt (probable condition of a spare being brought forward) is 18.75 pounds.

Weight of an M-16 with a 30-round magazine in place is 8.8 pounds.

These weights are relatively inconsequential, and both have built-in carrying handles.

I'll be back for more later.

(22) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 5, 2004 4:01:04 PM | Permalink

Recon, I'm not saying it would have been impossible for Rassmann to have been carrying an M-60, just that it strikes me as rather more probable that it was an M-16. My main interest is in the discrepancy between the various stories as those reflect upon the weight each should be given.

But you're always welcome back in my comments, regardless!

(23) recon made the following comment | Sep 5, 2004 7:08:57 PM | Permalink

Beldar, I am still in motion and not settled in for the evening, but I'll try to add some better logic to the scenario.

The M-60 is a 7.62mm (.308 caliber) linked-cartridge belt-fed weapon while the M-16 is a magazine-fed 5.56mm (.223 caliber) individual arm. These cartridges are not remotely interchangeable.

Implied (poorly -- actually? not at all) and not stated above is that Belodeau would likely not have M-16 ammo on hand at his forward gunnery station, since he would be supplied principally with 7.62mm linked belts.

Carrying Belodeau an M-16 PLUS enough loaded M-16 magazines to be worth having would have had to compromise someone else's capability (one of the Nungs??) and been much more awkward to deliver than a replacement M-60, IF any spares were normally carried.

That's another detail the Swiftees could answer in a heartbeat, since unit SOP would determine precisely what would be carried in the way of spares per boat, particularly relatively high-value spares like an M-60 (unit cost = $6,000.00).

It would either be the STANDARD and every boat would carry one (or more), or it simply would NOT be specified, authorized, nor made available -- thus an overt lie.

(24) James B. Shearer made the following comment | Sep 5, 2004 11:59:31 PM | Permalink

Norman Rogers, ok in the cnn interview, Thurlow does say 2 crewmen were blown off the 3 boat and picked up by the the 23 boat (Chenoweth). "Unfit for Command" has a similar account and also the bit about the engines (but with no attributions, the whole section has no footnotes).

On the other hand the recommendation for Thurlow's Bronze Star seems to say all the 3 boat crewmen remained aboard (although injured or in shock).

So I remain uncertain whether any 3 boat crewmen were blown into the water.

I also haven't found any support for Beldar's claim that Thurlow deliberately jumped into the river to rescue 3 boat crewmen.

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