Every sailor who served under Lieutenant John Kerry on Swift boats PCF-44 and PCF-94 have gushed about his poise under enemy fire. They tell stories of his rescuing a Green Beret from drowning, killing a Viet Cong sniper, and saving 42 Vietnamese civilians from starvation. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway they claim that in combat Kerry exemplified “grace under pressure.” But PCF-44 Gunner’s Mate Stephen M. Gardnerin a long telephone interview from his home in Clover, South Carolinahas a starkly different memory. “Kerry was chickenshit,” he insists. “Whenever a firefight started he always pulled up stakes and got the hell out of Dodge.”
When writing my book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (William Morrow & Company) I interviewed all of Kerry’s crewmatesall that is, except Gardner. They came from mid-size towns scattered across America including Kankakee, Illinois, and Ames, Iowa and Columbia, South Carolina. When first approached for interviews in late 2002 these Navy veterans told me they would enthusiastically campaign for their old skipper if he ever decided to run for president; they’ve lived up to their promise. Whether it’s PCF-94’s Chief Petty Officer Del Sandusky talking about Kerry’s undaunted courage on TV campaign commercials or PCF-44’s William Zaladonis explaining how Kerry never backed down, they’ve been a united front. Nobody has campaigned harder for Kerry than his crewmates. Kerry’s surprise victories in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary were, in part, a tribute to their unshakable conviction that Kerry was a born leader.
When researching Tour of Duty some of these veterans proved extremely difficult to track down. Stephen W. Hatch, a boatswain’s mate who served under Kerry on PCF-44, proved particularly elusive. Eventually I located him in Niagra Falls, New York and he told me about his admiration for Chuck Berry guitar licks, rose tattoos and John Kerry. As my book went to press the only Swift crewmate I couldn’t locate was Gardner. A quick count in the index of Tour of Duty shows that Gardner’s name appears on a dozen different pages throughout my narrative. He also periodically appeared in Kerry’s war diaries. Still, my various inquiries to the U.S. Naval Historical Center, the Swift Boat Crew Directory and other outstanding reference outlets proved futile.
So it was with a sense of genuine relief when PCF-44’s Jim Wasser telephoned me last week with the news that Gardner had “rung him up out-of-the-blue” to discuss their shared days together in Vietnam. “It was great” Wasser told me. “You know he fought bravely in Vietnam. He is still a brother. I miss him. I would like to see him.” He then hesitated and went on. “But he has developed a strange, negative assessment of Lieutenant Kerry. It shocked me. His memory is dead wrong. He remembers things so differently.… He has some kind of weird grudge against Lieutenant Kerry.”
This was unexpected news. In Tour of Duty I portrayed the crew of PCF-44 as a true Band of Brothersit turns out they were a Band of Brothers minus one. A disappointed Wasser gave me Gardner’s telephone numbers, reminding me that PCF-44 gunner’s mate was nicknamed “The Wild Man” by his crewmates for his hair-trigger penchant for firing M-60s into the mangrove thicket. “Let me know what you find out,” Wasser told me. “I’m having trouble understanding where he’s coming from.”
After interviewing Gardner for over an hour it essentially boils down to one word: politics. A strong supporter of President George W. Bush, Gardner is sickened by the idea of Kerry as president. “Anybody but Kerry,” he says. “I know what a disaster he’d be.” So what brought Gardner out in the open? The answer turns out to be Rush Limbaugh’s talk show.
Around the time of the South Carolina primary, Gardner heard Limbaugh say there was something fishy about Kerry’s Vietnam service but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “I was driving down the road, and I hit that [radio] button and Rush was talking about Kerry and his campaign and how something just didn’t feel right to him,” Gardner recalled, his voice full of conviction. “Something about what John Kerry did or was doing, just really didn’t set right with him. And you know I served with this guy, and the bottom line to it is; harsh as this may sound or as good as it sounds to any Democrat, out there, John Kerry is another ‘Slick Willy.’ He’s another Bill Clinton and that’s exactly what he is. And I’m telling you right now, that if John Kerry gets to be president of these United States, it’ll be a sorry day in this world for us. We can’t stand another Democrat like that in there again. We’ll get our asses in such a sling this time; we won’t be able to get out of it. And the bottom line to it is, I don’t care how much John Kerry’s changed after he moved off my boat, his initial patterns of behavior when I met him and served under him was somebody who ran from the enemy, rather than engaged it. If I’d had Rush’s 800 number, or known how to reach him, I would have called in.”
Gardner was born on January 3, 1948 in Portsmouth, Ohio. His family moved to the Lake Erie shore town of Port Clinton, Ohio when he was seven or eight years old. Shortly after his seventeenth birthday he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. “My dad was in the navy, so I wasn’t gonna be an army ‘ground pounder,’” he recalled. “I really liked boats and hunting. Shooting things.” He attended gunnery school at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Waukegan, Illinois and was then sent to Swift boat school at Coronado, California, the same place where Kerry trained in August-October 1968. From therein late 1965Gardner was sent off to Subic Bay in the Philippines where he helped load Swift boats onto an LST and headed to Vietnam.
Over the next three years Gardner served as gunner on four different Swift boats, each with a different commanding officer. His least favorite was his last: Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kerry of PCF-44. When describing Kerry he unloads choice adjectives, “opportunist” being his favorite. His most colorful phrase is claiming that all Kerry wanted to do was “save his lily-white ass.” Up until now he has kept his resentment mostly to himself. “I’ve told a few of my friends that he was an asshole,” Gardner says. “But I’m not looking to make news.”
No two men remember combat exactly the same way so Kerry has been extremely lucky that 9 out of his 10 crewmen have almost identical stories about his valor during various firefights and skirmishes. But memories can vary from person to person; Gardner insists that the Kerry he knew in Vietnam was a singularly un-heroic figure. He dismisses the glowing eyewitness accounts of his crewmates Jim Wasser (Radarman), Bill Zaladonis (Petty Officer), Drew Whitlow (Boatswain’s Mate) and Stephen Hatch (Boatswain’s Mate) as bunk. “Kerry sat some of them down and convinced them to buy into his side of what happened over there,” he explains in bizarrely conspiratorial fashion with no evidence to back him up. “When you’re as persuasive as Kerry it’s not hard to make a guy change something that he saw.”
Gardner’s first bone of contention involves an incident that took place on the morning of December 29, 1968. PCF-44 was in a small canal just off the Co Chien River. They had been probing the waterway with another Swift boat on a minor Operation SEALORDS raid and on their way back had come under enemy fire. “We went into a dangerous area that had numerous hooches and sampans,” Wasser recalled. “The enemy was thick. Once we got in the canal we took a lot of small arms fire, followed by mortar. Our adrenaline was racing; we went right back at them with all the firepower we could muster. That’s when Gardner got hit.”
As recounted in Tour of Duty by Kerry, Gardner had shouted: “There’s somebody running over there…He’s got a gun…on the port side, on the port side!” PCF-44’s crew had been firing at thatched huts on their way out of the canal, and the reports of their own guns had muffled those of the shots being fired at them. Suddenly, Gardner shrieked, “I’m hit,” and stopped firing for a moment. Before Kerry could ask his condition, Gardner shouted from his post: “I’ll be okay,” and went back to firing his two .50s.
There is a dispute between Kerry and Gardner about what happened next. Kerry insists that the engagement was over when the boats pulled out. “We didn’t leave until the mission was over and all the boats headed out together,” says Kerry. He claims that only after the firefight was overand enemy fire had been supresseddid he order PCF-44 to head back to a primitive base at Dong Tam so Gardner could receive medical attention from the U.S. Army’s Third Surgical Division, based in a makeshift hospital there. But Gardner asserts that Kerry was simply fleeing the firefight. “He wanted to get out of the river to save his own ass,” Gardner maintains. “I was ready to keep going.”
When told of Gardner’s criticism of Kerry’s order, all of PCF-44’s other crewmen disagreed with the tough talking South Carolinian’s assessment. “Kerry made the right command decision,” Wasser, second in command of PCF-44, maintains. “We went into a 30 or 40 yard wide canal, suppressed enemy fire and got out of there before we were killed. You just don’t hang around to get shot at. Gardner doesn’t know what he is talking about.”
Then there is Gardner’s bold claim that Kerry use to take PCF-44 four or five miles from shore every night so not to get shot at. When pressed how this could be so, since oftentimes they were 25 miles upriver, he backed down. “Okay, when we were in the rivers we didn’t go to sea,” he averred. “But he always tried to park it away from the action and hide.” The other members of PCF-44 were incredulous when they heard Gardner’s claim. To Wasser it was “erroneous to his memory,” to Zaladonis “just not true,” to Whitlow “false” and to Hatch “a falsehood.”
Which brought the interview to the crux of Gardner’s beef against Kerry. Gardnerwho remembers no important dates or times or localesclaims that Kerry once threatened him with a court martial. The incident happened when Gardner, who told me he had “no trouble shooting gooks,” saw a Viet Cong guerilla with an AK-47 in a boat and started firing. “I lay the hammer down on him,” Gardner explains. “I just put a finger on the gun: boom, boom, boom, boom. He’s done. He got flipped out of the boat, he went straight down. That’s when Kerry came running out of the guntub screaming ‘ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘I ought to have you court-martialed for shooting.’ I said, ‘Hmmph…sorry big boy. When somebody brings a gun up on me I’m gonna shoot and I’ll ask questions later ‘cause I ain’t goin’ back in a body bag.’”
The hardnosed Gardner returned from Vietnam in February 1969; Kerry came home a month later. The two men haven’t spoken in nearly 35 years. Kerry has no recollection of any of Gardner’s accusations, including the threatening of a court martial. None of PCF-44’s crew trusts Gardner’s memory. Today Gardner claims he works at Millennium Services (an insurance inspection company) and is bitter about Kerry’s national prominence. At various times in our interview he complained about Kerry “running around with Hanoi Jane” after the war and having a “rich wife.” Andlike Limbaughhe is determined to convince people that Kerry is Slick Willy incarnate.
When informed of Gardner’s accusations Kerry, campaigning in Texas, simply stated they weren’t true. “He deserves respect because he served our country well,” Kerry says of Gardner. “I left the country thinking well of Gardner and even tried to find him several times. But his stories are made up. It’s sad, but that’s the way it goes in war, and especially in politics.” And then he added: “But don’t ask me. I know the guys, my other crewmates, and they’ll set the record straight.”
Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at the University of New Orleans.