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Interview with John Kerry, 1982

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Summary
John Kerry commanded swift boat operations in Vietnam from 1968-1969, earning two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. He would later return to the US and become a highly visible spokesperson for “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” In this interview he describes his missions in Vietnam and his misgivings around their purpose. He discusses his participation in the Winter Soldier Investigation and the effects of atrocities committed by William Calley and others on the anti-war movement. Finally, he recalls the death of his friend, Don Droz.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Atrocities, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Campaigns, United States--History--1945-, United States--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements--United States, Government, resistance to, Peace movements
Tags (2)
senator, Massachusetts
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Transcript

Missions in Vietnam

VIETNAM
JOHN KERRY
TAPE 1, SIDE 1
SR #2524
This is SR #2524. Camera Roll 546. For full track mono please transfer to 16-millimeter full coat edge. First one up is John Kerry at 60 State Street in the morning. Would be number one first.
Interviewer:
If you could, since this would be used with some of your footage, describe what a typical mission was like and if you could mention the fact that you had this camera and why you wanted to have some pictures and mention Don Droz. Um...
Kerry:
In, in all in this answer.
Interviewer:
Ya. Just...
Kerry:
Don't know how to throw in the names.
Interviewer:
This way you have nothing to pick up on Don Droz. Just that what it was like to go up these up these canals.
Kerry:
Uh. Huh.
Interviewer:
And, ah, what you what it was what was your conclusion to that. And you talked about kind of senseless loss.
Kerry:
Um. Mm.
Interviewer:
And, what that was like. You don't have to be. I mean just sort of talk. When you're ready. Ready...
Kerry:
Whatever. That's the question. Well, okay. Ah. Well a typ—a typical mission, ah really didn't have any sense to it. It was ah the logic that was explained to us by the ah command in Vietnam was that we were quote "showing the flag in the back yard of the enemy" which literally entailed driving up rivers sometimes ah so thin that the bow of a boat was nudging the trees on one side while the stern was caught on the banks of the other side as we turned around.
Then, we'd go up these rivers or canals and shoot at any quote "targets" of opportunity and at that point in time targets of opportunity were thatched huts or any people who happened to be in the area because it had been designated an enemy zone and, therefore, a free fire zone.
Ah. Or there was specific targets. There were bunkers or there were enemy strongholds which ah any of the strongest stronghold of the enemy entailed again thatched huts or small village or something like that. And, the basic theory was you gonna make a lot of noise. You're going to be there. They're gonna see you. They're gonna, therefore, feel that the Navy and the American military forces are without fear and without ah any restraint in its capacity to go into any part of Vietnam. So, we would do that. We would just go up these rivers with three and four and five boats lined up in back of each other sitting there like ducks on a shooting gallery waiting to be shot at and ah ah we'd go through...I think we went through almost every river in the Mekong Delta at one time or another, and we were shot at in almost every river in the Mekong Delta, and, received enormous casualties.
Ah. We had no protection. We were quarter inch aluminum in our boats. We were all basically exposed, and we never shot first. We always were shot at first. We were always ambushed, and then it became just a question of getting out of the the ambush. Survival and ah whatever numbers of wounded there were would be heli—helicoptered medivac’d out or you'd get them back to one of the coast guard vessels off the coast and then you'd go back and do it again.
Interviewer:
How, how was, I mean when your mission, when, when your orders were given to you how did they make sense of it? It doesn't seem as if it made any sense. What were your officers say to you about what was the purpose of what you were doing?
Kerry:
Well, there was a lot of debate and argument about that purpose right right there in Vietnam, and I think that ah within the...certainly within the officer group, but I think even down into you know the enlisted men also I think there was a tremendous amount of questioning. Why are we doing this. What are we doing this for, and I know I was part of a group of people who were questioning and and in there was so much questioning at, that one day they literally stopped the war for us, told us all to get into our khaki uniforms. We went to the airport on Phu Quoc Island and they flew up to Saigon and the group from Vung Tau came up in their boats up the Saigon River and we met at Admiral Zumwalt's residence in Saigon where General Creighton Abrams came himself came in and addressed us as well as Admiral Zumwalt and told us that what we were doing was terrific and important to the war effort and that there was a future chief of naval operations there in that room and how proud they were of us and ah within hours we were back in our rivers and going at it again and there wasn't any purpose to it and I think ah most people began to see that. We weren't gaining any territory.
We weren't winning the hearts and minds of anybody. Ah. We certainly weren't securing any particular strongholds or strategic objectives. We were simply doing a very macho kind of ah ah you know public demonstration of our presence ah which ah was in many ways I think very very foolhardy and without any foundation. I I I think many of us felt it was the Navy's way of having their presence and being in the war.
Because without that, the Navy basically only had the seals who were doing you know some long-range patrol and demolition work and stuff like and they had their forward gun observers, not very many of them, and otherwise they were ah off the coast and not really in it.
But, in this form through the Riverine patrol both the PBR's, the small patrol boats, as well as the PCF's which we were which were the patrol craft fast, we ah began to have much more Navy presence I think and ah you know to some degree it could have been useful had it been prosecuted differently, had they been more intelligent about what they were doing, and ah you know I mean it's not that it was doomed from the beginning. It was just doomed because of the way they did it and because you didn't have a lot of very smart people doing it.
Interviewer:
How could it have been prosecuted differently?
Kerry:
Well, because I—I mean I think that...
Interviewer:
Start with...
Kerry:
It could have been done differently by genuinely setting some objectives of dealing with the people, with the infrastructure of Vietnam, ah, in those particular areas by ah you know having medical services and training services and people who could speak Vietnamese. You know, all of the ingredients of trying to constructively build some kind of a relationship with the people with whom you were supposed to be prosecuting this effort.
But, on the contrary, there was no relationship. I mean there was this incredible division which I noticed the first day I arrived in Vietnam between those of us who were supposedly helping people to fight the war and those for whom we were fighting the war, and that division was so enormous that those for whom we were fighting the war were not even part of the damn thing. I mean they were just ah ancillary really to the process.
Ah. And, and people had disdain for the rough puff troops as they were called for the regional popular reconnaissance forces and Vietnamese forces were the few minor exceptions. There were a few units that were capable and good. But, by and large, you never wanted to go out with them. I mean every time we ever involved ourselves with any Vietnamese forces you could be guaranteed there would be an ambush, and ah gees I remember going out once with ah two very close friends of mine one of whom was killed Don Droz and another who now writes for a newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, Bill Rude.
Ah. And, we went up the river, a tiny little river you know with thirty troops on each of our boats unable to move very fast and sure enough within ten minutes of leaving the village we were being shot at. We were ambushed.
And, ah, that was the day that ah we were all decorated because instead of ah instead of just going through the ambush and getting shot up ah I I just got fed up with it. I got, de—decided to ah ah attack the ambush and we just turned our boats and we beached right in the middle of the ambush and we ran right over it.
And, ah, the ah eh eh when we came back to the village, as a matter of fact, I'll never forget it, there wasn't a soul at the dock, which was to—totally different from normal because normally whenever we came back all the kids were there and all the villagers were but this time when we came back the dock was empty, the village was empty, and you just knew that they knew both what had happened as well as the fact that it was going to happen.
Interviewer:
Let's stop for a minute. How much film have you got left?
About eighty. Beep. Beep. Take two. Roll. Beep. Beep.
Excuse me. That's okay.
Kerry:
Sorry.
Interviewer:
That's okay.
Kerry:
Ahm. I think a lot of people and I think more people ha—the majority of people had serious reservations and doubts about the propriety of what we were doing. There were intense arguments at times in the officer's quarters ahhhh after meals over meals about what we were doing.
Ah. At meetings when missions were being assigned ah there were discussions about the ah the purpose of the missions and and what was gonna be accomplished. There were people who believed, there were people who believed that we were fighting communism and that this was terrific and it was important and who were all swept in it.
But, I think most people ah did not. I think ah ah people like my friends that I mentioned Don Droz ah Billy Rude others ah were questioning. I don't think they were on the on the you know total this is absolutely crazy side, but they had serious doubts and serious reservations and and ah ah didn't like what was you know being done.
In fact, you know, most of us, I mean one of the things that I'm proudest of is that the group of people that I served with, and I think they were an exceptional group of people. I mean they really were an an incredible group of ah individuals www—acted on their own to make decisions, to separate what was good and what was bad and I think most of our guns most of the time were fired only in anger, only in response when we were in a situation that we're being been fired at.
By and large I think we took pains not to fire in free fire zones even where we were let allowed to, but where we just knew there were people there and we weren't going to be you know responsible for that, and we weren't. And, I think a lot of people feel that.
Interviewer:
Stop. I think we've run out of film. Are you still rolling?
Beep. Beep. I'm still rolling. Yes.
Okay.
Take three.
Can I get up.
Oh, sure.
This begins Camera Roll #2 on the day which would be a 547.
Kerry:
Oh, Calley made a dif—Calley made the whole antiwar difficult in a way. Ahm.
Interviewer:
Just the picture of him and how he got...
Kerry:
...secretaries, and chiefs of staff.
Beep. Beep.
And, you know, get away in December, I hope.
Rolling.
Kerry:
Ah, Don Droz and I became very, very good friends and ah we did a lot of mission together. We also did a lot of talking together. We were really ah ah ...
Interviewer:
Want to start over.
Kerry:
Yeah.

William Calley's threat to the image of the honorable soldier

Interviewer:
Yeah. Go ahead.
Kerry:
Can we wait?
Sure.
Beep. Four.
Interviewer:
Say when...
Kerry:
Everything everything about the war obviously I mean as a matter of history now was as polarizing as anything that I can remember in our political process and I think that ah the Calley incident did two things. One it helped as a catalyst to move more people into an antiwar camp because they were outraged.
But at the same time it moved a lot of other...it it helped other people to retrench and to to you know it was so horrible and it was so unheard of for American soldiers to be involved in something like that that it challenged everybody's notion of what we do that is supposed to be good in the world and what soldiers of America have always done and the whole WWII image and handing out chocolate bars and GI Joe and all of those images were really threatened by Calley so it made it much harder in many ways for us to reach out ah because people didn't want it. They couldn't deal with it. It was very, very threatening I think to a lot of people and so it confused our capacity to be able to really communicate on why we shouldn't be there.
Interviewer:
But weren't you in retrospect were saying that Calley was not alone?
Kerry:
Yes, we were.

The Winter Soldier Investigation

Interviewer:
Let's that how to start that one. What were your purposes in assembling Winter Soldiers hearings?
Kerry:
I think the purposes at that point were to...
Interviewer:
Mention Winter Soldiers.
Kerry:
The purposes of Winter Soldier were to try and get the press by and large to take notice, to start to write about a different kind of war than they were in ter—and to understand the antiwar movement in different terms to to perhaps ah you know up until that point veterans were just not being listened to. People did not listen to the veterans of the war.
The press itself had difficulty in perceiving of a group of Vietnam veterans being opposed to the war, and we had been trying through more legitimate nonthreatening means to get them to say "God, they're a group of veterans who are opposed to this war," and it wasn't until Winter Soldier hit and even Winter Soldier was very difficult. In fact, I conceived of ah the march on Washington as a reaction to the lack of reaction over the Winter Soldier.
When we were in Detroit with Winter Soldier New York Times never covered it. I think there might have been one tiny clipping if I recall correctly. The Washington Post barely took note of it. And, the electronic media did not take note of it.
Ah. So, that we suddenly realized we have to do something else to make America understand how the soldiers of this war feel about it, and also some of the things that they were engaged in over there. But, I think the what they were engaged in I perceived of at least as so secondary to the bigger message. It was a way of trying to get some people to take notice.
Interviewer:
But didn't some people, some veterans come to Winter Soldier hearings to say Calley is not unusual? Didn't they...
Kerry:
Some, some phrased it in those terms. Oh, absolutely.
Interviewer:
That's, wait until I finish my question. Ah. Well, were you concerned about that? Ah. Could you discuss that that some veterans did want to communicate that message and what did you think of that message?
Kerry:
Some veterans wanted to convey a message that clearly put America on notice that Calley was not alone. I felt that that story had to be told but I did not for one and I I I was not always in agreement with all the other vet leaders either, but I felt that there were dangers in that and that it would conceivably make more difficult our capacity to try and reach those Americans who were not with us in this process yet, and so I had ambivalence and some reservations about the degree to which that particular notion should be pushed as opposed to talking more about how lives were being wasted, how the war was being prosecuted.
Ah. Why we from our perspective saw that the Saigon government wasn't real, that the Vietnamese soldiers were not supportive, that the people themselves were not part of it. I mean I felt that was where the debate should center and not on the atrocity angle of things even though I think it was real. And, even in Washington when we finally got there and demonstrated I was personally not in favor of throwing the medals over the fence.
I wanted the medals returned on a white tablecloth, on a table that was placed in front of the capitol and each person walked up and quietly put their medals on the table and made a statement which that part of America that was not with us could understand.
And I think that the reaction of many of those people...Many people were moved by it but by the same token many of the people we needed to move into our camp were too outraged by it and felt that it was too insulting and for those mothers for whom the Silver Star was all they had left it was an awful challenge and we needed those mothers with us and that's why I I I you just you know felt that it was a problem, and I felt the same way about pushing the atrocity angle of things. I didn't think it was ah you know I thought it was necessary to own up to the truth of it.
I think it's necessary to look at that as an angle of what we did. I don't think we should ever run away from it, but I did not think it should be the focus of our antiwar communications process.

Dewey Canyon III

Interviewer:
What was your intention in planning Dewey Canyon III and with, with its various elements. Ah. Talk about it in, I just want to have the take on the fact that Winter Soldier didn't have the impact that you wanted.
Kerry:
The purpose of Dewey Canyon was was quite literally to get the United States of America to understand that there were thousands of veterans in this war, the young men who were sent over there who had a story to tell and that it was one of of profound importance, not only about why the war itself was wrong, and why we were not going to be successful and why we have to recognize that, but also a story about how people were being chosen to go and fight it, about who was being chosen to go and fight it, about how they were being treated when they returned to this country, about how a basic moral contract between government and its citizens was being broken...ah...in terms of employment and education opportunities and VA hospital treatment and a host of other things, and I think that ah we just felt that story had to be told, and the only way to tell it was to take it to Washington in that form.
And, part of the experience that that made that so clear to me was the Winter Soldier response and also I remember once I had a press conference in Washington which I put together and I had two or three Gold Star Mothers, I had General Shoup, former commandant of the Marine Corps, you know, Medal of Honor winner, remarkable person.
Ah. I had a number of high administration officials, ah, former administration others and we had this press conference, and we advised it correctly. We told everybody about it and this was an important antiwar statement and nobody came. Nobody wanted to hear "talking heads".
And, I remember calling ABC I think it was and I got mad and I said what in the hell is the matter with you people. I mean here is the former commandant of the Marine Corps who represents you know all the reasons a lot of young men are going over to Vietnam and getting killed who's saying we shouldn't be there and you people don't even let American hear his voice, and I said, I'll bet if we chained ourselves to the White House gates you'd have been there.
And, they said, ya, we probably would have. And, at that point it was clear to me that the only way to do it was to bring masses of veterans to Washington and camp on the Mall and do something that was going to make them take notice and it did.
Interviewer:
I'd like to do one more take full. To separate it out from Winter Soldier about the disagreements on the returning of the medals. Ah. If you could describe it in terms of the dis—you know, sort of back room discussion about how that should be done and what your own concerns were. If you could add into this the fact that your own fears of what people how people saw the antiwar movement, what they had in mind when they thought that disorder in...
Kerry:
Sure. I, well I was, you know I came to the antiwar movement from a different place than a lot of people. Ah. I came from a lot of very traditional assumptions expectations ah and when I came back from Vietnam the last place in the world I thought I would be is out in the street demonstrating.
Ah. But, I found that the process finally demanded that and and so I did it. But, I think unlike some people who were part of that process ah I didn't politicize a lot of other goals in the process of ending the war.
And, an awful lot of the antiwar movement did that. There was a lot of confusion you know between ending the war in Vietnam and having the foreign policy that made sense and understanding deterrents and defense systems.
Confusion between all of that and social goals about the redistribution of income and and ah housing programs and racism and all sorts of other things that you know began to become part of it.
Interviewer:
Folks we're out of film. Just as well cause I think...I'd rather have it...
Beep. Beep. This is Take five and it's roll 548.
Start out. Ya.
Kerry:
I think that the antiwar movement went through certain stages and I think that one of the problems with it is as is, it happens to a lot of movements. I think it happened to the women's movement too that in order to begin and attract people's attention sometimes it takes a very radical kind of ah you know outrageous demonstration or effort to make people get their first consciousness that there's something new.
And, then more people begin to think about it and it brings in more people and it changes. The problem with the antiwar movement really when the veterans appeared on the scene was- it had stalled. It it really had stalled.
And, the image of it was ah Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman total sort of radicalized effort. Suddenly here were these legitimate spokes-people, the veterans, who came right out of the heart of it who represented the next escalation of capacity to communicate who and and that was our strength really was that that we were a whole new group and I felt that it was dangerous to allow that new voice and new capacity to communicate to step back into the mold that the antiwar movement had reached at that point and stall that.
So I was very opposed to efforts by the veterans that were merely replicating what had brought the movement to its point of stalling and I saw the the return of the medals in a manner that threatened middle American as counterproductive rather than as you know a move, a moment when people were really gonna say well, Wow, you know, that's, look at those guys, that must really mean something. They're giving their medals back. Instead they sort of trashed them.
Now, it turned out that it was effective for a certain group but that wasn't that point. It could have been so much more effective to a much larger group and you wouldn't have wound up I think with the capacity to be able to begin to have articles appeared planted by Charles Colson and Richard Nixon and others that would begin to degrade those veterans who had taken part in it and have a legitimate capacity to have people listen to it which is what happened to a large degree and there was a certain discrediting that went on, ah, and that was too bad because some of the effectiveness of the voice was diminished.
Interviewer:
Why were you overruled on that? Was there just so much...
Kerry:
Because we were a very, very democratic...All right. You want me to...
Interviewer:
Start it again.
Kerry:
Well, you know, my point of view did not prevail on that for you know we were a very very democratic organization. We took a vote on everything that we did. We took a vote on whether or not we would sleep over and defy the Supreme Court and that vote carried and frankly it wasn't that huge a margin, but it carried and everybody went along with it.
And, in the same way, the executive committee or six of us took a vote on the question of ah how it would proceed and I lost. Ah. And, ah, I think what what dominated it was the profound anger that people felt. They just didn't want to give it any respect, and that's how they felt and they were gonna express how they felt. So, that was important.
Interviewer:
All right. Okay. Maybe you want to stop for a minute. Um...

The death of Don Droz

Many beeps. End of Tape 1, Side 1.
End of SR 2524.
VIETNAM
JOHN KERRY
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
SR #2525
This is WGBH 11/5/82. Sound Roll #2525 Camera Roll 548. Take number six is us. Kerry. Sixty hertz neopilots seven and a half. 208 minus 8. Beep.
Kerry:
Are we rolling? Okay. You want to talk about Don. Okay. Ahm. Don Droz and I ah became very good friends and I recall that he ah went to Hawaii to visit ah his wife and he just had a baby and I could, I think the baby was a week or two old and he came back from that visit.
Ah. He had a wonderful time. Absolutely marvelous time and we were talking about what we were going to do afterwards and he was going to ah go to Dartmouth and he had a fellowship set up and we were going to sail down here and get together and you know ah.
And then I was wounded a third time lightly. I was very lucky in each of my escapades but it was enough that they decided under rules (chuckle) you can go home if you want and I ah and I was sent home, and I guess about a week after I got back or so a very short time after I got back one of my other very, very close friends wrote me a letter describing to me how Don was killed, and ah it was ah just I mean it was the quintessential mission absurd of the missions that we were on. I mean it was like all of them with its own heightened absurdity in many ways.
Ah. You know crazy captains and people who were ah there for all the wrong motives giving people orders to do things that didn't make sense and they didn't know what made sense because they weren't there every day and ah you know, whole string of boats going up a tiny river and Don's boat took a B-40 rocket right under the cabin and Don was killed instantly and the boat rammed the beach at full speed and went right up on the shore and ah ah you know they wound up ah people wound up in hand-to-hand combat. The VC came right out of the bunkers and tried to storm the boat and it was just a very, very messy scene.
Ah. Some of our own people wound up firing at each other because nobody could make sense out of who was saying what to who. Just pointless. I mean absolutely pointless.
Interviewer:
Stop please.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Sure, sure, sure.
Seven seconds. Okay.
Kerry:
Sure. Sure. Okay? Well, one of the reasons I think that veterans of Vietnam are still dealing with the war in many different ways is that ah you know we went and came back in in totally different from the soldiers of any other war. We didn't go over with the units the way they did. Ah. We didn't ah ah live with a group and come back with a group and we didn't have time to work things out on a troop ship for three weeks playing poker, losing our wages, crying in each other's arms, doing all the things that those soldiers did, and we didn't have three weeks in Paris or six months or whatever it was. We didn't come back to ah docks that were lined with people who validated the experience in all the ways that they were validated then.
Ah. We came back...we went, you know, we went sort of goodbye, hop on a plane, bunch of people you've never seen in your life all going to different parts of the country you've never been to in your life. Ah. Stewardesses running up and down the airplane. It's a chartered airplane.
Ah. You know, have a drink. Oh terrific. You know long flight. Destination whatever and suddenly there you are. You get off the plane and you're with, you know, within hours you're with a unit, and somebody's briefing you on going out on a real mission and you're on a real mission and somebody's shooting at you.
And, ah, you know, you begin to see a lot of ah ah instant ah insanity and ah brutality that ah I don't think anybody prepared you for and then one day all of a sudden you're back on this airplane ah with stewardesses and people who are laughing and happy and you're coming out of this freaky atmosphere and ah you land back in the United States of America and nobody cares. Nobody wants you to be in uniform.
Ah. You get in a taxi and off you go. You try and go home and you get caught in a traffic jam or you...you know, I mean, I'll I'll never forget it. Getting into San Francisco that first night and ah nobody could have cared less where I had been. Ah. Absolutely unbelievable. And, I remember going to the house of very close friends of mine in San Francisco and I knocked on the door and said hi, and the person came to the door and ah looked awful and I said, what's the matter. And, they said well, my mother just shot herself.
And, and I stood in the door you know suddenly confronting you know the this incredible you know here was another death and here I was home and I remember feeling very very weird and uh that was that. Strange.
Interviewer:
Say strange again.
Kerry:
Strange.
Interviewer:
One more time.
Kerry:
I can't. I just...
Interviewer:
I talked over you both times.
Kerry:
It's just strange, very strange.
Interviewer:
Cut. Thank you.
END OF SIDE 2. END OF INTERVIEW.
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