In the controversy over Sen. John Kerry's service in Vietnam, Americans have heard from Kerry, from the crew of the Navy Swift boats he commanded and from other Swift boat veterans who question the official account of a 1969 incident for which Kerry was awarded a Silver Star. But there is one group they have not heard from: the Vietnamese who were there that day.
According to the military citation, Kerry was awarded the medal for his actions during an intense firefight on Feb. 28, 1969, during which he shot and killed a Viet Cong fighter who was armed with a rocket launcher. Members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group have charged that the Viet Cong fighter was a teenager who was alone, who was not part of a numerically superior force, and who was already wounded and running away when Kerry shot him.
"Nightline" traveled to Vietnam and found a number of witnesses who have never been heard from before, and who have no particular ax to grind for or against Kerry. Only one of them, in fact, even knew who Kerry is. The witnesses, all Vietnamese, are still living in the same villages where the fighting took place more than 35 years ago. A "Nightline" producer visited them and recorded their accounts of that day. The accounts were subsequently translated by a team of ABC News translators.
Life along the Bay Hap River in southern Vietnam has changed very little in those years. The river is lined with small hamlets and isolated shacks reachable only by boat. They are surrounded by marshland, separated by winding canals, and concealed by thick walls of vegetation.
The canals lead to Tran Thoi village, the coordinates of which are publicly available in the U.S. military's after-action report on the 1969 battle. The Vietnamese government initially rejected "Nightline's" request to visit the village, saying it did not want to somehow influence the U.S. presidential election. Once "Nightline" explained that the intention was to simply find out what the Vietnamese people remember and think of what happened there, permission was granted.
On Feb. 28, 1969, a convoy of three American Swift boats came up the river under the command of Lt. John Kerry, arriving at the village of Tran Thoi. According to Kerry's medal citation, the boats "came under intense automatic weapons and small arms fire from an entrenched enemy force less than 50 feet away. Unhesitatingly, Lieutenant [junior grade] Kerry ordered his boat to attack."
The Swift boats, which were transporting a group of the Americans' South Vietnamese allies, turned into the ambush and beached. According to the after-action report, the South Vietnamese troops stormed ashore, overwhelming the local insurgents.
The fierce firefight at Tran Thoi was just the beginning of the day that has become so central to Kerry's biography. Kerry's boat, PCF 94, and one of the other boats continued upriver. The ABC News team took the same route to the site of the second deadly incident that day.
According to the Navy's official report, following the initial ambush, Kerry's boat and another Swift boat continued up the river to an area where gunshots had been reported.