Oct. 14, 2004 -- -- 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.
A Village Unchanged
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.
Less than a kilometer upriver is Nha Vi, a small hamlet. Vo Van Tam, now 54, was a local Viet Cong commander during the war. According to him, the area was a hotbed of guerrilla activity. They had recently been reinforced by a 12-man unit, supplied with small arms and one B-40 rocket launcher. He said the reinforcements had been dispatched from provincial headquarters specifically to target the Swift boats.
According to Vo, there were at least 20 Viet Cong soldiers at Nha Vi there that day. "There were 12 soldiers from the provincial level and eight from the district level," he said.
His wife, Vo Thi Vi, 54, said Feb. 28, 1969, is a day that the villagers of Nha Vi hamlet will never forget. "Everything was destroyed," she said. "There's no houses left. They leveled everything. There was no leaves left. The fighting was very fierce."
According to the citation for Kerry's Silver Star, when the boats approached the hamlet, "a B-40 rocket exploded close aboard PCF 94" -- Kerry's boat. He "personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy," the citation says, before commending Kerry's "extraordinary daring and personal courage" for "attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire."
That account is disputed by Swift boat veteran John O'Neill, author of "Unfit for Command," who maintains in his book that the statement "is simply false. There was little or no fire."
Villagers say this is what they saw:
"Firing from over here. Firing from over there. Firing from the boat," Vo Thi Vi told "Nightline."
She was only a couple hundred yards away when a Swift boat turned and approached the shore, she said, adding that the boat was unleashing a barrage of gunfire as it approached.
"I ran," she recalled, "Running fast. ... And the Americans came from down there, yelling 'Attack, Attack!' And we ran."
Her husband, Tam, said the man who fired the B-40 rocket was hit in this barrage of gunfire. Then, he said, "he ran about 18 meters before he died, falling dead."
Was the man killed by Kerry or by fire from the Swift boat? It was the heat of battle, Tam said, and he doesn't know exactly how the man with the rocket launcher died. But he knows the man's name -- Ba Thanh. He was one of the 12 reinforcements sent to the village by provincial headquarters, and after he died, the firefight continued, according to Tam.
"When the firing started, Ba Thanh was killed," Tam said. "And I led Ba Thanh's comrades, the whole unit, to fight back. And we ran around the back and fought the Americans from behind. We worked with the city soldiers to fire on the American boats."
According to the after-action report, after beaching the Swift boat, Kerry "chased VC inland, behind hooch, and shot him while he fled, capturing one B-40 rocket launcher, with round in chamber."
None of the villagers seems to be able to say for a fact that they saw an American chase the man who fired the B-40 into the woods and shoot him. Nobody seems to remember that. But they have no problem remembering Ba Thanh, the man who has been dismissed by Kerry's detractors as "a lone, wounded, fleeing, young Vietcong in a loincloth." (The description comes from "Unfit for Command," by Swift boat veteran John O'Neill.)
"No, this is not correct," Nguyen Thi Tuoi, 77, told ABC News. "He wore a black pajama. He was strong. He was big and strong. He was about 26 or 27."
Tuoi said she didn't see Ba Thanh get shot either, but she and her husband say they were the first to find his body. They say they found him a good distance from his bunker, though she could not confirm that Kerry -- or anyone else -- had pursued him into the bush.
Her husband, Nguyen Van Ty, in his 80s, had a slightly different account of how Ba Thanh died.
"I didn't see anything because I was hiding from the bullets and the bombs," he said. "It was very fierce and there was shooting everywhere and the leaves were being shredded to pieces. I was afraid to stay up there. I had to hide. And then, when it was over, I saw Ba Thanh was dead. He may have been shot in the chest when he stood up."
He also said the Swift boats were coming under attack from the Viet Cong fighters on shore. "We tried to shoot at the boat," he said, "but we didn't hit anything."
Kerry's citation says he "uncovered an enemy rest and supply area, which was destroyed," but according to the villagers, the Americans missed the military supplies. In fact, Vo Ti Vi said, just a few weeks after the attack, the Viet Cong raided a U.S. base stealing weapons and ammunition. The weapons remain in Nha Vi all these years later, she says, buried under her garden.
Back in Tran Thoi, villager Nguyen Van Khoai said that about six months ago he was visited by an American who described himself as a Swift boat veteran and told him another American from the Swift boats was running for president of the United States. Nguyen said the man was accompanied by a cameraman.
"They say he didn't do anything to deserve the medal," Nguyen said. "The other day, they came and asked me the questions and I said that the recognition for the medal is up to the U.S.A."
He said that, after they met, the Swift Boat veteran and the cameraman turned around and went back down the river. "Nightline" has not been able to identify the men.
Campaign Issue Arises
His awards should have been the most unassailable part of Kerry's record. But then came those campaign ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. "He is lying about his record," said Ensign Al French in one ad.
Most of the charges in the ads were general: "When the chips were down you could not count on John Kerry," said Lt. j.g. Larry Thurlow. "John Kerry is no war hero," said Lt. Bob Elder. Some of the charges referred to the anti-war testimony Kerry gave before Congress.
But John O'Neill, the officer who took over command of Kerry's Swift boat after Kerry left Vietnam, raised some specific questions about the incident for which Kerry received his most significant award, the Silver Star:
"In the Silver Star incident, John Kerry's citation reflects that he charged into a numerically superior force, and into intense fire," O'Neill told ABC News in an August 2004 interview. "But the actual facts are that there was a single kid there who had fired a rocket, who popped up, and John Kerry with his gunboat, with or without a number of troops, depending on who you talk to, plopped in front of the kid. The kid was wounded in the legs by machine gun fire, and as he ran off, John Kerry jumped off the boat and shot the kid in the back."