WASHINGTON — On a spring day in 1971, a young Vietnam veteran with shaggy brown hair and clad in a khaki field jacket bedecked with battle ribbons sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee and delivered riveting testimony.
"We had an investigation in which 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-by-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command," declared John Kerry, a 27-year-old Navy veteran.
"They told the stories (that) at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."
Kerry said more that day, much of it an impassioned argument for ending the war. But it was his words about alleged atrocities by Americans that infuriated, and bewildered, many fellow veterans of that long ago conflict.
The Massachusetts senator, who earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, has made his military service a centerpiece of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. His political stock took off in Iowa after an emotional reunion with veteran Jim Rassman. The retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and former Army Green Beret was plucked from a river by a wounded Kerry three decades earlier in Vietnam.
Throughout his campaign, Kerry also has referred to his anti-war activism, although not the harsh comments of the Senate testimony and other fiery speeches three decades ago. Instead he has focused on the Nixon administration’s efforts to evict Vietnam veterans protesting the war from the National Mall, where they camped in 1971.
"And we said to him, Mr. President, you sent us 8,000 miles away to fight, die and sleep in the jungles of Vietnam — we earned the right to sleep on the Mall and talk to our senators and our congressmen," Kerry said during a stump speech in South Carolina three weeks ago.
A campaign-produced video shows grainy footage of a young and concerned-looking Kerry testifying before Congress. But it includes only short sound bites from his presentation that day and nothing about atrocities.
James Wasser and Bill Zaladonis, both crewmen two years earlier under then Lieutenant Kerry on his Navy Swift boat, a 50-foot aluminum craft that patrolled the waters of the Mekong Delta, were bitter and angry when they first saw television coverage of his testimony.
"Absolutely upset," said Wasser, who recalled no such atrocities. "I felt betrayed."
Said Zaladonis, "I didn’t like the idea. I certainly didn’t believe that all Vietnam veterans were baby-killing, woman rapers. Most people I know agree with me, they didn’t see it."
Today, Wasser and Zaladonis are no longer in agreement about their old skipper’s postwar actions.
Wasser is now a strong Kerry supporter, often appearing on behalf of the Massachusetts senator at political events. His hawkish views on Vietnam have evolved and he now backs Kerry’s involvement with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the organization for which Kerry served as spokesman at the height of his antiwar activities.
"As I look back over the years, I feel he did the right thing," said Wasser, an electrician from Illinois.
Zaladonis has mixed feelings. "I thought he was a damn good officer. I think I would very much like to see him as president." But Zaladonis is uncertain about whether he will vote for Kerry, partly due to political issues and partly because of Kerry’s work with antiwar protesters.
"The more I hear about (the protests). "’Did John say that? Did he do that?’" said Zaladonis, a retired telephone technician in Florida. "I’m still studying it."
Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Naval War College professor who led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, also remains angered by Kerry’s words, which he believes painted all Vietnam veterans as war criminals. While noting Kerry’s "immense courage under fire," Owens wrote in the conservative National Review magazine last week, "Those who might be otherwise inclined to support him should ask themselves if they appreciate being portrayed as war criminals: murderers, rapists, men capable of committing the most heinous atrocities.
John Hurley, national director of Veterans for Kerry, dismissed Owen’s views as "ludicrous," pointing out that Kerry’s Senate testimony echoed the views of others who served in Vietnam and witnessed or participated in atrocities.
"He has the greatest respect for Vietnam veterans," Hurley said. "He slept with them, he ate with them, at times he bled with them."
Asked whether Kerry still believes in the soldier accounts that he conveyed to the Senate panel, Hurley said, "He’s not judging the firsthand experiences. He’s certainly sticking by what he said."
Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, an Army captain with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam who lost both legs and his right arm when a grenade exploded near him, said Kerry was part of "the moderating force" within the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Cleland, a strong Kerry supporter, said he agrees with the senator’s 1971 testimony. "The bad guys used terror. It was war," Cleland said. "The Americans in that kind of hell did the same thing."
As for those veterans who feel betrayed by Kerry, Cleland said, "Bullfeathers. He spoke for all of us. He earned his spurs." The former senator recalled other words in Kerry’s Senate testimony that he said still ring true, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Clearly, war crimes were committed in Vietnam, said Owens, pointing to the My Lai massacre. What upsets Owens and some other veterans is the scale of the purported atrocities discussed by Kerry as well as whether they were officially condoned by top U.S. officers. He noted that between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against Vietnamese, although he concedes that not all war crimes are reported.
Both Owens and Zaladonis, the Kerry Swift boat crewman, doubt there were anywhere near as many war crimes as portrayed by those who took part in the "Winter Soldier" investigation, which was organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in early 1971 in Detroit and formed the basis for Kerry’s later testimony before the Senate.
After Kerry testified before the committee, Sen. Mark Hatfield, an Oregon Republican, asked for an investigation into the alleged atrocities.
In his book, "America in Vietnam," author Guenter Lewy cited a subsequent inquiry by the Naval Investigative Service that found that many of the veterans who spoke in Detroit refused to be interviewed even when offered immunity and some who reported the most grisly atrocities were fake witnesses who had used the names of real veterans.
Lewy, in an interview, termed the Winter Soldier project "completely unreliable and untrustworthy" and doubts that Vietnam War atrocities were officially condoned or as widespread as the Detroit testimony indicated.
Lewy does not recall if he saw a copy of the naval investigative report or was briefed on its contents. "I’m quite confident the information is authentic," he said. Paul O’Donnell, a spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said officials were searching for a copy of the report.
Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and a Marine Corps veteran of the war, worked with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He stands by the Winter Soldier project and was unaware of any investigation that called into question the truthfulness of the participants.
For his part, Kerry eventually left the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in November 1971, after 10 months with the organization, increasingly worried it "was becoming too radical," Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley wrote, noting that his letter of resignation cited "differences in political philosophy." Kerry went to law school and later embarked on a successful political career, becoming lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982 and two years later a U.S. senator.
Wasser, Kerry’s Swift boat comrade and current political supporter, is philosophical about the debate that continues to rage among his battlefield comrades.
"Veterans who are for or against the war," said Wasser, "they at least fought for the right to have that opinion."