Columns » Ernest Dumas

Kerry’s gunner


A few veterans may have uncertain memories of their days on the muddy rivers of Vietnam, but Fred Short of North Little Rock is not one of them. Short remembers each day like it was this morning. He remembers the feelings that would come back over and over, that he would never see home again and that when he died it must be with a prayer on his lips. Up in the gun tub atop boat 94, a dozen feet above the water line, Short prayed some days almost without cease. He remembers the concussion from the rocket grenade’s explosion in the brush behind him on the morning of Feb. 20, 1969, then the bullets hitting the cabin below him, and horsing his heavy machine guns around in the gun tub with his hip and seeing the blood of his skipper, Lt. John Kerry, on the deck below him. He remembers the eyes and the individual hairs in the wispy moustache of the Viet Cong soldier who was pointing a rocket launcher straight at him on the morning of Feb. 28 and the helplessness he felt because he could not get the boat’s guns lowered to fix on the soldier, and he remembers the resolution of the skipper, now a candidate for president, who killed the man and saved his life. The memories are kindled now by rage. A group of veterans supporting President Bush, not a single one of whom was there, say that none of the stuff Short remembers happened, at least not like he recalls it. Kerry never spilled blood, the Viet Cong whom Kerry killed to save Short’s life was a mere boy in a loin cloth, and Kerry and his men plotted to get medals. “It has really been devastating,” Short said this week. “They were trying to hurt Kerry and they probably succeeded, but they degraded the service of every one of us. There were only 3,000 of us who went on those swift boats in what became known as ‘the days of hell.’ The crew members went out every day and risked their lives. They don’t deserve this. It’s dishonest and dishonorable.” Short turned 21 on Feb. 18, the day he went out on a swift boat and saw his first firefight. I had the best seat in the house,” he said. “I was in the gun tub, which sat atop the pilot house. I manned two 50-caliber machine guns.” Almost every other day the boat would be ambushed. Casualties were high. Two days after Short’s birthday, Kerry’s boat was rounding a river bend when a rocket grenade exploded behind him. He saw the smoke trail, swiveled his guns around and started firing. “I looked down and saw blood on the deck. I hollered ‘who got hurt?’ at Del Sandusky,’ He said the skipper had taken one in the hip or leg. They put antiseptic and a battle dressing on the wound to make it clot and we went on. When we got back, a Coast Guard cutter had gone in to refuel or resupply and they took Lt. Kerry aboard. They sewed it up rather than dig out the shrapnel because he would have lost more blood. He still carries that shrapnel in his leg.” Bush’s veteran surrogates say Kerry faked his wounds. Bob Dole doubts he ever bled. A week later Kerry’s heroism would win him a Silver Star. Kerry, the lead skipper of three boats, devised a new strategy that morning for dealing with the daily ambushes. They would ram ashore and attack the snipers. A thousand yards upstream they were attacked by rocket grenades and small-arms fire from the right bank. On Kerry’s orders, the boats all turned sharply and rammed onto the banks with all their guns blazing. The Viet Cong leaped out of their holes and ran. Troops that were being transported on the boats went after them. Kerry took his boat and another and went upstream where AK-47 fire was heard. Snipers attacked the boats from both banks with AK-47s and rocket grenades, blowing the windows out of the cabin of Kerry’s boat. When the boat ran upon the mud shore, a man in VC garb climbed out of a hole a few yards away and aimed his rocket launcher straight at Short, who couldn’t lower his guns to that level. “I could see the whites of his eyes and the individual hairs of his moustache,” Short said. “He couldn’t fire, either because he was scared or because the arming mechanism was slow, so he turned and ran back toward a hut.” The soldier suffered a minor wound before dropping into a ditch covered by jungle about 60 feet away and aimed his launcher at Short. Kerry sprinted after the man and shot him in the side before he could fire the grenade. “It would have taken out the pilot’s cabin and the gun tub and maybe the whole boat,” Short said. “Lt. Kerry saved my life by risking his.” The crew was in four firefights that fine day. Kerry and the other 18 men on the three boats got medals. The Bush people say that they, or at least John Kerry, deserved no recognition.

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