Are Michal Kranish, Boston Globe reporter and Douglas Brinkley, historian and Kerry hagiographer, capable of eliciting relevant information during an interview? If so, their own interview notes might shed some light on a Swift Boat mystery the NY Times chose to resurrect last Saturday. The puzzle - how can four men fit in a three man boat? Answer - they can't, so who is lying, or misremembering, when they say they were?
"Bill Schachte was not on that skimmer," Mr. Kerry says firmly. "He was not on that skimmer. It is a lie to suggest that he was out there on that skimmer."
He shows a photograph of the skimmer being towed behind his Swift boat, insisting that it could barely fit three people, himself and two others.
"The three guys who in fact were in the boat all say he wasn't there and will tell you he wasn't there. We know he wasn't there, and we have all kinds of ways of proving it."
What, the casual reader may have wondered, was Kerry going on about? Kerry won his first Purple Heart for a brief encounter with the Viet Cong on Dec 2, 1968. Kerry and two other men were in a "skimmer", a Boston Whaler whose mission was surveillance and interdiction of Viet Cong along the coast and upriver; they were supported by a Swift Boat commanded by Michael Voss.
Kerry and the others saw suspicious movement and fired their weapons at men on the coast who ran off; it is not clear from the witnesses whether there was return fire, but Kerry did endure a minor shrapnel wound (perhaps accidentally self-inflicted), thus qualifying for a Purple Heart.
His critics have alleged that the wound was minor and not incurred while engaging the enemy, and hence did not qualify for a medal. I disagree, but think that the critics are looking in the wrong direction.
During the summer of 2004, Admiral Schachte (ret.) came forward with a bit of a bombshell, claiming that he had been in command of the three man mission with Kerry and one enlisted man in the boat (Bob Novak, Lisa Myers). This flatly contradicted Kerry's claims that he had led two enlisted men in the skimmer; it also contradicted sailors Zaladonis and Runyon, who had come forward in early 2004 (Feb 20, 2004, Cox News Service) and identified themselves as the two men in the skimmer with Kerry.
And where are we now? Basically, where we were in the summer of 2004 - the debate moved on, Kerry lost the election, no one cares, and yet now the Times is front-paging the news that Kerry intends to revisit these points and vindicate himself.
I think we can rely on the Times to provide zero follow-up, so let me ask again some questions that occurred to me way back when - just why do we believe Zaladonis and/or Runyon were on that skimmer, and can anyone explain an odd lapse in interview technique by both Brinkley and Kranish?
The oddity is this - based on my (possibly flawed) effort with Lexis and Google, the earliest mention I can find of Runyon and Zaladonis serving with Kerry on this mission is a Feb 20, 2004 Cox News Service story describing Runyon's re-appearance in Kerry's life after all these years.
However - both Brinkley and Kranish interviewed Zaladonis in 2003, Brinkley for "Tour of Duty" and Kranish for a Boston Globe series, "John Kerry: Candidate in the Making". Why did they interview him? Because he served under Kerry on PCF-44 from Dec 6 to late January. Yet somehow, neither he nor Kerry happened to mention the exciting circumstances under which they first met a few days earlier on Dec 2. Or, if Zaladonis did mention it, neither Brinkley nor Kranish noted that they had an eye-witness to Kerry's first medal. That is some fine interview technique!
So - did either of these worthies sit down with Zaladonis and ask anything like, "How did you first meet Kerry?"; "Do you remember any specific events with Kerry?"; or "Do you ever talk about John Kerry stories with your friends?"
They all seem like reasonable questions for a profile on John Kerry, yes? And if we believe Zaladonis, there can't be any question but that he considered the skimmer op to be quite memorable - here is part of what he said to Lisa Myers of NBC News on Aug 27, 2004:
Myers: It was 35 years ago; how certain are you that Bill Schachte was not there that night?
Zaladonis: I'm absolutely positive. Absolutely positive. I don't remember every incident or everything that happened that night. But I do remember who was on the boat and remember it very plainly. Very plainly… Like I said, it was one of the scariest nights I've had in my life. And Pat and I have shared this story a few times since we've been out of the Navy. We've been very good friends ever since we've been—when we were in the Navy and out – and this is something that we talked about every now and then.
So it was one of his scariest nights in Vietnam, he discussed it from time to time with Pat Runyon, but he never mentioned it when Brinkley and Kranish asked him for any good Kerry stories? Or did they just not ask? (I see in his "Interviews" section that Brinkley had "multiple" interviews with the evidently laconic Mr. Zaladonis, and none with Pat Runyon).
Well, Brinkley is not going to respond to this, unless it is to ratify Kerry's position. I suspect it will be left to future historians to judge his record on his coverage of Kerry, since the truth will out, eventually.
Kranish is a different story, however - he did go back and check his interview notes with Schachte (who is also quoted in the Globe 2003 piece) and concluded that Schachte's original interview had skipped past the key plot points.
However, there is no indication that Mr. Kranish undertook a similar exercise for Zaladonis, who was identified in April 2004 by the Globe as having been on the skimmer:
Kerry's crew spotted some people running from a sampan, a flat-bottomed boat, to a nearby shoreline, according to two men serving alongside Kerry that night, William Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon.
No explanation is offered as to why these two are known to be on the crew, although the point did not become controversial until August.
From the Globe, we see that "Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com".
Since the Times has re-surfaced this, and since Kerry seems to be intent on re-fighting it, I am going to exhort Mr. Kranish to take another stab at this, with an emphasis on just what he and Mr. Zaladonis discussed in 2003. My hope is that there is a plausible reason that Zaladonis was not tabbed as being on the skimmer with Kerry back then.
Some day we still hope to see Kerry's War Notes, and maybe even the application and witness statement supporting his first Purple Heart currently in the Naval Archives. Douglas Brinkley is an historian, but I think it may take other historians to address this.
And are there other places to look for clues? Well, the unit records for then-Lt. Schachte's group should have some accounts of the other skimmer ops ostensibly led by Schachte, who told Lisa Myers and Bob Novak that, as the originator of the idea, he went on each mission. Can records confirm or disprove that? My impression is that some folks out there are deeply conversant with the Naval Archives, so any assistance would be appreciated.
And a long-shot would be to check histories of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War - Zaladonis said he did not join, so disproving that would fracture his credibility.
I have early "Zaladonis" citations below - Lexis has been inexplicably balky for me, but this seems to be every reference relevant to "Zaladonis" linked with Kerry from Jan 1990 to April 1, 2004. I still need to check alternate spellings - the Wash Times used "Zaldonis" in one story.
ERRATA: For reasons I can't explain, Brinkley thanks Zaladonis, among others, for his contribution to the chapter titled "The Medals". However, that chapter covers the action on PCF-94, where Kerry won his second and third Purple Hearts and his Silver and Bronze Stars; since he was on PCF-44 with Kerry, one wonders why Zaladonis is here. Maybe it is a subconscious cry for help from Brinkley, who knew Zaladonis witnessed a medal but couldn't put his finger on which one. Or maybe Zaladonis was on another boat involved with one of Kerry's medals.
Also puzzling - on p. 160, Brinkley tells us that, of all his PCF-44 crew, Zaladonis was the hardest for Kerry to get to know. This, despite the bonding rite of passage a few days before they sailed? Brinkley then records Kerry reminiscing about Zaladonis without mentioning their heroic night together. Weird.
Zaladonis - mentioned as having served with Dan Droz in this Oct 10, 2002 story:
A daughter awakens a tale of honor and of a spirit ravaged by war
Kansas City Star
Zaladonis, Feb 15 2004; Kerry as war protestor; Free Republic partial.
Zaladonis, Feb 20, 2004 - A Wash Times article about Kerry as war protestor:
John Forbes Kerry, who has voiced his presidential aspirations since high school, criticized America's "intervention" in Vietnam before going to the war, confirmed his beliefs during five months of duty there and returned to build a career in politics based on his opposition to it.
...Bill Zaladonis, an engineman on Mr. Kerry's boat, remembers that the future senator fought bravely and honorably. But, he said, some veterans simply will never forget what Mr. Kerry did after the war.
"It doesn't matter what he does, they'll never forgive him," Mr. Zaladonis said from his home in Florida. "One of my best friends says he'll never vote for John Kerry — not even for dog catcher."
..."I really lost it when they started talking about those atrocities," said Mr. Zaladonis. "That was more than a lot of us could take." Still, he said, it was courageous of Mr. Kerry to stand up and speak out, even if he didn't agree with him.
March 4, 2004: Zaladonis non-commital on support for Kerry
Kerry Goes On Offensive In FloridaTampa Tribune (florida), NATION/WORLD, Pg. 1March, 04 2004WILLIAM MARCH1016 words
ORLANDO - John Kerry launched his general election campaign with a "town hall meeting on America's security" Wednesday, signaling he will challenge President Bush in Florida and take the offensive on national defense issues.
Surrounded by members of firefighter and law enforcement unions in Orlando, the Democrat charged that the Republican president hasn't lived up to pledges made after the Sept. 11 attacks to bolster border security, police and fire protection.
...He didn't receive a ready endorsement from Bill Zaladonis, an engine man on Kerry's gunboat during the Vietnam War.
Kerry praised Zaladonis, now retired in Sanford, saying the crew relied on his work in tight spots. Zaladonis wouldn't commit publicly to Kerry, saying he did not go along with Kerry in joining Vietnam Veterans Against the War after serving overseas."That's a private matter," Zaladonis told reporters when asked how he would vote in November. Later, when pressed, he said he "probably" would back Kerry, noting: "I'm no great fan of George Bush."
Byline: James Kuhnhenn
Feb. 20--DAYTON, Ohio -- It happened again. John Kerry reunited this week with another former seaman with whom he shared a harrowing night 35 years ago in a dark finger of water in Vietnam.
Patrick Runyon, a 58-year-old shipping clerk from Eaton, Ohio, showed up at a local union headquarters where Kerry was to speak and reintroduced himself to the Massachusetts senator. Runyon wanted to find out whether Kerry recalled their single nighttime mission as well as he did.
"He remembered quite a bit of it," Runyon said in an interview about his private meeting with Kerry.
The skirmish involving Runyon occurred one night in early 1969. Kerry, Runyon and Bill Zaldonis, who was Kerry's Swift boat engine man, were assigned to a small Boston Whaler to patrol a peninsula north of Cam Ranh in search of Viet Cong in South Vietnam's "no man zone."
"It was very dark, really," Runyon said. "Then we seen some cross the water. A silhouette. Mr. Kerry saw them with starlight scope. He said, 'I'm gonna pop a flare.' When he popped the flare I started the engine. We got going."
Kerry recalls the episode in "Tour of Duty," historian Doug Brinkley's book about the senator's service in the war and his ensuing antiwar stance.
"The light from the flares started to fade, the air was full of explosions. My M-16 jammed, and as I bent down in the boat to grab another gun, a stinging piece of heat socked into my arm and just seemed to burn like hell," Kerry says in the book.
It was Kerry's first real action, and it earned him his first of three Purple Hearts.
Neither Kerry nor Runyon has any idea whether they wounded or killed the enemy. In the book, Kerry says he and his crew strafed the beach, then destroyed the sampan the Vietnamese had beached.
"It was just a scary moment in our lives," Runyon said.
He'd never seen Kerry again. Until this week.
When Kerry landed in Dayton on Wednesday he was alerted to Runyon by an article in that day's Dayton Daily News. Kerry wasn't sure he remembered Runyon and asked to meet Runyon and his wife, Anne, privately, out of sight of journalists.
"I wanted to see if he remembered the incident," Runyon said. "I knew he wouldn't remember me."
Runyon said he followed Kerry's career from the moment Kerry became an antiwar activist as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"The man had done his duty," Runyon said. "Then he came back and protested. That's the right way to do it, instead of running off or hiding away in college."
Runyon has been disaffected with politics since Vietnam. "I lost interest after that," he said.
But now, he's willing to reconsider.
"If it does help, I'm definitely going to register and vote for him," Runyon said.