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Crewman Says Swift Boats Were Under Fire

August 27, 2004|From Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — A Swift boat crewman decorated in the 1969 Vietnam incident in which John F. Kerry won a Bronze Star says not only did they come under enemy fire but that his own boat commander, who has challenged the official account, was too distracted to notice the gunfire.

Retired Chief Petty Officer Robert E. Lambert of Eagle Point, Ore., received a Bronze Star for pulling his boat commander, Lt. Larry Thurlow, out of the Bay Hap River on March 13, 1969.

Thurlow had jumped onto another Swift boat to aid sailors wounded by a mine explosion but fell off when the out-of-control boat ran aground.

Thurlow, who has been prominent among a group of veterans challenging the Democratic presidential candidate's record, has said there was no enemy fire during the incident. Lambert, however, supports the Navy account that says all five Swift boats in the task force "came under small-arms and automatic weapon fire from the river banks" when the mine detonated.

"Thurlow was far too distracted with rescue efforts to even realize he was under fire," Lambert said in an interview with Associated Press. "He was concentrating on trying to save lives."

The anti-Kerry group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has been running television ads challenging the Navy account of the boats being under fire. Kerry has condemned the ads as a Republican smear campaign.

A career military man, Lambert is no fan of Kerry's either. He doesn't like Kerry's post-Vietnam antiwar activity and doesn't plan to vote for him.

"I don't like the man himself," Lambert said, "but I think what happened happened, and he was there."

A March 1969 Navy report supports Lambert's version. The report twice mentions the incident and both times calls it "an enemy initiated firefight" that included automatic weapons fire and underwater mines used against a group of five boats that included Kerry's.

Thurlow could not be reached for comment about Lambert's recollections.

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