LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Painful memories of three North Vietnamese ambushes became a matter of joyous pride for Fred Short as he was reunited with the Navy patrol boat commander who he said saved the whole crew by charging into the teeth of the enemy attack.
It had been 34 years to the day since Short of North Little Rock last saw that lieutenant: current Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry (search).
Their warm embrace Monday in front of a gathering of more than 150 Democrats was the climax of Kerry's campaign swing through the home state of former President Clinton.
Kerry repeatedly praised the state's Democratic Party for producing Clinton and loosened up the crowd by alluding to a conversation he had with the former Arkansas governor earlier in the morning.
"I asked President Clinton for some advice before my visit, and in true form he gave me so much advice I couldn't use any of it," Kerry joked.
Kerry criticized President Bush for "reversing" the budget surplus and job growth accomplished during the Clinton administration, saying, "We need to be smart the way Bill Clinton was smart in the 1990s."
Kerry also took shots at his Democratic colleagues in Congress for not standing up to the Bush administration.
"We don't need a Democratic Party that says to the president's plan, 'Yes, but a little slower,' or 'Yes, but a little less,'" he said. "We don't need a second Republican Party."
But Kerry's main focus, both in his remarks and in a campaign video played before his speech, was his military career and his dedication to the U.S. armed forces and veterans' causes.
Before leaving the gathering, Kerry and Short looked at a photograph of themselves and four other crew members of their patrol boat. Short said he found the photo on the online auction site eBay (search), being sold by a woman who had found it at a junk sale in Arizona.
Short recalled the third of three ambushes on their group of boats on March 4, 1969, when his twin 50-caliber machine guns couldn't tilt low enough to shoot a Viet Cong soldier lying in a ditch, aiming a rocket launcher at their boat.
"We were in a small canal and normally we would have tried to exit, but Mr. Kerry ordered us to charge," Short said. "While I shot high, he and Tommy Bellodeau charged under me, right at the guy, and we routed them. That's why Mr. Kerry won the Silver Star."
Short said the crew avoided any casualties, even though 800 of 900 American troops caught in that zone died that day. He said it was a few weeks later, April 28, 1969, that he finished his tour and last saluted Kerry.