PORTLAND, Ore. – A swift boat crewman decorated in the 1969 Vietnam incident where John Kerry (search) won a Bronze Star says not only did they come under enemy fire but also 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 (search), of Eagle Point, Ore., got 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.
"I thought we were under fire, I believed we were under fire," Lambert said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
"Thurlow was far too distracted with rescue efforts to even realize he was under fire. He was concentrating on trying to save lives."
The anti-Kerry group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), 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 anti-war 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 located by The Associated Press this week 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.
Kerry's Bronze Star was awarded for his pulling Special Forces Lt. Jim Rassmann, who had been blown off the boat, out of the river. Rassmann, who is retired and lives in Florence, Ore., has said repeatedly that the boats were under fire, as have other witnesses. Lambert didn't see that rescue because Kerry was farther down the river and "I was busy pulling my own boat officer (Thurlow) out of the water."
Thurlow could not be reached for comment about Lambert's recollections.
But speaking for the Swift Boat Veterans group, Van Odell, who was in the task force that day, remembers it differently from Lambert.
"When they're firing, you can hear the rounds hit the boat or buzz by your head. There was none of that," he said in a telephone interview from Katy, Texas, where he lives.
On Thursday, the group released a 30-second Internet ad disputing Kerry's contention that his swiftboat crossed into Cambodia. Kerry's campaign has acknowledged that he may not have been in Cambodia on Christmas Eve of 1968, as he has previously stated, but that he does recall being on patrol along the Cambodia-Vietnam border on that date.
Lambert said the swift boats were on their way out of the river when a mine exploded under one, PCF-3.
"When they blew the 3-boat, everyone opened up on the banks with everything they had," he said. "That was the normal procedure. When they came after you, they came after you. Somebody on shore blew that mine."
"There was always a firefight" after a mine detonation, he said.
"Kerry was out in front of us, on down the river. He had to come back up the river to get to us."
Lambert retired in 1978 as a chief petty officer with 22 years of service and three tours in Vietnam. He does not remember ever meeting Kerry.