Interview with John O’Neill – Part I
Part I, Part II, Part III
David: Before I get into the questions I had prepared, I noticed in your interview with Jim Lehrer that there was almost conclusive evidence that both Kerry’s first and third Purple Hearts were fraudulent. Are you saying, then, that his Second Purple Heart was not fraudulent?
John O’Neill: No, not at all. If we are using our standard of, you know, burden of preponderance of the evidence, the second Purple Heart would fall as fraudulent. It’s just that we couldn’t conclusively prove it was fraudulent, so we took the position that we have no position on the second Purple Heart. But we do have a great deal of evidence that it was fraudulent as well.
David: In response to that I imagine Kerry’s supporters will say, well, Kerry is still a hero, then, even according to your version of the facts. Most people don’t even come close to one Purple Heart.
John O’Neill: I’m sure that’s right.
David: We can get into the specifics of the medals and honors in a minute. But first, John, could I ask you a little bit about your background, where you went to school?
John O’Neill: Sure, my family is an old Navy family. My dad was a graduate of the Naval Academy in ’31 and a Rear Admiral. My grandfather taught there. My brothers and I all went to the Naval Academy, as did most of my uncles. There is almost nothing that happened in the Navy that you wouldn’t find one of my cousins or myself involved in. I graduated from the Naval Academy in the Class of ’67. I went over to a minesweeper called the Woodpecker that spent a good bit of time off shore in Vietnam, and then I went to Swift Boats and arrived there around April of 1969 and remained there for a year – came back to the United States, got out of the Navy. I went to law school at the University of Texas. I actually graduated first in my class. I clerked at the United States Supreme Court and then I came back to Texas and I practiced law there ever since.
David: So was it tough going back to law school after you had been in a war? That is exactly what my dad did – after World War II.
John O’Neill: I honestly thought that it gave me an advantage because it makes you – you know I was spending my own money to go to school. I, therefore, you know, was very intent on going through there and, honestly, I was just happy to be safe. I was happy to be among friends and family, so I was really happy to be back home.
David: I watched with rapt attention your debate with John Kerry on the Dick Cavet Show in 1971 (as replayed on C-Span), and I noticed how skilled you were as a debater. You were going up against a guy who had reputedly distinguished himself as an orator and a debater and, yet, you blew him out of the water –no pun intended. I just wondered, did you have any background or training in debate?
John O’Neill: I had a little bit, David, at the Naval Academy where I did some college debating. I honestly think, purely as a debater or as an orator, Kerry would have been more well skilled. I think his problem that day was that he was lying. He was lying massively about these war crimes issues and when you combine his lack of truth about those with the general contempt he exhibited for people that day, he didn’t make a very good impression with the audience and that, I think, is why he did so badly.
David: Yeah, it really is difficult when you are in a real live debate over real life issues, as opposed to a hypothetical debate question, as we did in debate, to maintain a dishonest position. The lies eventually cause your entire position to unravel, don’t they?
John O’Neill: They do. As you say, there is a difference between debating in the abstract— for example: “Should the United States have a public works system? --- and talking about a little unit that you were in with a hundred other guys where you watched a few of them die and where you hear somebody, you know, accuse them falsely of war crimes. You are talking about a deal that is so intensely personal then that it is not a matter of debating points, it is really a matter very close to the soul.
David: Exactly. Now, if I may, I’d like to get into some of the countercharges, counterattacks, attempted rebuttals, etc. coming from the Kerry Camp and its surrogates -- and from the mainstream media which, of course, I would call his de facto surrogates as well. I’m talking about both the electronic media and the print media. The print media, if you have noticed, has come out of the woodwork, this morning especially (Saturday morning). I have noticed all kinds of articles on this. But, before getting into the questions about your responses to their attempted rebuttals, I would like to ask you about the various medals and awards Kerry received. I know you don’t want me to belabor the specific incidents too much because you have written an entire book about them. But since the book spans 180 some odd pages, exclusive of appendices, I wonder if we could just summarize what occurred so that people reading your interview responses will have access to a more abbreviated version. Would it be possible for us to do that by summarizing?
John O’Neill: Yes, there are other incidents besides the medals that are very important, but I can in a couple of paragraphs summarize the medals.
David: If you would, please.
John O’Neill: Sure, John Kerry received five medals in Vietnam, three of them were Purple Hearts. He used those to come home after a relatively short period of time – normal tour was a year. He got home in four months. He also got the Bronze Star and the Silver Star. I would like to discuss the three Purple Hearts first.
David: Before you do, excuse me for interrupting, is there some overlap, I want to get an outline form. Like, is the Bronze coupled with one of the Purple Hearts or is the Silver.
John O’Neill: Yes, the Bronze Star and third Purple Heart are basically the same.
David: Okay, sorry for that interjection.
John O’Neill: Alright. The first Purple Heart he obtained much later for an incident on December 2, 1968. The facts are that he went out on a skimmer. The people in the skimmer opened up at movement, not knowing whether or not who it was or what it was. There was no hostile fire. Kerry picked up an M79, fired it. A bit of his own grenade fragment came up against his arm, a tiny amount. The people on the skimmer, include then lieutenant William Schachte, later Admiral William Schachte, berated Kerry and were angry at him for firing the grenade too close. He went back, attempted to tell Dr. LouisLetson that it was the result of hostile fire, but the accompanying crewmen all confessed that Kerry had wounded himself. He went to the Division Commander, Commander Hibbard, and sought a Purple Heart. Commander Hibbard turned him down and asked him to leave the office. Some three months later, after everyone had left Vietnam, Kerry secured a Purple Heart in Saigon on February 28, 1969, from an officer now deceased who had absolutely no knowledge of the incident. The Purple Heart has no hostile fire report or casualty report. It is the only such Purple Heart that we are aware of in Vietnam not accompanied by those two documents.
David: Now, was this the instance the doctor turned him down too – because it was too minor of an injury?
John O’Neill: Well, the doctor wouldn’t be the one making that decision. The doctor simply couldn’t believe he was in there and then the doctor got tweezers and a band-aide, took the tiny little – like a rose thorn – out and put a band-aide on and the accompanying crewmen told the doctor that there was no hostile fire that Kerry was simply running for president and that he was the next JFK.
David: Okay, and one other thing. I thought, and this gets confusing and I have read the book but I don’t have it committed to memory but, watching some of the talk shows last night, which would have been Friday night, I think I heard John Hurley argue that Schachte was not on the boat and that the other crewmen on the boat said that he wasn’t on the boat. And, they also supposedly dispute that this was a self-inflicted wound and not as a result of enemy fire.
John O’Neill: We have to distinguish two things. First, two crewmen, Zaldonis and Runyon, both say that they did not see any hostile fire and do not know if there was any or not. That is my understanding of their current story. At least that is how they are quoted in Tour of Duty and other books. They say that they and Kerry were the only ones on the boat and they say Schachte was not present on the boat. Now, that is a different matter from what they told Dr. Letson and Grant Hibbard all those years ago.
David: As to Schachte or just as to the hostile fire?
John O’Neill: As to the hostile fire.
John O’Neill: Admiral Schachte places himself on the boat. He was the acting Judge Advocate General of the Navy and was an Admiral in the Navy. In fact, the policies would have required his presence because an officer in charge had to be present on the boat. In addition to Schachte placing himself there, there are a variety of other witnesses that all place him on that same boat.
David: First hand knowledge witnesses, right?
John O’Neill: Correct, first hand knowledge witnesses. People on the PCF that accompanied the boat, as well as people back at base at that time. People like Ted Peck who was a fellow officer in charge of a boat.
David: Do you have any idea why Zaldonis and Runyon would be saying that Schachte was not there? Could it be a honest difference in their recollections?
John O’Neill: It could be. It’s possible. I know that Runyon, in an article I read, said that Kerry had no idea who he was this past spring. And, so, I guess Kerry wouldn’t be in a position to put Runyon on the boat. It could be that. One thing I am very comfortable with is that Admiral Schachte was on that boat. The last thing Admiral Schachte would want to do is get involved in this controversy.
David: He has no stake in this, does he – nothing to gain by being involved in this?
John O’Neill: Absolutely nothing and it’s likely it is going to harm his career, sadly. He was the acting head of the JAG back during the Clinton administration for a year.
David: That is a very important position, isn’t it?
John O’Neill: Yes, he was the Judge Advocate General for the entire group of lawyers for the entire Navy. Admiral William Schachte is a guy who had a very distinguished navel career following his presence on that particular boat. Served in a variety of roles. Ultimately became a lawyer for the Navy. He was the head of the Navy Investigative Service – the NIS, which is one of the principle jobs in the Navy. Then he became the acting head of the Judge Advocate Generals Corp for a year. He is an extremely well respected lawyer and naval officer.
David: Have you discussed this with him?
John O’Neill: Yes.
David: And he stands by his story?
John O’Neill: He stands by his story 100%. In addition, I need to make one thing clear – there is absolutely no one – no one who has identified any hostile fire. That is, neither Runyon nor Zaldonis or even Kerry has said that they actually saw hostile fire. They simply sort of infer it. All of the reports that are required for a Purple Heart are missing. That is, there is no report of hostile fire that night in Cam Ranh Bay, as would be required to support a Purple Heart. There is no casualty report issued by any one that night in Cam Ranh Bay, as is absolutely required for a Purple Heart. So, none of the documents that exist for every other Purple Heart in Vietnam are present.
David: How about evidence of damage to the boat on this one?
John O’Neill: No, there is absolutely no damage of any kind to the skimmer. Nobody else is hurt. There is just absolutely no indication that there was hostile fire in the surrounding records. What’s interesting here is that immediately a decision is made by the Navy through Commander Hibbard that he is not entitled to the award. He waits three months until everyone leaves and then goes into Saigon.
David: Playing devil’s advocate, how do you know that there is an absence of records? That is, how can you prove a negative, especially when we’ve got such a dispute as to what records have and haven’t been released?
John O’Neill: Well, you can look at the Kerry website and there are documents on each of Kerry’s three purported wounds, and you will see that there is a hostile fire report and a casualty report for the purported incident of 13 March and for the purported incident of 20 February, but there is absolutely no hostile fire report or casualty report for the incident in Cam Ranh Bay on December 2nd. Also, independently we searched the Naval Archives and we could find no such records. We also looked at the records for Cam Ranh Bay to see if we could find any sort of record of any hostile fire that night and there is none. Independently, I believe that Admiral Schachte has checked his records, and there is absolutely no record of any hostile fire in this area that night.
David: Okay. What briefly is Kerry’s version of this first Purple Heart?
John O’Neill: Kerry says that he was on the boat. I am not certain that he says he was on the boat just with those two sailors. But, before I get into Kerry’s version, can I tell you one more.
David: Sure, anything.
John O’Neill: I think Admiral Schachte also believes that within the past two years—actually, it may be much less time than that-- Kerry saw Admiral Schachte in the Capitol and walked up to him and said, “Hello, Batman, this is Robin”. Amazing, exactly the same call signs used that night, or words to that effect. He used the call signs “Batman” and “Robin” that were being used that night.
John O’Neill: Kerry’s version of this –so, he well knows who Admiral Schachte is—with respect to Kerry’s version, Kerry’s version is that they were on this skimmer sure enough. I’m not sure, you know, he certainly puts at least one and two of the enlisted guys on the skimmer. I am not sure if he puts Admiral Schachte there or not. He says that he fired his M16, he looked out and then suddenly felt a sting and saw a tiny piece of shrapnel. Before he was confronted with all of this, he described this as the most frightening night of his life. He admits that this is a tweezers and band-aide deal and, other than that, has refused to comment on the process by which he attempted to obtain this Purple Heart after he had been denied. He was asked repeatedly by the Boston Globe to comment on this and he refused to comment.
David: Are there any records with respect to this incident that remain to be released in as far as you know?
John O’Neill: If there is actually a casualty report or hostile fire report, they should be released. I’ll indicate candidly I don’t think either of these exist because I don’t think there was any hostile fire or casualties. Also, there should be a record as to how this guy finagled the award three months later in Saigon.
David: Now, can we move on to the Second Purple Heart?
John O’Neill: Sure. On Kerry’s second Purple Heart, we took the position that the evidence was inconclusive. Therefore, we reached no final conclusion. What occurred is on the 20th of February 1969, Kerry was on or close to a river called the Dam Doi, which ran off another river called the Cua Lon. Immediately next to him was a boat commanded by then lieutenant Rocky Hildreth. Kerry claims that his boat came under intense hostile rocket and semiautomatic weapons fire and the rocket exploded near his boat and that it wounded him in his thigh barely with a tiny piece of shrapnel. This is the piece of shrapnel he uses over and over again as the piece of shrapnel “still inside me.” In fact, a second crewman had a slight shrapnel injury too – Gene Thorson. And so, in fact, they both did have tiny amounts of shrapnel – they didn’t lose a half-hour even from service –but the records do show they had a tiny amount of shrapnel. The question is how they got it. Here is the evidence on the other side. The evidence on the other side is that . . .
David: When you say other side, what do you mean?
John O’Neill: I mean the evidence that would indicate there was no –anyone—injury from hostile fire. The first thing is the commanding officer of the accompanying PCF within a few yards of Kerry’s PCF, Rocky Hildreth, indicates he heard or saw no fire of any kind. He indicates that he believes that that Purple Heart is fraudulent because he believes that he would have heard any rocket or automatic weapon fire, as he was only a few yards away. The second piece of evidence we have is a statement that we have taken from Van Odell, an enlisted guy, who was sitting back at the base when the boats arrived. He heard the enlisted guys on Kerry’s boat talk about how Kerry had fired an M79 grenade, had sprayed people with shrapnel, wanted them to put in for purple hearts as if it were a rocket but that most of them had refused to do so. The third piece of evidence we have is an e-mail from 2002 from Frederick Short, a guy actually on Kerry’s boat who supports Kerry and is one of the small group in favor of Kerry. This appeared on what was called the swiftserver. In that e-mail, Short says that Kerry wounded himself that day with an M79. Short, after meeting with Kerry, denies the authenticity of that e-mail and also its accuracy, but there are many different witnesses to the fact that they received it from Short that day in 2002. We have taken the position that on this evidence it is simply inconclusive. We are not going to form a judgment one way or the other on this Purple Heart.
David: And that is because you are trying to hold yourself to a fairly high standard here, is that right?
John O’Neill: Truthfully, what has happened here is so bad that we prefer to just concentrate on the episodes where there is just incontestable evidence.
David: How about, since this is a convenient point to interject this question, what do you say to those critics who would say “Okay John, assuming everything you say is true, we’ll knock out two of his Purple Hearts, his Bronze and his Silver, we’ve still got his one Purple Heart which is evidence of utter heroism. So why in the world are you trashing this noble hero?”
John O’Neill: First, I mean, what we are trying to do is just get to the facts. I don’t think we are trying to knock out his medals, we are just trying to ensure that the people have the actual facts and truth. Anybody that reads our book will learn that for his very short and controversial stay in Vietnam, his contributions were very minor/secondary, that he has wildly over inflated them, whatever you want to call them, and that the damage he did to the United States and to our armed forces when he came back is millions of times any measure of any good that he did in the short time he was there. I think that, fundamentally, is what we believe. I believe that the minor time he spent there and the minor amount of stuff he did there in real terms is very, very small compared to the huge damage he did to our military when he came back.
David: Yes, and is not fair to say that if he behaved in the manner you have documented he is highly unfit to be commander in chief even if he did exhibit some heroism?
John O’Neill: Absolutely, I think he showed a modest amount of courage, okay, just being in these boats, even though he didn’t mean to be in combat on them. But, he was there and he was there for three or four months and he deserves a small amount of credit for that. It’s just that he has wildly exaggerated and lied about what he had done, and, at the same time, he has tried to hide what he did when he came back to the United States, which was to deliver a near death blow to the American military and to the reputations of all of our guys, living and dead.
David: Yes. What about the existing records on this second Purple Heart – I mean, are there existing records and whether there’s any more that remain to be released?
John O’Neill: No. There really – what would be important on this one or would be helpful is Kerry’s actual medical records. Kerry has withheld the medical records. Instead of just simply providing a report of a friendly doctor in Massachusetts as to what he sees when he looks at the medical records, it would be helpful to have the medical records released. It would also be important to have Standard Form 180 signed which is the standard form document that would allow the Department of Defense to release all of Kerry’s records. A final very important record here would be Kerry’s own journal. Kerry kept a Vietnam journal, which he gives small slices of here and there. It would be very important to take a look at that journal and see what the entries tell us for these days.
David: Why do you think the media hasn’t pursued Kerry’s refusal to release all of his records?
John O’Neill: We took five guys down, and we met with a reporter here in town, whose name I won’t use because he met with us in fairness. He was an ex-marine, and we sat down and we went through the incident of 13 March, this ridiculous no man left behind story that Kerry was telling a couple of weeks ago but has no moved away from, and these five guys sat down who had been there that day –I think we had three of the officers who were there, three of the four and several other guys – and we went through the episode with that reporter, and the reporter started off cynical. But at the end, of course, he realized that Kerry had lied about the whole episode that he closed the Democratic Convention with, and we asked if was going to do an article on this. And, you know what he said? But this would help George Bush.” Well, that is a sad standard. For me, we don’t care whether we help George Bush or hurt George Bush. The problem is, you’ve got a presidential election here and people are just entitled to the facts and to make their own decision. But, candidly, that is an awful lot of what is happening here. It is like a group of house bankers controlled by the Kerry camp.
David: Yes, it sure seems like it. Ready to move on to the next one?
John O’Neill: Sure, the next episode is, or at least I think the next one I will discuss just so I can finish with the Purple Hearts, is the episode of March 13, 1969. This is the “no man left behind” episode that involves both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and concluded Kerry’s active involvement in Vietnam. I would first like to just tell Kerry’s story and then I can go through what actually happened, the evidence of it. Kerry’s story, well known to everyone, is that there were five boats on the Bay Hap River. A mine went off near the first boat. A mine went off -- Kerry claims – near his boat. This, unknown to Kerry, knocked a man named Rassmann — a Special Forces guy on his boat -- into the water. According to Kerry, all five boats sped off under very heavy fire. Kerry cleared the whole kill zone, several hundred yards up, looked around and realized that Rassmann was gone and then Kerry alone, or in his story sometimes with other boats, returned to the kill zone under tremendous fire. He had been badly wounded by the mine. His arm was bleeding. His hip was wounded. Under terrible fire with sniper bullets all around him, he reached into the water and pulled Rassmann, almost with his last breath, out of the water and then helped tow one of the boats. Then the Navy said Kerry, you know, you’ve done enough John, and he left to go home. He waited two weeks to make up his mind whether or not he was going to leave but decided finally that, although he regretted leaving his comrades, he would leave.
David: Let me ask you this. I noticed a discrepancy on that incident, even seemingly among some of your group. I think the book says, correct me if I am wrong, that someone actually was so disgusted with him that they asked him to leave. He was complaining so much about being there and combined with all his other behavior, they asked him and he contemplated it and left in four days even though he later said it was two weeks. My confusion is that I thought other people have inferred from his behavior that he planned to accumulate three purple hearts all along, knew about this rule allowing for an early out upon the acquisition of Three Purple Hearts, and it was kind of a premeditated thing? In other words, did his fellow sailors ask him to leave or had he been planning to leave as early as he could all along?
John O’Neill: Absolutely. These versions are actually not mutually exclusive. They involve two separate things. I think both of them happened, if you are asking me as the author?
John O’Neill: I think Kerry fully planned to leave when he picked up the three Purple Hearts and I think Tom Wright and the other people said get out of here. I think that both things happened at the same time. Now, Tom Wright believes that it was his asking him that caused Kerry to leave. Other people believe that Tom Wright had nothing to do with it and it was just a matter of Kerry picking up the three Purple Hearts and leaving. But, I have got to tell you, my opinion, David, is both things happened. I think Tom Wright said get out of here, and I think Kerry was well into the process of getting out of there as fast as he could.
David: Well, I would tend to agree with your version because if Kerry hadn’t preplanned it, how in the world could he have processed it so fast?
John O’Neill: That is the point. He couldn’t have gotten in to Washington in four days all the way through An Thoi Island. It had to happen within a very short time.
David: Why, by the way, why did he do the absolutely bizarre actions of (1) keeping a journal in the thick of war, I mean maybe this isn’t necessarily bizarre, but do you have time to keep a journal; and (2) make home movies of himself reenacting war scenes? Why would you do that? What legitimate purpose would he have had for doing these things?
John O’Neill: David, what is peculiar, truthfully, is, of course, he won’t let anyone see his journal except his biographer, Brinkley. When you study his journal what is astounding there are entries in the journal where he is literally lying to himself. What I am trying to say is he will have entries in his journal recording events and things that couldn’t have occurred. So, he knew he was not telling the truth as he recorded the journal.
David: I mean, as I read the book on that point, I got the impression the guy was almost, in certain junctures, in a fantasy land, where he kind of embellished things and he kind of had himself convinced, as you say. Was I inferring properly there?
John O’Neill: Well, I think he went over to Vietnam in order to be able to say that the Vietnam War was terrible and so on. Something he had thought since ’66, and I think secondarily he wanted an awful lot of film to use when he shifted to being a war hero whenever that was. I don’t think there is any other way to explain, for example, this film where he wonders around with the bandoleers and so on and all kinds of equipment that none of us really had in Vietnam. Obviously, it is a staged film that he using in his, I think it is the ad “My Life”.
David: I just can’t imagine fellow soldiers not being totally disgusted by that charade.
John O’Neill: They talk about it today. For the book, I only put instances where I had at least two or three different witnesses. Maybe I could just discuss one instance making clear that I have only one witness for this instance.
John O’Neill: Probably the most peculiar one, Cam Ranh Bay is where Kerry started. There was no real fighting going on at Cam Ranh Bay. You know, it was a big French resort town and so on. Kerry was in a room. One PCF guy walked in and when he walked in, Kerry had green camouflage paint on his face and he was holding a camera about 8 to 10-12 inches in front of him talking into the camera. This has got to be pretty unusual, you know what I mean? We didn’t wear green camouflage paint and there was nothing going on Cam Ranh Bay. The stories about him staging this stuff are legend. For example, Steve Gardner, as crewman, wouldn’t participate. He kept wanting Steve Gardner, kind of like a cameraman, for some of the stuff, and Gardner wouldn’t do it. So, the topic of he and his camera has been a constant topic for years there among the Swift Boat people who were there with him.
Continue to Part II