Swift Boats and John Kerry

The campaign of 2004 got a bit nasty regarding the military service of the two candidates. President Bush was denigrated for ducking service by joining the Texas Air National Guard – and it was also suggested that he used influence to do so, and didn’t fulfill his obligation. Let me get that out of the way first before addressing the issues regarding his opponent, Senator Kerry.

The waiting list for the TANG that Bush supposedly jumped was for ground positions. There is no waiting list for potential pilots in any of the services, the qualifications are too high. There are only a few ways to get a flying billet as a pilot, and most of them involve graduating from one of the service academies. The Navy has AOCS and OCS – I know this from personal experience. AOCS is available to those with 2 years of college, and involves a long program as an enlisted man. OCS is available to full college graduates, and can be four months of OCS at Pensacola as an enlisted man – or can be applied for by a Newport OCS graduate. Either way the active obligation is there.

I chose to apply to Marine aviation my junior year in college – I wanted to fly the AD near the ground rather than Navy jets – but I was convinced by my roommates to go Navy with them. The obligation was 3 1/2 years active, 4 mos. of OCS and 18 mos. (give or take, depending on the weather) of flight training – and one tour with the fleet. Before I fully signed up (raised the right hand) the obligation changed to 2 tours – making it about a 5 year active committment. I dropped out and went surface through OCS Newport.

There is a purpose to this personal story which I’ll get to, and it regards the two candidates of 2004. I cannot place myself in the mind of either man, but again let me address President Bush first. It is a general misconception that National Guard pilots are “weekend warriors” who fly their taxpayer funded aircraft to resorts, there are many who have done that to keep up their “hours” after they are qualified – but the training is full time. Learning to fly a military aircraft is one of the more dangerous occupations in the service. I had a friend who dropped out of Pensacola without prejudice – the air cadet lived in two man rooms, and in two months he had lost three roommates to training accidents. The Navy found his reluctance to continue to be reasonable, given the unusual proximity to him of the normal accident rate.

The Air National Guard can’t train a pilot, the Air Force does it for them. It is 18 months full time flying to graduate as a pilot, then further fully active training in the advanced aircraft. Bush was in F 104s (?) – (the interceptor of about that number, I think the fighter bomber was the 105). ANG F 104s were assigned to Vietnam, but as the mission change they were substituted by the fighter bombers. Bush couldn’t have predicted that – his active time had to be over two years in flight training and advance squadron training.

Now to Senator Kerry, and may I preface this by saying that I don’t subscribe to the Swift Boat veterans denigrations of his actual actions in Vietnam – they may be right and they may be wrong, but in their book they try to ascribe motives that neither they nor I can know. I refer only to the matter of his “volunteering” which was a part of his campaign literature.

Senator Kerry volunteered for OCS Newport, USNR. So did I (but in 1957). The Swifties have made a point that it was USNR, not USN – but that is the same canard as Kerry supporters saying Bush went into the National Guard. For pilots the Air National Guard has an active duty obligation, and a probable call into active wartime service. The OCS program for Naval officers has the same. An OCS Newport graduate is committed to three years active service with the fleet. Each may be called into a war zone if the need comes up. Both Kerry and Bush volunteered for approximately the same thing (although Bush’s flight training was inherently more dangerous).

My guess is that each was “ducking the draft” – in a sense. If one has the qualifications to become an officer it would be silly to allow one’s self to be drafted as an enlisted man – the officer’s pay and perks are better. The other side of the argument is that the officers serve a longer tour of active duty. We had a guy in my class at OCS who “bilged” himself out after three days – he had it figured. The draft would have put him in the Army for two years, volunteering for the Navy was a four year obligation. But his committment to the Navy by going OCS was two years as an enlisted man if he didn’t graduate OCS. So after three days “I can’t take the pressure” and he goes to Great Lakes boot camp for two months and gets out in two years. Smart, but not particularly dedicated.

Kerry’s campaign literature said he volunteered for two tours in Vietnam. He didn’t. There is a hiatus in his service record as quoted by Unfit for Command, but I think that is just bad research. He graduated from OCS as an Ensign and six months later the Swifties have him on USS Gridley (a guided missile frigate, a bit larger than my destroyer). I doubt that there is any conspiratorial secret mission in there, just a mistake in research. The normal assignment from OCS is to one of the three choices one is asked to make – the higher the grades the more likely to get first choice. (I was number 6 in my OCS class – my first choice was “small combatants, North Atlantic”, and I got it). The only things one could volunteer for out of OCS were flight training, UDT and helmet diving. UDT is out now as it has been absorbed by the SEALS and they require active time before volunteering.

Kerry was the middle of his class, I have no idea whether he got his first choice – but he was assigned to USS Gridley. Gridley was assigned to the coastal waters of California. The ship’s logs show her deployments. About a year after Ens. Kerry’s graduation from Newport Gridley was sent to Australia – she spent about two or three weeks “plane guarding” in deep water off Vietnam. That is the first tour in Vietnam that Kerry’s campaign literature says he “volunteered” for. Missile frigates and old fashioned destroyers are used by the carriers to mark the path for the outgoing and incoming pilots to the carrier’s deck, and one is always astern to try to pick up the “misses”. A responsible duty, yes – done it many times. But not exactly combat unless there is an enemy with a Navy.

Now we get to the sticky part – the matter of “volunteering” for the second tour (having not had a first tour). Here it can be argued either way – and here there is no answer without reading Kerry’s mind (which none of us can do).

Approximately 18 months into his active service Ens. Kerry volunteered for the Swift Boat program ( I believe he made Lt.jg. while in the program – you make Lt.jg. 18 mos. after being commissioned as long as you are still breathing). At the time the Swift Boats were being used in blue water off Vietnam as interceptors of coastal contraband. The four month training program was also in San Diego, close to his girl friend of the time.

OK, I’ve got to stop here for a moment. That last statement was true, but also unfair as it suggests an ulterior motive. I have no knowledge of that. But I’ll be unfair again now and suggest another motive. There is no record publicized as to Ens. Kerry’s duties on Gridley – a junior officer can become a bit lost on a medium sized ship. After 18 months on USS Rooks (DD804) I was Damage Control Assistant (carriers have a Damage Control Officer, destroyers have a Chief Engineering Officer who has a Main Propulsion Assistant and a Damage Control Assistant – each in charge of their separate areas). I was also a qualified Officer of the Deck, underway (i.e., in command of the ship from the bridge – but under the seniority of the Captain should he choose to take the bridge), and qualified Command Duty Officer, in port – authorized to take the ship to sea in extremis in the absence of the senior officers. I was also the legal officer and a number of other things – small ships give officers multiple duties.

All the above is boring, only a fellow Naval officer would understand it. I wonder if Ens. Kerry, soon to be Lt.jg., might have thought of his future resume and wanted to have command. JFK did it with PT 109, one has to have a small boat for a Lt.jg. to have command. It is possible that the thought ran through his mind when he asked for Swift Boats. If so then we are different, I have spoken here of my “command” which is not on the record except as potential. I have not spoken of incidents where that “command” was exercised – perhaps in another posting about the sea.

Admiral Zumwalt, in about November, reassigned the Swift Boats to brown water. As fifty footers they hadn’t been used “in country”, but being heavily armed he chose to replace the 28 footers with the Swifties. At that point Lt.jg. Kerry found himself in deep combat operations.

OK, summary. Bush had no idea whether he would be going into combat, but he wanted to fly a combat plane like his father if he had to do military service. ANG was the only way to do that, or Naval OCS, without being from a service academy. (My guess). Kerry had no idea whether he would be going into combat, but he chose the Navy which is a tradition with the seafaring state of Massachusetts. He and Bush were given assignments, and they fulfilled them. In both cases they got out of their six year reserve obligation early – so did I, and I had no influence. The six years is a bit flexible depending on the amount of active duty – and I think both fulfilled that.

My complaint on Kerry is purely his acceptance of the inaccuracy of his campaign literature in saying he volunteered for two tours – the Navy doesn’t have that kind of tour except for special units, you go where your ship is sent. As to the Swifties comments on his specific medals I have no comment, I wasn’t there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *