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In an interview with WorldNetDaily, “Band of Brothers” member James Wasser flatly denied he told a former swiftboat crew mate that he had always despised their skipper John Kerry but “came around” after a persuasive, private meeting with the senator at the beginning of the presidential campaign.
John Kerry in An Thoi, Vietnam, Feb, 28, 1969, after presentation of his Silver Star. Crew from left is Del Sandusky, Kerry, Gene Thorson, Thomas Belodeau. Kneeling from left, Mike Medeiros, Fred Short.
Gunner’s mate Steve Gardner, featured in the latest Swift Boat Veterans for Truth television ad challenging Kerry’s war record, has been claiming on numerous TV and radio talk shows in the past month that Wasser made that statement to him in a telephone conversation in early March.
Gardner told WND he got Wasser’s number from Boston Globe reporter Michael Kranish and called his old war colleague after 35 years of separation.
Recalling the conversation, Gardner, paraphrasing, says he told Wasser, “The John Kerry I know is not the John Kerry you guys are talking about. How can you campaign for him after despising the ground he walked on?”
Gardner, 56, of Clover, S.C., has speculated it’s possible the men were bought off somehow, but, whatever the case, he thinks Kerry used his powers of persuasion to bring them to a glowing, positive view diametrically opposed to the one they held in Vietnam.
He claims Wasser’s reply was something like this: “I felt the same way you did, buddy, but after John sat us down and talked with us for awhile, we came around to his way of thinking.”
Wasser, reached at his home in St. Anne, Ill., says he has heard Gardner make the claim on the radio and, while acknowledging the phone call took place, strongly denies he said he had flip-flopped.
“That’s abolutely, g– d—ed false, and that’s as nice as I can put it.” Wasser said.
He said he still respects Gardner as a “Vietnam crew mate brother,” but “I will absolutely refute that statement. It is absolutely false.”
Asked to respond after hearing Wasser’s denial for the first time, Gardner replied, “It was just a conversation between he and I, and he sure said it.”
“I actually would have expected him to say, ‘Well that’s kind of what we said,'” continued Gardner. “But now, quite obviously, he’s enmeshed with what’s going on.”
He added: “It’s really a shame for those guys to allow John Kerry to get into their heads that bad.”
Gardner and Wasser, a radarman, both served on Kerry’s PCF [Patrol Craft Fast] – 44 for about six weeks, from December 1968 through January 1969, with Gardner serving slightly longer.
Gardner is the only one of 10 former crew members — Kerry commanded five on each boat — to reject the presidential candidate’s plea to campaign for him. The other men on PCF-44 were Boatswain’s Mates Drew Whitlow and Stephen Hatch and Petty Officer Bill Zaladonis. Gardner says he stays in regular touch with Zaladonis and contends he now is neutral toward the campaign, wanting to stay out of it.
Steve Gardner speaking at National Press Club in May
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has 254 of Kerry’s former colleagues in Vietnam — including every officer who served in the chain of command above him — who contend the senator is unfit to be commander in chief.
Wasser refers to the group challenging Kerry’s record as “Swift Boat Sailors for George Bush.”
“I was there 24/7 with John Kerry,” he said. “What they are doing tears me up, because it’s deceiving veterans.”
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spokesman John O’Neill, who took over Kerry’s second boat, is “just trying to sell books,” Wasser insisted, referring to “Unfit for Command,” which will be listed No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in September.
“If I seem passionate, I absolutely am,” said Wasser. “What they are doing is wrong.”
Gardner commented: “When it’s all said and done, he and I are still shipmates. I feel sorry that he let his personal integrity be used that way.”
Wasser, an electrician, said his first face-to-face reunion with Kerry, after 34 years, was March 19, 2003, at a fund-raiser in Chicago. Wasser said his wife made the initial contact with the Kerry campaign, asking when the candidate would be in town.
Since then, the veteran says, he has been an unpaid member of the campaign, which flies him to different venues, mostly in the Midwest, for rallies and fund-raisers.
Today, he will be in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Max Cleland and another of Kerry’s former crew mates, Gene Thorson.
Wasser was a delegate to the Democratic convention earlier this month and was given the honor of reading off the state’s list of delegates during the roll call.
For us or against us
Gardner said soon after his March phone conversation with Wasser he received a call from John Hurley, national coordinator of Veterans for John Kerry.
Hurley, according to Gardner, asked him to join the campaign.
“We really want you to come, we’ll fly a plane to Charlotte and pick you up,” Gardner recalls Hurley saying.
Gardner declined and remembers Hurley replying: “If you are not for us, you are against us.”
Gardner responded: “Let me say this in terms you can understand. You are absolutely right.”
He concluded the short conversation, saying “You guys just need to leave me the h— alone and do your thing.”
Later, Gardner said, he thought to himself, “If I don’t speak out about this, I will hate myself for the rest of my life.”
His first public statement came unintentionally, he said, when Douglas Brinkley, author of the authorized Kerry war biography “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War,” talked to him in a phone conversation he thought was off the record.
Brinkley put Gardner’s thoughts in a March 9 article for Time magazine online, “The Tenth Brother” in which he got a story “sharply different from what the other nine crew members have had to say.”
Gardner said he thought Brinkley, who spoke with him for two hours, simply was checking facts he had gathered in compiling his book, which relied heavily on Kerry’s personal war journals.
Brinkley claims he had tried hard to track down Gardner during his research for the book, but Gardner is skeptical, noting the Globe’s Kranish was able to reach him easily.
In the Time story, Brinkley writes: “A disappointed Wasser gave me Gardner’s telephone numbers, reminding me that PCF-44 gunner’s mate was nicknamed ‘The Wild Man’ by his crewmates for his hair-trigger penchant for firing M-60s into the mangrove thicket. ‘Let me know what you find out,’ Wasser told me. ‘I’m having trouble understanding where he’s coming from.”
After that article, Gardner said he felt “trashed” and vulnerable, until he got a call from Adm. Roy Hoffman, the organizer of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
He said, recalls Gardner, “Gunner, do you know who this is? This is Admiral Roy Hoffman.”
“Yes sir,” Gardner replied.
Hoffman told him: “We’re well aware of what you’re doing out there, we’re putting things together, just hang on.”
Now Gardner appears in the new swiftboat vets’ television ad, accusing Kerry of falsely claiming to have spent Christmas in Cambodia in 1968.
“If I had been by my lonesome, I would have been history six months ago,” he said. “Nobody would have listened to me as a gunner’s mates, until officers stepped forward and said, ‘This has got to stop.'”
In the ad, Gardner refers to the claim Kerry has made for 35 years, including from the Senate floor in a 1986 speech in which he said, “I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting in a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States tell the American people I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have the memory which is seared – seared – in me. … ”
“I spent more time on John Kerry’s boat than any other crew member. John Kerry has not been honest. He has been deceitful.
“John Kerry claims he spent Christmas in Cambodia in 1968, and that is categorically a lie. Not in December, not in January, we were never in Cambodia on a secret mission, ever.”
Like the Kerry campaign’s official line, Wasser now concedes that they were not in Cambodia on Christmas Eve, but very close to the border.
Wasser points out he has no first-hand knowledge, but says Kerry was involved in a later operation into Cambodia with another boat, involving the transport of Navy Seals.
Wasser said he was not aware, until more recently, of Kerry’s contention they were in Cambodia, when he learned of the references made in the Senate and in the senator’s war journals, first revealed by Brinkley’s book.
But he is not disturbed by Kerry’s revision of the story, emphasizing we were “very close,” with “Cambodia on the left bank and Vietnam on the right bank.”
“I just looked at those things as sometimes you do get mixed up,” he said. “That’s what I look at.”