Tour of Duty

Senator John F. Kerry often cites his service in Vietnam as a formative element of his character. A new account of his time there—based on interviews with those who knew him well, and on his never-before-published letters home and his voluminous "war notes"—offers the first intimate look at a traumatic and life-altering experience

As he campaigns for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John F. Kerry often cites his experience as a U.S. Navy patrol-boat skipper in Vietnam as a formative element of his character. Next month the historian Douglas Brinkley will publish the first full-scale, intimate account of Kerry's Navy career. In writing that account Brinkley has drawn on extensive interviews with virtually everyone who knew Kerry well in Vietnam, including all but one of the men still living who served under him. Kerry also turned over to Brinkley his letters home from Vietnam and his voluminous "war notes"—journals, notebooks, and personal reminiscences written during and shortly after the war. This material was provided without restriction, to be used at Brinkley's discretion, and has never before been published.

John Kerry enlisted in the Navy in February of 1966, months before he graduated from Yale. In December of 1967 Ensign Kerry was assigned to the guided-missile frigate USS Gridley; after five months of service in the Pacific, with a brief stop in Vietnam, he returned to the United States and underwent training to command a Swift boat, a small craft deployed in Vietnam's rivers. In June of 1968 Kerry was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade), and by the end of that year he was back in Vietnam, where he commanded, over time, two Swift boats. He received the Purple Heart three times for wounds suffered in action, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Navy's Silver Star for gallantry in action. Kerry was discharged from the Navy in January of 1970, and soon became one of the most prominent spokesmen for the antiwar movement.

The following excerpts are drawn from Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.

An Incomprehensible Moment

On the afternoon of February 26, 1968, the twentyfour-year-old Ensign John Kerry was on watch on the bridge of the USS Gridley. His ship had just left Midway Island en route to the Philippines as part of a convoy that also included the USS Turner Joy, made famous by the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident. The Gridley's executive officer approached Kerry and asked if he had a friend named Pershing. There could be only one reason for the question, and Kerry did not want to hear it. His stomach went hollow, and he slumped onto a railing for balance. "I knew immediately it was all over but even when I read the telegram it took moments to sink in," Kerry wrote to his parents of the instant he learned—from his future wife Julia ("Judy") Thorne—that his close college friend Dick Pershing was dead. "Then I just ... cried—a pathetic and very empty kind of crying that turned into anger and bitterness. I have never felt so void of feeling before—so numb."

The dashing twenty-five-year-old Pershing, a second lieutenant with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, had been killed in combat on February 17 near the hamlet of Hung Nhon, 400 miles north of Saigon. His platoon had been slogging through mud in search of a lost comrade when the ambush occurred. "Shift over to the left!" Pershing was said to have shouted as he tried to wave his men away from the danger. Just then a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into a dike a few feet in front of him, hurling Pershing into the air, his body torn apart by grenade fragments. He died instantly. The charmer of John Kerry's circle had become a statistic: another American soldier had given his life for his country.

Pershing's death brought out a profound sadness in Kerry. Memories of his liveliest friend kept flashing through his mind, especially of the boyish mischievousness that bordered on irresponsibility and had so perfectly balanced Kerry's serious leanings at Yale. In the pursuit of fun, nothing had been off-limits to Dick Pershing. Yet when it had come time for Pershing to serve, the life of the party had offered himself unhesitatingly. By the time he got to Vietnam, Pershing had remade himself into the perfect paratrooper, rock-solid in body and stalwart in spirit. And now he was gone—and for what? "Pershing's death was just one more major-league souring for John, of figuring out what the hell Vietnam was all about," explains David Thorne, another Yale classmate (and Julia's twin brother), who was still in Navy training off the coast of San Diego when he got the news. "Why did Dick have to die for this? That's what John wanted to know."

Kerry blamed the Johnson Administration. The very week Pershing was killed, General Earle G. Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his eleventh inspection tour of South Vietnam. Kerry suspected that Wheeler would return with the same message as always, telling the American people that their great nation was winning another war, and write up some overoptimistic reports for the White House. What Wheeler wouldn't mention was that 543 U.S. soldiers had been killed the week Pershing died. Nor would he note the 2,457 wounded.

It pleased Kerry, later, to learn that Dick Pershing had been buried next to his legendary grandfather, the World War I U.S. Army general John "Black Jack" Pershing, in a scenic spot in Arlington National Cemetery. That seemed right. It spoke of a great continuum of duty, honor, and country. But Kerry also could not help feeling that some in the Pentagon were doing their servicemen a lethal injustice by sending a new wave of young people to die in a conflict that at least a few in the Defense Department did not believe could be won—as Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's resignation in November of 1967 clearly indicated.

Presented by

The Man Who Owns 40,000 Video Games

A short documentary about an Austrian gamer with an uncommon obsession

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In