Politics & Policy

Kerry’s “Christmas in Cambodia”

A member of his crew says it didn't happen.

A former member of John Kerry’s swift-boat crew says the Democratic presidential candidate’s account of spending Christmas 1968 in Cambodia is not true. Steve Gardner, who served on board PCF-44 under Kerry’s command in December 1968, as well as part of January 1969, says that at the time, in the area in which Kerry and his crew were operating, it was not possible to take a swift boat to Cambodia.

”It was physically, totally, categorically, across-the-board impossible to get into the canal that went to Cambodia with a swift boat,” says Gardner. “There were concrete pilings that were put in the water…plus, the Navy kept patrol boats there to make sure nobody went in. When I was on the 44 boat, it was a physical impossibility to take a swift boat into Cambodian waters.”

Over the years, Kerry has said on a number of occasions that he spent the Christmas holiday in 1968 in Cambodia. For example, in September 1997, during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kerry said, “I first was introduced to Cambodia when I spent Christmas Eve of 1968 in a river in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict, and I found it to be a rather remarkable and very beautiful country….”

More recently, in a profile of Kerry that appeared in the Washington Post in June 2003, Kerry revealed that he kept an old camouflage hat from the war in a secret pocket in his briefcase. “My good luck hat,” Kerry told the paper. “Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia.”

In March 1986, Kerry said, during a speech on the Senate floor, that, “I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared–seared–in me….”

On other occasions, Kerry has said he was not actually in Cambodia but rather “near” the country. In an interview with the Providence Journal-Bulletin that appeared in April, 1994, Kerry said “Christmas Eve I was up getting shot at somewhere near Cambodia.” The account of Kerry’s service in Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty says Kerry was on patrol near Cambodia, but does not mention him being in the country. “Because they were only an hour away from that neighboring country,” Brinkley writes, “Kerry began reading up on Cambodia’s history….” Brinkley also quotes from Kerry’s Vietnam journal, in which Kerry wrote that he was “patrolling near the Cambodian line.”

Of course, the U.S. military did undertake missions in Cambodia–missions that resulted in enormous controversy at the time and in later years. But it does not appear that Kerry was part of those. Gardner, who is a member of the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, says that PCF-44’s “nothernmost patrol area” was the town of Sa Dec, about 50 miles from Cambodia. And retired admiral Roy Hoffman, a leader of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, said “You’ve got to be kidding,” when asked by National Review Online about Kerry’s account of entering Cambodia. Kerry’s other commanding officers have denied any Cambodian incursion, as well. Hoffman said that after an earlier incident in which some soldiers had unintentionally crossed the Cambodian border, the line was very clearly marked with signs warning not to cross.

Finally, another member of Kerry’s crew, Jim Wasser, who supports Kerry in the presidential race, told the Dallas Observer last month that he wasn’t sure where PCF-44 was at the time in question. “On Christmas in 1968, we were close [to Cambodia],” Wasser said. “I don’t know exactly where we were. I didn’t have the chart. It was easy to get turned around with all the rivers around there. But I’ll say this: We were the farthest inland that night. I know that for sure.”

Wasser’s recollection introduces the idea that Kerry and some members of his crew might simply have been confused about where they were. While that conflicts with Gardner’s recollection, it might still seem plausible if Kerry had, over the years, said only that he was in Cambodia at one time. Given today’s questions, Kerry might now say that he simply believed he was there, but in retrospect sees that he might not have known his precise position at the time.

That explanation, however, might be difficult for Kerry to attempt, because of the detailed descriptions he has offered about what he says was his time in Cambodia. He was there with at least one operative of the CIA on a “special mission,” Kerry has said–a mission that the U.S. government was officially denying. The CIA man gave Kerry a hat on that special mission, a memento that is so meaningful to Kerry that he has kept it close–in his briefcase–for decades.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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