John Kerry testifies to the US Senate in 1971. Source: YouTube
The outgoing US secretary of state, John Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has returned to the Bay Hap river where he reportedly killed a man in 1969.
Kerry, 73, met Vo Ban Tam, a 70-year-old Vietnamese veteran who launched an ambush on Kerry’s boat. Vo said he knew the man Kerry killed, his friend Ba Thanh, who was then 24.
Less than a week before he leaves office, Kerry said it was surreal to return to the spot where he won a Silver Star medal for bravery as a naval lieutenant.
After Kerry leaves office he says he wants to work on environmental problems with the Lower Mekong Initiative and is involved with fellow veterans in opening a Fulbright University in Vietnam.
On February 28, 1969, his Swift boat was patrolling when Vo’s detachment launched an ambush.
The plan, Vo told Kerry, was to use rifle fire and grenades to lure the armoured US patrol vessel within range of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Kerry, then 26, instead deliberately landed his vessel and came ashore to pursue the enemy on foot.
Armed with an M16 rifle, he killed the militant with the RPG.
Vo, who now farms prawns and crabs, said Ba Thanh was one of the Viet Cong’s few trained rocket launcher specialists.
During his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign, opponents tried to cast doubt on his war record by alleging that he had killed a teenager. As a consequence, “swiftboating” became a term used to describe an unfair or false political attack.
US officials ahead of the visit spoke to Vo and confirmed Kerry’s memory that his victim had been an adult.
Vo said that Kerry’s counterattack had been a setback but he recalled how the Viet Cong usually had the upper hand.
“We were guerrillas. We were never there where you were shooting,” Vo told Kerry.
“Well, I’m glad we’re both alive,” Kerry replied.
Kerry returned home later in 1969 with silver and bronze stars for bravery and three Purple Hearts for being wounded in action. He went on to become a prominent anti-war campaigner.
His powerful testimony before a Senate committee in 1971 made him a celebrity. He said the brutal US measures would fail to overcome the Vietnamese determination to resist an invader.
“How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” he famously asked the Senate.