WASHINGTON – Leaders of the Swift boat veterans group criticizing presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam War record said Thursday they were motivated to attack in part by a book published earlier this year in which Kerry revealed the high opinion he held of himself – and the low opinion he held of some of them.

Kerry’s former commanding officer and two other officers who were above Kerry in the chain of command said the book “Tour of Duty” made it seem as if Kerry, as a junior lieutenant in the Navy, had been the only hero in a war that later, as a war protester, he labeled as wrong-headed and immoral. The book, by historian Douglas Brinkley, was based in large part on Kerry’s previously private war diaries.

“I had forgotten all of this, and then the book came out,” said retired Navy Capt. George M. Elliott, of Lewes, Del., who as Kerry’s immediate superior had praised his performance in fitness reports. “Thirty years ago, every man in United States military uniform was a war criminal, and in 2004 a lone hero emerges and his name is John Kerry. That’s not right. That’s just not right.”

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Adrian Lonsdale, a Massachusetts resident who supported Kerry’s re-election to the Senate in 1996, said he changed his mind after he read “Tour of Duty.”

“That’s what set me off,” Lonsdale said. “If he’d given us some credit in his book and been positive about it, he’d probably have us backing him now. It’s the same old stuff he told in “71. It just upset me and made me seethe all over again, like it was in the early “70s.”

The retired commanders’ remarks came one day after Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a top legal adviser to President Bush’s re-election campaign, resigned amid evidence that he had aided the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Kerry, in his own ad, has painted the group as a front for the Bush campaign.

But the veterans denied any ties to Bush or the Republican Party. In interviews with Knight Ridder, intended to highlight the release of a new anti-Kerry ad Thursday on the Internet, they made it clear that their motives for attacking Kerry were deeply personal.

“We are nonpolitical; we still are,” said former Navy Adm. Roy Hoffmann, of Richmond, Va., who commanded the naval forces patrolling the coast of Vietnam and its inland waterways. “Do you expect Democrats to donate to us? Maybe some Democrats do. We have Democrats.”

Retired since 1978 as a two-star rear admiral, Hoffmann comes under particular criticism in the Kerry biography. Brinkley wrote that Kerry saw him as approving cowboy tactics and holding a cavalier attitude toward civilian casualties.

Hoffmann said was stunned to find what he termed “gross exaggerations” and “distortions of fact” attributed to Kerry in the Brinkley book. That motivated him to contact other veterans and ask if they’d seen the book. Before long, he said, he had “80 to 100 people solidly lined up” to cooperate in the production of a new book – “Unfit for Command” by John E. O’Neill and Jerome R. Corsi – that outlines their challenge to Kerry.

Hoffmann denied that O’Neill, who debated Kerry in 1971 at the urging of then-President Richard Nixon, started the organization.

“O’Neill didn’t start his thing, I did,” Hoffmann said. “O’Neill didn’t come aboard until after three months after we organized.”

Hoffmann said he was dismayed when Kerry announced he was running for the Democratic nomination but that “I still didn’t really get with it until I picked up” the “Tour of Duty” book.

The group became a major factor in the presidential campaign after the release of an ad, aired on television in three states and picked up nationally on news broadcasts, that questioned Kerry’s actions as a Swift boat commander and the circumstances under which he had won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.

Since that ad aired, pro-Kerry veterans, including several who served with him aboard his boat, PCF-94, have defended Kerry’s war record, as have other Swift boat veterans who served in boats near Kerry’s. Navy documents also seem to back Kerry’s version of events.

But the new ad focuses on what Hoffmann and others believe is Kerry’s biggest weakness – his claim in speeches two decades ago that he took his Swift boat into Cambodia. They suggest that if Kerry was less than honest about that claim, he can’t be trusted on other matters.

“Kerry was never in Cambodia. Never. And I would know,” Hoffmann said Thursday.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

During 1968 and 1969, when Kerry served 4 1/2 months in Vietnam, U.S. forces were prohibited from violating official Cambodian neutrality. Kerry told his Senate colleagues in 1986 that he vividly remembered traveling to Cambodia on Christmas Eve, 1968. His aides have since said he may have misstated the date, and the incident isn’t recounted in “Tour of Duty.”

Hoffmann also challenged Kerry’s version of an incident that is in the book. In a passage from his diaries quoted by Brinkley, Kerry recalls churning up the Rach Giang Thanh, a river along the Cambodian border, to insert a Navy SEAL team into the area for covert operations. From the river, he wrote, he could see Cambodia.

Hoffmann called the story a falsehood.

“I was the tactical commander of the entire force,” Hoffmann said. “If it was a clandestine operation, they would have notified me, because otherwise you have a damned good chance of a firefight between friendly forces.”

Lonsdale said he would continue to speak out against Kerry, despite questions about his motives or doubts about his version of events three decades ago.

“There’s an old saying: If you’re not getting flak, you’re not over the target,” he said, chuckling. “The more flak we get, the closer we know we are to the target.”



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SWIFTBOAT-CRITICS

AP-NY-08-26-04 1942EDT


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