boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
John Kerry: Candidate in the Making
PART 2

John Kerry's Vietnam War journal

Excerpt from a type-written journal kept by John F. Kerry during his tour of duty in the Vietnam War:

You wake up with a start thinking that something is wrong and you grab the bars over your rack and swing down onto the metallic deck in the main cabin. Suddenly you are really awake and realize sheepishly that the startled concern that consumes you is prompted only by the conglomeration of noises that fill POF 44 and the fitful sleep that has characterized the nights on patrol. This is the fourth time during the night that sleep has been startled into movement - and each time the boat was riding smoothly and quietly. Once you were so sure of danger that you ran up into the pilot house and grabbed the throttles only to laugh with you men at your over-concern and reaction but deep inside you know and understand the pressures that are being brought to play with the mind and the body. And once you laughed at the Captain who talked in his sleep and who demanded that he be notified of any and all changes.

Sleep is probably one of the biggest battles of all on patrol. There is the constant temptation just to let go and relax and sleep all night -- trusting to the enth degree the young men who man your boat and who make up your watch sections. Eventually you begin to succumb and leave you life and that of the boat in your mouth and with eye lids that cascade down over dirty cheekbones, the sleep is light and restless. The radio cracks "Priority" and you are awake; loud explosions that rock the boat from the distance and the not-too-distant make you jump with a start ; ; but in a day you will be back in port and have a bed in which to lose completely the last three days of your life -- and then you think (unable to read 2 words) if you will lose these days.

A shower is two days behind you and two days hence but some how dirt doesn't (unable to read) you at all. It's good to be alive and to see the small ducks following their mother to food somewhere in the mangroves that line the bank of the river. Ducks remind you of geese and geese bring back the cold of Massachusetts and the memories of warm fires and chestnuts and houses that have been turned into Christmas lights and the feeling of warm skin meeting cold leather as you climb into a frosted automobile that will skid and slide and precariously take you to the even more precarious Christmas shopping.

You are running on one engine to preserve gas because your station is at the mouth of the Co Chien River and there is no outpost to give you fuel and no LSP to (unable to read) with milk and warm food. Today though luck is with POF 44 and her small generator is still running; still capable of warming the hotplate and giving you fried eggs for breakfast. For some reason though you don't feel like fried eggs and so you open a O-ration can that has peanut butter in it -- (unable to read) 11 which is smooth -- and also a can of strawberry preserve and a sandwich satisfies an already deranged stomach.

Today you move to the northern end of the area -- towards Cambodia -- and excitement tingles the nerves that appreciates the new and the unexplored and you enjoy starting the other engine, hearing the deep throb of the diesel engine and the hums as the boat reaches for the step and shoots spray out on both sides as she moves up the river. The (unable to read) shows you where you are and where you are going and you trust the mesmeric sweep that illuminates islands and boats and jumps and sandbars. The (unable to read) hasn't been working very well and without it speed can be dangerous but you have moved over this part of the river before and nothing can stop you now. A (unable to read) sweeps by on one side and you feel large and protective(?) compared to this small fiberglass hull. The patrol officer warns you of a sandbar ahead in an area that you haven't traversed and you thank your wisdom for stopping and asking advise about the upper reaches of the river.

Everything you around you is quiet and the only humdrum breaking an otherwise still southeast Asian morning in the now high whirl of your engines. All across the river, in splotches of green, are pieces of mangrove that have eroded away from the banks which are now plying a drifting and uncertain route with the tidal current that sweeps through the Co Chien.. It makes you think of the story of the wooden seagull that followed the air currents of the world and that saw the movements of all the world's people below its graceful and motionless wingspan. You wish that you could be transformed into that itinerant nothingness that lets you watch the world pass by with all its gross trimmings but which demands nothing of you. To be free so that you can comment or not comment as you see fit and then just hop on a breeze and be blown restlessly to some new horizon with new hope and new strength. You think for a moment of Pogo and cartoon characters who have all the freedom of the world and whose audience, it seems, pays acute attention to his pronouncements while he is really quite free from their criticisms - that is at least his ears aren't scorched by the vulgarities of people who know nothing and so nothing and sense nothing. Lucky Pogo you think and then your boyish reverie come quickly to a close.

Ahead lies the APL from which you will refuel and steal a morning meal. Both operations completed you pass from the Navy and again enter the world of beauty that surrounds you as you move up the meandering channel of the main water route to Cambodia. Its daylight now and moving with you are junks and barges and swamps of all sizes and shapes and colors and within each person with a world of his own fears and hopes and aspirations. Simplicity characterizes everything around you and because of this an unassuming peace envelopes the fatigue with which you (were) traveling). A small canal looms up on the left and methodically, as though the chart by your side were slave to the wheel, you turn the boat into it and enter still a more perfect world of shapes and colors.

With the early morning sun the green of the rice paddies that are only a few scant years from you on either side assume a dark, rich sunglass tint that reeks of Polaroid lens but which brings to you all the yen and desire to lie down in it and romp. Trees grow out of the water and buffalo, dark black and strong, rub their backs against them and rid themselves of pesky itches. It is almost a crime that you should cause ripples to disturb this scene and you slow the boat to minimum revolutions -- an act that causes you to almost drift with ghost like qualities through the morning mist and the beauty that is all around you. Yes, it is good to be alive but suddenly you see helicopters move in formation, ugly and insect-like across the sky en route to some encounter with Charlie. They blot the sky and your mind and you think again of losing all that is in front of you. Too quickly though this country reaches out with its naturalness and beauty to bring thoughts back away from the dismal. In front of you now is a town -- a complete town lying on the water with all its life and hustle-bustle and hurly-burly rustling energetically in front of your eyes. (unable to read) in the market and houses on thin poles rising above the mud; Vietnamese flags blowing in the wind from trees and houses and poles and windows.; it looks almost like a tournament in the days of the round table and you expect knights on horses, sweaty and ready for combat to come prancing out into the center and receive the blood thirsty acclaim of the multitude that crowds the street along the canal and the boats and craft that play in it.

A briefing with the Navy and another refueling and then away again. You have lost half the day just relaxing at Sa Doc, taking in the scene and basking in the security of your thoughts and the memories that today come steadily and quickly.

Again you pull away from a pier and you start out on patrol -- through a rickety drawbridge that pulls only one side up at an angle and that forces you to daringly pas your radar only inches away from destruction and court martials and investigations and when you get through you say the hell with the world and bask in self congratulations and cockiness. Again out into the big river where you can move with Huck Finn and the myriads of rafts that have traveled rivers and where you can again sense the life of the peasants around you.

No snow, no sleighs, no fat jolly Santa Claus on a corner with frosted lips and frozen hands and an outstretched arm that begs for the little more that people have at this time of year. Indeed, there is no familiarity with the date. Endless green and rainbows streaking cloud swept skies; more green and palm bushes swaddling muddy banks with knee deep footprints, soldier and peasant. Thatched roofs reaching out with dryness and beckoning for Robinson Crusoe to give up his weapon and join the hardy man; silence broken by airplane thunder and dusty swirls smoking upwards -- the trails from a lonesome bus on a rustic one-place road. Sampans drifting by caressing river currents and swirling with the swirl of eddies; a woman holds her baby tight against bare breast and nipple firm, gives life; my voice asks where she is going and unabashed she bares her breast to replace the youngsters fumbling, tiny lips.

An evening sun breaks though long, grey veneer of cloud that bangs mysteriously on the horizons edge, a rebel to the boring waste of blue (unable to read) it; more clips of weed pass under our keel as we charge forward. You wait sometimes for an explosion it there is a mine in once but there is none.

Tiny faces, wide-eyed and wondering, sad and bewildered, knowing death but not knowing why, knowing like but living it half dead, stare out of huts and hovels as we the bold go by. An outstretched palm speaks of self-determination and of all the good that we have done.

Fish nets dangling from teepee poles on the lush river bank are empty now, swaying to the gentle evening breeze. Waiting for high tide they will not fill tonight because it is nearing the hour for countrymen to go inside. Damn the fish and food your property is mine.

With the sun goes more than light,. With it goes life and country for with the darkness come the curfew and the silent stealth and steal of night. Nothing moves or red streaks dart across the pitch blackness to end the intent that was. What was that intent? It's curfew and there's no one there to tell. Wisps of smoke from errant fires blow with the wind and it you could read signals it would tell you of the things to come and the things that were.

Droning engines, throbbing on and on, mesmerize and push you towards the next turn and the next. An eye flickers up and catches sight of the world around you, glimpsing through your now idylls haze of reverie and wonders where you are. Two (unable to read) stalk your side and make you stop and you hold a mid stream briefing for the nights patrol. Suddenly there is an explosion and a mortar lands on the bank near all these boats. You jump and grab binoculars and search the back for activity but there is none and you wonder who sent it and from where. You call on the radio and tell headquarters that someone has shot a mortar near your boat and are there any friendly troops in the area. They say no and so you resign yourself that it is one of Charlie's continual sniper harassments. You continue to talk when with a thumping crash another mortar round lands fifteen yards away in the water. The boats come alive. You scramble. Before all the lines are untied you are going full speed, the two (unable to read) beside you. Then, while you radio and say that you are receiving fire they turn sharply to the right and go up a river in back of where the fire come from. Two men run madly down the beach in your direction and yell for your boat to come over and you charge the engines whit all their force and not caring if there is sand or rock or no water at all the boat begins to charge the beach, jumping with excitement and with the power of a horse that has just been uncaged from the starting gate. You stop dead in your tracks and the men yell that the VC attacked their village and wounded one man and they have roved down in the direction of where we are. So Charlie had shot at us hoping we would answer with a hail of fire that eliminate our own troops. I looked quickly at my watch and noticed that it was three minutes after this truce has been initiated. So this was Charlie's truce.

We moved down towards the small stream where some sampan activity has been sighted and there you sweated while you waited for the (unable to read) to come from the side they had dispersed to. You will send them up the stream which is too small for you to enter and you will cover them from as close as possible. You look around and hear your own breathing, smell the hear in the air, see your men now in flak jackets and battle helmets and ready for might come. The (unable to read) arrive and then again, from the bushes, we start to take sniper fire, small arms weapons that can kill but which you feel is just a ploy by Charlie to bring the fire in. Suddenly, in a flash that is a moment of hell and blindness the read erupt and bullets walk out across the water at your boat and those around you. Then screaming flashes of tracer, red and deadly come at you with a terrifying suddenness that catches all by surprise and you watch for a moment as red streaks move at you in a three dimensional kaleidoscope out of the water. From (unable to read) and Swift a cacophony or explosions as they answer with anger shame and surprise the wall of fire that met theirs. Quickly, too quickly you are past the ambush point and you wheel your boats around to run back and out into the main river. From somewhere reason calls and you grab the loud speaker and yell to your men to hold your fire until right on top of the spot and then there is thunder again and no hearing and only red streaks tearing towards the land. You are in the river and away and you slow your boat. The (unable to read) are with you and you stop to catch you breath. Somehow, while firing you had grabbed the radio and told headquarters that you were receiving automatic weapons fire and were clearing the area to the north and you remember how you had to shout to make yourself heard. Now you hear them recalling the help gunships that were scrambled while you were in there and you realize how quickly help was on the way. You cannot help but feel a throaty exhilaration because you have gone through and there are no scratches and you are still free. Two friendly troops have been wounded, Vietnamese you are told and the (unable to read) are called to Medvac them. While you sit in the river and rearm the smaller boats beside you receive twenty rounds of sniper fire from the bank on the other side but it falls short of the boat and so you don't give a damn.

You head back towards Sa Dec to make your report while transiting the night darkness is broken by tracers flying up out of a Vietnamese outpost that is celebrating Christmas. The bullets pass dangerously near your boat and you think of the stupidity of the whole thing and the ridiculous waste of being shot at by your own allies and so angry you jump on the radio and ask who the hell is shooting at you and inform your seniors that they had better squared away before you return fire. Apologies are quick to (unable to read) but they mean nothing amidst all the chaos and waste.

It's cool now and the evening has closed around you to become full night. The night for once is comforting and you take a coke and some peanut butter and jelly and go up on the roof of the cabin whit your tape recorder and sit for a while, quietly, watching flares float silently through the sky and flashes announce disquieting intent somewhere in the distance. You call down to one of your men and ask him to draft a message to the Admiral in Command of all Naval Forces in Vietnam and also to the Commander of Market Time. IT says "Merry Christmas from the most inland Market Time unit." You hope that they'll court marshal you or something because that would make sense. But the night soothes everything and the people and things that are close to you dart through the mind and bring the only warmth and peace that there is. Visions of sugar plums really do dance through your head and you think of stockings and snow and roast chestnuts and fires with birch logs and all that is good and warm and real. It's Christmas Eve.

Sponsored Links