Thurlow, an oil industry worker and former teacher in Kansas, said he was angry with Kerry for his antiwar activities on his return to the United States and particularly Kerry's claim before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. troops in Vietnam had committed war crimes "with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
" 'Upset' is too mild a word," said Thurlow, a registered Republican, of his reaction to Kerry then. "He did it strictly for his own personal political gain, and it directly affected every single one of us as we were trying to put our lives together."
Two other Swift boat skippers who were direct participants in the March 13, 1969, mine explosion on the Bay Hap, Jack Chenoweth and Richard Pees, have said they do not remember coming under "enemy fire." A fourth commander, Don Droz, who was one of Kerry's closest friends in Vietnam, was killed in action a month later.
The incident featured prominently in an anti-Kerry television ad produced by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth earlier this month. "John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star," says Van Odell, a gunner on PCF-23, one of the boats that came to the rescue of the stricken boat. "I know. I was there."
The Bronze Star controversy is also a major focus of an anti-Kerry book by John E. O'Neill, "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," which will hit No. 2 on The Post's bestseller list this weekend. The book accuses Kerry of "fleeing the scene" and lying repeatedly about his role.
Members of Kerry's crew have come to his defense, as has Rassmann, the Special Forces officer whom he fished from the river. Rassmann says he has vivid memories of being fired at from both banks after he fell into the river and as Kerry came to his rescue. The two had an emotional reunion on the eve of the Iowa Democratic caucuses in January, an event that some political analysts believe helped swing votes to Kerry at a crucial time.
The Bronze Star recommendations for both Kerry and Thurlow were signed by Lt. Cmdr. George M. Elliott, who received reports on the incident from his base in the Gulf of Thailand. Elliott is a supporter of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and has questioned Kerry's actions in Vietnam. But he has refused repeated requests for an interview after issuing conflicting statements to the Boston Globe about whether Kerry deserved a Silver Star. He was unreachable last night.
Money has poured into Swift Boat Veterans for Truth since the group launched its television advertisement attacking Kerry earlier this month. According to O'Neill, the group has received more than $450,000 over the past two weeks, mainly in small contributions. The Dallas Morning News reported yesterday that the organization has also received two $100,000 checks from Houston home builder Bob Perry, who backed George W. Bush's campaigns for Texas governor and for president.
Bush campaign officials have said they have no connection to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which is not permitted to coordinate its activities with a presidential campaign under federal election law.