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Unfriendly Fire

The men considered Hoffmann a "crusty old sailor," says Bill Zaladonis, an engineman at the time. "A man's man, a skinny little guy who didn't take guff from anyone. Everyone knew he was boss."

"I was not a kindly commander, put it that way," Hoffmann says. "If someone was not carrying out the order, I would get out there and make sure they were doing their jobs."

"You don't have to be shot at to shoot," says retired Navy rear admiral Roy Hoffmann, founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. (Jay Paul For The Washington Post)

"One day Hoffmann ordered me and another boat to cruise the river so we could draw enemy fire," says McCann, who compares it to sending a soldier into the streets of Fallujah to get shot at. "I was scared to death most of the time, but I had to follow orders. But I also had to really scratch my head -- what exactly did we accomplish? Perhaps we had a bigger plan, but in my opinion we were being set up as sitting ducks."

Hoffmann doesn't have much sympathy for that attitude. "When you're in a war you don't sit back and wait for attack," he says. "You're directed to take the fight to the enemy and that's what you do."

"There wasn't automatic permission to kill or anything like that," he says. But "you don't have to be shot at to shoot." If you gave a warning shot, and the person tried to escape, or didn't respond, he says, "they are definitely a target."

Bill Means is a private investigator in Bakersfield, Calif., and was at the helm of a Swift boat the same time Kerry was in Vietnam. Recently, he saw the groups' ads on TV, and they "made me want to reflect on my war experiences."

He took down a shoe box filled with 39 letters he'd written from Vietnam, and read them aloud to his wife in the kitchen. He read complaints about his commanders, wonder about the Vietnamese girls, dispatches from a kid trying to act "stupidly brave."

"It was this war crimes stuff that got me going," Means says. "I needed to resolve, did I do anything I wasn't too proud of? I wasn't worried, but you have to live with your conscience your whole life and I wanted to know."

To refresh his memory, he called up Thomas "Tad" McCall, the commanding officer on his boat, PCF 88. Eventually he got around to asking about the one incident that stuck in his mind.

"Remember that day, with that commander, who was he, and what was he wanting to do?" Means asked.

"Don't you remember, Bill? That was Latch, that was Roy Hoffmann," replied McCall.

"You mean the guy who's criticizing Kerry for war crimes is the only one who ordered me to commit one?" Means said.

It was March 14, 1969. McCall, a newly minted ensign and the son of the Oregon governor, got a call about a special assignment to take a commander upriver to visit a wounded SEAL, now New School University President Bob Kerrey. He remembers the date because he was supposed to be off -- it was his 25th birthday.

"I was quite nervous," McCall recalls. "Captain Hoffmann was kind of revered, kind of feared." The crew spit-shined the boat and put on combat gear instead of their usual cutoffs.

From the start, Hoffmann insisted they search nearly every boat they passed. McCall balked a little: He knew all these boats, they'd patrolled these waters almost every day for two months. But he did it.

At one point Hoffmann fixed his attention on a small cluster of fishing boats much closer to shore than McCall had any intention of going. McCall recognized the boats, too.

"That junk is in the security zone," McCall recalls Hoffmann saying. "I want you to board that junk."

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