"T his is Latch."

That's how Roy Hoffmann opened the calls, with a name he hadn't used in 35 years, a name the man at the other end of the line last heard crackling over a radio receiver in Vietnam.

He called all the men who'd been under his command there, finding their names in old mimeographed records and photos once stored in his attic and now spread all over his second-floor office.

"Latch, remember me?" he would say, transporting them back to those days on the Swift boats, the patrols in the Mekong Delta or even the middle of a firefight, when "Latch" had a habit of checking in from headquarters on the radio.

They had become bus drivers and lawyers and cotton farmers, retired or heading in that direction. Some remembered him by other names, Red Rooster or Smiley or Mad Dog Hoffmann. All of them remembered him.

"Before that call I hadn't thought for 30 minutes about Vietnam in 30 years," says George Elliott, a retired naval officer tending his garden in Delaware.

Now here was Hoffmann, calling out of the blue, asking, "Have you read the book?" Just like that -- "the book." And Elliott knew he must be talking about historian Douglas Brinkley's book "Tour of Duty," describing John Kerry's time as a Navy officer in Vietnam. It was about them, too, after all.

Did he think it was accurate, Hoffmann wanted to know. Did it do them justice?

The results of Hoffmann's one-man crusade are now infamous, this year's version of the campaign mudfight -- was Bill Clinton a draft dodger? did Dan Quayle buy drugs? -- one of those nasty stories that pop up in the political season, with bit players dredging up thin allegations about a candidate's past.

Nearly nine months later, the group Hoffmann founded -- Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- has raised $7.5 million, hired a PR agent, and run those notorious television ads claiming Kerry lied about his heroism in Vietnam. The group has moved so far beyond Hoffmann's attic they're having trouble convincing people they are not shills for President Bush.

Hoffmann is an unlikely player for this high-stakes political game. He'll vote for Bush but doesn't much respect him -- calling him "impulsive," an insult from an admiral who always insisted on discipline. The closest Hoffmann ever came to being a political operative was once collecting signatures on his block for John McCain.

Nonetheless the story begins with "Latch," a persona laid to rest for 35 years who suddenly felt his honor challenged after finding himself as the bad guy in a presidential hopeful's biography. For his men, no matter what side they take now, Latch is the logical one to have opened this box. Even back then their commander was the focus of much of their gossip, the old salt from Korea whom they revered or feared, the one whose voice on the phone can still make them stand at attention.

As they replay old questions in their minds -- how did they behave out there? Is there anything at this late stage in life they ought to repent for? -- they remember Latch as either a hero by example or the devil on their shoulder, pushing them to the edges of both their fear and the rules of war. For those who remember him less fondly, Latch, not Kerry, is the Swift boat veteran with the most explaining to do.

Full-Time Job

By now, the Hoffmanns' home in Richmond has lost the rhythms of retirement. The downstairs floor is spit-shine tidy, there's a sunny kitchen with a watering can waiting to be filled, photos of Hoffmann in uniform surrounded by his five daughters, formal shots of the grandchildren neatly arranged on the side tables.

These days, Hoffmann and his wife spend most of their time in their makeshift offices -- Mary Linn in the basement answering hundreds of e-mails, Roy upstairs, surrounded by so many open boxes that Mary Linn can't get in to vacuum. They see each other at dinner. The yard is not what it used to be.

No one would call Hoffmann frail, but he's 78, small and stooped. He can't hear that well and often walks around whistling -- his "mood thermometer," daughter Hilarie Hanson calls it.

"Things just slip my mind nowadays," he says, losing the name of someone's secretary. But he doesn't leave it at that. He runs upstairs, finds the guy's number, calls and asks for the secretary's name. His manner isn't fussy, but still direct and exacting. His woodworking is known for its details.

Hoffmann retired from a 35-year career in the Navy in 1978, and from the "stevedoring business," as he calls it (he directed the Milwaukee port, then partnered in a shipping company) five years after that. If he hadn't formed the Swift boat group, Hoffmann would be attending reunions for various ships he commanded, or donating to some naval charity -- the standard retirees' "shop talk," Mary Linn calls it.

Asked why he upended a peaceful retired life to launch this crusade, Hoffmann gives the on-duty answer of a commander protecting his troops: "I'm a Navy officer and I took the oath exactly the same as everyone else, from ensign to admiral," he says. "I couldn't bear that someone was betraying us and being a dastardly liar. If I can be any more plain than that, I don't know."

Hoffmann first picked up the Brinkley book last winter, around the time Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, when an old Navy friend called and told him about it. Like most of the men in Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Hoffmann considers the book propaganda for the Kerry campaign, even though Brinkley, a professor at the University of New Orleans, sought out Kerry on his own and is not part of the presidential campaign.

Hoffmann says he didn't look for his name in the index, that he read the bits about the "Chinese hoochie-coochie girls" first. He found the book confusing, and skipped around, but eventually made his way through the description of the military operations Kerry experienced during his four months of combat.

There he discovered "Latch," the Vietnam villain: In mostly anonymous quotes, his men describe him as "hotheaded," "bloodthirsty," "egomaniacal," a "bantam rooster," on account of his height, a man with a "genuine taste for the more unsavory aspects of warfare." He is compared more than once to Kilgore, the unhinged cowboy lieutenant in "Apocalypse Now," who loves the smell of napalm in the morning.

Hoffmann is not a ranter. He didn't yell or throw the book. Still, the descriptions stung. "Before the book, no one knew how he felt," says Mary Linn, meaning how Kerry felt about Hoffmann, although most of the quotes aren't attributed to Kerry. "He'd never been nasty to Roy."

Until then, Hoffmann's feelings about Kerry had been ambivalent. Like some career military men, he'd been horrified by Kerry's 1971 congressional testimony about war crimes committed in Vietnam. But the Hoffmanns had attended a wedding party for Kerry and Teresa Heinz in 1995. (Mary Linn says she dragged her husband along and regrets having done it.) Overall, Hoffmann seems to have considered Kerry less a menace than an errant brother -- courageous but "impulsive," that same admiral's curse.

Even so, Hoffmann was moved to wage a new kind of war. By March, Hoffmann had about 80 sailors signed up to his Swift boat group. In April, he organized a meeting in Dallas. John O'Neill, a Vietnam vet who had debated Kerry 30 years ago, got involved and wrote a book rebutting Brinkley's (the book, "Unfit for Command," has become a bestseller). They hired a PR agent, planned a news conference in May. O'Neill then connected the group with wealthy Texas Republicans.

Rich McCann was one of the Swift boat captains Hoffmann invited to the Dallas meeting, but McCann turned him down. "Kerry was a brave individual," he told Hoffmann. "He gave everything he said he did."

Like other vets who didn't join, McCann suspected Hoffmann's motivations weren't just political or patriotic but deeper -- an elaborate effort to deflect those late-in-life tugs at the conscience about what happened in Vietnam.

"Roy Hoffmann is rewriting history, and he's going to believe what he's saying right now because he needs to believe it," McCann says. "How can you look at yourself if you can't rationalize what you did?"

A 'Crusty Old Sailor'

Hoffmann arrived in Vietnam in May 1968. Until then he'd commanded only big ships. Now he was in charge of Coastal Surveillance Vietnam, meaning all the Swift boats and Coast Guard vessels. As soon as he got there he made his expectations known: "You have the power," he told the men. "I expect you to use it judiciously and aggressively."

To drive the point home, he got in an airplane his first week and flew over the coastline until he found a Vietnamese boat in a restricted area. He had the pilot land the plane and boarded the Swift boat responsible for patrolling that area.

"You got my order?" he asked the boat captain. "Any questions? . . . Well, why in the hell aren't you carrying it out?"

"Once they believed me, it was a piece of cake -- everyone's performance was up quite a bit," he recalls.

In October 1968, Hoffmann and several other officers launched Operation Sealords, an effort to destroy the enemy in the Mekong Delta and better integrate the Vietnamese navy with U.S. forces. In his resume, Hoffmann calls it highly successful. In Brinkley's book, Sealords is the source of much of Kerry's and his crewmates' agony. They found it reckless and pointless.

Wade Sanders recalls getting a message once from Hoffmann calling him "pussycat" because Sanders had seen people running along the bank and hadn't fired on them. "That's when I realized things had suddenly changed," Sanders says.

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."

"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."

McCall replied that the fishermen weren't doing anything wrong, just fishing. "I was pretty peeved," he recalls.

Hoffmann ordered them to hail the boat on the bullhorn. The fishermen were too far away and paid no attention. He ordered the gunner to fire his M-16 in the water and make splashes. They still didn't respond.

"Shoot closer," Hoffmann said.

"I can't shoot any closer or we'll shoot the people," the gunner replied.

"Well, do it," Hoffmann said.

At that point, McCall recalls, he and Hoffmann got into a fight, with McCall insisting they couldn't shoot unless there was hostile intent.

"He didn't live in the water like we did," McCall explains. "He was basically asking us to kill innocent civilians. In his mind they were people who deserved it."

Then McCall remembered that, as the captain, he had authority over Hoffmann while they were sailing. Nervously, he ordered him out of the pilot house. Hoffmann went down "madder than a hornet," recalls Means. "Cussing up a storm."

As soon as they docked, Hoffmann gave McCall an administrative sanction, meaning he couldn't sail for 30 days. Means remembers the crew high-fiving because Hoffmann was off their boat. McCall remembers crying.

Hoffmann does not remember the story exactly that way. He recalls sanctioning the son of an important Oregon politician. But he says the incident involved a fishing vessel that was passing dangerously close to a cache of weapons, and he doesn't recall being on board the boat but rather witnessing it from his headquarters. "It doesn't sound like me, telling them to shoot innocent people, and I will deny it emphatically," he says.

When he hears that their version involves fishermen ignoring warning shots, though, he changes his view a bit.

"Well, now we're beginning to see something different," he says. "The junks were in an area they weren't supposed to be in and they ignored warning shots? And [his men] weren't going to do anything about it. You know what we call that? Disobedience of orders."

McCall says he's not surprised Hoffmann doesn't remember. "He did a lot of things," he says. "To me it was a searing moment in a young career. To him it was just one more moment of chewing someone's ass."

Recently Hoffmann tracked down McCall. They talked for about 20 minutes about the event and couldn't reconcile their differing recollections. McCall says Hoffmann seemed intent on explaining himself, why he was so adamant about the restricted zones, about being strict with the junks. McCall was left with the impression of "a man conscientiously trying to do a good job."

Clean Conscience

Douglas Brinkley says he soft-pedaled Hoffmann's role in the book, but that he is "the most egregious example of blatant disregard for civilian casualties and for the lives of his men in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam."

"He infected the lives of a lot of Navy guys down there, and he has a lot of answering to do," Brinkley says about Hoffmann. "He can either recognize he has blood on his hands and deal with his own ghosts or go where it's safe and reach for the flag. He can see a therapist or wage a new war, and he did the latter."

If such a thought ever crossed Hoffmann's mind, it is deeply buried.

"Me, with a guilty conscience, you got to be kidding," he says. "I've said a hundred times, I have no apologies for being aggressive. We were directed to carry the fight to our enemy by orders and we did it, for real."

Hoffmann won five medals in Vietnam. At first, he would not discuss any of them. "Medals are overrated," he says. Then he reads the citations in a mock pompous voice: "Hoffmann was courageous in the face of point-blank fire, blah blah blah."

"Medals help you get promotions, and as far as I'm concerned that's the end of it. You don't go around parading it. Kerry makes a point of making his whole damned career over being a hero. I am not a hero. I was doing my duty."

Hoffmann doesn't see shades of gray when discussing what it takes to win a war, what loyalty means and what you don't air in public. He still pines for his small-town childhood near the Mississippi River, his dad a butcher, his mom playing a Rosie the Riveter role, "no resentment, no protest, just plain old patriotism, is the best way I can describe it."

He loves to tell the story about how one day in Vietnam, actor Jimmy Stewart showed up in his office, asking about troop morale.

"Morale isn't pretty good, it's damned good," he recalls telling Stewart. "It's not about the troops, it's about the American people. They just ought to take a damned 2-by-4 to the back and stiffen up.

"We have the same problem today, in the [Iraq] war," he continues. "The American people don't have the damned guts to stand up for it, the damned backbone."

A Voice on the Line

After Brinkley's book came out, Kerry called Hoffmann. It was a cordial conversation, there were no raised voices, Hoffmann recalls.

"I thought 'Tour of Duty' unfairly maligned you," Hoffmann remembers Kerry saying, adding that he'd always admired him for his leadership.

"Did you actually read the book?" Hoffmann asked.

"Yes."

"It sure as hell doesn't look like it," Hoffmann said, and recalls Kerry laughed.

Hoffmann talked about the "outrageous mistakes" in it. Kerry invited him to submit corrections, but Hoffmann declined. "He was just doing it to get me off his back," he says.

Hoffmann says the conversation ended when he told Kerry he'd never forgive him for his 1971 testimony, and asked again why he did it.

"His answer was very simple. It surprised me," says Hoffmann. "I didn't think he would be that forthright."

"That was my conviction," Kerry answered.

They haven't spoken since.

"You don't have to be shot at to shoot," says retired Navy rear admiral Roy Hoffmann, founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.Roy Hoffmann, above, founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, acknowledges his reputation: "I was not a kindly commander, put it that way." From PCF 88, Bill Means, far left, and Tad McCall, far right, say they recall that Hoffmann once told them to shoot at civilians who were in an off-limits area. Hoffmann says this photo proves that Swift boat crews worked close enough together for them to know what happened on the other boats during battle.