John F. Kerry returned home Wednesday to a hero's welcome from Democrats, his Vietnam crewmates and the man whose life he saved nearly four decades ago, and, echoing Bruce Springsteen, he pledged "no retreat, no surrender" in his quest for the White House.
Surrounded by 12 veterans of the Swift boats he captained in Vietnam and by Jim Rassmann, a Green Beret he rescued from a river in the Mekong Delta, Kerry crossed the Boston Harbor aboard the LuLu E taxi ship, which was adorned in red, white and blue. He briefly rallied supporters before heading home for final preparations for Thursday night's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
As a light drizzle fell over Charleston Navy Yard, where the LuLu E docked, Kerry vowed to "write the next great chapter of American history."
But it was the symbolism, not the oratory, that carried this day for Kerry. Everything about the day was orchestrated to stir memories of Kerry's military service and his support from the men and women in uniform.
Convention speakers praised the national security credentials of the winner of three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. The campaign announced that 12 former generals are endorsing Kerry, as aides proudly pointed out that only one backed Bill Clinton in 1992. The unspoken message: Kerry served in combat, while George W. Bush served stateside in the National Guard.
For a candidate frequently criticized as cold or distant, nothing seems to brighten his spirits like the appearance of what he calls his "band of brothers" -- guys such as Del Sandusky and David Alston, Skip Barker and Fred Short. All are old comrades, but now are new and willing political allies at the most opportune times.
He led them in the rice fields of Vietnam; they helped rescue him in the cornfields of Iowa. In the cold of December and early January, when Howard Dean look as if he would be the accepting the Democratic nomination here, Kerry turned to veterans, including many of these crewmates, to change the focus of his campaign message. It worked, and they have not left his side. Several have taken considerable time off to travel the country on the candidate's behalf.
Moments after landing here, Kerry hugged each one tight, happily chatted and then guided them to the LuLu E. It was far cry from a Swift boat, but the Coast Guard rafts with twin 225-horsepower engines and machine guns at bow and stern looked like modern versions of the craft Kerry piloted nearly four decades ago.
The men talked war -- and not the political kind. But mostly they joked, laughed and remembered. At one point, Kerry started to put a orange life jacket on Rassmann, the man whose life he saved so many years ago.
"I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to my opportunity a little more than 24 hours from now to share with you and all of America a vision for how we're going to make this country stronger at home and respected in the world," Kerry said on the dock before jumping into his armored SUV to head to his Beacon Hill home.
Soon after, his crewmates sought out reporters and television cameras. Rassmann said it was Kerry who seemed saved Wednesday -- at least from the stress of the day -- by the reunion.
"He's relaxed because he doesn't have to be defensive and worry about he says," Rassmann said. "This," he said, referring to the campaign, "is very draining."
Rassmann later described the scene on the boat with Kerry as they neared the berth.
"Things had quieted down, and I turned to John and said, 'Did you ever think, 35 years ago, that you would [live to] see another day, let alone a day like this?' " Rassmann said. "It clearly struck a nerve. He said, 'Yeah, I know what you mean.' "