WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- John Kerry's bid to become commander in chief of wartime America has opened old wounds among some former Vietnam-era POWs who bristle over Kerry's anti-war activism and atrocity allegations during the Vietnam conflict.
Those activities and statements, pushed out of sight by a campaign that spotlights Kerry's service in Vietnam, were used by the POWs' North Vietnamese captors to sap the morale of prisoners and U.S. troops still in the field in South Vietnam, former POWs told United Press International.
"They were always talking about that (anti-war demonstrations), and they picked right up on Kerry's throw-away line, 'Don't be the last man to die in a lost cause, or die for a lost cause,'" said Kenneth Cordier, an Air Force pilot who spent 2,284 days as a prisoner. "They repeated that incessantly.
"They used these photographs and inputs, voice tapes, whatever, from these peace people to try to convince us the whole country had turned anti-war and we were showing a very bad attitude and would never go home."
Jim Warner, a prisoner of the North Vietnamese in the Hoa Lo prison complex -- known to U.S. servicemen as the Hanoi Hilton -- remembers Kerry. He became acquainted with him, he said, when a North Vietnamese guard and interrogator the prisoners nicknamed "Boris" took Warner to the quiz shack in the complex's punishment camp called "Skid Row" in May 1971.
During a four-hour propaganda and harassment session, Boris pulled papers from his pocket and gave them to Warner to think about, he said. Some were clippings from a leftist newspaper in the United States. The other was a typewritten transcript of Kerry's testimony before a U.S. Senate panel in which he repeated allegations of U.S. troops routinely committing atrocities, attacking the war and saying communism was not a threat in Vietnam.
The atrocity allegations were garnered from the so-called Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit in early 1971, in which actress and activist Jane Fonda and Kerry, a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, were involved.
At that event people claiming to have seen combat in Vietnam alleged committing atrocities -- rape, cutting off of ears and heads, murdering women and children -- on a routine basis and with the knowledge of their superiors. Many of the allegations proved false or could not be documented, and the veracity and identities of many witnesses later came into question.
"It was the stuff about the Winter Soldier," Warner said. "The paper he showed me, the statements from John Kerry, were separate. And the stuff that was supposed to be from Kerry was a typewritten transcript of a few pages, but he was pointing to the statements.
I can't quote the statements, but essentially they were the same as those being played now on talk shows of his testimony in front of the Senate."
Warner was in his Marine Corps F-4B aircraft when he was shot down over North Vietnam on Oct. 13, 1967, and was held for 1,979 days. He told UPI that in that confrontation with the North Vietnamese officer he was told "these statements (by Kerry) ... were proof I deserved to be punished. I was pretty sure they weren't going to do anything, but in the summer of '69 they had spent four months trying to get information out of me, and I still had the memory of my mistreatment -- sleep deprivation, leg irons, a cement box in the sun (and feet and ankles swollen from chains digging into the flesh).
"The memory of that was still pretty fresh in my mind, and I was extremely uneasy. Every time he mentioned (the papers), this officer said I committed crimes, that this war was illegal. I just had no idea. ... All along they told us they would execute us for our 'crimes.'"
Particularly galling for Warner was his parents' brief participation at an anti-war event in Detroit where they said their son was a prisoner and they hoped he would be released. Warner said he never spoke to his parents about that after his return -- it just wasn't something talked about -- but his sisters had told him Fonda and Kerry were involved in getting his parents to appear, an appearance he believes lent a measure of respectability to the event.
Warner said Kerry and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which had staged large demonstrations in Washington, were often mentioned in the radio broadcasts that played incessantly over the camp's loudspeakers.
"On our (former POW) listserve there are many people who mention hearing Kerry on Radio Hanoi and how much that infuriated them," Warner said, "but I don't know of anyone else confronted like that."
Cordier, now living in Texas, doesn't recall Kerry's name specifically being used in interrogations, propaganda broadcasts by Hanoi Hannah (Radio Vietnam) or during "attitude checks" -- political indoctrination sessions -- since Kerry was then not a household name. But he said he does remember the North Vietnamese using the so-called Winter Soldier investigations and photographs of war veterans, both real and imposters, throwing military medals over the White House fence.
Paul Galanti, a former Navy pilot who spent 2,432 days in captivity and worked on the 2000 primary campaign of fellow former POW Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also remembers the broadcasts.
"It was propaganda. They stopped torturing us after Ho Chi Minh died pretty much, but all that stuff we got banged on -- they wanted us to say and to confess to war crimes and killing babies and all this other stuff," he said. "They kept talking about Vietnam Veterans Against the War, they had seen the right way and blah, blah, blah, and they were on our side, they had crossed over to the peoples' side and all that stuff."
Galanti said he didn't know Kerry's name then, although he had seen a newspaper photograph while in captivity that showed someone who looked like Lurch (a character in "The Addams Family" television show in the mid-'60s). Like others, they had only heard newscasts about a former Navy lieutenant and the anti-war movement. "I figured out who it was later," he said.
Cordier, Warner and Galanti said although the anti-war protest propaganda was sometimes disheartening, the North Vietnamese failed in their attempt to use it to break the prisoners' will.
"It didn't make us want to give up, it just made us feel discouraged that there were people who felt that way about us," said Warner, who works as a corporate attorney.
Cordier, Galanti and Warner are dead set against a President John Kerry. Cordier says it's just not his anti-war past, but his record till now, including his voting against funds for troops in Iraq.
"The measure of a person's character is their whole history up until the present," he said. "It's not what they say they believe or what they'll do when president or all these platitudes. ... And he has consistently taken the side of our enemies and other countries that oppose us or have a different viewpoint."
Joe Crecca, who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966 and held for 2,280 days, won't be supporting Kerry either, accusing him of having "betrayed those who served with him by falsely accusing them of war crimes and a host of other things as soon as he returned to the USA."
Retired Adm. Jeremiah Denton -- held 2,766 days -- helps lead Vets4Bush. Everett Alvarez, who at 3,113 days was the longest-held prisoner of the North Vietnamese, would only say that he would be considered partisan since he had been a Reagan administration appointee.
McCain, who is campaigning for Bush, was also a prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton and counts himself as a friend of Kerry. Calls to his office for comment for this article were not returned. However, in 1973, shortly after his release from the Hanoi Hilton, McCain had a strong negative opinion on prominent anti-war activists, although he did not know Kerry by name at the time.
The Kerry campaign, asked to comment, sent UPI an e-mail message the included two quotes form a Oct. 21, 1996, New Yorker article entitled "A Friendship that Ended the War" and asked they be included.
"John McCain has never changed his mind about Kerry's participation in that anti-war demonstration, but he has changed his mind about the man," the article stated. "When I asked McCain if he would be campaigning for (former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who ran against Kerry for Senate), he shook his head, an emphatic no. 'I simply would not do such a thing. I couldn't do that. ... I'm surprised you would ask. ... Going to campaign against John Kerry is something I wouldn't consider.'"
The second quote from the same New Yorker article the Kerry campaign wanted cited was from Kerry in the same interview: "'We started talking about the war, and Vietnam, prison -- what happened to him and all that. ... Nothing had brought us together before, and we just talked. We talked about what I had done.' Kerry was referring to the episode that McCain had denounced in the 1984 campaign. 'But by now it wasn't a big hurdle,' he went on. 'To his credit, he didn't make it one. He made it clear that he had moved beyond all that. ... The war was a tough period for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. Both of us decided to put all that kind of stuff behind us, and work together at something.'"
During the Democratic National Convention in Boston last week, a number of anti-Kerry veterans' groups participated in demonstrations opposing Kerry's campaign for the nation's top job, and other groups have more demonstration plans in the works.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- former Navy patrol-boat crews, including former comrades and a crewmate of Kerry in Vietnam -- publicly came out in opposition to the senator from Massachusetts last May and plan to launch a television ad attacking his candidacy later this month.
Kerry, meanwhile, is attempting to organize other veterans into a reliable voting bloc. His campaign works with several people who served with Kerry during his four-month stay in Vietnam as testimonials to his service, during which he was awarded three Purple Hearts and two medals for bravery.
In July Kerry told CBS's Dan Rather that he was "very proud" of having been a leader of the anti-war movement but admitted some of his language may have been too strong.
"Yes, some language that I used, I've said before, I think was a little reflective of a young man who was angry, a young man who felt disappointed in our government leaders who had lied to us," Kerry said when asked if he had made any mistakes during that period. "I regret that I wasn't perhaps more tuned into to something I said might affect somebody. But you learn. That's the beauty of life."
Campaign spokesman Phil Singer said last week: "When John Kerry testified before Congress, almost 45,000 Americans had died in Vietnam. He knew that standing up to end the war would anger some people, but he took that stand out of principle, spurred by the fact that when he returned home, he found that the highest-level military and political leaders were not aware of what was happening in Vietnam.
"Unlike George Bush, John Kerry knows what it means to serve in combat. He is uniquely qualified for the Oval Office and will be a president that makes America stronger at home and more respected in the world."