Evidence contradicts claims by Novak's highly touted witness

In his August 27 column, syndicated columnist and CNN Crossfire co-host Robert Novak presented his interview with retired Rear Admiral William L. Schachte Jr. -- who claims to have been the commander on the December 2, 1968, mission for which the U.S. Navy awarded Senator John Kerry (D-MA) his first Purple Heart -- as decisive evidence supporting allegations by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Kerry did not deserve the award because his wound was self-inflicted and minor. Having landed what he called Schachte's “first on-the-record interview about the Swift Boat Vets dispute,” Novak quoted Schachte claiming that he was on Kerry's crew for the mission and denying that the boat received hostile fire; the Swift Boat Vets' own website and the accounts of crewmen present on Kerry's boat that night contradict his claims.

Kerry won his first Purple Heart for "[s]hrapnel in left arm above elbow," according to documents reviewed by The New York Times. Gunfire broke out after “Kerry's crew spotted some people running from a sampan, a flat-bottomed boat, to a nearby shoreline,” according to an April 14 Boston Globe article. Schachte, however, told Novak that “Kerry nicked himself with a M-79 (grenade launcher).” He added, “Kerry requested a Purple Heart.” Schachte also said, “There was no fire from the enemy.”

The account of the incident on Swift Boat Vets' own website contradicts Schachte's assertion, also in Novak's column, that Schachte was the commander on Kerry's boat. According to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's website (archived copy here):

The action that led to John Kerry's first Purple Heart occurred on December 2, 1968, during the month that he was undergoing training with Coastal Division 14 at Cam Ranh Bay. While waiting to receive his own Swift boat command, Kerry volunteered for a nighttime patrol mission commanding a small, foam-filled “skimmer” craft with two enlisted men.

The two enlisted men who joined Kerry on the December 2, 1968, mission, William Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon, have both insisted (here and here) that no one apart from Kerry was with them on the boat that night. “There definitely was not a fourth,” Runyon told The Boston Globe.

The same Globe article also notes that both Zaladonis and Runyon believe that their skimmer received enemy fire, though they are not completely certain. Both also doubt the crew even carried an M-79 -- the weapon with which Schachte claims Kerry was injured -- on the boat that night:

“I am reasonably sure we didn't have an M-79,” Zaladonis said. “I didn't see one. I don't remember it.”

Runyon says the only weapons the trio had were an M-60 machine gun, two M-16 combat rifles, and, possibly, a .45 caliber pistol. Is he 100 percent sure there wasn't an M-79 grenade launcher in the boat?

“I wouldn't say 100 percent, but I know 100 percent certain that we didn't shoot them,” replies Runyon.

In an August 20 New York Times article, Runyon expressed resentment at how Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had distorted his version of events after he -- mistakenly believing Swift Boat Vets was a pro-Kerry group -- sent the group a statement describing the skimmer incident. “Runyon said the edited version was stripped of all references to enemy combat, making it look like just another night in the Mekong Delta. 'It made it sound like I didn't believe we got any returned fire,' he said. 'He [the SBVT investigator] made it sound like it was a normal operation. It was the scariest night of my life.'”