Call sign: Boston strangler
Thomas Wright was one of John F. Kerry's fellow Swift boat officers in Vietnam. Since Wright outranked Kerry, he was Kerry's sometime boat group Officer—in—Charge, so Wright had occasion to observe Kerry's behavior and attitudes, and the circumstances surrounding his early departure from the war zone. The intervening years have not dimmed his memories.
When the Swift boats of Coastal Division 11 sailed into harm's way from their Phu Quoc Island base of An Thoi, for missions along the rivers of Vietnam's southwesternmost Kien Giang and An Xuyen provinces, they communicated by radio. When they did, boat captains adopted distinctive, often humorous call signs for identification purposes. Eldon Thompson was 'Mary Poppins,' William Schachte was 'Baccardi Charlie,' James T. Grace was 'Twiggy,' and Tom Wright was 'Dudley Do—Right.' When John Kerry radioed another Swift boat, he used the call sign, 'Boston Strangler.'
Lieutenant Thomas W. Wright heard that call sign frequently. As OIC (Officer—in—Charge) of PCF—44, he operated with LT (j.g.) Kerry's 94 Boat on a fairly regular basis. A 1966 graduate of the University of North Carolina's NROTC program, Wright had served as communications officer aboard the destroyer USS Robert A. Owens before beginning Swift boat training in November 1967. He had already served for eight months with Qui Nhon's Coastal Division 15 when the monsoon season forced its boats to be shifted to the more protected, and more challenging waters off An Thoi. He decided to extend his tour and follow his disciplined, veteran crew to the new base. As the relatively senior lieutenant there, he was the OTC, or Officer—in—Tactical Command for the majority of the 3—to—6—boat missions. On most of them he commanded 44 Boat.
The rivers and canals of Kien Giang and An Xuyen provinces were the targets of Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam, Rear Adm. Elmo Zumwalt's aggressive SEALORDS operations. Looking back after all these years, Tom Wright, now a retired Commander, recalls: 'We planned missions locally to try to dominate the area and disrupt the enemy's movements. We faced significant challenges every day, every night. We would respond to intelligence reports as appropriate. It took great imagination and determination to work effectively in the rivers, and we remained deployed until material damage and casualties reduced our effectiveness. We would then rotate back to An Thoi for repair and re—arming.'
For Tom Wright and most other Swift boat officers, there were two commandments: 1. Protect the crews. 2. Win. As for Tom Wright's 44 Boat; 'we won every engagement, start to finish. I got the crew home; a few nicks, but we made it.'
Working with call sign 'Boston Strangler' became problematical. 'I had a lot of trouble getting him to follow orders,' recalls Wright. 'He had a different view of leadership and operations. Those of us with direct experience working with Kerry found him difficult and oriented towards his personal, rather than unit goals and objectives. I believed that overall responsibility rested squarely on the shoulders of the OIC or OTC in a free—fire zone. You had to be right (before opening fire). Kerry seemed to believe there were no rules in a free—fire zone and you were supposed to kill anyone. I didn't see it that way.'
In Wright's view, it was important that the enemy understood that Swift boats were a competent, effective force that could dominate his location. To do that, you also had to control the people and their actions; to have them accept Swift boat crews and their authority. You couldn't achieve that by indiscriminate use of weapons in free fire zones.
It got to a point where Wright told his divisional commander he no longer wanted Kerry in his boat group, so he was re—assigned to another one. 'I had an idea of his actions but didn't have to be responsible for him.' Then Wright and like—minded boat officers took matters into their own hands. 'When he got his third Purple Heart, three of us told him to leave. We knew how the system worked and we didn't want him in Coastal Division 11. Kerry didn't manipulate the system, we did.'
As for medals, Commander Wright holds strong views: 'No one was recognized for completely overwhelming the enemy with skill, courage and bravery. No one wanted a Purple Heart because it meant we had made a mistake. We made sure our crews were recognized, but no one took pride in a Purple Heart. Everyone who served is equally important, regardless of rank or awards.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian, and Vietnam veteran, who served in the Fourth Infantry Division