Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part IV

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

Hotel three was linked by tactical radio to the support base at Phu Bai. One morning I received a summons to report to higher headquarters, the Combined Action group. After our meeting, I tracked down the mail orderly to see if we had any mail, and then I dropped in on the logistics chief for additional supplies of munitions. Meanwhile, my contemporaries were waiting impatiently in the truck; they wanted to get back to their respective villages.

All seemed well when I dismounted the truck and walked past our bristling defenses; the armed rover saw me straight away, and all seemed well. Rounding the corner, I cleared the two steps into our radio room. The heat was nothing shy of oppressive.


Manning the radio was a task that all of us shared. I asked the operator if anything was going on. He handed me a note written by one of the senior corporals. He and four others had moved to establish an ambush. The hair on my neck stood up: we didn’t do ambushes during daylight hours. Since radio didn’t know anything about the operation, I began shrugging off my 782-gear[1] wondering about what the corporal might have been thinking —and that’s when it started.

The sound of automatic weapons fire and explosions echoed through the area, and all of it was coming from the direction the corporal said they would be located. Within seconds the radio erupted in chatter. It was typical of those who are under fire; their voices became higher pitched. I could hear the stress; I knew the situation wasn’t good.

The moment we heard the explosions and fire, everyone grabbed their gear and their weapons. I yelled out, “get ready to move out[2].” Meanwhile, the radio operator heard that we had casualties. I ordered the radioman to call for an emergency Medevac, then disconnect the radio, and come with us. A young ARVN officer commanding the guard force at the bridge asked what was going on. My answer was polite but somewhat curt. He offered to augment my force with a few of his men. I can’t recall my end of this conversation, as I was busy checking my Marine’s weapons and equipment as we moved out of the compound.

I continued to hear the sound of automatic weapons fire and explosions and judged the distance and considered the likelihood of an enemy ambush us on the way to reinforce our guys.  We knew the terrain better than the enemy as we lived there and walked it every day and night.  I told my Marines, “Let’s go” and we broke into a fast jog.  Moving as quickly as we could and making sure that no one fell behind, we ran down the river trail.  Initially I felt we were safe because there villagers were present on the trail; they surely would not have been there if the enemy was very close.

The firing and explosions continued.

As we got nearer to where I thought the ambush site was, was, I motioned to the radio operator, who was nearly out of breath[3], and he handed me the hand set. I called the ambush and told them a medevac bird was en route and we were very near.  I advised them to lay flat because we were going to open fire.  I had no idea as to exactly where they were or how many enemy they/we faced.

We opened fire.  The purpose was to alert the enemy that many reinforcements were very near.

In under a minute we pushed farther down the trail.  Bamboo and shrubs covered that part of the pathway.  I set my Marines into a defensive perimeter around the ambush site. I recall firing several magazines into the nearest tree line.  I didn’t hear any return fire nor see any enemy, although we did find the arm of an enemy soldier lying on the river trail —giving credence to the fact that at close range the 5.56 mm round, though small, at very high initial velocity could be devastating.

CH-46 Sea Knight
CH-46 Sea Knight

Three of my Marines required evacuation.  At the instant I heard the engines of the CH-46 medevac chopper, I vaulted to the radio held by the ambushed Marines.  The young man was rattled from the recent engagement. He kept calling out “Medevac Helo; this is Hotel-3.”  The problem was that he was still on our tactical frequency, which meant he wasn’t talking to the medevac bird but to us.  I grabbed the radio and switched the radio to the correct frequency, raised them on the net, and told them what I was going to do.

I had spotted a good helicopter landing zone (HLZ) not too far away that would allow the chopper to come in from any direction; there were no trees or obstacles.  I said I would throw down a smoke grenade and they could confirm the color.  Once the pilot confirmed the proper color smoke, I would guide the chopper in.

While I was bringing in the medevac chopper, other members of the platoon were assisting the wounded —two of these were ambulatory, one needed carrying to the landing zone.

This was a nerve-wracking event because the enemy had only been at the location moments before. We did not have visual contact with the enemy, and we could not know his intentions. For all we knew, he might be forming up for an attack; he might attempt shooting the medevac bird out of the air. The thing was, no one acted scared (even though everyone was). The Marines did their jobs, as they were trained to do them. They were extremely professional under extremely dangerous conditions.

Apparently our firing and our presence gave the enemy second thoughts and they departed the area. The enemy didn’t usually like to fight during the daylight, especially if the ground was fairly open because they knew we would call in for close air support and they’d be toast.

When the medevac chopper lifted off and disappeared over the horizon, we all felt a sense of relief.

I noted that in addition to the CAP Marines and PFs, the ARVN Commander, a Trung-uy [4] was also present along with some of his troops.  The PFs and villagers seemed elated as we had driven off the enemy. I cannot say how many of the enemy were killed or wounded, but we did have one enemy arm—which one of the PFs picked up and was waving about while grinning.

Though there were a number of valorous and heroic actions on that day, no one received any medals or accolades. I was a grunt staff sergeant and not familiar with how the awards system worked.  The Marines and PFs never asked about awards.  We were doing a mission and if successful that was the reward.

If I had to mention one Marine who stood out, it would have been Corporal Mark Bradley. He was at the ambush site, and although he was not the senior NCO, he organized the defense of the fire team while wounded. I feel certain that were it not for his coolness under fire and his ability to employ massive defensive fires at the enemy, the entire team may have been killed. I wish I had known then what I know now; I would have recommended him for the Silver Star. As it was, all he received was his second purple heart.

There are lots of “what ifs” in this brief account and I think about them from time to time.  All the wounded Marines survived.  Saying that, this action —and very many more during their tour in Vietnam— certainly altered their lives forever.  War is a life-changing event. It is not glorious; it is not the stuff you see in movies. It is awful.  But we do need sheep dogs to keep the wolves from the sheep.


[1] When a Marine signs for field equipment, he does so on DD Form 782. Therefore, all field equipment is generally referred to by Marines as 782-gear, or more simply “Deuce gear.” Field gear consists of cartridge/pistol belt, holster, magazine pouches, water canteens, ponchos, and so forth.

[2] All of this happened much faster than you can read about it; in mere seconds.

[3] In addition to his radio AN/PRC-25, the radio operator had his full kit of combat gear. The radio itself weighed just under 24-pounds.

[4] Vietnamese for First Lieutenant

Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part III

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

The Viet Cong were always watching.  Always.
The Viet Cong were always watching. Always.

Among many things to remember is that CAPs were a long way from any reinforcements should the VC or NVA attack us.  Phu Bai was only eight miles away, but it may as well have been eighty, as the enemy would only attack in force during the hours of darkness when close air support (attack aircraft and armed helicopters) was not likely to be employed.  There was no plan to rapidly reinforce, by ground, any CAP in 1967. Thus, we were truly on our own —especially at night. With that in mind, we needed to do things that would discourage the enemy from attacking our compound or coming into any BChamlets.  We did this in numerous ways—

  • We continually improved our fortifications. When it wasn’t raining, we filled sandbags and added them to our walls. We constructed more fighting bunkers inside the compound should the enemy breach our outer defenses.
  • We increased barbed wire fencing along the perimeter of the compound—and we were clever about it. Using long, middle, and short length barbed wire stakes, we kept changing our concertina pattern so that every time the enemy studied the configuration, he was presented with a completely new problem. We knew the enemy was constantly watching us. While some CAPs were overrun, we never were.
  • We always had a sentry posted inside the compound; his job was to keep an eye on the surrounding area during hours of daylight —to observe and report any unusual behavior, such as locals pacing off the distance from concealment to the edge of our compound.
  • We put employed Claymore mines within the wire of the perimeter.
  • We pre-positioned additional ammunition, grenades, and pop-ups in each bunker.
  • We acquired a 60mm mortar from the ARVN and illumination rounds from Phu Bai.
  • We sent out a patrol every day; we set up an ambush every night.  Again, the enemy was always watching —and listening— so we never revealed our route of march or ambush location to the Marines at the Phu Bai combat operations center until the last moment, and we never gave this information to the PFs. This made enemy more difficult: they were never quite sure where the Marines were. I would add that we continually changed our patrolling and ambush tactics and I think that our unpredictability frustrated the enemy.

At this time, the primary weapon for Marine infantry was the M-16 rifle. We also had automatic weapons: one 7.62mm machine gun, one .30 caliber machine gun (borrowed from the ARVN), a number of .45 caliber pistols, one 12 gauge shotgun, one 40mm M79 Grenade Launcher, and grenades of different types. As previously stated, we liberally employed Claymore mines as instruments of defense. The PFs were armed with WW II Era weapons: M1 rifles, Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), and .30 caliber M1 carbines.  The PFs, most of whom were slightly built, favored the carbines because the weapon was light and easiest to carry. The downside, however, was that carbines lacked substantial stopping power.


Douglas AC-47  (a.k.a. Puff the Magic Dragon)
Douglas AC-47 Spooky Gunship (a.k.a. Puff the Magic Dragon)

On call supporting arms was available to Hotel-3 but with the exception of aero-medical evacuation, I never used them. The medevac choppers came in handy for our civilian population (breach-birth, child near death, etc.) and all of these cases ended on a positive note. I didn’t see a need for artillery or close air support because the enemy we faced never exceeded a hundred in number and we always succeeded in surprising them. Whenever we hit the enemy, they always backed away. Another factor was that artillery and air support increased the possibility of a costly mistake—undoing all that we were attempting to do for the local population. On the other hand, had a large force ever attacked us, I would not have hesitated to call for artillery or close air support.

I knew the enemy was always watching us; I knew that if they every discovered a weakness, they would exploit it. Our goal was to keep the enemy off their guard, so we would do the unexpected. For example, we might begin a morning patrol —heading out very slowly and looking very menacingly at everyone and then at some distance from the compound, we would turn around and run back the way we had come, and then proceed out of the village on another trail. The locals would see us, and then suddenly we were gone only to appear at some other (distant) location.

Continued next week—


Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part II

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

M35 USMCOn a temperate early afternoon, I climbed onto the back of a two-and-a-half ton truck with all my gear. In this case, gear meant helmet, h-harness, two canteens, first aid pouch, fighting knife, two magazine pouches, seven magazines (20 rounds in each one), a .45 caliber pistol, with three magazines, two M26 fragmentation grenades, one yellow smoke grenade (for marking landing zones (LZs), a flak [1] jacket, entrenching tool, gas mask, and a pack that weighed about 40 pounds.  Now, forty pounds may not seem like much, but I recall that when I initially arrived in Vietnam, I weighed 170 pounds; after six months, I weighed less than 140.

When the truck finally arrived at our destination, the afternoon had become extremely hot. I climbed down.  The driver and a few Marines were going on further; the truck pulled away leaving me standing in the baking sun with dust swirling around my body. There was not a single sound coming from anywhere. Off to my right, I saw the compound—an old French fort. The walls were waist high and of no use whatsoever because the highway was above the compound. A limp Republic of Vietnam (RVN) flag hung from a pole.

The fort consisted of several buildings, some constructed with stone blocks, and some of them temporarily erected by combat engineers or Seabees. All of the roofs were made of corrugated tin. There was a large tower —block construction— that had the feel of something from the 1929 film Beau Geste (a story about the French Foreign Legion in Algeria). This fort was seriously run down; its defenses were poor. There were a few sandbagged fighting bunkers and three rolls of rusty concertina wire. I was underwhelmed.

I entered the fort unchallenged. In fact, no one even realized that I was there. This spoke volumes about the kind of unit I was taking over. But the fact was at this moment, I was not in command of the platoon until the old commander left. He, also a sergeant, was at the end of his tour and delighted to be going home. I asked a lot of questions and looked around, and then in a few days, he left and I assumed command.

Our assigned area of responsibility extended across the north, three kilometers of rice paddies, in the south by mountains (home to organized battalions of hardcore VC, only 5 kilometers from our compound), in the east by the Cho [River] Troui (which fed into Đầm phá [lagoon] Cau Hai —a source of fish and shrimp), an in the west by CAP HOTEL TWO.

Vietnam Compound

The people of our village were either farmers or fishermen (or both) and they and their families owed no allegiance to any government or political philosophy.  Their experience was that the agents of various governments (i.e., men with weapons) simply wanted to tax, steal or bully them.  They were simple people who preferred to live their lives in the old way —at a time when the authority of the Emperor stopped at the village gate.

The village had no running water or plumbing; there was no electricity. There were two moped cycles, but no cars or trucks. There was no medical clinic.  Education was difficult primarily due to the fact that VC kept murdering the few teachers that would dare to come down to teach. When there were classes, they were only for grades 1 through 4. There was one pretty impressive Catholic cathedral (not huge, but more grand architecture than most churches in small town America).  It too was abandoned after the VC murdered the priests. This suggested to me that some VC elements were living in our village. My village and the villages closer to Phu Bai were not particularly pro-NLF/VC but there were others that were damn near solid in favor of the VC, or were just terrorized into doing what the VC told them to do.

The houses in our village mainly consisted of one large room. The roof and sides were straw and bamboo.  The floors were very hard packed dirt.  They, of course, had to be rebuilt every 4-5 years as the materials would decompose and blow away.  This was accepted as the norm.  Few villagers had ever gone much farther than to Phu Bai or possibly Hue.  None had ever seen a movie; most owned no books.  As I said, a simple people with limited connection to the world beyond their village. They did, however, come to know who was stealing from them and taking their sons away; they were deeply resentful.

Our mission was just the opposite.  We, by our actions, would steal nothing, pay for anything we needed from them, be polite and do our damnedest to protect them.

I cannot say with any degree of accuracy how many of the roughly 5,000 villagers spread in the five hamlets were pro-VC or pro-RVN.  Further, I could not say how many really liked us or hated us.  What I can say, however, is that there were enough people who saw what we did for them in a positive way that they were willing to provide us with real time information as to where the enemy was or would be at a certain time.  In effect then, we provided security for the people of our village and they became our real defense.

Continued next week—


[1] FLAK: German for Fl(ieger) a(bwehr) k(anone), literal – flier defense gun.  Adopted by U.S. and British fliers over Germany and occupied nations in WW II to indicate the actual HE bursts throwing lots of shrapnel to shot down the Allied craft.  Later morphed into a heavy thick vest to protect against shrapnel. A flak jacket was really a vest, as it had no sleeve. They might stop a slow moving piece of shrapnel or a bullet of low caliber if either had reached the limit of flat trajectory in flight —but other wise, not so much protection.


Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part I

CAP BadgeThe Combined Action Program was a United States Marine Corps operational initiative implemented in the Vietnam War; it proved to be one of the most effective counterinsurgency tools developed during that conflict. The concept, however, seems to have at least partially originated with pacification programs in the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic during the so-called Banana Wars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Marine Corps never throws any previous doctrine away.

“In small wars, tolerance, sympathy, and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population … The purpose should always be to restore normal government … and to establish peace, order, and security.”

—Small Wars Manual, 1940

In Vietnam, the CAP operated from 1965 to 1971. The program was characterized by the placement of a thirteen-member Marine rifle squad, augmented by a U.S. Navy Corpsman and strengthened by a Vietnamese militia platoon (called Popular Forces, or PFs) of older youth and elderly men within or adjacent to rural Vietnamese hamlets. In most cases, the PFs were residents of the hamlet; they were either too old, or too young for conscription into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units. Together, Marines, Navy personnel, and PFs were designated a Combine Action Platoon.

In terms of the CAP mission, Marines and local Vietnamese cooperated with one another to protect and secure the hamlet from enemy infiltration. The placement of these small units expanded the tactical areas of responsibility (TAOR) of Marine Corps infantry battalions in that region. In this series we have the first hand account of a Marine who commanded a Combined Action Platoon in Vietnam. Long after retirement, he subsequently prepared a comprehensive list of “lessons learned” used to reinstitute the CAP in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

By the time William C. Curtis arrived in Vietnam, he had already completed seven years of active duty. Enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1958, Curtis was selected for sea duty. He served two years aboard the USS Hornet (CVS 12) as both Admirals’ orderly and as an NCO of the ship’s guard. Subsequently, Curtis was assigned to the Regimental Guard while assigned to the 1st Force Service Regiment at Camp Pendleton. During his next enlistment, Curtis successfully graduated from Marine Security Guard School, augmented US Secret Service missions on behalf of President John F. Kennedy, and served at both the US Embassy Rome, and in Oslo, Norway.

Curtis left the Marine Corps after his second enlistment, but applied for and was accepted into the Marine Corps Platoon Leader’s Class —a program that would ultimately result in a commission to second lieutenant at the end of his college education. Within a few weeks of his discharge, however, in March 1965, the Ninth Marine Amphibious Brigade (9th MAB) made an amphibious landing at Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. The more Curtis watched these events unfold, the more he regretted having accepted his separation from active duty. In mid-1966 Curtis reenlisted in the Marine Corps; he was able to retain his rank (sergeant), but he lost thirty months time in grade (seniority) —the cost of leaving the Marine Corps even for a little while.

Old Corps EGAWithin a short time, Curtis reported to the Third Marine Division and subsequently assigned to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines. It was a well-heeled company, which meant that platoon commanders were former Marine Gunners, [1] senior enlisted men were World War II and Korean War veterans, and junior NCOs had served for more than four years on average. The leadership and experience paid off for the Fox Company Marines; while engaged in several intense encounters with enemy forces, the company gave more than it received from Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units.

Curtis told me, “The Commanding Officer knew that I was vying for a commission. He called me in to talk about it. He examined my record, asked about my experiences, and he opined that he would like to see how I did before he submitted my request. He asked if I thought that was fair. I did.”

Curtis’ battalion was short of officers. Some had been wounded and evacuated back stateside, others rotated back to the states at the end of their thirteen-month tour of duty. As a result of these circumstances, Curtis became a platoon commander while serving as a sergeant. As newly commissioned officers began to arrive, the CO informed him that he would have to relinquish “his” platoon to one of these young platoon leaders. For several weeks, Curtis worked long and hard to help indoctrinate the new lieutenant into the rifle platoon —to teach him the skills he would need to lead his Marines successfully in combat.

Not long after this, Curtis’ CO informed him that he was being considered for the CAC program, which at the time stood for Combined Action Companies. The CO didn’t have many details, but did suspect that one rifle squad with a Navy Corpsman would be assigned to a village and, with Popular forces, provide security to the village. Through aggressive patrolling, the CAC (later changed to CAP) would be expected to locate, close with, and destroy VC or NVA elements within their TAOR. It would be something like a Peace Corps operation, the CO opined, only one that was heavily armed.

CAP School in Phu Bai lasted only a few days. Marines so assigned were crammed with Vietnamese history, cultural differences, common words and phrases in the Vietnamese language, and some instruction in supporting arms and close air support. With more questions about the CAP than there were answers, William C. “Tad” Curtis was placed in command of a Combined Action Platoon designated HOTEL THREE. His story will continue next week—


[1] Marine Gunners were infantry or artillery warrant officers and chief warrant officers authorized to wear the bursting bomb device on their collar. Due to significant shortages of regular commissioned officers, Marine Gunners were selected to serve as temporarily commissioned officers in grade of second or first lieutenant.