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—

Notes:

[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.