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—