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

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

8 thoughts on “Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part IV”

  1. I am grateful that your friend, Lt. Col. Curtis, was able handle within himself the vileness of war in retrospect and therefore write about this down to reality accounting of one fight.

    Civilians like me cannot ever comprehend the horrors our men in uniform endure – not even after reading a fine article such as this. Even Old Man Jack would look down at his thumb, raise his bushy eyebrows then exhale while slowly shaking his head in my company and utter very little even after 70 years.

    I wish the bozo in the WH would have accompanied Bing West.


    1. Colonel Curtis is following the comment stream, Koji … ask him any question you wish.


  2. Being a non-combat Marine (helo crewchief) from Vietnam, I read all of the Colonel’s articles with great interest. It gives me a greater insight to what my Brothers endured in that hell hole.
    Thanks for a great article.
    Semper Fi


    1. Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Carroll. You may also be interested in several other articles that illustrate the courage and tenacity of Marines in the Air Combat Element. You can search this site for these titles: Hard days, Hard nights, A Jolly Green Miracle, A Clash in the Mountains, An American Samurai, The Playboy Club, About Helicopters, and Groucho Marx.

      There is no question in my mind that Marines entitled to wear the Aircrew Badge who served in Vietnam were also “combat” Marines.


  3. Mustang is ABSOLUTELY correct. The helo crews were magnificent. The number of times I was standing in an HLZ, throwing smoke, talking to the crew and giving them hand/arm signals was too many. I saw others do it too. Mostly it was for Emergency Medevacs…..that meant the enemy was at minimum….near. And, too often, the zone was hot, i.e. as the helos would begin to flare, the automatic weapons would open up on them.

    Helo crews never paid for a drink around grunts for a long time. My salute to you Lloyd Red Carroll.


  4. More on Helo Crews. They came in the day AND the dead of night. In driving rain, fog and the chaos and uncertainty of what was before them. They always came. I never saw a medevac turn away…even in the worst of conditions. Just so everyone knows.

    Thank you is far too thin a thing to render unto them. So much gratitude and respect goes out from so many that were saved. And so many Air Crew in those strange “whap – whap” machines gave their lives to save others.

    A debt that can never be repaid by we mortals.


  5. Thanks again for the accounts.
    A friend of mine was a Helo Gunship pilot.
    I find his stories, which after all these years he can only now bring himself to talk about, amazing.


  6. Great article. Appreciate your comment about sheep dogs.

    For more, Mustang once recommended BONNIE-SUE: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam, which I read. For those who haven’t been there, you get as good a feel for guys who ride into chaos lit up by unfriendly fire as the uninvolved can.


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