Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part VI

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

LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC
LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC

I always tried to think about what we were doing in terms of how the enemy would view it: our defensive positions, our offensive tactics, and in our relationship with the civilians who surrounded us. Politeness and courtesy toward village officials, women, and the elderly was very important.  The medical treatment of villagers by our Navy Corpsman paid dividends.

The quality of my Marines was mostly good, although I did have a few knuckleheads —but dealing with these Marines as an older brother always brought them around. As a Sergeant I didn’t have official disciplinary powers, but I could rail at them and also send them away if they failed to abide my rules.  I was also older than the average sergeant. I had already seen a good bit of the world, and I was (and continue to be) an avid reader of military history. I understood insurgencies and how to best counter them. I hoped that my knowledge about the Special Air Service, the Long Range Desert Patrol Group, Popski’s Private Army (Number One Demolition Squadron), or how the Philippines dealt with the Huks in the post WW II Era —all apples and oranges, mind you— might help us in the fulfillment of our mission.

The PFs did a terrific job, particularly considering how poorly they were paid and supplied. They also had a few slackers, but in the main, they were courageous and further, there was no end of tour for them.  If they were in the American military, all of them would have received medals for valor. I continue to wonder what became of these brave men. [1]

By the time that I left in late November of 1967, I thought we’d done pretty well.  No Marines had been killed and all of our wounded survived permanent injury.  We didn’t have to worry about mines and booby traps as the villagers walked the same paths as we did.  We suffered the loss of Trung Si [2] Ti who was the PF leader.  He was much older than I, maybe ten years or more and had served in the French Union Forces.  He had a stack of medals, but was barred from becoming an officer because he had no formal education.  He was murdered while attending a political rally.  It wasn’t a firefight.  It was an assassination. In the instant of Ti’s death, one of the Hamlet chiefs pulled out his .38 caliber revolver and shot the VC bastard square in the eye.  It was a sad day because all admired Trung Si Ti.  He was a tough and proven combat leader.

We organized a memorial ceremony with the RVN flag over his casket.  The Marines took up a collection and we gave his family several hundred dollars.  Not much by U.S. standards, but a fair amount by Vietnamese standards. The government of Vietnam provided damn little support and not one official attended his funeral —another example of lousy leadership by ARVN officers.  For too many, the war in Vietnam was a business; corruption was part of the deal.  Corrupt officials could not see that they were dooming their own future. Not all ARVN officers were this way, but too many were promoted for their personal loyalty rather than for their combat performance. [3]

Given the totality of the war in Vietnam, I have to conclude that the United States of America failed to acquit itself in line with its reputation in previous wars. Our national leadership was abysmal, our diplomats inept, our generals stuck in the middle of previous wars, the colonels more focused on becoming generals themselves rather than fighting a successful war. There are dozens of things the Americans should have done, but never seemed to get around to doing —and the point of this is that had we done things differently, the outcome might have been a happier one for the Vietnamese people, and ourselves. As an example, the importance and worthiness of CAP demanded more than a few weeks of schooling. We should have become proficient in the Vietnamese language, and the people assigned to the CAP should have been of the highest quality military professional. What actually transpired is that when line company commanders were forced to give up Marines to serve in with CAP, they only gave up those whom they would miss the least. Knowing this, many Marines felt as if they were being “shit canned” to the CAP —and no one with any brains can imagine that this attitude was a program enhancement. While many very good Marines were assigned to the program, the quota filler aspect was not a plus.

Considering the money the United States spent in Vietnam, it should have been an overwhelming victory. Seeking out the enemy by thrashing around the jungles and mountains was near idiocy.  Further, we had far too many troops of various services and job specialties in Vietnam that were more hindrance than help.  Alas, there were so many lessons that might have been learned from our mistakes in Vietnam but I feel that we ignored most of these lessons, and as a result, the human cost of subsequent wars has been unacceptably high.


[1] Bing West reported that many of the PFs in his village “disappeared” after the fall of Vietnam in 1975. I agonize over this every day.

[2] Trung Si is Vietnamese for Sergeant

[3] My good friend and the author of this blog recently returned from Vietnam; he reported to me that the corruption is worse now than it ever was —only today the stakes are higher; as China menaces Vietnam, Vietnamese leadership grovels at the feet of China’s leaders. They enrich themselves at the cost of national autonomy.

Blog Owner’s Post Script: Staff Sergeant Curtis relinquished his command on 22 November 1967. His time in Vietnam, both in an infantry platoon and Combined Action Platoon had a dramatic effect on him. Shortly after returning to the United States, Curtis was ordered to Officer’s Candidate School and subsequently received his commissioned to Second Lieutenant. Lieutenant Colonel Tad Curtis retired from active duty with eight years in the enlisted grades and twenty-four years as an officer—serving thirty-two years of honorable active duty service. In spite of many personal decorations, Curtis is proudest of his Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal —it is only awarded to enlisted Marines.