CAP Articles

This section features articles about CAP by other authors, some in CAP, others not. Some are taken from period military publications (Sea Tiger, Stars and Stripes, Leatherneck, Marine Corps Gazette, etc.), and others are taken from essays, theses, and other sources. I have gotten permission to publish wherever possible, and given appropriate attributions where known, but am still looking for some of the authors. If anyone reading this has any knowledge of or contact with any of the the authors, please put them in touch.




USMC COMBINED ACTION PROGRAM VIETNAM EXPERIENCE

By LTCOL James H. Champion, USMC (Ret.)


(Posted by kind permission of the author.)


The CAP program, as it was called by those of us who were involved, began informally in the spring of 1965, The details of its beginnings are vague, but records indicate that Marines from Lt. Col. Taylor's 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines located near Phu Bai, recognized that the government of Vietnam's PF's (Popular Forces - Nghia Quan) could be a desirable ally. 3rd BN., 4th Marines simply started taking the PF's on Marine Corps patrols.


Later on, the commanding general of the 1st ARVN Division  (Army Republic of Vietnam) gave Lt. Col. Taylor operational control of four Vietnamese villages near Phu Bai. These villages contained about sixteen hamlets with a total Population of 13,000-14,000 Vietnamese.


In spite of Marine patrols, the Viet Cong were able to maintain control of these four hamlets. VC control meant that the VC collected taxes and supplies, held Propaganda meetings at night and assassinated people who weren't cooperating with the VC. 


Those same observant Marines from the 3rd  Bn., 4th Marines recognized that these PFs could be a further valuable ally in the Marines' fight to secure their four hamlets. 


The Marines figured that because they were local and they knew the area and the people, the PFs could be a real local asset in defeating the local VC.


The PFs were poorly paid and equipped, and lived with their families in the villages they protected. The GVN's (Government of Vietnam) command, control and support of the PFs were nearly nonexistent. The local district chief was directed to provide weapons and training. Some did, some did not. Later in war the Marines of I st CAG normally insured that their CAPs were well trained and equipped. Occasionally, we even paid them with captured money we got from the VC and NVA.


Lt. Col. Taylor, Major C. B. Zimmerman, and Lts.  J.J. Mullin and J.W. Davis, all of 3rd BN 4th Marines, devised a plan to integrate the PFs with Marine forces and provide 24 hour protection for the four villages. Lt. Col. Taylor selected four Marine rifle squads, four navy corpsmen and a three man command group commanded by a Lt. Paul Ek.


Lt. Ek had been an advisor with the U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam. He also attended the short Vietnamese language course on Okinawa. Lt. Ek gave his new charges a two week orientation course. The course addressed their mission and the unique customs of the Vietnamese people. The PFs who were to work with the Marines also received training. The details of the PF’s training are not known to this writer.  With all of that effort and a little fanfare on 3 August 1965, the first so called "Joint Action Company" was deployed.



"Joint" was a poor selection of terms since "joint" denotes operations with a sister U. S. service. These so-called "joint" operations were actually "combined operations." 


I doubt if the Marines of 3/ 4 had a JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) phrase book available to them in their planning. I also doubt if they even cared if they were using correct terminology - they just wanted to secure their four hamlets. The growth of the CAP platoons was rapid. From 4 in 1965 until 1969 when 111 combined action platoons were deployed.


Combined Action Organization: (Command and Control)


The organization of the combined action program evolved from its meager beginnings with a few PFs going on patrol with marines of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, into a large bureaucratic organization with 111 Combined Action Platoons.


The first joint action company married three Marine rifle squads and some PF platoons together, Later these joint action companies became known as combined action companies and sometimes had eight combined action platoons.


The Vietnam War was unique in several ways. One was the difficult command relationships between U. S. and GVN forces. In reality we never had command of Vietnam forces. What we did have was a very convoluted coordination relationship with the GVN forces. 


One of the basic principles of warfare is unity of command. We discarded this principle in most of our military relationships with the GVN. The U.S. forces in Vietnam devised something I called second fiddle for the main GVN forces. That meant the main U.S. forces went their offensive way and the GVN main forces became static defensive forces. As an aside, attempts were made to consolidate U.S. and GVN command and control. One I am familiar with was the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion at the siege of Khe Sahn. 


This ARVN unit was placed outside the 26th Marines wire and under the control of the 26th Marines. Sort of.

Note: "Outside the wire."


Early on, the Combined Action Program at the Marine rifle Squad level became a unity of command example. I commanded two combined action companies (CACOs) in the I st combined group located in the Chu Lai area. In my two CACOs the Marine squad leader was the overall unit leader. Simple as that.


The command relationships at the group and CAP director level were more vague. As an example, the Combined Action Group was designed to deal with the GVN Province Chief. In I st CAG we had two province chiefs, one in Quang Tin Province located at Tam Ky and the other at Quang Ngai Province. 


As the commanding officer of Combined Action Company 1-1, I was often required to deal with both the province chief and the district chief. Both were located at Tam Ky. As the commanding officer of Combined Action Company 1-4, 1 would deal with the province chief in Quang Ngai City as well as the district chief at Son Tinh. 


My point? Command lines often became blurred into astute parallel control and coordination lines. The Combined Action Program succeeded because it was flexible in its command relationships at all levels. Keep in mind the CAPs were considered to be GVN forces. We even wore ARVN rank.


At the Combined Action Group Level they could broad brush the relationship. At the Combined Action Platoon Level their planning included daily and detail exchanges between the U.S. Marines and the PFs. Just the way it ought to be.


Combined Action Operations:


A quick summary of command and control shows that at the I st Combined Action Group Level there was very little daily and direct planning with the GVN province military staff. While at the Combined Action Company and Platoon level there was nearly constant and direct planning. Note: I seldom shared my plans with the Vietnamese forces. I purposely kept the details of our operations within U.S. Marine Corps channels. Why? Because we suffered some casualties when we included the district or province GVN forces headquarters in the planning of offensive operations. The VC had infiltrated all levels of the GVN. Take it from me.


Since its formal beginning on 3 August 1965, the CAP program in Vietnam was a dynamic organization. A significant part of CAP history is the degree of change it undertook. Remember, the basic command and control structure of the CAP was a parallelism of command. Unity of command was sacrificed for sharing the responsibility of the planning.


The command and control between the Marines and the PFs at the Combined Action Platoon level was in my experience simply "Marines in Charge. "   The vernacular term is, "Where the rubber meets the road. " A thing which bothered those of us who came from recent experience in an infantry battalion, command by committee did not work. So most of us modified it to read, "Marines in charge. " 

But once again glittering generalities will not work. In the field, the application of the operating command structure varied with the personalities involved.


To discuss operations we must discuss missions. The six main missions were:


I .    Provide local village security.


2. Consolidate intelligence activities at the village level.


3. Improve the standard of living of the villagers


4. Improve local village institutions.


5. Promote the GVN and its programs.


6. To work ourselves out of a job.


The six missions were broken down into four tasks. These tasks were assigned to the Combined Action Platoon.


First -        Conduct military operations with the PFs.


Second -    Train and Equip the PFs.


Third -       Gather, evaluate, disseminate and react to local intelligence.


Fourth -     Participate in civil action and psyops programs.


The fourth task included the medical combined action, which had the corpsman conducting medical programs for the villagers, locally known as medcap. We also got sewing machines, clothes, barber kits, books, pencils and paper for the villages. We had fairs, market days, we constructed trails, schools, rice patty dikes, and many other things. We did those things the GVN could not or would not do because ot lack ot resources and/ or lack of desire.  


The military operations in first CAG were as follows: 


Each CAP conducted four daylight patrols. Two before noon and two after noon. (These patrols were designed to insure that the CAP was familiar with its territory.) 


We required that the CAP register on-call artillery missions in their tactical area of operation (TAOR). We did this daily using smoke or illumination rounds. This gave each CAP the location of several known fire missions, which each member of the CAP could call upon when required. These on-call artillery missions saved a lot of friendly lives. 


We also were looking for booby traps (III MAF later made us change the name to surprise firing devices.) These daylight patrols normally were two Marines with a radio and some PFs walking through their area. Much like a cop on a beat, being friendly and helping the villagers where they could, again learning every square foot of their village area and looking for signs of the VC.

At night each CAP sent out a large night activity and kept a reaction force on alert. The reaction force was located at our base site and was designed to react to anything that came about. Sometimes we sent out several "Night Activities." This term "night activities" allowed us to move to contact and not be required to stay in a fixed ambush site - In April and May 1969, 1st CAG killed 440 VC or NVA. We had a kill ration of 10 - 1.


In I st CAG we had a great working relationship with the Americal Division. They provided artillery and gunship fire support on call. The recorded on-call fire missions were actually registered missions and each CAP member knew their location. Therefore, when required, the CAP could request an artillery fire mission and it would be on its way in minutes. 


Often the CAP would gather intelligence as to the location of a VC or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit. Then we would plan and execute a Combined Action Company operation. I became the S-3 of I st CAG in October 1968. At that time, we had 26 Combined Action Platoons in three Combined Action Companies, in two provinces and three districts.


When Lt. General Cushman, USMC, the CG of III MAF returned to the US to become a member of the Nixon administration, the senior Lt. General in III MAF was a U.S. Army General. He started getting the daily III MAF briefing. This lasted until the Marine Corps got a senior lieutenant general in III MAF. During one of those briefs, the U.S. Army General heard that the I st CAG was , consistently killing more NVA than the entire 101st Airborne Division. The Ist CAG had about 350 to 400 Marines and sailors at the time. 


Being skeptical, the Army General wanted a detailed briefing of the I st Combined Action Group and came to Chu Lai for a visit and a briefing. He departed very impressed with our operational capabilities and results. The CG of the Americal Division awarded two CAPs of  I st CAG the Army Medal of Valor. He was also impressed with our capabilities and results. The two Vietnamese Army Province Chiefs I worked with and for told me they would rather have a CAP than an ARVN Battalion in their province.


In closing I would like to make three points:


1.  There was a disturbing lack of knowledge concerning the Combined Action Program both among the general public and the officials at Marine Corps and Army Headquarters. This allowed the most successful pacification program in Vietnam to slide into the dust bin of history.


2.  The success of the program depended upon the Marine squad Leader. He was the key to the entire operation. The success or failure of the CAP rested upon his shoulders. He had to lead inside a vacuum without any higher officers to backup his authority. He had nobody to pass the buck to. No place to hide when things went wrong. He was in a very isolated position for such a young inexperienced Marine NCO. The average CAP commander was 22 years old. From 1966 until 30 June 1969 they lead small units which killed over 4400 VC/ NVA.


3.  The key element of success of the Combined Action Program was the continual conduct of aggressive patrols and ambushes throughout the CAPs TAOR. This function was only successful because of the fire support and the reaction forces available to the marines. When the Marines departed, the PFs could neither conduct such patrols and/or ambushes nor count on the necessary fire support. The rest is history.


I’d  like to thank Colonel Edward F. Danowitz.  He was the Combined Action Director while I was in I st CAG. Also, I would like to thank the Human Science Research, Inc. for the use of their report on the CAP program written by Bruce C. Allnutt for the Marines in December of 1969.





Combined Action

MSgt George Wilson, GySgt Jack Childs, 

SSgt Norman MacKenzie, Cpl Michael Sweeny

(First appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, October 1966)


For some time the Marine Corps had been studying the idea of a Combined Action Company. Basically, the concept was for a squad of Marines to move into a village and become active members of the community; working with its citizens on municipal projects, while offering armed protection against the Viet Cong. Augmentation would come from the ranks of the Popular Forces, the Vietnamese version of the early American Minutemen.


Now, a little more than a year old, the units of Marines and militia are providing the necessary adjunct to battle - protection for the liberated villages as the III MAF expands and consolidates its TAOR.. On his recent visit to Vietnam, General Wallace M. Greene, Jr. noted. "This is the future war in Vietnam and I'm all for these Combined Action Company units."


The Popular Forces take heart from the Marines firepower and combat aggressiveness, but combined action is far from lopsided. "When we started on night patrols the PF's complained we made too much noise," recalls a former member of the CAC unit at Thuy Tan. "With a slight revamping of our equipment we were able to meet their standards of silence. Then they started accepting us. "


Primary mission of the CAC is a tactical one. Its members provide local security, occasionally spiced by VC infiltration that erupts into a firefight. Or the Marines and PF's run recon patrols or set up ambushes designed to clear the area of hostile forces. Hardest to evict are the covert VC hidden among the villagers. First you have to spot them.


Last month a routine patrol by 1/7 turned up a VC suspect. He admitted he was the ACC (Autonomous Committee Chairman) for An Long, a small hamlet in Quang Ngai province. A Marine rifle squad lives in the village, which from all outward appearance is anti-Communist. The incident emphasizes a second mission of Marines assigned to CAC duties - win the confidence and respect of the people.


One CAC squad gained respect by successfully struggling with the construction of a bamboo and straw hut, and then making it their CP.


In a village only 12 miles from the Marine complex at Chu Lai, the VC's four-year control ended when Capt. J. L. Cooper moved in with his Co. E/2/5. The Marines built living quarters; fortified the area with barbed wire, bunkers and mortars.


Capt. Cooper and his men joined forces with the local PF unit, under Capt. Noto. The combined action company did for the villagers what the VC were unwilling or unable to do. Streets were policed, medical care given, cleanliness was stressed. Soon, from the village chief on down, the people of Than My Trung began cooperating with the Marines. Enemy activity was immediately reported. Former VC ambush sites, base camps and supply points were pointed out.


Eventually Company E will be replaced by another unit, equally proficient at the job of war and peace. Whether chasing the VC or building a windmill the Marines of CACs have this in common; winning over the people. Every task is accomplished working alongside the people. As Lt. P.R. Ek, one of the original CAC Marines, explained it: "When you give people material things, you don't give much. When you give them yourself, that's something." This, too, then is a two-way street. 


Personal satisfaction seems to be the main reason why Marines and Corpsman volunteer for duty with a CAC unit. By no stretch of the imagination can this be called "choice duty." It takes a special kind of breed, even among the New Breed.





A Handful Of Marines

LTCOL David H. Wagner, USMC

(First appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, March 1968, pp. 44-46)


A do-it-yourself attitude for the Vietnamese is the main objective of Combined Action Marines


The motto of the officers and men of the Combined Action Unit Program in I Corps is: "Work yourself out of a job!" This is exactly what the 1,200 Marines involved in this unique program are attempting to do. They inject the spirit and will to fight and win into the lowest ranking troops of Vietnam: the Popular Force platoons. The Marines lead by example and are mighty successful in transferring their own esprit de Corps into these Vietnamese troops.


The Vietnamese know they must have security to live. They must be able to tend their crops without the weight of the VC tax collector. The children want security so that they may grow up within their homes, attend secondary school without fear of enforced recruitment. Government cannot exist at the village level when VC assassination teams are free to impose their terror. Security is essential to the organization of the government and society of a free Vietnam. Yet, as most Marines have learned: I Corps is the scene of a shooting war.


How can a few Marines provide security for over 270,000 Vietnamese people? Visit a Combined Action Platoon located in the middle of a village and see how. 

Walk through this area where a few months ago the VC held sway. Note how the young and old, no longer afraid, wave and show signs of friendship. They have helped gain their security through an integration of Marine and local militia, the Popular Forces. The combination is aptly termed CAP (Combined Action Platoon).


The Combined Action Platoon has 14 Marines and one Navy Corpsman, integrated with a Popular Force platoon of 35 men. This total force of 50 has shown itself superior to VC forces ranging in the hundreds. Over the past two years it has proven itself a deadly combination time and time again. The 14 Marines are integrated into the PF platoon with a Marine fire team in each of the PF squads. The Marine Corps leader works with the PF platoon commander on a co-equal basis in a spirit of coordination and cooperation. Neither commands the other's troops in the strict sense.


To understand this combination requires an appreciation of the unique qualities and qualifications of these two groups: Marines and PFs. What is the Popular Force soldier like? At the bottom of the Vietnamese military structure, he makes around 2,200 $VN per month (around $19.00). A part time soldier, he is commanded by a platoon commander appointed to the position with little additional pay for extra responsibilities. The CO is even denied the promise of promotion. The big thing about the Popular Force soldier is that he is recruited as a volunteer from the hamlet in which he will serve. This is the primary source of his motivation. When he fights the VC he is fighting for HIS family, HIS home, HIS plot of ground, and HIS neighbors.


The Marine involved in this program also is a volunteer. He is recommended for the job by his commanding officer after spending at least two months, preferably, in a combat unit. MOS is not considered. Engineers have as much (and sometimes more) to offer as the Marine infantryman.


A Combined Action Unit Program School is operated at III MAF Hq. in Da Nang. Those accepted for CAP duty must attend. The curriculum requires two weeks and consists of three basic units: 


* Personal response to the Vietnamese people, including appreciation for the religions, customs and mannerisms.


* An introduction to the Vietnamese language. (Building on this basic instruction, young Marines wind up extremely proficient after living among the Vietnamese.)


* Weapons Training. (Popular Forces are armed with obsolete U.S. WWII weapons with which the Marine must become familiar in order to train his Popular Force counterpart.) 


Does the program work? Since the Combined Action Unit Program began there have been no recorded desertions of a Popular Force soldier from his unit. 

The extension rate among CAP Marines exceeds 60%. In one notable instance extensions for duty among CAP Marines exceeded 85%. This points to the deep conviction and involvement of the Marines with their Popular Force comrades, and THEIR village. They can remember when meeting a tall stranger on the street would cause the villager to lower their eyes in fear and subjection. Now the Marines are part of the community life.


Our primary job in the pursuit of security for the Vietnamese is to go into the hamlet and village and identify and destroy the VC infrastructure. The VC must have a logistical organization. They need a police effort in the village to remain in command. They need tax collectors to acquire operating expenses.


The VC infrastructure is what enables them to continue the fight. This structure prevails in each hamlet and village. The first step toward security is to identify the infrastructure and eliminate its members. This can produce a snowball effect. Once the villagers see the CAP successfully identify and remove the VC organization from the village, they realize that they are now free to talk and live their lives as never before.


Another extremely important function of the CAP is denying supplies to the VC. The VC obtain their supplies from the villages or go without. Cutting off his supply of rice hits the enemy where it hurts. An illustration:


The Combined Action Platoon was still rather new to a village in northern I Corps but was actively whittling away at the VC infrastructure. 


A villager told the Marine NCO in charge of the platoon that a VC tax collector had been in the village that day and would return tomorrow to collect the taxes. Could the Marines help? Here was a perfect chance to show the people our faith. 


The simple thing would have been to ambush and kill the VC tax collector. Instead, the Combined Action Leader told the village council that he would give them security for their rice IF they wanted it. 


The Combined Action Platoon operated from a small hamlet near a large lake. There were logistics problems but--and this is a most important point--the Vietnamese worked out a plan whereby the entire community, using small boats, ferried 7,000 lbs. of rice across the lake into the custody of the Marines. 


The villagers knew the VC tax collector would return, perhaps with a vengeance. What could they do? THEIR DECISION--and THEIR'S ALONE-- was to request the same security for the rest of the rice crop. The same stipulation was made to deliver the rice across the lake. When this experiment in community security ended, the Combined Action Platoon was sitting on 60,000 lbs. of rice for the entire village. 

At a subsequent meeting the village council and leaders decided to share in the rice stock on a cooperative basis, leaving the remainder within the security of the Marines. Two significant points ensued: the denial of military supplies to the VC, and the civic action of the entire community working together toward a common goal in concert with the people they had learned to trust: the Combined Action Platoon.


The Combined Action Platoons are constantly on patrols and ambushes. Hardly a day goes by that contact with the enemy is not made somewhere in the I Corps area. This is the real basic rice paddy war. A high kill count occurs in areas where the VC used to roam and stage ambushes. The tables are now turned.


Hand in hand with destroying the VC infrastructure, denial of supplies and combat operations, is the establishment of a Combined Action Platoon intelligence system in the local area. It is only with information freely given from the villagers that the CAPs can provide effective security. Time after time the villagers have told the Marines of planned VC attacks, patrols, ambushes or mines and booby traps. This is when the day-to-day efforts of winning the confidence of the people really pays off.


Another vital job is training the Popular Force soldier. He is the "Minuteman" of Vietnam, the man on the scene who must fight with WW II weapons against hardcore, well armed VC. Given good leadership he fights long and hard. A Combined Action Platoon site in Dien Ban was attacked by a superior VC force. Popular Force soldiers stood their ground against repeated attacks. Their performance was a result of the ability of the Marines to instill this will to fight and win.


A Combined Action Platoon Popular Force soldier was the first Vietnamese soldier in Vietnam to receive a United States decoration: the Bronze Star medal for heroism under fire in the VC assault of a Combined Action Platoon compound. Since then another Popular Force Vietnamese has been awarded the Bronze Star for action with a Combined Action Platoon.


A recent addition to the CAP program is the training of the Popular Force corpsmen by the U.S. Navy Corpsmen. The Navy corpsmen are a very vital part of the Combined Action Platoon. The way they have become part of the village and have won the confidence of the people is nothing short of amazing. Many corpsmen estimate that they care for around 300 people each week. At one of the Combined Action Platoons in the Da Nang area the 19 year old corpsman delivered his first twins and the ninth delivery of his young career. There are many MedCaps where the Navy corpsmen and their PF counterparts work side-by-side in villages and refugee camps.


The MEDCAP work of the Navy corpsman is only a part of the overall civic action effort of the Combined Action Platoons. Their efforts in civic action literally encompass every facet of village life. They dig wells, improve fishing, build schools and bridges, churches and orphanages. Literally the full spectrum of village requirements is theirs.


Take for instance the fishing experiment in Phong Bac hamlet. Marines of a Combined Action Platoon went into this fishing village and brought with them over-age explosives. They made up charges and then offered to hire the fishermen and their boats to go into the river and fish. 


The next day the Marines took off in the fishing boats as the shore was lined with curious villagers. As the charges were thrown in, the stunned fish rose to the surface and were picked up by the Marines and fishermen. When the boats landed, several hundred pounds of fish were unloaded and the crowd had doubled. 


By the time the entourage of people had walked the 3/4 of a mile to the village, the crowd had grown to around 300. The fish were auctioned off at the local market at the prevailing price. For a subsequent fish sale, a Community Chest type thermometer was installed, but with special symbols; the bottom of the scale was a road beginning at a Buddhist temple. The graduations along the way were in 1,000 piasters increments. This became the hamlet fund and the funds held by the chief were plainly accounted for in front of the whole population. Here then was civic action which really represented a trip into capital accumulation without the evils of exploitation.


A map of the locations of the 79 Combined Action Platoons in I Corps reveals that they follow the security of the lines of communications of the I Corps area. Up North on Route 1, where the first Combined Action Platoon held four miles of road, there are other Combined Action Platoons controlling 34 miles of road. The gain by locating along the lines of communication is two-fold: it provinces access to re-supply and locates our units where the majority of the people are located--along the natural coastline.


What is the future of the Combined Action Program? In I Corps today we have 79 Combined Action Platoons. The success of the program can be measured by the reaction of the VC. They are concentrating more and more on the Combined Action locations in their assaults. The Combined Action Unit Program will have 114 CAP locations by the end of the calendar year. There will be 19 Combined Action Companies by this time, too, as well as four Combined Action Groups which are the regional type headquarters for the program. The expanded program will provide security for an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese people or, in percentage figures, over 15% of the entire population of I Corps area.




(Note: This site represents the result of many years of investigative work and research. I have tried to be as accurate throughout as possible, but there is no such thing as 100% perfect. In cases where I was not present, I have relied on the accounts of those who were present and / or  official records, correspondence, statements from comrades, their friends and family, and other sources. Statements, quotes, poems, or any material other than my own reflect the views of those who made them. Neither this author nor this site assumes any responsibility for any errata made in good faith, nor for any of the views expressed other than my own. All the photos, documents, text, and other materials are copyright, and they belong solely to the authors, photographers, etc., who retain all rights to the materials.  All material is copyright, and may not be used without express written permission of the owners or their heirs and assigns. All material used with the express permission of the owners, who are named where known. Unattributed material will be attributed when the owner contacts me. 

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