Combined Action Program History

(The following is a general history of the Combined Action Program.  See CAC Oscar History for details about our unit history.)

The Combined Action Program was for many years merely a footnote in history.  Only a handful of publications even mentioned this unique program that had held such promise. 

In recent years, that has changed somewhat with the introduction of books and studies on the program, and a renewed interest in the concept for the wars in the Middle East, and attempts to introduce a similar concept in Iraq.

There are a few seminal works on Combined Action (especially; “Combined Action Platoons: The Marine's Other War In Vietnam” by Michael E. Peterson (Praeger Publishers, NY, stemming from Michael’s MA thesis)  and the reader is directed to them for detailed studies of the program and its components.  (See the bibliography for details, and the CAP Articles, which include various works on the CAP by people who were associated with it or have studied it comprehensively.)  

The following background information is drawn from a number of sources, including those above, and those cited in the text and notes.  

My sincere thanks to those who have contributed their work, and allowed me to reprint it here.  These include the late LTCOL James H. Champion, USMC (Ret.) whose articulate and insightful essay on the CAP is included in CAP Articles.

I have also drawn upon the excellent work of MAJ Keith Kopets, USMC, whose article on the program has appeared in the Marine Gazette, Combined Arms Center Military Review (July-August 2002), and elsewhere. (I am still trying to get in touch with  MAJ Kopets, if anyone is in contact with him, but the Marine Gazette has kindly granted me interim permission to publish the version they printed.)

I have tried to attribute all quotes and articles correctly, and get formal permission for all reprints, but there are some I know I have failed to attribute or locate.  Part of this is due to the fact that I have been collecting this information for years, and unfortunately some of the notes have been lost or separated from their authors in the course of several moves.  If any readers can assist me by identifying or putting me in touch with the authors and photographers who are unattributed, please do so.

Origin & Development

The program was developed by the U.S. Marines in 1965, originally from a single infantry platoon.  The program grew as the concept became a matter of interest to the Marine command, who early on saw the need for a "winning hearts and minds" pacification program, as opposed to the "kill everything that moves" large unit warfare concept favored by GEN Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MAC-V). 

According to  Marine historical researcher and author R. E. Hays (MSGT, USMC, Ret) in his book on the Marine Combined Action Program in Vietnam, Marine LTGEN Victor Krulak (commander of the FMF) and Marine LTGEN Lew Walt had both accepted the potential for such programs, and the "spreading ink blot" approach to pacification. Westmoreland, while accepting the possibilities of such a program, argued that they "didn't have the time" for such a program, while Krulak argued that "We don't have time to do it any other way."

Unfortunately, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, while thinking that the program might be a good one, supported Westmoreland's concepts and his notion that pacification would be "too slow." 

Westmoreland's staff informed the Marines that if they wanted to do such a program, they would not be supported, and it would have to "come out of their own hide." Nevertheless, the Marine idea went forward, though it was often underfunded and lacked equipment.

The concept seems to have been at least partially based on Marine pacification programs in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere, during the "Banana Wars" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Marines were serving in the Caribbean and South America during the early 1900s. I have decided not to discuss the underlying political aspects of these actions, as there are differing interpretations, and it is beyond the scope of this work. 

In these programs, the concept was that Marine units would pacify and administer regions, while providing training for local forces, and security and civic action projects for the villages. From these experiences, a "lessons learned" tactical manual for "Small Wars Operations" (later updated and re-issued as the "Small Wars Manual") was drawn up. 

Opinions differ about exactly how and where Combined Action as it later was known originated, but it seems to have started in August 1965 as a unit drawn from 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, under LTCOL William W. Taylor in the Phu Bai area.

3/4’s TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility) included 6 villages and an airfield in a ten square mile area. The unit was overextended, and Taylor's XO, MAJ Cullen C. Zimmerman, suggested that they incorporate local RF and / or PF militia units into 3/4's operations. 

(Ed. note: RFs and PFs were the terms used for two South Vietnamese militia forces, the Regional Force and Popular Force. The Vietnamese terms for the two forces were nghĩa quân (mainly applied to the PFs, while the RFs were known as địa phương quân - though I doubt if many US troops knew or cared about the differences among the "Ruff-Puff” units [as they were commonly called among American units.]  See Wikipedia for further information on the RF and PF units.  We didn’t use these Viet terms much at KS because most of our RFs were Bru, but when I got down South to Alpha CAP later, they typically used the term nghĩa quân when referring to both our RF and PF counterparts.)

LTCOL Taylor sent the plan to COL E. B. Wheeler, 4th Marine Regt. CO, who forwarded it to III MAF and FMFPAC. The late MAJGEN Lew Walt and the late LTGEN Victor Krulak, both of whom had trained under Banana War veterans, saw the potential value and agreed to the proposal. GEN Nguyen Van Chuan, the local ARVN CO, gave MAJGEN Walt control of the PF platoons near Phu Bai.

Taylor integrated four squads with the  local PF units in  August 1965.  1LT Paul R. Ek was designated as unit commander. (Ek had some training in Vietnamese language and counterinsurgency operations.) 

The US troops were (at least theoretically) handpicked volunteers, with the first ones drawn from 3/4, and carefully screened by the executive officer, MAJ  Zimmerman. 

The late LTCOL William R. Corson and the late COL Edward Danowitz were also important figures in the early part of the program.  MGEN Walt formalized the program in February 1967, appointing LTCOL Corson as the III MAF deputy director for combined action. (See In Memoriam for the obituaries of these influential officers.)

LTCOL Corson was a combat veteran of World War II and Korea. He spoke four dialects of Chinese, held a doctorate in economics, and had experience in unconventional warfare, having worked with the CIA from 1958-59 organizing the Meo hill tribes for guerrilla operations against the Viet Minh in Vietnam. 

Corson believed the CAP units in the field should have a separate chain of command, as it was his opinion that the average battalion commander in Vietnam often didn’t know or care how to succeed in combined action, since they were trained and oriented toward offensive large-unit warfare. Corson saw CAP as being mobile and offensive in nature, a concept which later took shape in the mobile CAP units.

However, Corson was very disturbed by what he saw happening in Vietnam.  When he returned to the US, he was made deputy director of the Southeast Asia Intelligence Force in the office of the assistant secretary of defense.  He was by then convinced that U.S. policies in Vietnam were doomed and he wrote a book called; "The Betrayal" (1968, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc.) In it he stated that the Saigon government was corrupt and incompetent (often true enough in my experience) and that it commanded no real loyalty from most of the Vietnamese. Unless the United States revised its policies and the RVN government reformed, the war would be lost, and the lives of our servicemen wasted.

Publication was set for July 1, 1968, a month after LTCOL Corson was scheduled to retire from the service. Marine Corps regulations require officers on active duty to submit statements on policy for review before making them public. Corson claimed that this did not apply to him because the book would not go on sale until after his retirement. 

The Marine Corps responded by postponing his retirement and planning to convene a general court-martial. This was dropped on the grounds that they would only serve to draw attention to the book. Colonel Corson's retirement went through a month later than originally scheduled, and the book was published anyway. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in the war, though hard to find.

Essentially, Corson, like Billy MItchell, was attacked for daring to speak the truth, as he saw it, to power.  This has happened more than once in history. Of course, our Constitution gives control of the military to the President (who may or may not have any military experience), but to be fair, a military leader's strategic and tactical talents (if any) often vary greatly, and they may or may not have a grasp of the greater political ramifications of a given situation. However, LTCOL Corson was singularly well qualified to speak of Asian affairs, given his experience. 

CAP School

The earliest CAP-specific training was non-existent to rudimentary at best, but it soon became somewhat more formalized, with Marine volunteers being trained in the Combined Action School at Da Nang. 

Classes included re-familiarization with military topics including weapons (both US and VC / NVA), land navigation, scouting and patrolling, but also classes in Vietnamese language, culture, and history in an attempt to give the Marines some insight into their hosts' culture.  The classes were taught mainly by Marines, but some (such as Vietnamese language) were taught by Vietnamese personnel. 

Although a good idea in theory, the schools were in practice too short and shallow to be of much real use. Your real training was (as with so much else in the Marines) "OJT" - on the job training. 

The graduates of CAP School were then assigned to what were originally designated as a Combined Action Company (from which the acronym CAC was derived), where they were further assigned to a squad, which operated with a unit of the local RF/PF troops to form a Combined Action platoon - usually one to a village, though headquarters units were sometimes comprised of a "double CAP" of two squads.  (See CAP Organization, Strength and Composition below.)

Despite its rocky start, CAP became an official "hearts and minds" civic action program, and as mentioned above, a school of sorts was eventually established near Da Nang in an old French compound. Training was brief (ten days) and covered a few bare essentials - some Vietnamese phrases, customs, and culture, some civic action precepts, and some military topics far too short and thin to be of much good, frankly, though a step in the right direction.  Upon graduation, you were posted to a CAP unit.  

CAP School Certificate, 1970

(Photo above by Sandy Wardlaw, used by permission.)

CAC School Compound at Da Nang, c. 1968

(Photo above by Tom Harvey, CAP 3-3-5, used with his permission.)

View of the CAC School Compound at Da Nang, c. 1967-8

(Does anybody know who took the B & W photo above so I can credit them?)

Former CAP school entrance in a recent photo.

(Color photo above by Tom Harvey, CAP 3-3-5, used with his permission.)

After the program was formally established, the CAP Marines were issued a cloth and leather insignia to be worn suspended from the button on the left breast pocket of the utility uniform jacket.  It featured a shield with a green field, an embroidered eagle holding the US and RVN flags, with a ribbon above the eagle bearing the Vietnamese words "sức mạnh" and the letters CAC in red beneath the eagle.  

Original CAC Insignia

(Later superseded by enameled metal badge at top of page.)

These were later superseded in July 1967 by the enameled metal badge shown at the top of this page, featuring a shield with a blue field, and the RVN and US flags behind an eagle with "Combined Action Program" at the top, and a new motto "LÚC LƯƠNG HƠN HỢP" meaning roughly "With Reward(s) Over Time" and the acronym CAC (Combined Action Companies) was replaced by the acronym CAG (Combined Action Groups).

Part of the reason for the change was that the acronym CAC had by now been identified as part of the source of the mirth among the Vietnamese passing us or our camps.  "Cặc" in Vietnamese is a slang word for the male generative organ, pronounced and meaning much the same thing as the English euphemism "cock."  The humor this occasioned was compounded by the motto ("sức mạnh") which means roughly strength or something sturdily built. The implications were found to be very humorous by the Vietnamese, who would walk by and giggle as they passed our camp.  

(This is but one example of a persistent failure then and now on the part of Americans to delve deeply into the language and culture of a nation they are involved with.  Had a competent Vietnamese scholar been consulted, this linguistic faux pas might have been avoided. On the other hand, it probably gave the Vietnamese some much-needed comic relief in the midst of a brutal war.)

 CAP Organization, Strength and Composition

CAP units were generally assigned to an (ostensibly) “pacified” area.

Initially, the units were identified by letters and numbers, like line units, but this system was changed later to numeric designators. They were eventually organized as Combined Action Companies (CACs) which were in turn were eventually organized into Combined Action Groups (CAGs) as the  concept grew and spread.  Eventually, there would be four CAGs in I Corps.

Theoretically, each CAC was composed of three or more "platoons" consisting of a Marine rifle squad consisting of an NCO squad leader, 1 grenadier and 3 fire teams (each w/ a team leader, designated automatic rifleman, and 2 riflemen) for a total of  about 14 men, with a Navy Hospital Corpsman as medic.  However, like all things in the service, units were seldom up to Table Of Organization strength. These core units were then paired with a Vietnamese Popular Force or Regional Force (militia / national guard) platoon to provide security for villages from the Viet Minh (aka Viet Cong or VC) and PAVN (aka NVA) forces. In practice, CAPs, like their infantry counterparts, were seldom up to full TO (Table of Organization) strength.

Unlike typical Marine rifle squads, CAPs were usually fairly independent, as the only officer and SNCO (the company Gunnery Sergeant) were located in the HQ which could be some distance away from the outlying units. We seldom saw an officer other than for occasional inspections or for the one joint operation we pulled with the Marines from Khe Sanh Combat Base and the Army. For the most part, the NCOIC (in most cases a SGT or senior CPL) ran the unit, and NCOs (and even LCPLs) led the patrols.

In addition to the weapons used by the Marines at that time, such as the M-14 rifle [later replaced by the M-16], the M-60 machine gun, 

the M-79 grenade launcher, the M72 LAW (aka LAAW - Light Anti-Tank Assault Weapon - a light-weight foldable, portable rocket launcher), etc., CAPs also had access to weapons not normally part of a modern infantry squad's complement. For example, we had a well-stocked bunker of Korean and WW II weaponry and ammo (including many cases of .30 "match" ammunition from the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia (consisting of rounds that had been carefully primed, measured, and weighed for use in competitive shooting matches), and other weapons including a 60mm mortar, as well as a number of vintage weapons, including Browning  A-4 machine guns, Browning Automatic Rifle, Thompson submachine gun,  an M3 submachine gun (aka "Greasegun") and other nifty "toys"  - all intended for use by the RF / PF forces, but often borrowed by us. We would often take these on patrol with us in lieu of our own issue weapons - especially after they issued us the M-16, which frequently jammed. 

The CAP Marines originally lived in static compounds in or near the villages we were to defend. However, due to heavy losses and lack of mobility resulting from these static defensive sites, the Marines later opted for mobile "roving" units, with no fixed place of abode.  These had mixed results. Though the enemy was often not aware of where they would be on any given night, if they did manage to hit them, the CAP Marines had no defensive features other than whatever field defensive measures they could employ. 

As one example, a CAP Marine friend of mine from another unit, was the sole survivor of his roving team, and had been left on the battlefield for dead. He was found the next morning lying under his dead foe, who had shot and bayoneted him, and the body of his Marine comrade, who killed his attacker but was then killed himself and fell atop the Viet attacker. When he was found next morning, he was almost bled out, and was being thrown on the back of a truck with the bodies of his comrades. Fortunately, he managed to croak "I'm not dead." - which caused his rescuers to drop him like a hot coal, and he fell to the ground.

In theory, the CAPs trained the RFs, conducted joint patrols and ambushes with them to help protect the villages, and engaged in civic action work, which included medical care for the villagers, and when possible, helping or arranging for assistance with things like wells, schools, and other projects to benefit the people.

While all Marines are considered first and foremost riflemen, and basically trained as such, they also have a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) - a specific job field the Marine was trained for. The fields are numbered, and include every skill or trade from avionics to infantry to clerks, cooks, motor transport, intelligence, logistics, public affairs, ordnance, and everything in between. Each specific field is designated by a four-digit numerical indicator and a job title.  The first two numbers indicate the general field, and the second two designate specific jobs. For example, the infantry field (03) had classifications which in our day included: Infantry officer (0302); and enlisted ranks including: rifleman (0311); reconnaissance (0321); machine gunner (0331); mortars (0341);  rockets & flames (0351), and SNCO infantry unit leader (0369), while the 0800 series covered the artillery, the 2500 series covers communications, etc.

At first, the CAP units were composed of and manned by infantrymen, so infantry MOSs tended to predominate. However, as the program expanded, so did the need for more men with other skill sets. The infantry line commanders sometimes couldn't (or wouldn't) send enough infantrymen.  Also, with the increasing number of civic action towns and tasks, there arose a need for men with technical specialties not found in the average Marine line unit, such as plumbing and sanitation, electrical, and other MOSs, so to fill the ranks and get the techs needed, CAP began widening their net.  Most were still volunteers, but some men were assigned (or "volun-TOLD" as one of our men put it).  

It is interesting to note that some of the men who had been doing poorly or clashed with authority in regular units often blossomed in CAP units. 

That might be because what CAP units needed most were creative and clever people who could operate independently and think "outside the box" to solve the unique problems and challenges we encountered. 

Men from other MOSs entering CAP were assigned a "billet" MOS of 0311 (rifleman) in addition to their former primary MOS, since their duties now included combat patrolling, no matter what their primary MOS had been before.

While on the subject of MOSs and support, there is a term in military jargon known as T3R ("tooth-to-tail ratio") - the number of support personnel needed to keep each combat soldier or Marine in action. Armies have almost always required many people in support to keep each person in the field. 

One estimate for the ratio in the US Army was as follows:  WW I - 6:1;  WW II - 10:1 ( 6:1 in the European theater and 15:1 in the Pacific  - possibly because of the seaborne nature of the operations ); and  in Vietnam, 13:1. 

As you can see, the ratio in Vietnam was higher than all others except the Pacific theater in WW II - a much larger war against a much more powerful enemy. 

Having served in a support MOS myself prior to moving to combat arms, I am well aware that it takes a lot of people to support each field Marine or soldier at the "tip of the spear" and their jobs are just as important as the combat troops, because without them, the front-line troops would have no air or naval gunfire support, or weapons, ammo, gear, food, or other necessary equipment. Anyone who criticizes a person who did not serve directly in combat obviously doesn't understand the simple fact that the number of men at the "tip of the spear" are always going to be far fewer than those in support. Also, Marines do not generally get to pick their MOS - they are assigned based on their test scores and the needs of the Corps.

CAP Grows

The CAP concept in Vietnam was opposed by some who considered "hearts and minds" programs a waste of money, men, and materiel.  CAPs were often ignored at best and despised at worst by some commanders. The prevailing philosophical concept of the more aggressive commanders was; "Get 'em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow."  While there may be some merit to this idea, it is not a great way to win lasting friends, and those with this attitude practicing this form of "pacification" only made the CAP Marines' job that much more difficult.

However as noted, the concept eventually gained backing from Marine generals, the late Wallace Greene, Victor Krulak and Lew Walt, and with their support, the program expanded.  

Despite resistance, by Spring 1966, there were 40 Combined Action Companies operating in I Corps. 

(According to historian R. E. Hays [see above and below], the Army of the Republic of Vietnam [ARVN] almost destroyed the program by pulling the PFs in the CACOs from the Marines in order to defend district HQs and replacements for ARVN losses, which included both death and desertion.  However, many of the poorly armed, trained and led PFs were slaughtered, and some 40,000 deserted between January and May 1966.  Hays wrote that the Buddhist Uprising, which almost toppled the unpopular Ky regime, was the key to saving the CAP program, as the regional RVN general, Lam Quang Thi, knew he needed the Marines' support, and when Walt "subtly indicated" to Lam the war would go better with the CAP units, Lam took the hint and restored the PFs to the CAPs.)

During the late 1966-67 period, some of the CACs were under Sub Unit #4, an administrative division of HQ 3rd Marine Division (Reinforced). Oscar was one of these. Later, they operated under Sub Unit #5, then returned briefly to SU #4, and finally came under the control of III MAF.  However, in reality, these were little more than paperwork changes. CAP units and their personnel were largely unaffected.

According to the Command Chronology of HQ 3rd Marine Division (Reinforced) dated 10 November 1966 (provided by Larry Larsen of Sub Unit #5), “Combined Action Company joined our rolls as Sub Unit #4 on 14 October 1966.”  However, these "changes" (like others before and after) amounted to paper-work shuffles. 

A document provided by retired Marine historical researcher and author R. E. Hays (MSGT, USMC, Ret) stated:  

“On 25 October 1968, the Commanding General of Fleet Marine Force Pacific, Lieutenant General Louis Wilson, in accordance with Marine Corps Order P5750.1A, Manual for Marine Corps Historical Program: Preparation of Command Chronologies, directed that all Combined Action Groups and Combined Action Platoons submit command chronology reports on a monthly basis to the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force. General Wilson stipulated that the initial Command Chronology (ComdC) Reports for 2nd, 3rd and 4th Combined Action Groups cover the month of October 1968.

Prior to this time, Combined Action Group and Combined Action Platoon units submitted reports through the 1st Marine Division and 3rd Marine Division to the Commanding General III Marine Amphibious Force. Generals Wilson and Walt, recognizing the impact of this program, made the decision to place the Combined Action Group Commanders directly responsible to the Commanding General III Marine Amphibious Force.”

By 1969, despite losses during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the program had expanded to 102 platoons comprising 19 companies and 4 groups, and was even mentioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a speech. CAPs peaked in 1970, with 4 Groups, and 114 companies, spread through the 5 provinces of I Corps. 

Eventually,  the Army began using "Civil Action Patrol Teams" (similar to the Marine CAP on a smaller scale).  Typically they were a 3-man team including an officer, enlisted instructor and RTO.  The HQ was in a nominally secure area, and they ventured out to arranged meeting places to provide instructional support in weapons maintenance, etc.  One such element  was an adjunct of the 1st/502d Inf, 101st  ABN and was sited at Eagle Beach in June 1970. (This info courtesy of an Army CAPT member, Mike ["M-60"] Kelley.)

Marine Combined Action units, by comparison, lived in the villages initially (though this was later changed to mobile "roving" CAPs), taught military subjects to and trained the local indigenous population in weapons and tactics, helped fortify and defend the villes against the VC and NVA, and ran joint patrols with the local "Popular Force" and sometimes "Regional Force" militia, known from their initials (RF / PF) as "rough-puffs."  They also assisted in civic action projects (such as roads, wells, schools, etc.). 

According to CAP vet David Sherman; "Some of the first units were called "JACs," "Joint Action Companies." The "Joint" was changed to "Combined" because in military parlance, "joint" means combined forces of one nation, "combined" means forces of more than one nation, and so they became "CACs" or "CACOs" -  "Combined Action Companies."  

The designation was later changed to "Combined Action Program" - doubtless partly propelled by the discovery that the term "Cặc" in Vietnamese is a slang word for the male generative organ, pronounced and meaning much the same thing as the English euphemism "cock." (See notes on the original CAP patch, above.) 

The last phase, when Marines were no longer permanently assigned to individual villages, was called "CUPP," the "Combined Unit Pacification Program."

The units were still known as CACs or CACOs (Combined Action Companies) when I first joined them in October 1967, but the name was later changed, partly for linguistic reasons as noted above.

There remained some overlap (and confusion) regarding the various names all through my time in the units (1967-8).

The  Command Chronology’s “Narrative Summary” for December 1966 mentions various branches supporting CAC Alpha situated near Hương Thủy, a county-level town of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province in the North Central Coast region of Vietnam (which I later served in), and Hotel (Phu Loc), and a fourth portion of HQ 3rd MarDiv (Rein) deployed to Khe Sanh in support of the Senior Officer Present.   

It had been determined that a Combined Action company would be established and headquartered in the ville (coordinates XD 846380) near Khe Sanh Combat Base to help defend the Huong Hoa Sub-Sector HQ there, and plans were completed with the Huong Hoa Sub-Sector Chief for the establishment of three Combined Action Platoons (CAPs).  (SOP 031530 / Feb 67, SITREP #3)

In February 1967, the Narrative Summary of the HQ 3rd MarDiv (Rein) notes the establishment of Sub Unit # 5 at Khe Sanh.  This corresponds to the establishment of Oscar Company, and the arrival of three platoons on the morning of 5 February at 0945.  [SOP 051315Z / Feb 67.]  Oscar company was officially established in Huong Hoa Sub-Sector Headquarters in Khe Sanh Ville. [SOP 061414Z / Feb 67, SITREP #6] - See CAC Oscar History for details.)

On 15 July 67, the CC notes that SU #4 was assigned TAD to III MAF, and on 29 July 67 that the CAC personnel of SU #5 were reassigned to SU #4.  

In October 1967, the CC notes that “the 3rd Combined Action Group (CAG) was activated as a separate unit under III MAF (operating out of Phu Bai) effective 1 October 1967."  The remaining 1 officer and 16 enlisted in SU #4 continued to function as CAG members until normal attrition reduced them to zero effective 30 November 67.  

According to CAP veteran and historian William Nimmo,  the command records show that the CAP designators (originally in alpha-numeric format) were changed to a numeric-only system in late February 1968.  I do not recall this change (even though I left in April 1968), and other CAP veterans of the period also do not recall this change, probably because it often took time for such changes to filter down to the men in the field. The chaotic conditions of the Tet Offensive would have made promulgation of such changes even slower and more difficult than usual.

Marine veteran, author and historian Gene Hays (who has written several books which deal with Combined Action (see: Bulletin Board ) wrote that the Marines addressed the lack of specific CAP unit records thus;

“On 25 October 1968, the Commanding General of Fleet Marine Force Pacific, Lieutenant General Louis Wilson, in accordance with Marine Corps Order P5750.1A, Manual for Marine Corps Historical Program: Preparation of Command Chronologies, directed that all Combined Action Groups and Combined Action Platoons submit command chronology reports on a monthly basis to the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force. General Wilson stipulated that the initial Command Chronology (ComdC) Reports for 2nd, 3rd and 4th Combined Action Groups cover the month of October 1968.

Prior to this time, Combined Action Group and Combined Action Platoon units submitted reports through the 1st Marine Division and 3rd Marine Division to the Commanding General III Marine Amphibious Force. Generals Wilson and Walt, recognizing the impact of this program, made the decision to place the Combined Action Group Commanders directly responsible to the Commanding General III Marine Amphibious Force.

Unfortunately, this was too late to address the problems I and other CAP historians have found in researching the program.

CAP units c. 1970.  Note that Quang Tri is now 4th CAG - Oscar was originally in 3rd CAG)

(Source: submitted by Fred Dorr)

The End of the CAP

In 1970, III MAF reduced the CAP platoons as it redeployed its regular forces. On 21 September 1970, the Marines officially deactivated CAP as a separate command within III MAF, and on May 11,1971, the Combined Action Program officially came to an end in a ceremony at the 2nd CAG compound 3 kilometers NW of Hoi An. This date marked the end of CAPs as Marine Corps units and as a component of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (which had taken over from III MF).  On May 17th, CAP personnel turned over the compound to the South Vietnamese military.  

In its 5 years of operation, CAPs operated in more than 800 hamlets, containing approximately 500,000 Vietnamese civilians in I Corps. They had an inordinately high "kill ratio" for their numbers - though due to their size and often remote locations, they also took many casualties. They received several awards and ribbons from the US and RVN govt., including (in order of precedence): the Presidential Unit Citation (when awarded for combat, this is the equivalent of a Navy Cross for the entire unit), Navy Unit Commendation (when awarded for combat, this is the equivalent of a Silver Star for the entire unit), the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry (Unit Level w/ frame and palm, considered  the equivalent of a Cross of Gallantry for the entire unit) and the Vietnamese Civic Action Ribbon (Unit Level w/ frame and palm).  

CAP Marines also were awarded numerous awards for personal valor ranging from the Bronze Star with V and Silver Star to the Navy Cross. At least one CAP Marine, LCPL Miguel Keith, received the Medal of Honor. His citation provides an insight into his heroism:

"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a machine gunner with Combined Action Platoon 1-3-2, III Marine Amphibious Force, operating in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam. During the early morning of 8 May 1970, Lance Corporal Keith was seriously wounded when his platoon was subjected to a heavy ground attack by a greatly outnumbering enemy force. Despite his painful wounds, he ran across the fire-swept terrain to check the security of vital defensive positions, and then, while completely exposed to view, proceeded to deliver a hail of devastating machine gun fire against the enemy. Determined to stop five of the enemy approaching the command post, he rushed forward, firing as he advanced. He succeeded in disposing of three of the attackers and in dispersing the remaining two. At this point, a grenade detonated near Lance Corporal Keith, knocking him to the ground and inflicting further severe wounds. Fighting pain and weakness from loss of blood, he again braved the concentrated hostile fire to charge an estimated twenty-five enemy soldiers who were massing to attack. The vigor of his assault and his well-placed fire eliminated four of the enemy while the remainder fled for cover. During this valiant effort, he was mortally wounded by an enemy soldier. By his courageous and inspiring performance in the face of almost overwhelming odds, Lance Corporal Keith contributed in large measure to the success of his platoon in routing a numerically superior enemy force, and upheld the finest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service."


On a personal level, many CAP Marines remember fondly their former allies. This is particularly true of those of us who worked with the Bru tribe of the Degar people (aka "Montagnards").  

Some of the friendships established then have lasted to the present, and some of the CAP Marines who have gone back to Vietnam found the people still remember them kindly. Some of the former CAP personnel (as well as some of the Special Forces personnel) have traveled back to establish or work in charitable and civic action programs doing work similar to that which won them friendship originally.

Unfortunately, their very success also made them prime targets of the VC and the NVA, who often specifically targeted CAP units.  (I have been told that CAP NCOs and officers, and even entire units had a price on their heads in some areas, but have not yet located any documentation on this practice.)  

Their small size and remoteness made CAPs vulnerable to enemy assaults, and though the enemy usually paid a high price for a victory, units were often over-run, at times with few or no survivors. Several CAP Marines I know are one of a handful of their units who survived.  One is the sole survivor of his unit.  

Some writers, including Army and Marine flag-rank officers, speculated there might have been a much different outcome to the war had the United States applied the principles of combined action sooner throughout all of South Vietnam.

GEN William Westmoreland was, as noted above, not an advocate of pacification programs.  He believed in large unit land warfare, and was trying to arrange for a full-scale land battle with the NVA that would ostensibly break them for once and all. Nonetheless, even he wrote in his memoirs that the Combined Action Program was "one of the more ingenious innovations developed in South Vietnam.

In 1966, Harold P. Ford, who held senior positions in both the National Intelligence Council and the Directorate of Operations, offers some insights on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's evaluation of the situation in Vietnam; "The large-unit operations war, which we know best how to fight and where we have had our successes, is largely irrelevant to pacification as long as we do not have it. Success in pacification depends on the interrelated functions of providing physical security, destroying the VC apparatus, motivating the people to cooperate and establishing responsive local government.

According to the late LTCOL James H. Champion, USMC (Ret.) a former CAP officer; "In April and May 1969, 1st CAG killed 440 VC or NVA, and 1st CAG was killing more NVA than the entire 101st Airborne Division. 1st CAG had about 400 Marines and sailors at the time."  Elsewhere in his article he states: “From 1966 until 30 June 1969 they {CAP NCOs} lead small units which killed over 4400 VC/ NVA.” (See the entire article in CAP Documents and Articles.) 

Khe Sanh veteran Peter Brush wrote, "Civic action had promise. Had it been adopted on a wide scale the war would have been different, but it is a matter of speculation as to whether it would have ultimately affected the outcome."    (Excerpt from  "Civic Action: The Marine Corps Experience in Vietnam" published in Viet Nam Generation, Vol. 5:1-4, March 1994, pp. 127-132.)

Other writers, including MAJ Edward Palm (himself once a CAP Marine) thought otherwise.  "I would like to believe, with some, that combined action was the best thing we did... ...In my experience, combined action was merely one more untenable article of faith. The truth, I suspect, is that where it seemed to work, combined action wasn't really needed, and where it was, combined action could never work." 

Since it was never tried on a large scale or with adequate resources, we will never know for sure.

It is of some interest to note that the forces in Iraq reintroduced a version of the CAG concept, and I watched that process unfold with great attention.  However, it seems that once again it was a belated strategy only taken when the current "Shock and Awe" concept had won the war, but failed to secure the peace.  Sadly, as in the case of CAP in Vietnam, it seems to have amounted to “Too little, too late.”

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