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 dealt with 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 notes, 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 LCOL 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.  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 platoon.  The program grew as the concept became a matter of interest to the Marine command structure.  

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" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 


In these programs, the concept was that Marine units would pacify and administer regions, while providing training, security, and civic action projects for local forces and villages.  (Again, I will avoid discussing the underlying political aspects of these actions, as there are differing interpretations, and it is beyond the scope of this work.)  

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

3/4’s TAOR 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/PF militia units into 3/4's operations. 

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 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 and counterinsurgency operations.) 

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

The late LCOL William R. Corson and the late COL Edward Danowitz were also important figures in the program


MGEN Walt formalized the program in February 1967, appointing LCOL William R. Corson as the III MAF deputy director for combined action. (See In Memoriam for the obituaries of these influential officers.)

LCOL 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 LCOL 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 American military 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. 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 were taught mainly by Marines, but some were taught by Vietnamese personnel, and included re-familiarization with basic 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. 

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

The graduates of CAC School were then assigned to a Combined Action Company in the field, where they were further assigned to squads, which operated with a unit of the local RF/PF troops to form a CAP (Combined Action Platoon) usually one to a village, though headquarters units were sometimes  comprised of "double" CAPs of two squads.  

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 your unit. Eventually they began issuing certificates showing you had graduated.

CAP School Certificate, 1970
(Photo above by Sandy Wardlaw of his certificate, used with his permission.)

CAC School Compound at Da Nang, c. 1968
(Color 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.)

CAP Marines were first issued a cloth and leather insignia to be worn from the button on the left breast pocket of the uniform jacket. It featured a shield with a green field, with 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. (See below).  

Original CAP Insignia

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

These were later superseded 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 term CAC had by now been identified as part of the source of the mirth among the Vietnamese passing us or our camps.  "Cặcin Vietnamese is a slang word for the male generative organ.  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 sign.  

This is but one example of the failure 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, the Vietnamese would have been deprived of a much-needed source of humor in the midst of war.) 



 CAP Organization, Strength and Composition

Individual units were assigned to villages in an (ostensibly) “pacified” area, usually one to a village, though they might serve several other villages in the area.  

Headquarters CAPs were sometimes “double” CAPs - i.e.; two CAP squads, one comprising the HQ personnel, the other the patrol and defense element. 

Initially, they were identified by letters and numbers, like line units, but this changed later to numeric designators. They were organized as Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), which in turn formed Combined Action Companies (CACs) which were in turn organized into Combined Action Groups (CAGs).  As mentioned, eventually there were four CAGs in I Corps.

Theoretically, each ville was assigned a CAP platoon, which was composed of a Marine rifle squad (some CAPs, usually HQ units, were "double CAPs" with 2 squads), each squad consisting of an NCO as squad leader1 grenadier, and 3 "fire teams" (each w/ a team leader, designated automatic rifleman, and 2 riflemen) for a total of 14 men and an attached Navy Hospital Corpsman as medic.  at full strength.  (Though like all things in the service, units were seldom up to Table Of Organization strength.)  These units were then paired with a Vietnamese Popular Force or Regional Force (militia / national guard) platoon to provide security for villages from the Viet Cong forces. In practice, CAPs, like their infantry counterparts, were seldom up to full T.O. strength, and often were under strength.

Unlike typical Marine rifle squads, we were often fairly independent, as the only officer was in the HQ which could be some distance away. We seldom saw an officer other than the occasional inspection or joint operation. For the most part, the NCOIC (in most cases a SGT or senior CPL) ran the unit.  

CAPs also often had access to weapons not normally part of an infantry squad's complement, such as (in our case) a 60mm mortar and an M-60 MG, plus the M72 LAW (aka LAAW - Light Anti-Tank Assault Weapon - a light-weight foldable, portable rocket launcher); as well as a number of old Korean War (and even some WW II) vintage weapons - Browning  A-4 machine guns, Browning Automatic Rifles, Thompson submachine guns,  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, as though the enemy was often not aware of where they would be on any given night, if they did hit them, the CAP Marines had no defensive features other than whatever hasty field defensive measures they could employ. 

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 a Marine was trained for. The fields are numbered, and include fields 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) has enlisted classifications including (in our day): Basic infantry officer (0301); and enlisted ranks including: rifleman (0311); reconnaissance (0321); machine gunner (0331); mortars (0341);  rockets & flames (0351), and SNCO infantry unit leader (0369).

At first, the CAP units were manned by infantrymen, so infantry MOSs tended to predominate. However, as the program expanded, so did the need for more men. The infantry line commanders  couldn't (or wouldn't) send enough infantrymen.  Also, with the increasing number of civic action 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.  Many were still volunteers, but I have known men who were assigned (or "volun-TOLD" as one man put it).  

The interesting thing is that some of the men who had been doing poorly in regular units really bloomed in CAP units. I have often thought that might be because CAP units represented "out of the box" thinking and needed 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 our duties now included combat patrolling 


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. 

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 many area 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.  

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.  

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

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. (See notes.)  CAPs peaked in 1970, with 4 Groups, and 114 companies, spread through the 5 provinces of I Corps. 

Eventually, even the Army had a form of CAP - US Army Civil Action Patrol Team (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. (The foregoing was received from an Army “CAPT” member, "M-60" Mike Kelley.)

Marine Combined Action units, by comparison, lived in the villages, taught military subjects to the indigenous population, helped fortify and defend the villes against the VC and NVA, ran joint patrols with the local "Regional Force" and / or "Popular 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."  

That was later changed to "CAP," "Combined Action Platoons (or Program)"  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, 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 at 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 Khe Sanh Village (XD 846380) at the site of the 
Huong Hoa Sub-Sector HQ, 
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 
 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.  

CAP units c. 1970.  Note that Quang Tri is now 4th CAG

(Oscar was in 3rd CAG - 4th wasn't established then.)

(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 oMay 11,1971, the Combined Action Program officially came to an end in a ceremony at the 2nd CAG compound 3K 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. 


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 Dega 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 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 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, 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 LCOL 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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