A Phu Bai 1965
B. Previous Marine Combined Action Experiences
A. The Viet Cong
B. Combined Action Command Structure
C. Concepts Involved with Combined Action
D. Participants in Combined Action
1. The Marines
2. The Popular Forces
E. CAP Operations
1. Missions of the CAP
2. CAP tactics
III. Combined Action Organizational History
A. The Combined Action Program
1. The Early Phase 1965-67
2. TET and 1968
3. Later Phase 1969-71
B. Auxiliary Operations
1. Other Marine Combined
2. Combined Action Training
IV. Combined Action and the US Effort in Vietnam
A. Pacification Programs
B. The Pacification Debate
C. The Combined Action Pacification Record
A. Evaluation of Combined Action in Vietnam
B. Future Use of Combined Action
In the summer of 1965, US Marine units moved out of their coastal enclaves in the I Corps region of South Vietnam. The main idea was for the Marines to take a more active part in engaging the Viet Cong insurgents in the area. As Marine combat units moved into the hinterland and began engaging large Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units, a problem presented itself to Marine commanders. Marine resources were stretched in attempting an offensive strategy and also defend rear areas which found themselves under attack.
A specific example was the Phu Bai combat base, south of Hue. This was a major US base and the site of an airfield. Almost every night this airfield was subjected to mortar attacks from the surrounding area. Actual airfield security could not cover out to the range of the Viet Cong mortars. There were Marine infantry units in the area, but they were mainly conducting search and destroy operations. They could not occupy the area around the airport and maintain their offensive missions at the same time. This dilemma that threatened security around Phu Bai called for a solution.
The solution was found in the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. The battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. William W. Taylor, had within its tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR - it was within a units geographic TAOR that it conducted operations), the villages around Phu Bai that were thought to be the source of the Viet Cong mortar attacks. According to Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt, the commanding general of the Marines in Vietnam, the idea came from Captain John J. Mullin, Jr. and plans were made up by Major Cullen B. Zimmerman, both officers from this battalion. On 3 August 1965 the first Combined Action Company (CAC) was put into operation.1
The idea was to utilize the Popular Forces (PFs) platoon that was stationed in each Vietnamese village. The Popular Forces were Vietnam's militia-national guard. Local men were armed and organized to operate in their home areas. They were poorly trained and not effective against the Viet Cong. What the Marines at Phu Bai did was to add a combat squad of US Marines (approx. 14 men) to each PF platoon (approx. 50 men). The mission of these combined Marine-PF units was to patrol and provide security in their village. In this way it was hoped to enhance Marine ability to protect the Phu Bai base from attack from these villages. The Marine squad, unlike other US units, lived in the village with the Vietnamese. They also undertook, mainly for their own good, to train the PFs and establish a rapport with the villagers. A number of these combined platoons made up the CAC.
The first commanding officer of the CAC was 1st Lt. Paul Ek. Lt.
Ek was well qualified for the job. He had served previously in Vietnam
as an advisor to US Army Special Forces. He was also a graduate of the
Marine's Vietnamese language school in Okinawa.2 The language
skill was obviously important in working with the Vietnamese. Lt. Ek knew
that the men in the CAC would have to be qualified. He hand-picked all
the Marines that served in that first CAC. Not all the Marines could be
provided language training, but Lt. Ek tried to make up for this deficiency
by picking men who he felt could get along with the
Vietnamese. Cooperation with the Vietnamese was a key component of the CAC, and tact was a key characteristic needed in the Marines involved.3
The combined action platoons (CAPs) in that CAC operated around Phu Bai into the fall. They were a success. The mortaring of the airfield was suppressed. Added benefits, not altogether unforeseen, were also accrued. Lt. Ek had tried to setup the combined units to act as an alter ego to the Viet Cong village infrastructure. He actually patterned some of the tactics after the Viet Cong.4 This approach helped in the intelligence area. The Marine commanders at the Phu Bai found that the CAC not only provided them with a defense in depth, but also provided good intelligence about the Viet Cong operations in the area. All around, the CAC was found to be beneficial to the US-GVN (Government of (South) Vietnam) cause.5
That first CAC was the origin of the Combined Action Program (CAP), a US Marine-Vietnamese program to provide security in and to “pacify” rural villages. It was but one part of the Vietnamese conflict. It was by no means the first attempt to work closely with other armed forces in an insurgent conflict. The US Marines, in particular, were familiar with the subject.
The history of combined action could trace itself back to when the European countries were colonizing the world. The British and French used native allies in North America and India. Officers and men were put in command of native units and used to great advantage. The French effectively used Indians in the French and Indian wars, while the British worked with the Indians in the American Revolution. The colonists adopted some of these ideas, though not to as great an extent. The US Army, in its frontier wars used some Indians as allies and scouts, but American's first real experience with native forces and counter insurgency came in the late 19th century and early 20th century as the US became a colonial power.6
After the Spanish-American War the US Marines were involved in a series of interventions in Central America and the Caribbean area that lasted into the 1930s. These were collectively known as the "Banana Wars". The Marines were sent into the small Latin states to protect US interests and citizens. Eventually this meant stabilizing the government. To the Marines the main problem was the various armed factions and bandit groups that would roam the countryside. To stabilize, or pacify, the situation, the Marines undertook two missions. The first was to strengthen the police force. This would maintain security in the population. The second mission was to train an indigenous militia. This militia would be tasked with going after the organized resistance and bandit groups.7 This was a general pattern the Marines used in their interventions.
A good example of Banana War pacification took place in Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). The Marines landed in 1916 and maintained a presence until 1922. To combat insurgent forces, the Guardia Nacional was organized. It was a combined force in that it was US trained and its officers and NCOs were Americans. For a police force, the Marines organized a "Home Guard" type of unit. This was close to the US idea of militia or national guard. Men were recruited to serve in their own villages. This, though, was also a joint U.S.-Dominacan effort. The commanding officer of a village detachment was a Marine officer. He usually commanded between ten and fifteen Dominicans along with two to three Marines. This "Home Guard" unit patrolled and kept the peace in its village.8
The Marines set up similar operations in other countries such as Haiti and Nicaragua. During World War II, the Marines also used a combined forces concept by inducting Samoans and organizing whole Samoan units for defense of their island.9 The Marines collected all their experience from the Banana Wars and put it into the Small Wars Manual, which was produced in 1940. This field manual can be considered one of the US’s first on counter insurgency. The Manual instructed how to create a constabulary. The constabulary was to be led by US officers and NCOs. They would train the native forces, to include indigenous officers and NCOs.10 Eventually, control of the constabulary would be turned over to the indigenous government with their US trained leaders. This transference of power was considered very important and basically a US obligation. The Marines realized that any intervention could not last forever.11
This experience in the Banana Wars was not felt in Vietnam in the form of manuals, but in people. General Walt, commander of the Marines in Vietnam in 1965-66 (III MAF), and Gen. Victor Krulak, in 1965-66 commander (mainly administrative) of all the Marines in the Pacific (FMFPAC) had served in Central America before World War II.12 Many others in the Marine Corps brass had been trained by Banana War veterans.
Although the Marines had experience with combined action in previous conflicts, the influence of this experience can be overemphasized. Combined Action in Vietnam was originated by small unit commanders, relatively young men. The lessons and relationships to the Banana Wars does not seem to come up until the program was established and its ideas filtered up the chain of command. The US armed forces, during the late 1950's and early 1960's, experienced a surge of interest in counter insurgency. The Army set up its Special Forces and staff and command colleges taught the theories of counter insurgency. Much of this information came from French and British colonial (up to the 1960's) experience. It was during this "fad" of counter insurgency that young Marine officers were trained before Vietnam.13
The background of combined action can be traced back to previous US marine operations. The Combined Action Program of Vietnam, though, seems to be an idea that initially developed out of the situation the Marines found themselves in at the time. The lessons of previous years were drawn on after establishment of the Program. The Combined concept was basically drawn up in Vietnam for the American involvement in Vietnam.
Combined Action was a concept initiated to combat the enemy in Vietnam, the Viet Cong. When US forces were committed into South Vietnam in 1965, they were presented with an unpleasant situation. The insurgency was considered to be that of high level. This meant that the guerrilla forces were operating from a strong position in the population. The National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong had strong political and military organizations set up in South Vietnam. The personnel of the Viet Cong had been operating and organizing in Vietnam since the 1940's. They had fought the Japanese, the French and GVN, before the US sent in troops. The Viet Cong were high quality guerrillas.14
The Viet Cong ruled the rural areas through intimidation. Their goal in the country was to pacify, or control, the countryside and its population so that they could eventually remove the GVN in Saigon. This had been their goal since the removal of the French in 1954.15 In rural South Vietnam, three things were understood: the Vc (Viet Cong) are everywhere, the VC own the mountains, the VC are the only ones who can move at night. Wtih such things implanted into every peasants brain, the VC could rule through fear.16 To implement their control, the Viet Cong military and political efforts were divided between main force, or large scale military units, and infrastructure that controlled the villages and provided men and support for the large units.17
According to Col. William J. Buchanan USA (ret.), a former advisor in Vietnam and co-author of Counterguerrilla Operations (U.S. National War College, 1968), this double organization provided for a "One, two punch". Depending on the situation, the Viet Cong were able to shift emphasis between the two. When mainforce units were being defeated, more men and material would be funneled to the infrastructure operations. Likewise, when the infrastructure was under heavy attack, main force units would be strengthened and moved into the area. This combination strategy allowed the Viet Cong to keep its enemies off balance.18
The main force Viet Cong was the target of the big unit battles of the US involvement in Vietnam. The village infrastructure was the main organization faced by the Cobmined Action Program. The two Viet Cong threats were closely interconnected, and coordinated, but it was the infrastructure that controlled the people at the grassroots. It played a major part, as is obvious, in Viet Cong strategy. In 1966 the US Marine HQ in Vietnam, III MAP (Third Marine Amphibious Force), estimated that total Viet Cong strength in their operating area (these only counted active insurgents) was approximately 30,000. Of these, 18,000 were Viet Cong cadre, meaning that they were involved with the infrastructure. The other 12,000 belonged to main force units.19 The village infrastructure was a potent enemy of the Marines in Vietnam.
The Viet Cong infrastructure, on the village level, was set up as a
political organization. It actually provided a government to compete
with the GVN. Various organizations, usually backed up by armed guerillas,
controlled and even taxed the population.20 The political arm
of the Viet Cony, the Peoples Revolutionary Party (PRP), controlled
the village the village committee. The members of the village committee
were usually selected from the district level of the Viet Cong
infrastructure. The village committee representatives were the heads of the varous "liberation associations" which further
organized the peasants.21
The liberation associations addressed the different segments of
village society. There was one for farmers, one for women. Also included
were associations for students (youth) and skilled workmen. These associations
drew the peasants because they worked with each's problem. Meetings
of the associations would dwell on the problems faced by that particular
part of the
community. The liberation associations were further broken down into the classic communist (insurgent) cells.22 The Viet Cong cells were the lowest level of its infrastructure organization. Each cell was made up of 3 people. The three people comprised
one operating unit?3 The Viet Cong insurgency, though, was far enough along that many times members of a cell would know the identities of Viet Cong outside their own cell. Through this progressive organization of cells, liberation associations and village committees the Viet Cong implemented "dan van", action among the people.24
The Viet Cong ran villages, recruited guerrillas and levied taxes using this organization. They also operated with maximum security. In addition to the secrecy inherent to the three men cell system, the Viet Cong operated everything on a "need to know" basis. Nobody was told about operations or identities that they did not have to directly deal with. Information about the Viet Cong infrastructure was thus hard to obtain because the average villager didn't always know much.25
The Viet Cong enforced compliance with their governance through a combination of surveillance and force of arms. There were always Viet Cong representatives around in villages, but in addition, there was the "backbone cadre". This was a small cell, or set of cells in a village that remained underground under all circumstances. Even after complete take over, "liberation", of a village by the Viet Cong and a measure of openness in operations, the backbone cadre was always kept secret. They usually reported and operated on a level higher than the village (usually district). The backbone cadre was sort of a secret police force that made sure everybody felt that the Viet Cong knew everything.26
Surveillance and intelligence in a village did no good if there was nothing to back them up. Many times terror was used. A village chief might be murdered, crops stolen, etc. By cooperating with the Viet Cong, villagers could insure themselves of security from Viet Cong retaliation or punitive measures. The only defense a population, by itself, could offer was passive. Silence in the face of propaganda and mass noncompliance to orders and taxes worked in some instances. Many times peasants only did what they felt they had to do to survive and no more. Most of the Vietnamese peasants weren’t actually pro or anti Viet Cong. They just did what they felt they had to do to live and adopted a wait and see attitude on the war.28
The Viet Cong in South Vietnamese villages, presented the incoming Marines with a foe who was strongly entrenched, well experienced and trained and had at least passive support from much of the population. The Viet Cong subsisted on tight control of the people through threat of violence. The only way to combat them in the village was to remove that threat of violence and then, through intelligence, root out their infrastructure.29 This became one of the foremost missions of the Combined Action Program initiated by the Marines.
The Combined Action Program evolved by expanding the ideas of the first CAC to all of I CTZ (I Corps Tactical Zone - the area just south of the DMZ where Marine units were committed). The organization went from village to district to province level and was characterized by joint US-GVN control. At first control of the Combined Action units was held by the commander of the local regular Marine unit. In July 1967, though, the Combined Action Program was set up in III MAF so that it had its own independent chain of command.30
On the Marine side, the program worked under the aegis of the Assistant Chief of Staff, Combined Action Program, who worked for the Deputy Commanding General III MAF. Later on, the Program was given the name Combined Action Force and a commander equivalent to a regimental commander was named. The Vietnamese equal to the chief of the Combined Action Program was the Regional-Popular Forces Director of I Corps. This post worked directly under the Vietnamese commanding general I Corps, but did not have operational control of the Popular Forces. The RF-PF Director main dealt with the administrative and supply support of the Popular Forces in the field.31
At the III MAF/I Corps level, coordination and cooperation between US and GVN forces was essential. There were many programs, including CAP, that needed joint effort to be successful. In Aug. 1965, the I Corps Joint Coordinating Council (I Corps JCC) was created. It was made up of representatives of all the various Marine, GVN and other US agencies that were involved in the war in I CTZ.32 Later on, similar Councils were set up at the province level.33 The mission of the JCC was to be a "forum for the exchange of information and suggestions between all agencies engaged in or supporting the overall effort in the I Corps Tactical Zone".34 The JCC operated until March 196835 when most of its functions were taken over by the centrally located (Saigon) Civil Operation and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS)36. CAP was not a major problem for the JCC (it was not even an area of discussion in all of 1966), but this Council and the CAP staff at III MAF provided the general guidance for the Combined Action Program.
Below the Program level was the Combined Action Group CAG), of which there were eventually four. This was an organization equivalent to a battalion and was commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel. His Vietnamese counterpart was the Province Chief. The Province Chief was directly under the command of the I Corps commander and had operational control of all the Popular Forces in his province.38
The CAG commanding officer did not, in all practicality, command the Combined Action Companies in his Group. Lt. Col. R. D. Whitesell, USMC (ret.), who commanded the 2nd CAG (Phu Bai) in 1968-69, relates that his CAPs were spread out over the Thuq Thien Province, an area roughly the size of New Jersey. His role was mainly supervisory and administrative.39
CAG Headquarters though, sometimes took a very active role in the operations of its units. Col. T. J. Solak USMC was operations officer (S-3) and later Executive Officer for the 3rd CAG (Phu Bai) in 1967-68. According to Col. Solak, the CAG Headquarters in Phu Bai served as a Fire Support Coordination Center (FSCC). Patrols from the various CAPs would radio in their locations and routes to the CAG FSCC. From there their progress could be monitored and any patrol in need of help could receive on call fire support. That support usually took the form of artillery fire but could include extra troops if need. In this way the CAG HQ provided concrete support for its units.40
The Combined Action Company (CAC) was the next sub unit below the CAG. The number of CACs varied with each CAG, some having 4 or 5, while some had as many as 9. The Marine commander of a CAC was a captain.41 His Vietnamese counter-part was the District Chief, who had operational control of all the popular forces in his district. The CAC headquarters also had a Vietnamese Lieutenant as executive officer.42 An integral part of the CAC HQ was the Combined Action Team (CAT). This was a group centered around the CAC operations officer. The CAT served to coordinate the operations of the various CAPs in the CAC. The CAT issued orders for patrol areas and sometimes served as a FSCC on the company level.43
The basic and most important organization in Combined Action was the CAP, or Combined Action Platoon. These were deployed by village. The Marine component of a CA? was a squad led by a Sergeant. He led 3 fire teams that each consisted of four Marines with M-14 and later M-16 rifles. Also attached to the squad was a Marine grenadier armed with an M-79 grenade launcher and a Navy corpsman. The Navy corpsman was the “doctor" of the unit and was many times the most valuable man.
The Popular Forces component of the CAP was a PF platoon. The platoon was led by a lieutenant. To help him, he had a headquarters section of four men. The body of the platoon was made up of three squads that each had ten men. The PFs were armed with various weapons.
In addition to its own chain of command, each CAP was under the operational aegis of a local USMC unit. This unit was the local regular American unit, usually a battalion. If the CAP was in an area where U.~. Army units here deployed, and not Marines, then the CAP would be assigned to an Army unit. The nature of this operational control was that the CAP received its support from this unit. This support usually took the form of artillery, but could include troops.44
As can be seen from the Table of Organization, coordination and cooperation were key elements needed for the success of combined action. The US and GVN chains of command were supposed to work together as equals in the program. The problems that can occur with such a system are apparent. One of the basic principles of war is unity of command. Combined Action attempted to live by the creed that, "Unity of effort has supplanted unity of command.45 The idea of a parallel command structure was to have a shared responsibility.46 The 2nd CAG went so far as to have all their orders printed in both English and Vietnamese. This included intelligence reports. All the necessary commands and personnel, US and GVN, thus were able to receive the communications and feel on equal terms.47
To the Vietnamese, officially, a CAP was no more than PF platoon reinforced with a squad of Marines. The unit was still in the GVN command, going from district chief to province chief to commanding general I CTZ.48 For all intents and purposes, though, the Vietnamese retained administrative control while giving up operational control to the US Marine chain of command.
The main way Vietnamese officials retained some control over the Pi’s in Combined Action was through personnel administration. A district Chief didn't control the operational aspect of a CAP in his district, but he did supply and over see the allocation of PFs. He could transfer all the PFs out of a village, thus disbanding a CAP, if he felt he had to. With this tool, he could wield considerable power within the CAP structure.49
The creation of a CAP was another area where the CVN was heavily involved. The decision to place a CAP in area is made by both the district chief and the local USMC commander. They looked at many things before placing a CAP. A village must have a sufficient number of Pr's stationed there to make the CAP viable. The district chief could sometimes alleviate this problem by transferring PFs in or recruiting them from other villages.50 The population of a village had to be somewhat receptive to the idea of a CAP. A totally VC controlled village would not support a CAP for very long. The CAP must have available to it fire and combat support from a larger American unit. A CAP needed support to defend itself against sustained assaults, so artillery and reaction forces were needed in the area, or within useful range. The most important consideration was the importance of the village. Economic, political and military aspects were taken into consideration.51
Combined Action would only work in areas where these considerations were favorable. The Marines had to be able to stay in the area for more than a few weeks. The CAP also needed support.52 When the district chief and Marine commander decided to create a CAP, they both had to put in their requests. The requests went up both chains of command and needed both US and GVN approval to be implemented.53 The same was true on the flip side. The decision to disband a CAP, or remove the Marines, was a joint decision. The criteria far this was negative enemy contacts and stagnancy within the CAP.54
Other than creation of CAPs and administration of the PFs in them, the GVN basically gave control of Combined Action to the Marines. The Vietnamese were supposed to supply the PFs in CAPs with their own chain of command and logistics setup.55 Even most of this was given over the Marines. Records show that the US supplied the PFs that were involved with Combined Action.56 Combined Action was very much a US run show.
The Vietnamese level of participation varied. In the 3rd CAG, the CAG HQ was at the Phu Bai combat base while the province chief was in Hue. This precluded much coordination, most of which was conducted at the district level.57 Later on the CAG commander would visit and inform the province chief of what the CAG was doing. The relationship was cordial, but not very close.58 The Vietnamese command structure did not really involve itself in Combined Action. The US element was dominant in controlling the program. The Vietnamese never challenged US operational control of Combined Action.59
The separate chain of command used in the Combined Action Program was one of its basic elements. The coordination problem was seen and addressed all the way up to the highest levels. In the Combined Action Program, however, the coordination was more important and extensive, the lower the level of command. When the situation dealt with CACs and districts, the issue of cooperation was important because the actions were having a concrete impact on the Vietnamese involved. Combined Action was especially true to its name at its most basic level, the Combined Action Platoon. The CAP was where the Marines lived and died along side of the Vietnamese PFs. The CAP was the heart of the Combined Action Program and in the CAP, American-Vietnamese relations were the most important.
The CAP was just one part of a Marine effort at pacification in the I CTZ. Pacification was rooting out the Viet Cong and getting the population to support the CV!;. The Marine Corps hoped to support the GVN in this effort. To "win the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese villagers, mutual trust and respect had to be established between them and the CAP platoon. CAPs were considered the "cutting edge" of pacification in III MAF.60
A key to the CAP concept was that it was a firm American commitment to the Vietnamese people. Other US units stayed in their own combat bases and forayed out against the large Viet Cong units in battalion level operations. These operations would sweep through villages, disrupting life and destroying homes and property. If there was any effort on the VC in the area, it was soon diminished by the fact that the Americans would soon leave and go back to their bases. The VC, if removed at all, would come back. The PFs in each village didn't have the support or training to hinder the VC.
The introduction of a Marine squad and formation of a CAP could
change all this. The Marines brought the support of the whole American
military apparatus. The Marines stayed and lived with the Vietnamese.
The CAP was there when the VC came and stayed if the VC made a temporary
retreat. Also of great importance was that the Marines functioned
as hostages in the village. With Americans in a village, the chances were
against indiscriminate bombing, shelling or devastation of the area by
American or Vietnamese units that were operating in the area.61
With a CAP in a village at all times there was a credible force in place to combat the local VC. The biggest hindrance to pacification operations is getting the people to trust the troops and assist them (or at least not hinder them).62 The best way to turn the people away from the VC and their threat of force is to provide them with protection from the VC. Security was a key feature of CAP operations.63
Being the most important, village security was the foremost of the CAP objectives. It was by no means the only one though. The CAP was also, to consolidate intelligence gathering activities at the village level. Through different means, the CAP was also to help improve the standard of living in a village. The operations of a CAP were to strengthen local institutions and promote the GVN. Finally the Marines in a CAP were to "work themselves out of a job" by training the PFs so that they could eventually operate on their own.64 These objectives, save the last one, were exactly the same as the mission for a regular PF platoon, but with the Marines, there was a better chance of success.65
Area Security was the primary objective of the CAP. It was necessary
if the Vietnamese villager was to support the GVN vice the VC.66
A CAP had many duties to achieve area security. Many were defensive in
nature. First of all, a CAP had to defend itself. This consisted of being
well trained and using superior tactics to outwit VC guerrillas. A CAP
was of no use to a village if it was constantly being defeated and reduced
by enemy action. A second job was to protect the general public,
to include important villagers and GVN officials. In doing this, the CAP
fulfilled its major mission of supporting the GVN hierarchy and in protecting
the public, drawing them away from VC influence. Also included for CAP
protection were other targets, such as
roads or bridges. These were important to provide warning in case of attack and assist friendly forces operating in the area. In protecting the village and its area, the CAP had to provide some measure of law and order (there was no local police force in Vietnamese villages). To assist in its own efforts and the operations of larger units, the CAP developed intelligence activities in its village. The whole of the protection duties of the CAP were the defensive side of its mission. The offensive side was to expose and destroy the VC infrastructure in the village.67
The destruction of the VC was one of the targets of area security provided by a CAP. Neutralization of the VC would accomplish all of the defensive tasks assigned a CAP. There were many things a CAP had to do to combat the VC. Public meetings, held at night, of the various committees and liberation associations had to be disrupted. To do this required good intelligence. VC main force units could not be allowed to recruit or get supplies from the area. This could be accomplished through aggressive patrolling and intelligence. Many times the village would be visited by a higher level VC official. Sometimes he would merely be visiting his family, sometimes it was a tax gatherer. This type of visit had to be stopped. After a few killings, the VC would lessen attempts of such a sort. To the best of their ability, a CAP was to try to prevent or disrupt VC main force attacks on their village or nearby friendly units. This, again, required patrolling and good intelligence.68
Intelligence was an important part of a CAPs duties. The CAP's main asset for gathering intelligence was the trust and cooperation it got from the population. CAP intelligence not only served the CAP, but was transmitted up the chain of command to help area Marine and Vietnamese commanders. There were many intelligence requirements that a CAP had to consider when dealing with its villages population. VC sympathizers and GVN elements had to be identified. The reasons the people felt the way they did was useful knowledge in addressing the VC problem. Active VC supporters had to be found out to be neutralized. The demographics and geographic layout of a village had to be known to know its likelihood for attack and where VC routes might be. Intelligence was a basic component in the CAPs operation to destroy the VC.69
There are five basic components to area security. They are surveillance (intelligence) I patrolling, defense, reaction and pursuit. The CAP, with its own assets, could accomplish the first three of these. Reaction capability was at the district level, while pursuit capability emanated from the province level.70 The CAP was only provided the ability, when under heavy attack, to hold its ground and disrupt enemy attacks until support and troops could be brought in as reinforcements. In this way VC attacks could be stopped by pinning them and providing a real target or objective for larger forces.71
Reaction was an important part of the CAP's strengths. One of
the reasons CAP was seen as formidable by villagers and VC was that it
could call on great US firepower and reinforcement troops. The mission
of reaction forces was to stop an enemy attack where it was being made.
That meant it must reach wherever the CAP was engaged, whether in the village
itself or out on a patrol.72 Reaction, ideally was a progressive
increase of force. Usually the first weapon employed was illumination.
The night was the VC's friend. At night, the guerrilla could use stealth and surprise to his advantage. A night battlefield that was suddenly lighted usually shifted the odds in a firefight to the CAPs side. The CAP was usually armed with more effective weapons and lighted fields of fire increased their effectiveness. After illumination was used, if needed, fire support was added. This usually took the form of artillery. Fire support greatly increased the combat ability of a CAP in a firefight. If provided with a target, it was accurate. In the CAP situation, it was important that the fire support was accurate and did not kill or damage the villagers or their property. As a final act, troops could be transported in to reinforce the CAP or attack the attacking VC. To be effective, these troops had to be able to reach the battlefield within one hour.73 Reaction was an essential element in providing the CAP with the ability to pacify its village.
As mentioned before, each CAP was assigned to a local US (usually Marine, but sometimes Army) unit for operational control. This control usually took the form of support. This unit was the principle source of a CAPs fire support.74 Fire support took many forms, but was usually artillery. Some CAPs received close air support, such as the CAPs around the Khe Sanh Combat Base.75 This usually took the form of helicopter gunships, but sometimes fixed wing assets were used. In coastal areas, naval gunfire support was used on occasion.76 Fire support, because of the dangers of hitting friendly units in an element as small as a CAP, was only called on in dire need.
Pursuit is the fifth and last element of area security.77 Pursuit only occurred when a large VC unit could be pinned down and reaction troops could be committed rapidly. In the pursuit phase, the CAP was mainly used as a holding force, as the object of the VC attack. Pursuit was managed at a high level because it took coordination and manpower for it to be effective. The essence of pursuit was to get there first with the most. A pursuit operation was not always highly organized. In August 1968 a CAP near the Chu Lai Airbase was attacked by a large VC force. A reaction force was gathered at a nearby Army unit. There were no combat units readily available. All types of support personnel, cooks, clerks, interpreters, were organized and transported to the battle. The VC attack was defeated and dispersed. The operation netted forty-five confirmed enemy casualties (killed and captured).78 Pursuit was a finale to area security operations.
Area security was an essential part of a CAPs duties. In classic guerrilla theory, the guerrillas existed in the population as fish swim in the ocean. Area security, when achieved, went a long way to isolating the population from the guerrilla.79 Area security operations were the best ways for the CAP to achieve its objective of pacification.
In addition to security versus the VC, the CAP had a secondary mission of providing law and order in its village. As was mentioned before, there was no rural police force in Vietnam. Many times, the CAP represented the only authority, to back up GVN officials. There was much thought that the CAP would serve as the basis for an effective police force which would not only keep the peace, but combat the VC and support the GVN infrastructure.80
In addition to security and peacekeeping duties, the CAP was to get involved in the village community. The main way the CAP did this was by military means or seeing the need for and assist mg civic action.81 Civic action was an important part of the overall Marine effort at pacification in Vietnam. Civic action was the building of schools and bridges and wells, etc. to help the community. It also included providing services such as recreation or teaching for the community. In improving the community through government means it was hoped to strengthen the GVN's position in rural areas. Military civic action was to link the population to the government through the military.82 Successful civic action had many criteria. It had to be continuous. Intermittent projects completed and then left behind were usually forgotten or disrupted by the VC. The administration of civic action had to be done through the local GVN officials and be under their control. The GVN had to be seen by the populace as an improving factor. A project or program had to address basic population needs. Things like two schools in a village were usually wasteful and useless. The population should be used in completing any projects. By doing some of it themselves, the population would gain community pride and closer links to the GVN.83 The CAP, being always in a village was able to assist in civic action.
The CAP was an asset in civic action because it brought Marines to the population. Just like they brought the enormous fire power, the Marines brought the availability of enormous resources. The CAP was able to recognize what the population needed and how the GVN could help. In the final analysis civic action 5 mission was to enhance and strengthen the GVN. This also being a CAP mission, the two were closely involved with each other.84
The CAP, as previously seen, had many missions and objectives to fulfill. Some were military, but some involved political aspects. A CAP in a village was usually busy 24 hours a day. There was always patrolling going on during the day, the CAP Marines would get among the population while the PFs went about their work. The PFs usually lived and worked in the village. A CAP undertook many tasks to fulfill its mission.
The table of organization of a CAP has already been given. It calls for a reinforced Marine squad of 14 to be married up with a PF platoon of about 35. This would make a CAP strength of about 50 men. The average CAP village contained 3500 people. This population was spread over an area of about four square kilometers and divided into five hamlets.85 A Vietnamese hamlet is closer to the western idea of a village. It is a group of houses in one small area. A Vietnamese village is a collection of these hamlets, with all the rice paddies worked by the hamlet's populations. It can be seen that providing security for such a large area is a tall order for 50 men.
A major problem facing the CAPs was that, as in every military unit, they were rarely up to strength. There were many manpower requirements in the III MAF in Vietnam. An average CAP was at 62% strength. This meant there were nine Marines (to always include the one Navy Corps man) and twenty-two PFs in the average CAP.86 Many times, the strength was even below this.
Mr. Richard Elias, who served in a CAP south of Danang in 1968, recalls that this CAP consisted of five Marines, one Navy Corpsman and about fifteen PFs.87 So, many times with a small amount of men and equipment, the CAP had to work with a relatively large population and area.
Officially, the CAP was a PF unit. The only difference was that there were added US troops and support. Other than that, the mission and organization of the CAP was the same as any other PF platoon. The Marine squad leader and the PF platoon leader were supposed to jointly plan their activities. This did not usually happen. In most CAPs, the Marine squad leader was CAP CO while the PF lieutenant served as his executive officer. Even this ad hoc agreed upon command structure did not always solve all a CAPs problems. The CAP organization, a mixture of two separate units with two chains of command, was against military logic. The unity of command was not official and discipline in the CAP was hard to enforce.90 The human element was of vital importance in a CAP. The individual Marines and PFs made all the difference.
The most important Marine in the CAP was the squad leader. He was sole authority with the Marines and usually led the whole CAP as well. Officers infrequently visited the CAP, so the squad leader was basically responsible for all aspects of the CAP. This was a large job. The squad leader's rank was Sergeant and his average age was 22 years old.91 He usually had combat experience in Vietnam, but even so, he was relatively young and inexperienced for the job he was taking on.92
The Marines in the CAP were not average Marines. An official Marine report listed characteristics for the ideal CAP Marine. He was 21 years of age. His rank was Lance Corporal (E-3), and he had thirty months in the Marine Corps. He had served in Vietnam for five months. He had been in the CAP for three months. His geographic origin in the United States was the midwest or the south. He had spent fourteen months overseas in countries other than Vietnam. He basically liked the Vietnamese and felt a sense of accomplishment in working in the CAP. Vietnamese greed and apparent lack of sanitation bothered him. His main worries and discomforts related to the climate in Vietnam, the risks of combat and being separated from his family.93 This was an ideal and not representative of all CAP Marines, but many or some of the attributes were found in the Marines of good CAPs.
The Combined Action Program was a volunteer program. There were qualifications required to get in. The Small Wars Manual (1940) had said of prospective US soldiers to work with an indigenous militia, "They must be physically fit to withstand arduous duty in the field and should be proficient in the language of the country concerned."94 This spirit was adhered to while recruiting CAP Marines. An enlisted man, to be considered, had to have been in Vietnam for at least two months and still have at least six months remaining on his current tour. He had to be recommended by his commanding officer. He had to have good proficiency marks and no recent record of being a discipline problem. Being a high school graduate and being an infantry man were preferred qualities. For the NCOs (Corporals and Sergeants), the qualifications were less precise. They had to have combat experience. They were looked at subjectively as to leadership ability and recommendation for promotion. The CAPs did not take every Marine.95
Originally, the CAP selection process was made at the Marines home unit. This brought to light some problems. Many times officers "volunteered" their discipline problems to get rid of them. Mr. Elias, a CAP veteran, remembers that the CAPs had a bad reputation and that only problem Marines were sent to them.
He, himself, was considered by his Platoon commander a troublemaker and "volunteered" into Combined Action.96 Much of this problem was alleviated in 1968-69 when a system of screening and interviews by the CAGs was set up.97 Colonel Solak, when working 3rd CAG Headquarters, recollects that many times the CAG would go short in manpower rather then send inferior or problem Marines to the CAPs. He said that because of a CAPs independent nature, discipline problems in a regular unit would be magnified in a CAP.98
Bad Marines still sometimes filtered into the CAPs. Their inability to perform, which could be somewhat hidden in a regular unit, was exposed in a CAP. Lt. Col. N. McQuown, commanding officer of a Marine Battalion, describes the Marines in two CAPs located near his unit:
For all their independence and problems, CAP Marines, on the whole, were good Marines. The CAP Marine did not stay in a combat base and participate in operations. The CAP Marines shared the sufferings of the Vietnamese peasant 24 hours a day.103 Many CAP Marines had money on their heads because of their effectiveness in fighting the VC.104 The CA? Marine had an 80% chance of being wounded a second time. There was a 13% chance of dying in a CAP. Even with these statistics, 75% of CAP Marines extended their tours in Combined Action.105 Lt. Col. Whitesell felt that most CAP Marines believed in what they’re doing.106 The CAP Marine was usually better than the average Marine. Because of his unique job, he had to be. But a good CAP Marine only needed to be a good Marine, he didn’t need to be a renaissance man.107
The Popular Forces made up the other half of the CAP. The PFs were supposed to be the basic militia, or national guard. They were part time soldiers recruited to serve in their own village. A PF made $19.00 a month, a very small sum. PF leaders had little chance for promotion. It was hoped that the idea that the PF was fighting for his home would make up for some of these deficiencies.108
The PFs, as citizen-soldiers, were at the bottom of the totem pole in the GVN when it came to recruits. Above the PFs was the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and Regional Forces (RFs - PFs at the province level). These groups siphoned off almost all the able bodied men in rural Vietnam. Of course, a good percentage of potential recruits were VC. Another portion deserted to avoid service with either side.109 Another major drain were the private armies maintained by various political and ethnic factions in Vietnam.l10 All these competing organizations left the Popular Forces with inferior quality men.
A Marine report came up with what it felt was a composite of the ideal PP to work in a CAP. He was 23 years old. He was married and had three children. He had roughly five years of education in Vietnamese schools. He had been in the military for at least thirty-five months, and had spent at least eight months in a CAP. One of his motivations was that he wanted to be a GVN official. He was proud of his own people, but wished they would do more to aid the GVN and fight the VC. He liked the security the CAP was providing for his village. Above all, he wanted peace.111 That was the ideal PF.
Of course, reality rarely met with the ideal. Being part-time soldiers, they weren't usually very good soldiers. Many times they held little respect for their selected leaders. This made discipline a problem. The main discipline problem was theft.112 This was acute in many CAPs because the Marines brought with them an affluence that made the PFs envious.113 Another major problem was VC infiltration. The PFs recruited almost anyone, thus it was easy for a VC to become a PF. This could cause obvious problems and promulgated a distrust of the PFs. Mr. Elias recalls that all the PFs in his CAP were suspected as VC. The Marines would only patrol with them during the day and never even let them know about Marine intentions for the night.114 The PFs, as the national guardsmen of Vietnam, had many problems. Sometimes they weren't even a national guard.
Misuse of the PFs was widespread by the GVN. The ARVN considered them substandard and looked down upon them. They were used as cannon fodder.115 Before 1965, the ARVN had pulled the PFs into battalion size operations. The PFs had neither the training nor equipment to face the mainforce VC and regular NVA units in sustained combat. The operations were almost all failures. The PE's suffered heavy casualties and their reputation as soldiers, poor as it was, suffered even more. The ARVN learned their lesson in that respect and stopped using the PFs in big unit battles.116 The ARVN still looked down upon the PFs, but PF involvement with Combined Action did enhance relations between the two forces. In some instances ARVN artillery was used to support CAP operations. This was unheard of before.117
Another major problem with PFs was administrative mishandling. The PFs were designed to be a sort of home guard type of unit. They were to defend their own village and hamlet. Lt. Col. Whitesell recounts, though, that many of the PFs assigned to his CAG were transferred in from villages hundreds of miles away.118 It was generally found that trying to use any type of Vietnamese troops away from their home ground rendered them more ineffective in combat. This was especially true of the PFs because it went against the whole concept of a village militia.119 One of the reasons for this large scale transfer of PFs was that the Vietnamese preferred to create new platoons and move them to areas of need rather than recruit replacements for under strength platoons in these areas.120 The misuse of the PFs by the GVN greatly contributed to their usual poor showing.
The PF, in many cases, was a poor soldier, but if used properly could be an asset in the war against the VC. If given some training, good support and leadership, and used in his home area, the PF was a formidable foe. In a CAP, the PF had advantages over the Marines. Many times the PF had been fighting the VC all his life. The PF intimately knew the population and terrain in the area.121 The PFs made invaluable contributions to the effectiveness of Combined Action. He was a good soldier when trained and well led. One PF received the Bronze Star from the US military. He was the first Vietnamese in any service to receive an American combat decoration.122
The CAP was a combined unit of Marines and PFs committed to a Vietnamese village. The CAP performed four basic tasks. Military operations were carried out. The PFs in the unit were trained by the Marines. Intelligence was gathered in the village and passed up the chain of command. The CAP participated in Civic Action and Psychological Operations (propaganda).123 What the CAP did best was provide security with military operations. This allowed the villagers to lead normal lives, free from fear of the VC.124 The CAP provided security by preventing VC recruiting in the village and preventing them from "requisitioning supplies from the village. The CAP also deterred VC forays into the village.125
The CAP was primarily a military unit. It took part in many non-military functions as it became part of village society, but its primary mission was to defeat the VC in the area. Thus, it was logical that most of a CAP's time was spent with military operations.126 Most of the time, it was the Marine squad leader who did most of the planning. He was supposed to work with the PF platoon leader as an equal, but, as said before, the Marine squad leader usually emerged as CAP commander. Because of the security risk due to VC infiltration of the PFs, many CAPs had the Marines do the planning and then tap the PFs knowledge of the area to prepare operations. Planning at the CAP, because of its size was informal and remained flexible to change at the suggestion of the Marines or the PFs.127 The village chief, top political man in the village government, was also consulted on operations of matters of importance.128
CAP military operations were mainly numerous patrols sent out day and night. Patrolling was an offensive tactic. Combined with ambushes, it took the war to the VC. Such offensive tactics worked better than passive measures.129 It could be seen that the CAP was serious about fighting the VC. Patrolling also deterred casual attacks by the VC. The VC could never be sure where a CAP patrol or ambush would be. This raised the risks of local VC operations. Patrolling could not stop well planned and coordinated attacks by the VC, but it did make them more difficult to carry out and could provide early warning for the objects of such attacks.130
A CAP was very active. The Combined Action chain of command wanted to make sure all the CAPs were performing their duties. Sometimes this could get irritating for a CAP. In 1968, the 2nd CAG headquarters provided a checklist for. each CAP commander. The checklist was of items a CAP was supposed to accomplish each week. The checklist was six and one half pages long.131 This type of paperwork, though, was rare in most CAPs. The main higher level intrusion into the relatively free area of CAP operations was that, starting in 1968, each CAP was required to make at least two daylight patrols and one night patrol every 24 hours. Ideally these were to be planned three days ahead of time.132 This schedule was not always kept, but it kept a CAP busy. CAPs usually made more contacts with the VC than regular US units. One CAP in the 1st CAG reported that they made contact with the VC an average of every four hours during one three day period. That CAP recorded 99 confirmed VC killed in action during that month.133 Not all CAPs were in combat that much, but in general, CAPs were always conducting offensive patrolling and ambushes.
Each CAP was assigned an area of operations. This was an imaginary line surrounding a village and its environs. It was within this boundary that a CAP conducted all its military operations. The CAP had complete freedom of operation and planning within its area of operations, without infringement from outside units.134 Operations were mainly divided between daylight and nighttime activities. A daylight patrol was the least likely to make VC contact. A daylight patrol still served some important purposes. A daylight patrol was a visible sign. It let the villagers and the VC know that the CAP was there and operating. It also gave the villagers more pride in the PFs to see them operating with the Marines. A second purpose for daylight patrols was reconnaissance. During the day terrain could be studied. Possible night ambush and patrol sites could be examined. Daylight patrols were necessary for the success of night patrols.135 Daylight was also important because it was the main time the CAP Marines got to sleep and it was when all the other CAP functions, such as training the PFs and intelligence gathering took place.136
Night was where the real action was. It was at night that the VC had to be confronted. The VC made one of their primary points the fact that only they could operate at night. For a CAP to gain the confidence of the village they were working in, they had to operate effectively at night. Also because of US firepower, nighttime was the only time the VC usually operated in groups. The usual procedure for a CAP at night was to set up a command post. This would serve as a central point and coordination center. From this command post the patrols and ambushes would be sent out.137
Patrols varied in size and equipment. There were two types of patrols, a regular patrol and an ambush patrol. A regular patrol followed a pre-planned route and was based upon intelligence of possible VC activity. An ambush patrol proceeded to a predetermined site and set up an ambush. These were usually based on intelligence of probable VC movements. An average patrol consisted of two to four Marines and four to six PFs. Each man had his personal weapon. The Marines usually had M-l6 rifles while the PFs had a mixture of old and new weapons. There was usually one Marine armed with an M-79 grenade launcher. LAAWs (Light Anti-Armor Weapons), small one shot rocket launchers were also brought along. Sometimes, depending on the patrol's mission, an M-60 machine gun was also carried. Ambush patrols were similar in make up, except they also brought claymore anti-personnel mines to set up at the ambush site. If possible, supporting fires (artillery) were already pre-plotted along the patrol route or at the ambush site, in case they were needed. Sometimes reaction forces were also on call for possible use.138 The Marines in the CAP were usually the only ones with communications such as radios or field phones and they were employed during the patrols.139 Various methods and weapons were used when the situation called for it. War dogs were used extensively by CAP to find mines and help locate the VC.140
Patrolling was effectively employed against the VC. In setting ambushes, the CAPs became good at the VC's own game. There is an after action report from a unit in the 1st CAG. The action took place at 2300 (11:00 PM) on 21 July 1968:
Relocation of the CAP Marines was not the only reason to train the PFs. The average PF was a poor soldier. This often made him a liability in CAP operations. The Marines found that it was to their advantage to be working with competent PFs. Until the PFs were sufficiently trained, the burden of patrols and combat fell to the Marines. This meant an even larger job for the small amount of Marines assigned in each village. It was in the interests of the individual CAP Marines to train the PFs.144
Training of the PFs was difficult. Daytime, the only time when
any formal training could take place was a busy time for the Marines. It
wasn't actually busy in terms of activity, but daytime was the only time
the Marines were able to sleep after patrolling all night. Other daytime
activities included intelligence gathering, patrols and any Civic Action
projects. Training time for the PFs was hard to fit in.145
An official 16 week training schedule was promulgated by Combined Action
Headquarters.146 It included topics for classes and proposed follow on refresher courses to be taught later. CAPs could use this as a guide, but because of the aforesaid constraints, usually could not hold to such a schedule. Host PFs then, weren't formally trained, but their effectiveness did increase.147
This effectiveness increase did not always have much to do with training that the PFs got. Being in a CAP, working with Marines, gave the PF a great morale boost. A CAP PF had loyal allies in the Marines. The VC found it near impossible to infiltrate the US Marine Corps. With the Marines, the PFs were working with a great deal of firepower and support in case of trouble. The PF in a CAP also knew that if he was wounded he would be medevaced to a US hospital. All this support boosted his confidence and ability. The CAP also gave concrete evidence that the US was committed to supporting the GVN in his own village. This bolstered his confidence against the VC. The increased effectiveness of CAP PFs was due to the support provided by the Marines in the unit and the confidence they inspired.148
What training of the PFs that did occur was informal. The PFs picked up things by watching the Marines in action. The Marines example was the best training the PFs got. In addition to combat training, the US Navy corpsman usually endeavored to take a PF under his wing and train him as a corpsman.149 Training was not always needed. Mr. Elias says that the PFs in his platoon knew how to use their weapons effectively and even knew how to use the radio to call in artillery and transmit messages.l50 This was many times due to the fact that some PFs were ex-soldiers who were no longer eligible for service (age, physical deficiency). The training, in these cases, could go two ways. The PFs gave the Marines tactical advice. Quietness and VC techniques were the main two areas where this occurred.151
The mission of training the PFs to carry on the village war was a key one. This seems to have been seen by upper level Marine commands, but something was lost in translation to action. At the CAP level, the training of PFs was seen as important because it eased the Marines job. The issue of training was an area that could have been improved in the Combined Action Program.
Intelligence gathering was the third task assigned to a CAP. In regards to combating the VC, this task was of vital importance. Without good intelligence, patrols couldn't be used effectively and ambushes couldn't be set up. The main source of CAP intelligence was the village population. The CAP was able to do this because it stayed with the villagers all the time. The PFs were also valuable sources of information because they were basically villagers who were part-time soldiers. Vietnamese society was of the nature that everybody in a village knew everybody else. Villager surveillance and the relation of this information to the CAP greatly increased CAP effectiveness.152 The CAP, by staying in the village and being visible in its efforts to help the population, was able to gain the trust of the Vietnamese inhabitants. It was after this trust was gained that the flow of information to the CAP would begin.153
Intelligence relayed to a CAP many times rendered immediate results. Here is an account of a CAP in action. The CAP was in the 1st CAG and the date was 12 August 1968.
The fourth task that CAPs were to perform was assist in the Marine program of Civic Action. The CAPs, since they operated at the grassroots level in Vietnam, were very good at this. A CAP was able to see what assistance a community needed. It also was there to make sure that the assistance was effective and not disrupted by the VC. Lt. Col. Whitesell feels that Combined Action was probably the most effective way to implement Civic Action.156 Many other people and agencies felt this way. CAPs were used by various relief agencies to distribute material aid in the rural areas.157 One important aspect about CAPs and Civic Action was timing. It was found that Civic Action (building schools, bridges, wells, etc) was not effective and could not be carried out until the CAP had established security credibility.158 Civic Action was a great help in establishing a rapport between the CAP and the village population.
The most popular and visible type of Civic Action was Medcap. This program was employed by most US units in Vietnam, but because a CAP had a corpsman stationed with it in a village, the CAP's Medcap was very effective. Medcap was a service performed by the Navy Corpsman. He would go into the village, usually a different hamlet each day, and "set up shop". Villagers with minor ailments and problems would come to him and he would endeavor to treat them. Medcap was especially effective when combined with Medevac. With Medevac, if the corpsman couldn't treat the villager, he/she would be transported to the nearest US hospital and treated there. Medcap could be enhanced. Some CAG headquarters arranged for a doctor from a local medical unit to go to & CAP and participate in Medcap with the Corpsman. This, of course, raised the level of medical treatment.159 Medcap was very effective in obtaining the goodwill and support of the Vietnamese villagers. In fact, combined with Medevacs, Medcap was the second most desired service, after security, that CAP's provided.160
These were the four basic tasks that the CAPs carried out, security, training the Pfs, intelligence gathering and participation in Civic Action. The general ways that the CAPs completed these tasks has been discussed. There were, however, two basic types of CAP's in operation in the Combined Action Program.
The first type of CAP was the static or compound CAP. This type of CAP was the norm until the 1968 TET offensive. In a static CAP, the CAP occupied or built a residence somewhere in the village. This was built up to a heavily fortified compound with an area of roughly 100 square meters. This compound was occupied and defended 24 hours a day. It was the center of operations both day and night. The Marines of a CAP also usually lived here.161
The second type of CAP was the mobile CAP. It was the preferred type of CAP after TET 1968. In a mobile CAP, there was no compound. Sometimes the CAP maintained a small building in which to store equipment and conduct administration, but this was not defended. The CAP would set up a patrol base during the day and conduct operations and plan. At night the CAP would move to a new patrol base to conduct operations. The patrol base sites, both day and night, were moved throughout the village continually so as to deny the VC intelligence with which to attack them. With the mobile CAP, the CAC headquarters took over many of the roles as a center of operations.162
The main reason for abandoning the static CAP concept was because of its vulnerability. A CAP "fort" in a village naturally drew VC attention. The CAP compounds were the subjects of attacks by VC mainforce units.163 The CAP, even with its support and fortified position, was not always able to defend itself from a determined, organized VC onslaught. One of the points of vulnerability of a fixed position was that detailed reconnaissance could easily made on it. Col. Solak remembers after a VC attack on a compound, a map was found on a VC body. The map gave the whole layout and details about the CAP's position.164 The openness of the compound CAPs to large scale attack was revealed when many were overrun during TET 1968.
After TET 1968 the compound CAPs were gradually changed to mobile CAPs. This increased the security of the CAPs.165 In the 3rd CAG, the mobile CAPs were required to be self sufficient with regards to supplies for at least three days. They were not to remain in one area for over 36 hours.166 The mobile concept proved successful with the CAPs. The Marines were combat veterans and they assisted the PFs. The support provided at the CAC level was excellent and insured success.167 The kill ratio attained by CAPs after they switched to the mobile concept jumped from 7 to 1 up to 19 to 1 (VC killed to CAP member killed).168 The combat effectiveness increased with the mobile concept.
The mobile concept was later expounded on. Around 1970, the MM-CAP, More Mobile CAP, came into being. The concept was similar to the mobile CAP except that it eliminated any patrol base or central point at night. During the day, a patrol base was set up and operations were conducted as normal. At night, though, the whole CAP was broken into small teams that would go on their own and patrol and set up ambushes. Each team was on its own, but was in contract with the CAC in order to call support if necessary. The more mobile CAP concept operated against the VC virtually on his own level.169 Mr. Elias' CAP was similar to the more mobile CAP concept. His CAP operated from a defended compound during the day, but at night they all broke into small, two to three man, patrol teams. Each team basically fended for itself and survived until morning. It was an interesting combination of the mobile and compound CAP concepts.170
The mobile concept also brought on extra benefit. One of the keys to Combined Action's success was that it identified with the Vietnamese peasants. The CAP had to survive the same living conditions as the villagers.171 As Lt. Col. Whitesell put it, CAP Marines were citizens of the "ville" they were assigned to. If the Marines lived in a compound and only emerged at night or on patrol, they couldn't identify much with the people. With the mobile CAP concept, however, the CAP was constantly mixing and interacting in the hamlets. This increased the mutual trust and respect between the Marines and the villagers. This, in turn, increased the effectiveness of the CAP.173
There was a detrimental effect that occurred when the compound CAPs were abandoned. Col. Solak felt that the CAP compound provided the people with a visible sign that the Marines were going to stay. It was sort of a mini-combat base, just for that villages protection. This built confidence among the population.174 A static defensive position, such as the compound, proved the dominance of the CAP. In regards to supporting the GVN, with a compound, the people were able to identify a place as government land. The increased combat effectiveness of the mobile concept was offset by the lessened visibility it required.175
When all four of its tasks were carried out effectively, a CAP was usually successful in its village. A positive effectiveness depended on successful military operations and the CAPs continued presence in the village. The CAP had to carry through its promise of support for the village. The Marines in the CAP had to show good and thoughtful behavior in order to work in the village. The intelligence gathered in the village had to be put to good use. These were requirements to increase CAP effectiveness.176
The CAPs were wanted in many villages. When the Marines just came and went with large unit operations, the VC always came back when the Marines left. The villagers wanted the Marines to stay.177 A village also had the added benefit of the input of the individual Marine 5 money into the local economy.178 It was on this small scale that the CAP was a success in a village. Marines money did bolster the economy, but generally, there weren't enough Marines present to interfere with the communities culture. The villagers also got to know the Marines on a individual basis and were able to identify with them. Finally, the CAP as whole was a strong enough military force to be a threat to the VC and provide the village with security.179
Combined Action was a program whose primary interest lay in the villages. The CAP was the heart of the program. The CAP, though was administered through a chain of command that has already been illustrated. Like any other military unit, the Combined Action Program had a unit history. This history shows the expansion of the Program and its eventual decline as the US pulled out of Vietnam. It shows that the Combined Action Program was an important part of the US Marine effort in Vietnam.
The story of the first CAP at Phu Bai has already been recounted. The early history of Marine Combined Action in Vietnam is a lot more than the formation of that CAP. Before Phu Bai, the Marines had worked with Vietnamese forces in combined operations. This originally came about because Lt. Gen. Walt, Commanding General of III MAF, ordered that each Marine unit would have a Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR). Thus, each commanding officer would not only be in charge of his units operations, but also would be tasked with developing military security and civic action programs in his TAOR.180 To assist them, the Marines called upon local Vietnamese units. In April, 1965, a Regional Forces Company (RVN) worked with the 3rd Marine Regiment. Regional Forces were militia that was under the direct control of the Province Chief. They were considered a step above Popular Forces. This company accompanied the Marines on patrols and other operations against the VC. This experiment proved successful. The Marines found that they could conduct effective operations with Vietnamese militia forces.181
There were PFs in almost every village in the I CTZ (Corps Tactical Zone, the northern part of South Vietnam where the III MAP was committed). Phu Bai was the first formal CAP with a defined organization to be set up. Previously, however, other Marine units utilized and worked with Pr's in similar fashion. When the Combined Action Program came into being, it was not on unfamiliar concept to the Marines.182 Early on, as the Marines worked with the PFs, they realized that their ability could be improved. In the summer of 1965, Marines were assigned to PP platoons to operate the radios and coordinate fire support that the Marines were giving the PFs. Also Marine NCOs were assigned to Popular Forces Training Centers to assist in training.183 The Marine Corps was involved with the Popular Forces before the CAP's were established.
It has already been stated that in the summer of 1965, the Marines started moving out of their coastal enclaves and began operating inside of Vietnam. For the first time the Marines had rear areas to worry about. In theory, the Marines were supposed to deal with the VC mainforce and NVA units. The GVN would occupy and provide security for the coastal areas in the rear.
The problem was that the GVN was unable to fill in these areas as the Marines moved out.184 Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, commanding general of all the Marines forces in the Pacific (FM? Pac), said in November 1965,
Combined Action was originally conceived as an answer to the rear area security problems faced by the Marines. Its use with Civic Action became apparent soon. In the Quang Nam Province, south of Danang, the Marines had been attempting pacification. The effort consisted wholly of construction and goodwill projects. There were no accompanying security efforts made in the Province. In December 1965, the VC launched a series of rural attacks. The pacification effort suffered serious setbacks.187 It could be seen that for Civic Action efforts to be effective, they had to be accompanied by area security for the target area. Combined Action could combine the two operations.
After CAPs were authorized in all of the I CTZ, the program began to grow. This growth was encouraged by the Marine III MAF headquarters. On 4 Feb. 1966, Lt. Gen. Walt sent a memorandum to all US advisors assigned to Popular Forces units in the I CTZ. Walt recognized that the advisors wielded tremendous influence in their units. He urged that they learn about Combined Action and support its expansion.188 The program did expand. By the end of 1966 there were CAPs around all three of the original Marine enclaves. There were 31 CAP's around the city of Danang. There were 13 CAP's around the Chu Lai Airbase. There were also 13 CAPs around the Phu Bai combat base.189
Allnut, Marine pg. 11
In 1966, the CAPs also proved their real worth to the higher level commands in areas other than area security. In the Spring of 1966 (Apr-May), there was political unrest in the I CTZ, centered around Danang. Various GVN units, to include ARVN, Regional Forces and Popular Forces, chose up sides for different Vietnamese Generals vying for power. The Marines found themselves in a touchy situation, trying to stay neutral while preserving the safety of their installations. III MAF headquarters found that their best source of intelligence as to what was happening in the area surround mg Danang was from the CAPs. The CAPs were right in the hamlets and able to see all the various troop movements. The number of Marines in each CAP was small enough that the Vietnamese military officials disregarded them.190 There was another added surprise from the CAP's. The PFs assigned with the CAPs generally stayed out of the political unrest and remained loyal to the GVN.191 The political troubles of Spring 1966 showed that the CAPs were a valuable asset to many phases of the Marine mission in Vietnam.
The year 1967 saw further expansion of Combined Action. This was even during a manpower utilization crunch. In 1967 regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units started making forays across the DMZ into South Vietnam. This necessitated the commitment of more Marine units to defense of the DMZ. In concert with this, in 1967 the Marines established their combat base at Khe Sanh, near the Laotian border. The Marines required to serve along the DMZ and at Khe Sanh served to drain other areas and commands of needed bodies. This included Combined Action.192
Even with the strains of combat against the NVA, the Combined Action Program grew rapidly. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Wallace Greene, authorized increases in personnel and equipment for Combined Action.193 This rapid expansion also caused problems. The Program had not been established. The result was a large influx of Marines who weren't well qualified for CAP duty. This problem was seen alleviated by the establishment of a Combined Action chain of command and better screening programs.194
The Combined Action Groups (CAGs) were set up in 1967. The local Marine units and divisions were taken out of the chain of command, and the chain described earlier in this paper was put into action. The first CAG headquarters was set up in Danang in June. Danang was the largest city in the ICTZ and contained the III MAF headquarters. For these reasons, the Combined Action headquarters and support facilities were also located in Danang. In July, two more CAG headquarters were set up. One was at the Phu Bai combat base and the other was at the Chu Lai airbase.195
The three CAGs were under control of the Combined Action Program Headquarters in Danang. They were numbered according to geographic location, north to south. The 1st CAG was the one based in Chu Lai. It supervised all the CAPs in the Vietnamese provinces of Quang Tin and Quang Ngai. These were the two southern most provinces in the I CTZ. The 2nd CAG was the one based in Danang. It supervised all the CAPs in the Quang Nam Province. The northern most CAG was the 3rd CAG, based at Phu Bai. This was a few miles south of Hue, the ancient Vietnamese capital. The 3rd CAG supervised all the CAPs in The Thien Province and Quang Tin Province. Quang Tin Province bordered North Vietnam along the DMZ.196 The basic Combined Action organization was set up and after 1967 there were only two major changes before it was dismantled with the Marine withdrawal in 1970-71.
The beginning of 1966 brought further growth to the Combined Action Program, but it mainly brought devastating losses in the VC/NVA TET offensive. TET 1968 was a general offensive to attack major US and GVN outposts throughout Vietnam. For the first time, urban centers such as Hue were subject to intense attack. Hue was actually captured by the VC. The VC also made major gains in the rural areas.197 Many CAPs and CAC headquarters found themselves under attack. Some were overrun.
Col. Solak, who was assigned to the 3rd CAG headquarters in Phu Bai during TET 1968, provides an example of what happened to Combined Action during this offensive. He says that the VC had good intelligence on all the objectives they attacked, including the CAPs. They also succeeded in infiltrating into Hue so as to form large units for the attack there. The offensive brought hard fighting in both the Quang Tin and Thua Thien Provinces. Many of the CAPs were overrun. While he was there, the CAPs that were located around the Khe Sanh combat base were pulled in and evacuated when the base was evacuated. TET had done serious damage to the 3rd CAG.198
There were some bright spots for CAPs during the TET offensive. The defense of Danang was one of these. Danang, the second largest city in Vietnam, was the only major urban center spared heavy fighting during TET 1968. Danang was ringed with CAPs. They provided early warning and intelligence as to major VC movements. This enabled US and GVN forces to react to protect the city.199 Hue, on the other hand, only had CAPs located south of the city.200 Two of the CAPs south of Danang even stopped a major VC/NVA assault in its tracks, using their own assets and fire support.201
The TET offensive provided the incentive for CAPs to change from static CAP's to mobile CAP's. This switch was made because of the heavy losses suffered during VC attacks on the CAP compounds. All though all the CAGs made the switch, the 2nd CAG, in the Quang Nam Province, was the most vocal proponent of the change and made the switch rapidly.202 By October of 1969, the change was basically complete. In 2nd CAG, at this time, there were 35 mobile CAP's and only one remaining static CAP.203 This is not to say the other CAGs were far behind. In fact, by June 1969, the 3rd CAG had 29 mobile CAPs and only two remaining static CAPs.204 This change in tactics, from mobile to static CAPs, was the major result of the TET offensive with regards to Combined Action. Growth of the program continued.
One of the reasons the VC launched the TET offensive was to draw US efforts away from pacification. In the I CTZ, the Marines had succeeded, with a number of programs to set up a comprehensive pacification program in the rural areas. With the TET offensive, the VC hoped to disrupt this program.205 With regards to Combined Action, the VC effort was a failure. Lt. Col. Whitesell, who commanded the 3rd CAG after the TET offensive, says that CAP's were pulled in during and immediately after TET, but the program gradually expanded back out and even exceeded pre-TET numbers.206
In 1966, there was a lot of room for expansion of Combined Action. There were 700 Popular Forces platoons in the I CTZ. A CAP couldn't be placed in all of these villages, but it presented many options, with preference given to villages on the coastal plain.207
The TET offensive had effectively removed the CAPs around Khe Sanh from the map. This left very little in the way of CAPs in Quang Tin Province. The 3rd CAG, based in Phu Bai, away south from Quang Tin, found it hard to supervise CAPs in the northernmost province. In July 1968, the 4th CAG headquarters was established.208 The 4th CAG took over supervision of all the CAPs in the Quang Tin Province and was based in the provincial capital of Quang Tin City. Operations of the 4th CAG centered around Dong Ha and Cam Lo, in the central and coastal portions of the Province.209
The CAGs, in 1968, consolidated themselves and really started to operate efficiently as headquarters. The 1st CAG found themselves operating in an area mostly devoid of Marine units. It was in a US Army TAOR that stretched 60 miles from Gia Tho in the north to Phouc Thien in the south. From Jan. to June 1968 it depended on the 198th Inf. Brigade and 178th Assault Helicopter Support Battalion of the US Army for fire support to include huey gunships), reaction forces and logistic support.210 From July to December 1968, it received support from the Americal Division, which assumed control of the area. Some of the CAPs on the coast even received Naval support. The swift boats of the US Navy’s Coastal Division 12 were made available to them.211
The 2nd CAG, situated north of the 1st CAG, operated in Marine TAORs around Danang and the Quang Ham Province. The 2nd CAG used other units in helping its CAP's perform their missions. The CAG headquarters had attached special units available to it. There was a detachment of the Scout Dog platoon 3rd Military Police Battalion. There was a detachment of Kit Carson Scouts. Carson Scouts were former VC, who had switched sides and offered their services the GVN. Also attached were ARVN interpreters/translators and a medical section from the III MAF headquarters.212 These attachments were not unique to the 2nd CAG, but provide an example of the assets available to and used by Combined Action.
The 3rd CAG, who after July 1968 only operated in the Thua Thien Province, did institute a unique system. The CAG commander started a tradition of sending weekly reports to III MAF headquarters. This was in addition to the regular monthly reports required of all the CAGs. These weekly reports were the results of regular inspections and visits made to the CAPs by CAG headquarters officers. In these reports, suggestions and opinions were given. On such report read:
The previous illustrations show that in 1968, the four CAGs were viable and operating units each with something unique about it. Even with the temporary setback of the TET offensive, the Combined Action Program had grown. By the end of 1968, there were four CAGs. The CAGs commanded a total of 19 CACs that in turn commanded a total of 102 CAPs.215 1968 was a successful year for Combined Action. On 25 November 1970, President Nixon awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to the Combined Action Program for duty and service from 1 January 1968 to 1 December 1968.216
The year 1969, in terms of strength, saw the peak of the Combined Action Program. At its peak, this included 114 CAPs in the I CTZ.217 Of the CAGs, the 1st CAG had four CACs, the 2nd CAG was the largest with nine CACs, the 3rd CAG had five CACs and the 4th CAG was the smallest with three CACs.218 Combined Action's strength during this period (US personnel) was 1,710 Marines and 119 Navy corpsman. Combat wise, 1969 was also the most active year for the CAPs. In 1969 CAPs made 150,000 patrols with three fourths of these at night. CAP statistics counted 1,938 confirmed VC killed and 425 taken prisoner. CAPs also captured 932 enemy weapons.219 This compared well with previous statistics. For the whole period of Jan. 1966 to Nov. 1968, CAPs made 96,000 patrols, two-thirds of which were at night. This whole time period accounted for 1,523 confirmed VC killed and 621 captured.220 The whole count of KlA amounted to the equal of eleven mainforce VC battalions. The year of 1969 saw the Combined Action Program reach near its zenith, before the Marine withdrawal in the early 1970's started to reduce it.
In January 1970, the Combined Action Program was re-designated the Combined Action Force (CAP). The head of the program was no longer a member of III MAF staff. He was designated Commanding Officer, Combined Action Force. This change gave Combined Action a regimental level headquarters. The CAGs were considered battalion level headquarters. This change also gave Combined Action a better administrative footing.221 It was soon after this final organizational step to improve Combined Action that the Program began being decreased.
In 1970, the Marines began their general withdrawal from Vietnam. The exodus of troops out of the III MAP was gradual, but the manpower pinch was felt at the CAP level. In March 1970, the 3rd CAG reported that it had to rotate forces from CAP to CAP to keep them up to strength for patrolling duties. The CAG headquarters found this inhibited their training efforts. The cause of this lack of personnel was the redeployment and deactivation of various Marine units, to include CAPs.222
The deactivation and reduction of the CAPs was not unique in the I CTZ. It was part of an overall US program in Vietnam known as Increment IV redeployments. It signaled the beginning of "Vietnamization" and the removal of US ground forces from Vietnam.223 As the CAPs began deactivating, Psychological Operations in the area were increased by the GVN. This was to help promote confidence of the Popular Forces and other GVN forces that remained after the Marines left. The Psyops attempted to assure the public that they were not losing GVN security or care.224 The 4th CAG was the first one to go. It was deactivated on 25 July 1970. There was not much forewarning about the deactivation of the 4th CAG, so the GVN Psyop units were not given much time to prepare and operate.225 The 1st CAG was deactivated on 21 August 1970.226 The 3rd CAG soon followed suit and was deactivated 7 Sept. 1970.227 Because of these deactivations, by September 1970, the only CAPs were operating under the 2nd CAG in Quang Nam Province. Most of these were located close to the last Marine enclave at Danang.
As early as May 1970, the 2nd CAG began receiving Marines from the other CAGs. These experienced Marines were put to work in the CAPs of the 2nd CAG.228 In August 1970, the 2nd CAG itself began deactivating. By years end, it only consisted of one CAC that was comprised of five CAPs. All of these were located close to Danang.229 On 23 September 1970, the Combined Action Force was deactivated. It had only been such a headquarters unit for nine months. The deactivation of the CAF left the 2nd CAG headquarters in charge of Combined Action, which by that time was reduced to the few CAPs around Danang.230
In January 1971, the GVN began psychological operations in the Danang area, in preparation for the deactivation of the last CAPs.231 In April 1971, the III MAF headquarters was moved from Vietnam to Okinawa. The only Marines left in Vietnam, other than advisors, were located in units around Danang. These units were organized into the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB). The 2nd CAG was placed under the control of the 3rd NAB headquarters.232 On 11 May 1971 the 2nd CAG was deactivated. This was the last Combined Action unit.233
Combined Action had a history that lasted nearly the whole period of Marine involvement in Vietnam. The Program generally grew with US growth in Vietnam and was reduced and deactivated as US forces did the same. Its operational history shows an interesting organization that made significant contributions to the war in the I CTZ.
During the existence of the Combined Action Program, CAPs were not the only Marine attempts at Combined Action. As it was said before, there were a lot of PF platoons in the I CTZ. The Marines did not have the resources to place a CAP in all of these villages. The Marine commanders in the Combined Action Program recognized this problem and took some steps to alleviate it.
A solution was in the form of a traveling CAP squad. The units were called Mobile Training Teams (MTTs) and were established in 1968. An MTT was a Marine squad that would travel to PF platoons that did not and had not belonged to CAP's. The MTT provided short term training for the PFs. The MTT stayed with the PFs for about two weeks. While the training was going on, the MTT and the PF platoon operated together as a temporary CAP. This included all the CAP activities such as patrolling and Civic Action. After the two weeks, the MTT would move on to another village, but many times they would return to a PF platoon they had previously worked with and conduct refresher courses. The MTT program served to expand knowledge and involvement in Combined Action among the PFs. PF platoons that were trained by MTT's showed some improvement, but not to the level of PF platoons in CAPs.234 The MTT's were under the direct control of their respective CAG headquarters. The MTTs were operated until the CAGs deactivated. An exception to this was the 3rd CAG. The 3rd CAG deactivated its MTTs in August 1969. There is no clear reason for this in the records. The duties of the MTT's were taken over by an S-3 (CAG Operations Section) training team.235 The MTT's were an attempt by the Combined Action headquarters to expand the CAPs while husbanding manpower resources.
The Combined Action concept had started in 1965 with regular Marine Units. The Program, afterwards, evolved and expanded. Combined Action, however, was not always able to meet the needs of the Marine battalions on Vietnam. There weren't enough CAP's. The Marine units decided to use the Combined Action concept themselves. In November 1969, the 1st Marine Division, situated in the Quang Nam Province, started the Infantry Company Intensive Pacification Program (ICIPP). This was very similar to the CAPs. Regular Marine rifle squads were sent into villages to work with PFs. The program was considered a success.236 Later on the program designation was changed to Combined Unit Pacification Program (CUPP). It was eventually expanded to include 26 Marine squads in the 1st Marine Division TAOR. CUPP was a program unique to the 1st Mar. Div. There is no record of similar program by the other major Marine unit, the 3rd Marine Division. The 3rd Mar. Div. was mainly involved with fighting large VC and NVA forces along the DMZ. CUPP was ended in April 1971. This coincided with the continuing deactivation of the Combined Action Program. It is interesting to note that in April 1971, with the removal of CUPP and the reduction of CAPs, there was a significant upsurge of VC terrorist activities in the Quang Nam Province.237 CUPP showed that any combat unit, with proper guidance, could employ Combined Action with some success.
Combined Action could be done by combat units, but usually it required special training. CAP Marines were in a unique situation, far different from the Marines in regular units. A CAP Marine was in close contact, at all times, with a Vietnamese civilian community. He had to be prepared to deal with cultural and political matters as well as military operations. His ability to get along with the villagers was crucial to the success of his CAP. For this reason a CAP school was set up at China Beach, near Danang. It was under the auspices of the 2nd CAG. 238
The CAP school was set up to have a training schedule that lasted two weeks. All CAP Marines, once selected for CAP duty, were required to attend the school before being assigned to their CAP. When the 1st Marine Division ran the CUP? program, they also sent many of the Marines that participated in it to the CAP school.239 The CAP school concentrated on giving students cultural orientation to Vietnam, Vietnamese language training and weapons and small unit tactics.240
The curriculum included alot about Vietnamese society. A CAP Marine was almost integrated into Vietnamese society. He had to know about the culture so that he would not disrupt it. A major contribution to this portion of the CAP school was made by the Personal Response Project. This was a project initiated by Lt. Gen. Krulak in 1965-66. He wanted studies done on how to improve Marine-Vietnamese working relations. This involved understanding Vietnamese culture and traditions. The Project was run by the US Navy Chaplain Corps that worked with the Marines in Vietnam. The Project was able to educate many U.S. servicemen on Vietnamese subjects. It was involved at all levels of Marine command. In addition to teaching at the CAP school, the Personal Response Project also published a number of handbooks and pamphlets for all Marines.241 Adapting and working closely with the Vietnamese people was important in all units, but especially in CAPs. This is why Vietnamese subjects were one area of emphasis at the CAP school.
Vietnamese Language Training
Personal Response 5 Hours
Vietnamese History & Politics 8 Hours
Weapons 10 Hours
Patrol & Ambush Techniques 7 Hours
Map & Compass Use 5 Hours
Support Usage & Request 12 Hours
Miscellaneous 4 Hours
D-3 - D-8 Allnut, Marine
Vietnamese language training was another area of emphasis at the CAP school. Its importance was obvious. CAP Marines worked closely with the PFs. Vietnamese sometimes knew a little English or French (from colonial times), but the Marines were the foreigners. It made for better relations if the Marines were able to communicate in Vietnamese. Language training took up the largest single block of time at the CAP school. There was language training available outside of the CAP school. A potential CAP squad leader and CAP corpsman were required to attend the III MAP Vietnamese Language school. This school gave longer and more comprehensive training. The squad leader and corpsman went because, in a CAP, these two were in contact with the Vietnamese the most.243
Weapons and tactics was the last area of emphasis at CAP school. Lt. Col. Whitesell points out that most of the Marines that entered the Combined Action Program were already combat veterans.244 The CAP, though, required some special military skills. PF weapons were usually a melange of old and new, U.S. and foreign makes. To be able to train the PFs effectively, the CAP Marine had to have some knowledge of the PFs weapons. A CAP's major military operations were patrols and ambushes. Many Marines were already familiar with the techniques for performing these operations. The CAP school basically expanded on this knowledge and provided an intensive refresher course. An important switch was that the CAP squad was operating independently. There were no platoon or company elements in close proximity. A CAP's tactics were generally independent from other units. An obvious result of the lack of higher units was the absence of officers and senior NCOs in CAPs. It was these men in regular units who were responsible for navigating with a map and compass and for calling in support such as artillery or air support. The CAP school tried to make up for this by teaching its students how to navigate. The students also learned when, where and how to call in artillery support, air strikes and reaction troops. The military portion of the CAP school concentrated in teaching independent small unit tactics.245
The effectiveness of the CAP school was debatable. Two weeks could not make a Marine an expert on Vietnamese culture. Surely nobody could master a language as complex as Vietnamese in thirteen hours of class time. Likewise, classroom training did not make a Marine tactically proficient. Mr. Elias, who attended the CAP school in 1968, before being assigned to his CAP, feels that it had a minimal effect. The language training was to the extent that the Marines wouldn't say something stupid or offensive to the Vietnamese. He said that much of the cultural indoctrination was "propaganda" about Vietnamization and why the U.S. was supporting the GVN. Col. Solak says that the school was designed to be an introduction to the Vietnamese culture and independent small unit tactics. The main purpose was not to have the Marines retain everything they were taught, but to instill confidence in them of their ability to accomplish their mission when they were sent to the CAP.247 The CAP school, it seems did have an effect on the implementation of Combined Action, but could have been improved.
The enlisted Marines in Combined Action were not the only ones in the program to go to school. Leaders and personnel at the CAC, CAG and CAF level had to have some training also. At these levels the emphasis was on Combined Actions place within the overall US-GVN effort. Personnel were sent to short training schools, usually two days in length. The schools were usually held in major headquarters areas such as Danang or even Saigon. The schools introduced and familiarized participants with the "big picture" in Vietnam. These schools helped Combined Action leaders better run their organization.248
Training was also conducted at the CAG level. The 3rd CAG had a small orientation school for Marines that were going to be assigned to it. The Marines went to this orientation school before they were sent to the CAP school in Danang.249 Both the 1st and 2nd CAGs had their own small for CAP squad leaders. The setup at the 1st CAG was a small short term school that the Marine NCOs went to before they went to their respective CAPs.250 The 2nd CAG school was a more informal affair. CAP squad leaders attended bi-monthly classes that lasted six hours a day. This continued throughout a Marines assignment to a CAP.251 The 2nd CAG also conducted MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) screenings of its units every now and then. This made sure the personnel were placed in jobs that they had been trained for.252 Combined Action training was conducted at all the levels of the program.
Training for such a concept as Combined Action is important. The operations of a CAP were sufficiently different from regular military operations to require special training. During the Vietnam conflict , the CAP school tried to provide this specialized schooling. The training, though, was to short and general. The CAP Marines were forced to rely on their common sense and ingenuity in CAP operations. Experience as usual, provided the best teacher. The CAP school, if it had been developed more and lengthened would have provided greater service to Combined Action. As it was, the situation in Vietnam did not allow this.
Combined Action was not the only hamlet security-pacification program used in Vietnam. An early program was even tried by the French in their struggle to retain Indo-China in the late 1940's and early 1950's. The French attempted to arm the local population in to a hamlet militia. This was only done in areas that were considered secure by French military forces. The militia was to provide security in their own area. French forces only participated, when the militia were pressed, in a reaction force role. There was no real coordination on training between the French military and the militia. The system proved ineffective.253
The next program came in 1962-63. This was the Strategic Hamlet Program. It was instituted by the GVN under President Diem. The idea was to gather the rural civilian population together into defended compound/hamlets. During the day the villagers would be allowed to go out and work their fields. The idea was to provide security for the people and deny access to the people by the VC. The program didn't work.254
The Strategic Hamlet Program was important because it was the first attempt at rural area security-pacification made during the era of U.S. influence in Vietnam. At the time, 1962-63, US combat troops had not committed, but there was a considerable number of U.S. advisors in the GVN structure. Col. William Buchanan USA (Ret.), was a Strategic Hamlet Advisor in the Mekong Delta from June 1962 to June 1963. He says that the Strategic Hamlet concept came from a similar program used by the British with success in Malaysia. Col. Buchanan said that the idea was taken from the Communist guerrilla theory of the guerrilla-fish Swimming in the population-ocean. Strategic Hamlets were designed to remove the ocean and let the fish die through lack of needed support. The Vietnamese people did not take well to forced removal from their homes. Vietnamese society is very tied to their homes which have been passed down from ancestors. This discontent did not build up public support for the CVN. In Malaysia, the peasants operated in a plantation society and weren't as tied to the land. Also in Malaysia, the guerrillas were a different ethnic and stood out from the population. In Vietnam, the VC were indistinguishable from the villagers. They could easily infiltrate a strategic Hamlet and even set up an infrastructure inside of it. Finally, the Strategic Hamlet Program with its movement of the population was very expensive. when the Diem government was brought down, the Strategic Hamlet Program soon died out.255
Strategic Hamlets, were predecessors, of a sort, to CAPs. The Strategic Hamlet Program, since it was instituted before large scale U.S. involvement, was a wholly GVN affair with U.S. advice. The main difference between CAPs and Strategic Hamlets was that CAPs took security out to the people while Strategic Hamlets attempted to bring the people to security. Strategic Hamlets were the first attempt to address the problem of rural pacification and eradication of the VC infrastructure.
The next GVN attempt to address the village war was Revolutionary
Development. It was a GVN organization, but the training and the
program were run by the US Central Intelligence Agency.256 Revolutionary
Development was intended to go into villages and rebuild hamlet society
and GVN infrastructure. This would combat and supplant the VC infrastructure.
The basis of Revolutionary Development was the RD cadre. This was
a 59 man team that would go into a village to work. The RD cadre
had been recruited out of the leadership of the village and sent to a National
Training School. They then returned to the village.
Revolutionary Development combined political leadership, military operations
and civil construction into one program. It was instituted
throughout South Vietnam.257 Revolutionary Development Centers
were set up in all major cities. The one in Danang, center for operations
in the ICTZ, was established in June 1966. GVN officials felt that in could
provide training for Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs, Combined Action and other Revolutionary Development functions.258 Revolutionary Development was another attempt at a GVN solution to the village war.
Revolutionary Development, like Strategic Hamlets, was good in theory. It was probably the best GVN hamlet program. There were major problems with Revolutionary Development, though. Without US support, RD cadre would only work in secure population centers. This defeated the spirit of the RD'S going out to fight the VC.259 Revolutionary Development had a hard time making an impact in the villages they were placed.
Many times RD cadre were inserted into villages that had a CAP. Here the two programs were to work together. Such things as the CAP corpsman and the RD corpsman running a combined Medcap operation occurred.260 Here, also, comparisons between the two programs could be made. The RDs performed allright work with regards to Civic Action. Revolutionary Development was also, in part, a military program, though, and was to help provide the area security needed to successfully conduct all its other missions. At this, the RD cadre were not up to par. Many CAPs complained up the chain of command that they were having to be “bodyguards" for RD personnel and operations.261 The RD's ability to conduct military operations was really exposed after the 1968 TET offensive. It was at this time that CAPs starting switching from static to mobile tactics. The RDs did the same. RD cadre, however, was poorly trained and not able to operate well in the mobile mode. The required mobility created a strain and also caused the RDs to somewhat lose face in the village environment. RD cadre was to be the village leadership and it looked bad if they had to move every night and day in order to survive.262 Revolutionary Development was a good concept. If the cadre had been better trained and supported, it could have made serious inroads on the VC infrastructure in rural South Vietnam.
The U.S. military also ran programs that worked against the local VC infrastructure. The Marines had many programs other than Combined Action. One of these was Golden Fleece. Vietnamese farmers had problems harvesting their crops. The VC would harvest it for them and take it, or they would “requisition” the crops after they had been harvested and before the crops could be brought to market. In Golden Fleece, Marine units provided security for Vietnamese farmers around harvest time. They insured that the VC didn't get the needed food supplies and that the farmers got their crops to market.263
Another Marine program was County Fair. This was sort of a local search and destroy operation. A Marine unit would move into a village and cordon it off from the surrounding area. All the villagers would be checked for identification and VC suspects were interrogated. The whole village was also given a thorough search. Each hamlet was basically taken apart and put back together. The Marines would also keep the villagers busy. A comprehensive Medcap would be set up, accompanied by a Medevac. True to its name, the Marines would many times run a fair, complete with games, a meal and a Marine band playing. County Fair was an effective program to help keep track of villages and eliminate the VC infrastructure.264
The US Army, operating throughout South Vietnam, also saw that Combined Action was a successful program. The Army never set up CAPs, but did design a program modeled after the Mobile Training Teams (MTTS). The program had a training team that went around to Regional Forces or Popular Forces units. The training team consisted of an ARVN officer, a U.S. Army officer and three U.S. Army soldiers. This team would spend a month at each unit it trained. This was the closest program to Combined Action that the Army ran, with possible exception to the Special Forces camps in the Vietnamese highlands.265
Combined Action was part of the whole III MAF effort of pacification in the ICTS. It was the village war as opposed to the big unit war of going after mainforce VC and NVA units. High level Marine commanders fully supported Combined Action and Pacification. The Marines in Vietnam, though, were only one part of the overall US effort in Vietnam. There was a real difference of opinion between U.S. military and civilian leaders on how to best fight the war in Vietnam. Combined Action, being at the forefront of the Marine pacification effort, was involved in this conflict.
To understand the problems of strategy in Vietnam, it is helpful to have some knowledge of the command structure that existed when the III MAF was created in 1965. The best place to start is at the top. Due to the Constitution, the President of the United States was Commander in Chief of the US Armed Forces. Under him, in Washington DC was the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the operational chain of command, the next stop was Commander in Chief, Pacific based in Hawaii. This command was responsible for all U.S. forces in the Pacific. The next step was the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam located in Vietnam. This command controlled all US forces in Vietnam. Finally the III Marine Amphibious Force was based in Danang. This command ended up controlling all the US forces in the I CTZ. The administrative chain of command was different. This chain of command was responsible for supply and personnel matters. For the Marines it again officially started at the President, but in practice the Commandant of the Marine Corps headed this section. Under him was the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. This command was under operational control of CINCPAC and had administrative control of all the Marines in the Pacific, to include the III MAF in Danang. The chain of command generally ran this way except that many times MACV operated directly under the President and the JCS in Washington rather than going through CINCPAC in Hawaii. This rather complicated command structure meant that alot of commands had a say in the Vietnam conflict.266
When the Marines were committed into Vietnam and started to actively participate in the war, they started fighting the VC mainforce units in the interior of the ICTZ. They were usually able to defeat these units when they could be located. The Marines soon found that fighting within their TAORs, in their rear areas, was tougher than fighting the main force VC and NVA.267 The Marines felt they had to combat this problem. They felt that the best way was to commit some of their combat assets to help the GVN reassert control of these areas. Combined Action was one of these assets. The term used to describe the control of the territory was pacification. In Sept. 1965 (7 months after the first Marine deployment), Lt. Gen. Krulak, WMFPac, said:
The Marines felt that the pacification and establishment of the GVN had to been done in concert with defeating the large VC units. The GVN was not able to do this so the Marines progressively increased their participation in pacification while also maintaining the big unit war. They put priority on pacification over the "search and destroy" tactics used to fight the large units.270
There was also a feeling that success of pacification would in great measure inflict great damage on the large VC units. Gen. Krulak said.:
Marine efforts impressed many people. Gen. Sir Robert Thompson, a British Military observer, felt that the Marines made the only serious attempts to protect the rural population in the whole Vietnam war.273 Robert Komer, President Johnson's special assistant on non military programs in Vietnam, also concurred with the Marines view of the war, "Chasing large units around the boondocks still leaves intact the VC infrastructure, with its local guerrilla capability plus the weapons of terror and intimidation".274 In 1967, overall U.S. pacification efforts in Vietnam received the same priority that the Strategic Hamlet Program did in 1962-63.275 Not everybody, though agreed with the Marine's approach to the war.
Gen. Westmoreland considered Combined Action itself a very innovative
concept. He let every command know about the program, if they wanted to
design something similar. He, though, felt that he did not have the manpower
to put a squad in every village. Even if he could have, to do so would
have been, "fragmenting resources and exposing them to defeat in detail”.276
Generally, MACV took a negative attitude towards Combined Action and the
Marine pacification strategy. In addition to the
manpower constraints, many officers felt that the whole philosophy of pacification was static and defensive. MACV made its opinion felt when it refused to allocate extra troops and resources for combined Action. ARVN high commands also did not approve. They started removing Popular Forces units involved with Combined Action from the Program. They employed the PFs in offensive operations. This was stopped when the Pfs and accompanying ARVN forces were mauled.278 Combined Action was also somewhat looked down upon. It didn't conform to the standard counter-insurgency tactics. As with many new ideas, it wasn't popular in orthodox military circles.279
Criticism that was directed on Combined Action and III MAF pacification did have some sound basis. In area security, the destruction of the large VC units was necessary to promote confidence of the GVN's ability.280 Even Gen. Sir Thompson felt that while support should be given to the CAPs, most of the manpower should be used to fight the main force VC and NVA units so that pacification could continue.281 The problem of manpower resources was real. It was estimated that to place one US Squad in every Vietnamese hamlet would have required 225,000 US troops. Totaling all the support and logistics personnel, a Combined Action approach to all of Vietnam would have required in total U.S. effort of 750,000 men.282 The military problems of pacification were real.
There were greater problems with Marine pacification than the military ones. It was possible that the Marines were becoming involved in areas that they shouldn't have, Gen. Walt said:
When it came down to it, the pacification strategy, implemented by the Marines in the I CTZ mounted to a shift in emphasis from previous US strategy in Vietnam. Potential strategic and economic implications were created by the Marines. Furthermore the Marine strategy was formulated by a chain of command (the Marine administrative chain that ran through FM PAC and the Commandant of the Marine Corps) that excluded MACV.285
The debate over strategy raged throughout the Vietnamese conflict.
A minor point in the conflict was that it was generally an Army-Marine Corps disagreement. This aspect really only showed itself on the local level. Col. Buchanan USA, said that everybody had their own operating area and "did their own thing".286 The disagreement was over methods and tactics. Lt. Col. Whitesell USMC (ret.), commanded a CAG that was in an Army TAOR. He maintained that there was professional jealousy on the part of the Army. They felt' that they should run the whole show in their area. Relations at the command level were good, but at the small unit level the Army couldn't understand the "citizen" status of the CAP Marines and their generally unmilitary appearance and actions.287 Mr. Elias, whose CAP was located near an Army unit, recalls that the Army "wouldn't leave the compound for us [as reaction forces].”288 The enmity between Marines and Soldiers didn’t always run this deep, but it did have an effect on Combined Action operations.
The question of pacification vs. big unit battles went on throughout the US involvement in Vietnam. Combined Action was a program within pacification. According to III MAF' standards, Combined Action was successful in its endeavors. There still is some question, though, on to what constitutes a pacified area. Sometimes considering an area secure is a better way of putting it.
There were many ways that U.S. forces had developed that helped them decide if a village was pacified. An early system was the III MAF system, which was finalized by 1966. There were five basic areas looked at. The destruction (attrition) of VC military forces in the area was evaluated. The establishment of local security was evaluated, as was the establishment of the GVN. The final area was a measurement of hamlet development progress, which was community activities and improvement. Each one of these five areas was further broken into sub-categories each area. Pacification was considered attained if a certain overall point level was reached.289 Other pacification evaluation systems were similar to this.
Using this system, Combined Action was a resounding success. By 1969, 71% of villages with CAP's were considered pacified.290 This success, though, is subject to criticism. The factors used to define pacification were statistical, somewhat akin to the body count system used to evaluate the war of attrition. The decision as to whether an area is pacified should be a subjective rather than objective decision.291 Pacification, correctly defined, means that most of the population is sympathetic with the GVN. This is literally winning the hearts and minds. It is very hard, in a society at war as long as Vietnam, to get a true measure of whether the population truly supports the GVN, or just leans towards them because they are winning militarily at the time. Most Vietnamese peasants did not really support either side, but were just waiting to see who would win. For these reasons it is probably better to term Combined Action's success as that of area control and security rather than pacification.292
The Marines originally meant for Combined
Action to provide them with rear area security. The idea of
using CAPs for pacification did not really take hold until 1967.293
CAPs were placed so as to fulfill a security mission. They only took
hold in areas that had already been under U.S. military control. They were
not placed out in areas that didn't have large units operating.294
Most of the CAPs were placed on lines of communication in the I CTZ.
This included such locations as
Route 1, the main north-south artery in Vietnam, also known as the Street without Joy. This placement allowed for easier access and resupply to the CAP's. It also meant that the CAPs were providing security for these important supply routes.295 Col. Solak, commenting on Combined Action, felt that they provided good rear area security and credible intelligence for Marine units. They did not, however, succeed as pacification. Their main success with the people was to provide a grassroots link with the Marines.296 Security was the main benefit of Combined Action.
This is not to say, however, that Combined Action did not have an effect on the reassertion of GVN control in rural areas. Some of the statistical gains did show improvements. There were important things such as having the village chief living full time in his village and having the census of the village completed. These things did not show pacification, but they showed that the GVN was fighting the VC infrastructure and somewhat establishing itself.297 It seemed that Vietnamese customs and traditions were able to flourish in villages with CAPs298, and the Marines claimed that the VC never reestablished control over a village that had a CAP in it.299
Of course, not everything was as rosy as Marine reports made it out to be. Mr. Elias remembers that there wasn't a lot of contact between the villagers and the Marines in his CAP. The villagers didn't really like the Marines presence, but were generally ambivalent.300 A sort of "détente” existed. The Marines in this CAP didn't seem to be routing out the VC infrastructure. A similar story occurred in the village of My Thuy Phuong. There was a compound CAP there. The Marines and PFs only emerged to patrol. The Marines reported two VC leaders KIA and two jailed. Five of the twenty village VC guerrillas were killed. Twenty to thirty suspected supporters of the VC were arrested and interrogated. The Marines reported that their operation had an "undetermined effect on insurgent force".301 Based on a thorough study of the village, it was found that the CAP brought disruption to the village. It also didn't change the fact that 80% of the villagers were VC sympathizers.302
What Combined Action seemed to be best at was providing area control and security. Much of this accomplishment came about because of the aggressive military operations run by the CAPs. Body counts aren't a good indicator of pacification, but a favorable count can point to successful military operations.303 In 1966 the kill ratio for CAP's was 14 VC KIA, confirmed, for every CAP Marine or Pr killed.304 This even looked good to the military men favoring the big unit attrition strategy. One of the main arguments against Combined Action was the fact that the US didn't have enough troops to cover the area needed. To counter that, combined Action proponents gave statistics such as the fact that in 1968, CAP Marines comprised 1.5% of total Marine strength in Vietnam, yet they accounted for 7.6% of VC kills.305
There were many manpower benefits other than more VC killed by Combined Action. CAPs achieved combat success with less accompanying casualties than regular Marine units.306 As said before, the CAPs only took 1.5% of the Marines in Vietnam. This meant that less than 1% of all US forces in Vietnam were involved in Combined Action.307 The CAPs success at security was a help to the "big unit battles". Because of the few Marines involved with such a large job, more regular Marine units were free to concentrate on the mainforce VC and NVA units.308 The benefits of Combined Action were also monetary. In a years operations, a regular Marine platoon cost $173,000 to maintain, while a Combined Action Platoon cost $67,000 to maintain. This meant that in 1968, the 87 CAPs in operation cost $5,628,000. The same job, performed by regular Marines, would have cost $14,532,000.309 Combined Action was a very profitable investment in terms of both manpower and money.
Combined Action was also a good use of Vietnamese resources. There were approximately 25,000 Popular Forces troops in the I CTZ. For the most part, they were badly administered and employed against the VC. Combined Action was found to be the most effective way to use PFs. CAPs got the most out of the PFs.310 There was concrete proof that the PFs in CAPs were more effective and motivated then those PFs not in CAPs. In 1967, the desertion rate for the Popular Forces in all of South Vietnam was 11%. The desertion rate for PF's in CAPs, during the same period of time was 0%.311 Combined Action increased the potential for GVN forces to be used in fighting the VC.
The Combined Action Platoon was considered an innovative concept when it was introduced in Vietnam. It received alot of attention because it was of the forefront of the Marine program of pacification. Combined Action, though, was actually a small part of the overall Marine Corps effort in Vietnam.312 Because it was a new type of operation, however, it does merit study. There were problems with the program and improvements could have been made. In 1969, the HSR corporation did a study on the Combined Action Program. In their report they graded the various areas of CAP involvement. As expected, security capabilities were rated as excellent. Intelligence gathering capability was judged as good. The measures of pacification, uprooting the Viet Cong infrastructure and winning the hearts and minds of the people were judged as a variable success. It has already been explained how pacification is hard to really evaluate in a war such as Vietnam. CAP involvement with Civic Action and Psychological Operations could have used improvements. The CAP Marines were good at training the PFs, but not to the extent that they could operate well on their own.313
Enough has been said about the security and pacification elements in the Combined Action Concept. Some of the problems that cropped up could have been solved. A major one was the discipline problem. A CAP was very independent from its higher command structures. This lack of supervision created discipline problems and failures to follow standard procedures. As Mr. Elias remembers, nobody really checked up on his CAP, the Marines could do whatever they wanted to.314 A military unit, even as independent and informal as a CAP, requires an amount of discipline and supervision to correctly fulfill its duties.315
CAPs would have done better if they had received more recognition from higher Marine commands and regular Marine units. Marine leaders supported Combined Action but could not give it all the attention it needed.316 The biggest reason for this was the location of the Marines in Vietnam. The III MAF was in the I CTZ. This was the only part of South Vietnam that directly bordered North Vietnam. The Marines bore the brunt of the big unit war with mainforce VC and regular NVA troops continually attacking. Combined Action might have worked better in the southern provinces where the large unit threat wasn’t as big.317 Col. Solak, who worked with CAPs in Quang Tin and Thua Thien, felt that these provinces were "Indian territory". There were too many large VC and NVA units running around for the Marines to concentrate on the villages.318 The Marines had picked the wrong area to start the village war, because the big unit war dominated the scene in the north.
An area that Combined Action could have improved was its involvement in Civic Action. CAPs usually conducted on informal Civic Action program, working independently with the villagers. Their participation in the large handout or construction programs was limited.319 Official Civic Action was important because it was a visible means of asserting GVN presence in the rural areas. If the CAPs acted alone, that wasn't seen as the GVN's work. There were many official Civic Action programs. There was USAID, OSA, MACV advisors, Army Civil Affairs officers, and Marine Civic Action officers all running around the I CTZ. Those experts, though, weren't available at or didn't work at the village level.321
This is where CAPs could come in. A CAP could serve as the “eyes and ears" for these other groups. Requests could be relayed up the chain of command or directly to representatives of the programs.322 The CAP Marines were ideally suited to serve such a purpose. The were continuously in the village. Such a function could have been successfully performed had the Marines been taught what to look out for. Such a program would have also required more coordination between the various Civic Action programs and the Combined Action command structure.323 With improvements in training and coordination, Combined Action could have made a greater contribution to Civic Action.
The motto of the Combined Action Program was, "work yourself out of a job".324 This related to the major mission of Combined Action. This was the eventual withdrawal of the Marines so that the whole burden would be carried by the PFs. Combined Action was not considered a complete success until the program was completely Vietnamized.325
Combined Action was different from the Gendarme's the Marines organized in the Banana Wars. In both situations, the Marines attempted to leave a credible military force behind when they left. The Gendarme's were relatively effective military forces when the Marines left, but many times their presence upset the stability of their own country. The PFs, when the Marines left Vietnam, were not a credible military force and along with the rest of the GVN apparatus were unable to match the NVA or the VC. Another difference, though, was that the gendarme's were openly U.S. controlled forces while CAPs were supposedly a joint organization with the GVN and US as equals.326
This contention, to a great degree, was a fallacy. The Vietnamese did not really show the ability to act as partners, so the Marines took the lead. A Marine report projected that each Marine in Combined Action, meant that there were three Vietnamese working towards GVN control in the PFs, or Revolutionary Development. This ratio would permit the eventual phase out of Marine participation.327 This ratio was never reached. That meant there was inordinately high Marine participation as compared to Vietnamese participation. A CAP usually had at least twice as many PFs as Marines, but the Marines took 2.4 times the casualties in Combined Action.328 The US wasn't going to be able to stay in Vietnam forever. The Vietnamese, by these statistics, didn't seem to realize this.
There was some thought that other GVN forces could take over from the Marines in Combined Action. This was hard for the US to push because the GVN did not place as much emphasis on pacification as the US did.329 The fact was that for counterinsurgency and pacification to succeed, the Vietnamese would have to bear the burden themselves. They could have US training and advise, but the work had to be done by them.330 It was suggested that the ARVN could fill in for the Marines in Combined Action.331 Proponents of this maintained that it wasn't lack of ability that kept the PFs from performing on their own. The removal of Marines did not only remove 8-10 trained troops from a CAP. Also lost was the whole support organization. Without Marines, there was no artillery, air support, Medevac or supplies. It was felt that the ARVN could take over these functions. The problem was that the ARVN was not willing or able to support the PFs.332 Another problem was that the ARVN was similar to PFs in that they operated near their home provinces. There was no allotment system, so ARVN soldiers always traveled with their families. A situation marrying up PFs and ARVN would not have worked.333
Tactically, as a counterinsurgency and area security program, Combined Action was a success. The biggest problem was that it was a US run program. The goal of Vietnamization of the program was not successful. The Marines ended up doing most of the work. This applied to Combined Action, but also applied to the overall US effort in Vietnam. The GVN was left not prepared to carry on the war.334 In Combined Action, the PFs were trained, but they were used to having the Marines and their support. In the final analysis of Combined Action in Vietnam, it failed because it did not fulfill its final task. It did not sufficiently prepare the PFs to fight on after the Marines left.
There is a qualification that can be added the failure of Combined Action in Vietnam. To a great extent, the success of Vietnamization at the village level was the responsibility of the local GVN officials. It was these people that were to be the leaders of the people.335 It was the Vietnamese government, the GVN, that had to sell itself to the people if it wanted to establish control. The US could help the GVN, but it could only be a supporting role.336 A basic lesson was that US involvement and support cannot change the nature of an allies society or government.337 This may have been what was necessary for something like Combined Action to work.
Marine Combined Action, in the end, did not work in Vietnam. That does not mean it is not a viable concept. In fact, if properly implemented, Combined Action seemed to many as the best US conceived method of fighting low intensity counterinsurgency environments.338 This is promising because, even during Vietnam, US forces were always better at conventional war than counterinsurgency or area control operations.339 This still holds true today. The valuable experience of Vietnam can contribute many lessons in low intensity/counterinsurgency warfare. Combined Action is one of these lessons. Prof. Allan Millett, a Marine Corps historian, said, “The U.S. military has not carefully analyzed the Vietnam conflict for learning purposes. It is likely, though, that a future conflict could occur under similar conditions.”340
What Millett says is true. The most probable foe that a US Marine will have to face in the future will probably be a guerrilla.341 Insurgency is a worldwide phenomenon. It is in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The Marines have a global commitment. They can be sent almost anywhere in the world. This increases the likelihood that they will face an insurgency if committed into action. Specific attention has been focused on the Marines because Combined Action was largely their invention. Their rapid deployment nature also means they are likely to be involved in any future conflict involving the US. This does not preclude other US forces from becoming involved with Combined Action. In fact, the Army probably has the resources and know how (or ability to learn) to implement Combined Action. The Marines offensive, light infantry does not always hold well with such a static program like Combined Action.
The lessons of Vietnam do not, of course, apply to all other situations. Every conflict has unique features that cannot be duplicated.342 In terms of area security, there were some general lessons that could be used in any low intensity situation. First was the need for good intelligence. Any military operation requires good intelligence. This was especially true in village operations. Terrain had to be mapped out and potential insurgents had to be identified. Another requirement that was shown in Vietnam was the need of an effective police force. It was hard enough to fight the guerrillas. Law and order had to be maintained or society would collapse even without guerrilla pressure. A third lesson was that, to succeed against local guerrillas, aggressive small unit tactics had to be mastered. This would keep the guerrilla off-balance and on the defensive. This in turn would enable the government to more confidently operate and control the area.343 These were general lessons; the Marines also learned specific lessons.
The Marines found, in their Vietnam experience, that they were good at using Combined Action for area security. Other lessons dealt with training. More and better cultural and language preparation was needed. Small unit leadership also need to be emphasized because of the independent nature of Combined Action. Finally, there was a need for better coordination between Combined Action and other programs. Too many times, there was conflict and redundancy in the various efforts. Not surprisingly, a major lesson that the Marines learned from Vietnam, and one that has been proven somewhat true, is that Marines tend to forget lessons of previous experiences.344 Even now, Combined Action is looked upon is an interesting experiment of the Vietnam war, that has no real bearing on the activities of today’s Marine Corps.
There is some activity on the counterinsurgency in the Marine Corps. In 1980, a new FMFM 8-2 Counterinsurgency Manual was published. It superseded the previous edition of 1967. It supposedly used the lessons of Vietnam. There seems to be little there, though. There is a section on the need for coordination with the host country (it is assumed counterinsurgency won't be needed in the United States). The manual calls for the "development of landing force training programs for para military forces within TAORs”.345 These para military forces would have the primary objectives of populace control and area security.346 The general thrust is to promote and support militia units such as the PF's., but to train there instead of working with them. This philosophy seems to hopefully make sure that the militia would not become unduly reliant on the Marines as the PF's did.
The Counterinsurgency manual might have gone to far from Combined Action to be effective. At least it does pay lip service to the concept. With the situation in the world, and the Marines rapid deployment role, the study of Combined Action could lead to better performance in counterinsurgency commitments.347
Combined Action began in 1965. The Marines started it as a cost
effective way to provide security for their rear areas. The program was
a success. A degree of control was placed over the villages that contained
CAPs. Marine leaders saw their troops working together with the PFs and
providing an outward appearance of pacification. The Marines looked back
in their history and saw that they had trained good armies in Latin
America. They saw the VC infrastructure as the real threat to
the GVN. Combined Action, in concert with other pacification programs, would use Marine tradition from the early 20th century to win the Vietnamese war.
The Popular Forces that worked with the Marines were being prepared to carry on the pacification war after the Marines left. The GVN, however, was not prepared to support the Popular Forces after the Marine's left. The needs of area security, and the activities of the large VC units, also meant that combat operations took priority over training the PFs. They would not be able to carry on the fight as effectively when the Marines left.
Combined Action worked at providing area security. It excelled at this. It did work at pacification and Vietnamization. Pacification could only occur if the population felt that the GVN was stronger and preferable than the VC. Successful Vietnamization of the war was the only way this shift of thought could happen. No matter how effective at combating the VC the CAPs were, the CAPs were still US run units and represented foreigners who would someday leave. Unless the GVN was able to survive without US troops, it would lose the war. Combined Action could have been a positive step towards preparing the GVN to survive alone, but the effort in that direction was not there. There is also evidence that with the GVN, all the effort in the world would not have worked.
Disregarding the political aspects of Vietnam, as a military answer to counterinsurgency, Combined Action was effective. Its use for area security could come in handy again. There is a good chance that in future, US forces could again be called on to support a friendly government against an insurgency. Combined Action, properly employed would achieve area security while providing training for the indigenous forces involved. It would have to be clear that the Combined Action units would be there for security only. The establishment of government, law and order would be up to the host government, possibly with US economic assistance. Combined Action will not win a counterinsurgency war, but it would provide civil authorities time and protection to establish themselves. Combined Action, if implemented in the future, is a military concept. Being such it can only help fight, not win in revolutionary warfare.