A Handful Of Marines

Handful Of

Reproduced with permission of the
Marine Corps Gazette
Mar68, pp. 44-46
Written by: LtCol. David H. Wagner, USMC

A Do-It-Yourself Attitude For The Vietnamese
Is The Main Objective Of Combined Action Marines

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

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

How can a few Marines provide security for over 270,000 Vietnamese people? Visit a Combined Action Platoon located in the middle of a village and see how. Walk through this area where a few months ago the VC held sway. Note how the young and old, no longer afraid, wave and show signs of friendship. They have helped gain their security through an integration of Marine and local militia, the Popular Forces. The combination is aptly termed CAP (Combined Action Platoon).

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

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

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

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

Does the program work? Since the Combined Action Unit Program began there have been no recorded desertions of a Popular Force soldier from his unit. The extension rate among CAP Marines exceeds 60%. In one notable instance extensions for duty among CAP Marines exceeded 85%. This points to the deep conviction and involvement of the Marines with their Popular Force comrades, and THEIR village. They can remember when meeting a tall stranger on the street would cause the villager to lower their eyes in fear and subjection. Now the Marines are part of the community life.

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

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

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

The Combined Action Platoon was still rather new to a village in northern I Corps but was actively whittling away at the VC infrastructure. A villager told the Marine NCO in charge of the platoon that a VC tax collector had been in the village that day and would return tomorrow to collect the taxes. Could the Marines help? Here was a perfect chance to show the people our faith. The simple thing would have been to ambush and kill the VC tax collector. Instead, the Combined Action Leader told the village council that he would give them security for their rice IF they wanted it. The Combined Action Platoon operated from a small hamlet near a large lake. There were logistics problems but--and this is a most important point--the Vietnamese worked out a plan whereby the entire community, using small boats, ferried 7,000 lbs of rice across the lake into the custody of the Marines. The villagers knew the VC tax collector would return, perhaps with a vengeance. What could they do? THEIR DECISION--and THEIRS ALONE-- was to request the same security for the rest of the rice crop. The same stipulation was made to deliver the rice across the lake. When this experiment in community security ended, the Combined Action Platoon was sitting on 60,000 lbs of rice for the entire village. At a subsequent meeting the village council and leaders decided to share in the rice stock on a cooperative basis, leaving the reaminder within the security of the Marines. Two significant points ensued: the denial of military supplies to the VC, and the civic action of the entire community working together toward a common goal in concert with the people they had learned to trust: the Combined Action Platoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take for instance the fishing experiment in Phong Bac hamlet. Marines of a Combined Action Platoon went into this fishing village and brought with them over-age explosives. They made up charges and then offered to hire the fishermen and their boats to go into the river and fish. The next day the Marines took off in the fishing boats as the shore was lined with curious villagers. As the charges were thrown in, the stunned fish rose to the surface and were picked up by the Marines and fishermen. When the boats landed, several hundred pounds of fish were unloaded and the crowd had doubled. By the time the entourage of people had walked the 3/4 of a mile to the village, the crowd had grown to around 300. The fish were auctioned off at the local market at the prevailing price. For a subsequent fish sale, a Community Chest type thermometer was installed, but with special symbols; the bottom of the scale was a road beginning at a Buddhist temple. The graduations along the way were in 1,000 piasters increments. This became the hamlet fund and the funds held by the chief were plainly accounted for in front of the whole population. Here then was civic action which really represented a trip into capital accumulation without the evils of exploitation.

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

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

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