A day in the life of a CAP
I was a Marine M-60 machine-gunner (0331) who served with two Combined Action Platoons in the 2nd Combined Action Group.
Because we cross-trained, I also carried at different times the M-79, the PRC-25 and, for a rather scary week, the experimental XM-174 automatic grenade launcher. I was wounded in January 1971 and again in April of that year. I have, within the past two years, been “reunited” via the internet with the surviving former members of one of my two teams, and so have launched myself into a campaign to educate people about the Combined Action Groups, and our little war.
Qualification for the CAPs was a higher GCT (intelligence test scores), a good rifle-range score, no history of any disciplinary trouble and an infantry MOS (military occupational specialty.) The program required some tactical sophistication and political finesse on the part of junior NCOs and Marine enlisted men.
Each CAP was supposed to consist of a specially-trained 12-man Marine rifle squad and 1 Navy medical corpsman, but in truth often operated with less than full complement, perhaps as few as 8 or 9 men. Each CAP was teamed with a local Popular Force or Regional Force platoon of 15 to 20 South Vietnamese. CAPs were usually led by a Sergeant (E-5), called the “Actual”, and many Actuals were on their 2nd tour-of-duty in Vietnam.
Most CAPs carried two PRC-25 tactical radios, so the CAP could be split into two smaller teams, the Alpha team (led by the Actual, and the Bravo team, led by the CAP’s “Bravo”, or second-in-command, usually a corporal. One might question the wisdom of dividing such a small unit into even smaller components, but it seemed to work fairly well, and allowed the CAP to aggressively cover more territory in their A-O (area of operation), to keep the VC/NVA off balance.
The CAPs also had one M-60 machine gunner, two M-79 grenade launcher men, and the rest carried the M-16. Each CAP also carried a dozen or so LAAWs, Claymore anti-personnel mines, C-4 plastic explosive and det cord, M-26 fragmentation grenades, Marine Corps K-Bar combat knives and bayonets. Often there were so-called “unauthorized weapons” that made the rounds through the CAPs, like M-3 45 cal “blowback” submachine guns, a variety of revolvers, shotguns and switchblade knives. I, for instance, carried a black switchblade knife with a 6-inch blade (entirely illegal, of course, which only highlights how illogical war can be), and some of us copied the old Marine Raiders of WWII and carried big aviation screwdrivers which had been sharpened to a point on a grinding wheel. During my tour, the CAP Actuals were issued Remington 12-gauge pump-action shotguns, to carry as their main weapon, which most found to be impractical and lacking the firepower needed by a small and isolated unit. Most Actuals turned their shotguns back in for M-16s. In combat, the Actual needed to be able to use the radio handset with one hand, and fire his weapon with the other, something he could do with the M-16.
Tactics involved aggressive patrolling during the day, usually alternating between the Alpha and Bravo teams. One half of the team would be engaged in daytime patrolling, while the other half rested in a “Day Haven” site, usually around some house in a hamlet. (Always a different house, always a different hamlet, every day). The key to the CAPs survival was to keep mobile, keep moving, keep the enemy off balance, and never give him a chance (or the time) to get in around you and ambush you. The half of the team that rested was always prepared to “run react” for the other half, if the other half made contact and needed help.
At night, the CAP went into night ambush mode. During the afternoon, the Actual would study his map and prepare his “night acts”, that is, where the CAP would set up its night ambush site, and what route it would take to get there. He would plot three moves: first, from the Day Haven to a position he would call Check Point One, (perhaps 1000 meters or half a kilometer away); from there to a Check Point Two; and from there to the final position, Check Point Three, where the CAP would set up in a graveyard, along a trail or on a riverbank. If the Actual wanted to split the CAP in two for the night, he would have to prepare two sets of night acts, one for Alpha, one for Bravo. Once the Actual had the grid coordinates for all his checkpoints, he would encode them, using a special code wheel device, and call them in over the tactical net to the company headquarters, where they would be plotted in grease pencil on a plexiglass map. (Incidentally, the company H.Q.s were usually little ratshack compounds some kilometers away, plywood shacks or “hooches” behind earthen and sandbag berms, and quite vulnerable themselves to any determined enemy attack; but they could provide mortar fire for the CAPs and could relay transmitted requests for close-air support, helicopter gunship support, med-evacs and artillery fire missions.
Just before sundown, the CAP would “saddle up”, shoulder all their gear and move out from their Day Haven Site in staggered column, each man spaced some 25 to 30 feet apart. The pointman, usually the most experienced and savvy rifleman in the CAP, would lead. He would be followed by another rifleman. The Actual might be third, a radioman behind him, and so forth, with the machine gun in the middle of the column. One M-79 toward the front, one toward the rear or “Six” of the column. Upon arrival at the Charlie Papa One (Check Point One) the CAP would form a defensive perimeter…and wait.
The CAP might stay at Charlie Papa One up to 20 minutes, but never longer. Then, they’d saddle up again and move off for Charlie Papa Two. It would be nearly dark by the time the CAP arrived at Charlie Papa Two, where they would again, set up a perimeter. They would wait at CP2 until it was fully dark, then move off in absolute silence for their final night ambush position. Often, on the way to the night ambush site, the CAP would send out a K-T, Kilo-Tango, or Kill Team. The Kill Team was usually comprised of two or three Marines, faces blackened, equipped only with rifles, knives, ammo and maybe a radio, who would quietly stalk the trails and treelines and villes, hunting the VC, operating out to the flanks of the main ambush site. The CAP would remain in its night ambush site until just before dawn, when it would saddle up and move off to its next Day Haven.
Obviously, contact of any kind in the night ambush site required revised night acts and a night time “hump” to a new ambush site. Once weapons were fired, positions were compromised.
This is how things worked in the CAPs I served with. Contact initiated by the enemy usually came while mobile from the Day Haven to any one of the check points, or during a daylight patrol. Contact initiated by us usually began from our night ambush site, although on several occasions-rare for Vietnam-we were able to surprise enemy units in the open in daylight.
CAPs were vulnerable because of their small size, and casualties among CAP Marines ran higher then casualties for regular Marine infantry “grunts”, but in spite of that, the CAPs accounted for more enemy dead. (Allan Millet, The History of The United States Marine Corps). While moral suffered in regular Marine infantry units in the later years of the war, CAP Marines volunteered for extended tours or additional tours-of-duty in greater numbers than their “grunt” brothers.
I was wounded twice in Vietnam. Most of the men I served with in the CAPs were wounded at least once or twice. In my first CAP, the only man who never got a scratch was our navy corpsman, Bill Donoghue, who, ironically, was exposed to more enemy fire than the rest of us just by the nature of his job. “You learn to suspend your fear,” he once told me, “long enough to carry out your assigned task.”
The XM-174 was presented to me upon my return from R&R, by our esteemed company XO, who was always ready to embrace new methods of annihilating the enemy. Before my return to my CAP in the field, he called me atop a bunker at 7th Company HQ, and asked me to test-fire the XM-174. It was matte black, about two feet long, with a short stubby 40mm barrel protruding from a rectangular breech block. Behind the breech block was a pistol grip and a selector thumb switch, which could activate either semi or full-auto fire. To the left of the breech block was a black receiver tray that received an oval magazine that held 12 40-mm HE rounds. The magazine was inserted in the tray, the bolt handle pulled back and released, chambering a round, and the weapon was ready to fire.
The weapon was extremely heavy, and as I hefted it up, I began to have misgivings about its use. The weapon should have been mounted on a tripod (and I’ve found out over the years that indeed it was designed as a tripod mounted fixed-position weapon, or as a truck or helicopter-mounted weapon.) But the weapon he showed me that day in March 1971, had no tripod. There was a sling extending from a swivel on the front of the breech block to a swivel on the back of the pistol grip. This sling was supposed to go over my left shoulder as I carried the weapon in front of me, one hand on the pistol grip and the other hand on a canvas handle atop the magazine. You traversed the weapon by turning your body.
I was satisfied with the way the weapon fired and I was impressed by the amount of firepower. From the top of the bunker, I was test-firing over open rice fields, and could put 12 high explosive rounds on a target some 400 meters distant in the space of 3 seconds. Recoil wasn’t bad. Sighting was impossible, but a good M-79 man could elevate by experience and hit the target.
The Lieutenant was expecting me to take the XM-174 out to CAP 6, our CAP that was seeing the most contact and enduring the most casualties at that time, to add the XM-174’s firepower to the beleaguered CAP, but to also field-test the weapon in actual combat conditions. I didn’t mind helping CAP 6, but I didn’t much like being part of an experiment. The weight, I explained, would be a big problem and I was worried I might slow the CAP down. The Lieutenant listened to my objections and concluded that he’d have to send another man along as my ammo-bearer, carrying two heavy detonator bags full of 40mm ammo. I also insisted (as much as a Lance Corporal can insist to a Lieutenant) that IF the weapon proved impractical or in any way detrimental to the CAP, I could send it back and exchange it for a rifle. He agreed, and the next day, Cooper, my ammo-bearer, and I, were choppered out to a rice paddy near CAP 6’s Day Haven.
When I test-fired the weapon again in a rice-paddy in CAP 6’s A-O, the RFs and PFs, thought I was Buddha’s Avenging Angel, and they giggled and chattered nervously as 12 almost simultaneous grenade bursts thoroughly chewed up a paddy dike. The CAPs Actual, a big two-tour sergeant from Alabama, looked at me and said only: “You’re gonna need a side-arm”. He meant, of course, that a 45 handgun would serve me better than this clunky grenade launcher, and I wholly agreed-but the Lieutenant had neglected to issue me with one before I got on the chopper.
To shortened this up, two nights later, while in column, moving to our Charlie Papa Two along a trail called “Frag Alley”, we were ambushed from the thick bamboo and vegetation on either side. Two RPG rounds went through our column and automatic rifle fire. Instinctively-nobody factored “instinct” into the equation-I swung at the source of the incoming and fired two quick rounds on semi-auto, netting as a result, two airbursts in the trees. Immediately, it dawned on everybody what a completely useless weapon this was in close quarter war, which essentially was the kind of war we were fighting. Luckily, no one was hurt by the airbursts, but they’d been so closed they rattled me. And then, with no other weapon, Buddha’s Avenging Angel had to squat there beside that trail, impotent, until contact ended. It goes without saying that I had a rifle sent out to me the next morning, and the XM-174 was thrown into the belly of a Huey, never to be seen again.
Most Combined Action Companies had only two officers, a commanding officer and his executive officer. Yet each company fielded perhaps as many as 7 or 8 CAPs. The two officers were confined most often to the company headquarters compound, usually a small outpost surrounded by barbed wire and an earthen berm, with “hootches” or huts constructed of plywood and corrugated steel and bolstered by sandbags. The “nerve center” of the compound was the “commshack” or communications bunker, where the officers spent much of their time coordinating the activities of the CAPs in the field.
Most often, the company commander was a captain (or first lieutenant with considerable experience); the executive officer almost always a first lieutenant. Occasionally, the commanding officer or executive officer would go out into the field–never at the same time, of course–and spend a night with a particular CAP unit. Sometime this was because there was some special operation being conducted, but most often it was a random decision. An officer newly arrived in country was always sent out with the CAPs at first to gain experience in the field, and to get his “baptism of fire”.
The reason sergeants and sometimes even corporals were the leaders of CAPs was probably because the CAP, in theory, was supposed to be a Marine rifle squad; and squad leaders are invariably junior NCOs. The CAP company was organized much like a regular Marine rifle company in terms of hierarchy, with two officers, a company first sergeant, a company gunnery sergeant, and junior NCO squad leaders. I should also mention, that at no time did I ever see a CAP commander above the rank of E-5 sergeant, that is a “buck” sergeant with just three stripes. And sometimes when the sergeant rotated home, the “Bravo”, or 2nd in command, would take over the CAP, and Bravos were always corporals. Most Bravos however who found themselves commanding a CAP were soon assured of promotion to sergeant.
As I’ve mentioned before, the mission required some degree of tactical sophistication and political finesse. Sometimes these young NCOs were up to the task. Sometimes they weren’t. I met both the very capable and the rather inept during my tour, and it was my luck to serve under mostly capable sergeants. The inept died young…or got their people maimed or killed.
Reaction forces consisted of other nearby CAPs, coming to your aid on foot, which almost invariably guaranteed they would get there long after the shooting had stopped; or the company headquarters people, hastily assembled by the company XO and led out on a react either by truck or on foot, depending on distance. I have seen both. This was of course a less than ideal situation. CAPs were sometimes overrun. Unless a CAP unit’s AO was near the base camp of some larger force, sister CAPs or company HQ personnel were the only infantry help available.
On the plus side, the CAP fielded a good amount of organic firepower from the weapons they carried and were able to bring to bear; and heavy artillery support was available literally within minutes. The CAP commander merely had to “pull the chain”; get on the PRC-25 with grid coordinates, and 105mm or 155mm HE and LUME could be on the way from 20 or 25 miles away. And, we were pretty good at splitting the hair and bringing that HE down in a ring around us, if need be. Artillery was available always, rain or shine, night or day. Mortars from our company compound; 105s and 155s from Marble Mountain near Da Nang, or from a ROK Marine compound near Hoi An. Helicopter gunship support was another option, but it was not as immediate as artillery and often took 30 to 40 minutes before Cobras were on station above us. The final support option was close air support, but our proximity to villages and hamlets made it a last resort.
A CAP was vulnerable, no question about that. Four men wounded and medevaced during a firefight, for example, meant 40% casualties, a percentage that would be unacceptable to a company or battalion-sized force, and yet even 50% and 60% casualties were common enough in the CAPs. If this happened, the company CO would often order the CAP to hump back to the company compound and spend the night in the relative security afforded by earth and sandbag walls. (I can attest from experience that CAP Marines who found themselves suddenly behind sandbags, enjoyed a rather “indestructible” feeling).
Conversely, if the company compound itself were hit, it could bring firepower to bear from the 15 or 20 people behind it’s own walls–not including any field Marines who might be spending the night there; and of course it too had all the fire support options mentioned above. But, it depended solely on it’s own CAPs for manpower and small arms support, with the surrounding CAPs closing in and engaging like dogs protecting their master.
The size of AO’s varied, but the two CAPs I served with were roughly 2 or 3 square kilometers, and each contained 3 or 4 small hamlets ensconced within bamboo tree-lines, with many acres of open rice paddy.
The enemy forces encountered also varied, from small hit-and-run teams of VC comprised of 3 to 5 men, to larger squad-sized VC and even platoon-size NVA. The NVA, of course, never traveled in large company or battalion-sized units, but always broke it’s forces into smaller groups for infiltration purposes. CAP 2-7-6, for instance, who’s AO bordered the Que Son foothills, often encountered these small NVA units coming down out of the mountains on their way to strike the larger US and ARVN enclaves in Da Nang and Hoi An and along the coastal plain. (2-7-6 was where I employed the XM-174).
If a CAP sighted a force of say, 20 NVA, they’d call it in and report it to the company commander. He might want the CAP to avoid a confrontation but to keep the enemy force in view while he ordered other CAP units to move to positions where they could spring a trap and provide mutual support. Or, he could advise the CAP to initiate contact with organic weapons and simultaneously call in an artillery fire mission, while getting reaction forces on the move.
It’s been my experience that most of these NVA sub-units were not interested in attacking a CAP. More often than not, they were on their way to a rendezvous, to regroup with a parent unit and attack a target of more significant consequence; but had to travel through a CAP unit’s AO to reach their target destination. Encounters with small American units would only disrupt those plans. Naturally, we tried to disrupt them as much as possible, and engaged and killed both the VC and NVA with the confidence and aggressiveness of a much larger force. Most CAP commanders worthy of the title “Marine” would request permission to initiate contact with any enemy unit of 25 men or less, and it would be only by the order of the company commander that they would hold off, hang back and “shadow” the enemy force.
Most of the day-to-day fighting in the CAPs, however, involved encounters with VC units of anywhere from 3 to 15 men. The smaller groups could make themselves quite effective by setting booby traps or by fragging and sniping from cover before vanishing into a hidden bunker system or fleeing across a river or into the jungle. The larger the unit, the more staying power it had.
As far as the ARVN were concerned, I’d agree with the assessment that they could be pretty solid troops with the right leadership, and I think they’ve gotten a raw deal in much of the history that’s been written by American veterans. But the RFs and PFs were a different story. My overall and lasting impression of THEM, is that I could not depend upon them as I could depend upon my fellow Marines. I hesitate, however, to paint them all with the same brush. I knew among them some fine and outstanding soldiers. If only we could have hand-picked the South Vietnamese we had to work with! Ultimately, it is the behavior of the whole that defines the worth of the unit, and the exemplary actions of a few solid individuals cannot, for me at least, salvage my view of these regional and local troops. It is a difficult assessment to make and perhaps I am being unfair, but most of the former CAP Marines I’ve spoken with have had similar opinions and could relate stories of serious difficulties with our “counterparts”.
Lance Corporal Ronnie A. Ross, a friend of mine and fellow member of CAP 2-7-10, was gunned down in cold blood and at point-blank range in front of my eyes by a surly and disgruntled regional force platoon lieutenant in March 1971, so perhaps my view is jaded by that incident. It immediately escalated into an incredibly intense “Mexican standoff” situation that required a reaction force from the company compound led by the XO to diffuse the crisis, a medevac for Ross, who suffered 13 gunshot wounds of 5.56mm and later died of complications in Japan, and the withdrawal of the CAP from the AO due to “bad blood”. The RF officer was transferred to another unit, never prosecuted and the investigation shelved in “the interest of allied harmony”.
And yet…and yet…this same platoon, under the guidance of their previous RF officer, a man we called “John”, behaved quite well and gave a good account of themselves in combat.
I guess I’m zeroing in on the word “inconsistent” with regard to RF/PF. I think I’ll let it stand at that.
Posted on May 11, 2002