I was startled when I first encountered PFs in the field because they looked the way the Viet Cong were supposed to look — wearing black pajamas and green canvas slouch hats.
Unfortunately the PFs had a reputation for being poorly trained, equipped and motivated. PF units without Marine backup tended to avoid fighting the Viet Cong and NVA whenever possible. Even when combined with Marines the PFs were often reluctant warriors.
However, CAP 2-7-2 and the other CACO 2-7 CAPs drew their South Vietnamese troops from the Regional Forces or RFs. RFs had standard ARVN uniforms and equipment, but less training and were not required to serve outside their home province.
It surprises me today how little I learned about our RF counterparts. We lived and fought side by side for months at a time. In theory we had the same mission and motivation. But there was little real closeness between the two groups.
None of the RFs spoke more than a few words of English and none of the Marines spoke Vietnamese beyond a few phrases. We depended on our interpreters to bridge that gap, but they were little help.
When I arrived at 2-7-2 we had a young Vietnamese man in the unit as an interpreter, nicknamed Yankee. As I recall, his English was poor and he could be counted on to oppose any aggressive or dangerous action. He was considered almost worthless by most of the Marines, nor did he seem to have any friends among the RFs.
A couple of months after I arrived at 2-7-2, it was somehow discovered that Yankee was passing information to the enemy. I believe he was arrested — at least we never saw him again.
We were never again assigned an official interpreter. I suppose there were not many available. So, CAP 2-7-2 hired our own interpreter. There was a 14-year-old Vietnamese kid named Duong Van Dien who had been hanging around the CAP Marines for years. He had learned enough English to be a useful interpreter, so we started paying him to work for us.
Every payday the Actual or Bravo would pass the hat, getting $5 from each Marine to pay Duong Van Dien. On average we had 12 Marines and a corpsman, so he got 60-plus dollars each month in a country where a rice farmer might make $150 in a year and an ARVN soldier got something like $30 and a bag of rice each month. Our interpreter was rich! I don’t know what he did with all that money, but I do know he lost some of it gambling with the RFs.
Duong Van Dien was known to us Marines as Balls, a nickname he earned before I arrived for his consistent bravery. In fact, some of the Marines in 2-7-2 did not know his real name. No matter. Some Marines had gone by their nicknames for so long that other Marines didn’t know their real names either.
We rarely knew the real names of our RFs, so some of them were given nicknames and others were just “Hey you!” Some adopted English names on their own. One I remember called himself “Westmoreland” after the former U.S. commander in South Vietnam. Only the RF lieutenant and his sergeant were consistently addressed by rank and name.
Relations never warmed between the Marines and RFs because we considered them lazy cowards and thieves. We could count on our RFs to hang back or disappear altogether whenever hard work or danger threatened. And they stole from us whenever they could.
In their defense, Marines must have appeared wealthy in the eyes of our RFs. In 1969 a Marine private was paid $146 per month, which was more than the salary of most South Vietnamese officers. RFs got much, much less when they got paid at all. Corruption was rampant in the South Vietnamese military and their pay was often reduced or disappeared before it reached the troops. In fact, I never saw our RFs given any cash though I recall them being handed sacks of rice.
So it must have seemed like a misdemeanor to steal a tape recorder or ballpoint pen from a Marine who could easily afford to buy a new one. Whatever their motives, our Vietnamese counterparts stole everything that was not nailed down, including valuables taken from our dead and wounded. And we hated them for their thieving ways.
Posted on Oct. 3, 2013