Breaking the CAP into two teams seemed like a natural way to organize things — much more practical than the three-man fire teams called for by the Guidebook. I don’t know how our system originated. CAP 2-7-2 was already organized in two teams when I arrived. I don’t know if the practice was common in other CAPs, but I think it was standard in CACO 2-7.
Since there were usually 12-14 Marines and corpsmen in a CAP, each team numbered six or seven men.
When the CAP settled into a perimeter for the night, each team was responsible for manning a watch position. Our South Vietnamese Regional Force soldiers manned a third watch position, and sometimes a fourth. I don’t clearly recall how they were organized.
The actual would decide which Marine in Alpha team would have the first hour-long watch, who would relieve him and so on through until dawn. The Bravo did the same for his team. Often someone who didn’t feel sleepy would volunteer for the first watch. That guaranteed he would have several hours of uninterrupted sleep before he had to stand watch again. Guys who had a middle watch got maybe three hours of sleep, spent an hour on watch, then got another couple of hours.
Guard duty is something every Marine learns in boot camp. The rules were simple in the CAPs. Stay awake. Stay alert. Watch for VC. Monitor the tactical radio and provide sit-reps for CACO. Wake everyone in case of need. Wake up your relief at the end of your watch and make sure he’s conscious before bedding down.
Oh yeah, if somebody started snoring you went and shook him until he stopped. A good snore could be heard 50 yards away on a windless night in the rural quiet of South Vietnam. Ernesto Rivas was the worst offender in CAP 2. He snored like a rusty chainsaw and I sometimes woke him or turned him over half-a-dozen times in a single watch. He was very hard to wake up, but others were just the opposite. Some guys came awake instantly if you stood nearby and whispered their name once or twice.
Sleeping on watch was one of the worst offenses you could commit in CAP 2-7-2. Sleeping on watch left a large section of our perimeter unguarded and could get everyone killed. Any watch-stander found asleep was usually awakened by a fist or jungle boot hitting his head at high speed. Then he got a brutal verbal beating from the actual and anybody else who cared to pile on. Even his close buddies frowned their disapproval for awhile. I don’t remember any second offenders.
Sometimes standing watch was an ordeal. Some nights you were just too tired and fought sleep constantly. Mostly we sat while on watch, our rifles across our laps and the PRC-25 beside us. But on those sleepy nights I would literally “stand” my watch, hiding in the shadow of a tree or house. That way if I fell asleep I would fall down and wake myself up.
Other nights standing watch was a pleasure. I learned why star-gazers fall in love with the night sky. Staring for hours over a dark landscape, your eyes are drawn upwards to the brilliant stars. There seemed to be millions more stars in Vietnam, with no air or light pollution to block the view. I never saw so many shooting stars as I did during my year in-country. I listened to the night birds, bugs and beasts, and enjoyed the occasional cool breeze. Once the night sounds of the countryside became familiar, they also became reassuring.
Speaking of reassuring sounds, I felt weirdly comfortable when a distant firefight broke out at night. Faraway gunfire was the closest thing to a lullaby I had in Vietnam. I had the semi-logical feeling that Charlie couldn’t attack all of us at the same time. So if CAP 3 was getting hit way off to the north, or the Koreans were fighting off to the west, then I figured CAP 2 was probably safe for the night.
Another pleasant thing about standing watch was the rare chance to be alone. Asian villages are crowded with people and we were rarely out of sight of one or more Vietnamese. They watched us out of wariness or plain old curiosity. Our fellow Marines were even worse. We lived side-by-side with the same 12 or 13 guys, day after day for weeks on end. That meant we became as close as brothers, but it also meant inevitable friction. Alone on watch you had quiet time to think or daydream without somebody asking you to lend them a dollar or pass the rifle cleaning rod.
Speaking of stars, the watch-stander’s main tool was the famous Starlight scope. About 18 inches long and thicker than a soup can, the matte-black Starlight was a heavy, battery-powered telescope that magnified existing light 10,000 times. In other words, we could almost see in the dark. Under the right conditions you could see a lit cigarette at 200 yards or more. On a moonlit night you could watch a man walking 100 yards away. And if you turned it towards the sky, the stars turned into Christmas lights and the moon into a searchlight.
In the half-hour before dawn the last watch would wake the whole CAP and we would saddle up and move out for our day site.