What was a CAP?
Formed as an experiment in 1965, the program proved itself effective and employed about 2,000 U.S. servicemen in 114 CAPs at its peak in 1969-70. The CAPs were phased out through 1970 and the last CAPs were deactivated in May, 1971, as U.S. combat units were withdrawn from South Vietnam.
A CAP was created by combining a squad of Marines and a Navy corpsman (15 men) with two or more squads of South Vietnamese Regional Force or Popular Force soldiers (20-30 men). Total strength usually hovered around 35-40.
CAPs were formed to fight the elusive Viet Cong in his home territory, the farming and fishing villages of rural South Vietnam. Their unique organization was intended to combine the strengths of the Marines and the South Vietnamese soldiers to make them a more effective unit.
The Marines were expected to contribute their superior training, logistics and firepower to the partnership. The South Vietnamse soldiers were to share their knowledge of the Vietnamese language and people, and the Viet Cong.
The highest-ranking Marine in each CAP was a non-comissioned officer, usually a sergeant or corporal. The highest-ranking South Vietnamese soldier was usually a lieutenant — sometimes a sergeant. During 1970 in CACO 2-7, the Marine NCO (called the “Actual”) commanded the CAP while consulting, more or less, with the South Vietnamese commander — depending on the level of trust and respect between them.
Each CAP was given military control of a small area of operations (AO), usually including one or more villages (villes) and hamlets populated by several hundred South Vietnamese civilians. The CAP stayed in that AO 24 hours a day, seven days a week — leaving rarely for brief operations. Staying in one small area gave CAP Marines an intimate knowledge of the local people and terrain.
In the program’s early days, CAPs were based in small, permanent forts that proved vulnerable to concentrated enemy attacks. The CAPs later became fully mobile, abandoning fixed defenses and never spending more than a few hours in one place. Mobile CAPs were harder for Communist troops to find and attack. However, many considered mobile CAPs less effective than fixed CAPs at conducting Civic Action projects.
Patrolling was a CAP’s main military activity during the daytime, but CAP members also did Civic Action work. Civic Action included everything from providing basic medical care, to building and repairing public buildings. Those activities were intended to win the loyalty of the villagers for the Saigon-based government of South Vietnam.
At night, CAPs established night sites from which they sent out patrols and ambushes intended to deny freedom of movement to the Viet Cong. The VC operated mainly at night when poor visibility reduced the effectiveness of U.S. firepower and air power.
The principal military objective of the CAPs was to destroy the Viet Cong military and political organizations (infrastructure) in our villages. In more graphic terms, we were to kill or capture any Viet Cong who crossed our path. We also found ourselves fighting North Vietnamese soldiers, who carried more and more of the combat burden in South Vietnam after the VC ranks were decimated in the Tet battles of 1968.
My unit was CAP 2-7-2, the 2nd Combined Action Group, 7th Company, 2nd Platoon. We had an AO in the Dien Ban District of Quang Nam Province 6-8 miles south of the port city of Da Nang. Our AO was a pear-shaped area roughly 2,000 meters wide from east to west. It ranged from 1,100 to 1,600 meters north to south. Its villages, hamlets and farms were home to several hundred people.
The terrain in our AO was a mix of fields, rice paddies, grave mounds and tree lines made up of second-growth forest dotted with houses. Most of the people were rice farmers — probably 95 percent. The rest were seamstresses, fishermen and small shopkeepers.
Other CAPs controlled areas bordering CAP 2-7-2 on the east and north. South of us was a small river, the Song (river) Thanh Quit. To the west of our AO was thinly populated countryside with no continuous military presence.
Our parent unit was Combined Action Company 2-7, also known as CACO 2-7 or just 7th Company. CACO 2-7 controlled up to nine CAPs along a north-south axis from Da Nang to Dien Ban.
The CACO 2-7 headquarters was in a small compound inside a larger South Vietnamese Army compound about 3,500 meters north of CAP 2-7-2 on Highway 1. The headquarters unit consisted of a commanding officer, an executive officer, and about a dozen radio, motor transport, mortar, supply and medical specialists.
Most of our radio transmissions went to the communications bunker at CACO 2-7 where a radio operator was on duty 24 hours a day. We were also able to communicate directly with nearby CAPs, and to helicopters using our 10-foot “whip” antenna. All other transmissions were relayed by the CACO 2-7 radio operator — to artillery batteries, 2nd CAG HQ, Army units, etc.
CACO 2-7 was one of several companies belonging to the 2nd Combined Action Group, headquartered in a compound near the town of Hoi An. 2nd CAG consisted of commanding and executive officers, and three or four dozen clerks, armorers, drivers, mechanics, radio operators, corpsmen, cooks and supply specialists. Our chaplain was also based at 2nd CAG HQ.
2nd CAG was a subunit of the Combined Action Force that also administered the 1st, 3rd and 4th Combined Action Groups elsewhere in I Corps. CAF was deactivated on Sept. 23, 1970, after 1st, 3rd and 4th CAGs were deactivated and their men and equipment sent to 2nd CAG. The Combined Action Force was a subunit of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, based in Da Nang. After CAF was deactivated, 2nd CAG came under the direct control of 3rd MAF.
I passed through the 3rd MAF HQ compound several times during my tour in Vietnam. It seemed like a pretty large establishment, but I learned little about it as a transient.