Gen. Simmons says goodbye to the CAPs
- CACO 2-7 forming on the basketball court at 2nd CAG
- Capt. Jim Ivy and CACO 2-7 Marines ‘at ease’ before the final formation
- 2nd CAG stands tall for the last time (and maybe the first time!)
By the beginning of 1971, the Combined Action Program had been collapsed to the areas in Quang Nam Province that remained under Marine Corps jurisdiction. The 2nd Combined Action Group under the command of Col. Robert Tolnay was headquartered in the earthen French fort on the Song Thu Bon River near Hoi An, and CAPs were deployed in the villages along the Song Thu Bon from Hoi An inland to Duc Duc, and along the approaches to the “rocket belt” around Da Nang as far north as the base of O.P. Reno.January and February of 1971 were “business as usual” in many regards, but as the withdrawal of the 1st Marine Division units accelerated, many CAPs began to report larger and more frequent sightings of Viet Cong and NVA units.At the end of March (the same night that the Army’s Fire Support Base Mary Ann was overrun), the VC/NVA mounted a broad-based coordinated attack on 2nd CAG units throughout Quang Nam Province. Recent historical research indicates that U.S. intelligence sources were aware that the effort was intended to disgrace and discredit the CAP program. Those attacks were met and soundly defeated by 2nd CAG.
I wondered at the time why an event of that magnitude (at least from our perspective) didn’t get any press coverage. I realize now that the events at FSB Mary Ann simply overshadowed our own efforts. I suspect, as well, that the event was purposely played down since it wasn’t in MACV’s best interest to publicize the fact that the VC/NVA had the ability to mount a such a large-scale coordinated effort in the heart of Quang Nam. Individual CAP Marines who recall the events of March 25 should know that they were part of a bigger story.
April of 1971 continued with “business as usual,” but at least in Combined Action Company 2-7 in Dien Ban District the increase in sightings was a pretty good indicator that the Marine stand-down had left the infiltration routes basically wide open. Essentially, 2nd CAG was the major U.S. presence in between Charlie Ridge and the perimeter at Da Nang. It was obvious by the end of April that Quang Nam was again becoming a dangerous place.
Finally, in May of 1971, the order was issued to stand-down the last CAPs. In order to avoid “telegraphing” the move, the date of withdrawal was withheld from CAPs in the field until the night before. At dawn on the morning of May 7 there were spontaneous displays of flares and illumination rounds as the order was given to head to Highway 1 for pickup. Combat operations for the CAP program were officially ended.
2nd CAG stood down in two stages over a period of about five days. On the afternoon of May 7, 1971, the CAPs were trucked from their company compounds to the Hoi An compound, although about four CAPs right around the old French fort were left in place for several more nights for security. The intent was to do as much of the clean-up of equipment and paper work as possible in Hoi An before withdrawing to the Force Logistics Command complex north of Da Nang.
In the early morning on May 10, the CAP providing security to the south of the Hoi An compound ambushed a small enemy unit. It was probably the last ambush of the war involving a regular USMC infantry unit. Illumination support was fired by an 81mm battery located in the fort and manned by both headquarters and field CAP Marines — probably the last Marine fire mission of the war. Aside from a few remaining Marine Advisors, CAP Marines had the last shot.
As a grunt’s luck would have it, early on the morning of May 7, Quang Nam was struck by an early season typhoon. While the winds didn’t get up to dangerous levels, it rained intensely for the better part of several days. Mud was everywhere. Needless to say, Col. Tolnay’s order for shined boots and starched covers for the Stand Down Formation was a bit of a challenge.
The sun broke out for the final Stand Down Ceremony in Hoi An on May 10. The senior officer present was Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, the Deputy Brigade Commander and the second-most senior Marine officer in Vietnam at that point. 2nd CAG stood in formation as a unit, perhaps for the only time in its history. Col. Tolnay presented the Group for inspection and General Simmons trooped the line. Then the General called the formation into a “school circle.” Generals don’t commonly do that, but General Simmons clearly had some things he wanted to say.
As accurately as I can recall them, Ed Simmons’ remarks were as follows:
“I have come here today as one man to speak with you as a group and as individuals, and to say thank you for your service to the United States Marine Corps and to the people of Vietnam.
“While the time that you have been here has been difficult for many of you, you are about to begin another very difficult task as you return to your families and friends and take your place again in civilian life. People will ask you about your experiences. They will have their own opinions of the value of your efforts, and you will hear some things which are well-meaning but naive, and some things which will be hurtful. Neither can be helped.
“Remember that people form their opinions on the basis of their experiences, and even among those of you here today, no two people have had exactly the same set of experiences during their service in Vietnam. There is no single truth here and no simple conclusion to be drawn.
“Tolerance and self-respect will be the most important things you can call on as you make your way home. Be tolerant of what you hear from others whether it is informed or not. Value your own efforts and take them to heart. Leave here knowing that I and many others appreciate what you have accomplished. You have served well and honorably, and you have my respect and my gratitude.”
With that, the formation was called to attention and then dismissed and the CAP Program was formally over. After the Stand Down Formation, most of 2nd CAG departed for the rear, heading up Route 1 in a single convoy of six-bys, passing through the 2nd CAG A.O. for the last time. It wasn’t as dramatic an exit as some of the Air Wing’s formation “fly-bys,” but the significance was about the same. The fort at Hoi An was formally turned over to the ARVN the following day – May 11 – and the remaining headquarters group also headed for the rear. Within a week, most 2nd CAG Marines were in Okinawa and headed for home.
Over the years, General Simmons’ words have stayed with me vividly. I wonder if he recognized then that simply being there and caring enough to speak up would have such a lasting impact, but I am sure that he grasped the weight of the moment much more clearly than I did. I am grateful for both his humanity and his insights.
Roch Thornton has observed that he views his participation in the middle of the CAP Program as part of a continuum. Having been there at the end, my admiration is for the Marines and Corpsmen who went before us. The traditions were well established, and at the end of the Program all we had to do was keep the faith.