Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part V

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

Around June or July 1967, our CAP had a new Corpsman report in.  He was a young fresh-faced kid from the Middle West.

Naturally, I welcomed him and let him know how important he was to all of us.

Cover of Life Magazine August 25, 1967

Cover of Life Magazine August 25, 1967

I asked him about his history and somewhat shame faced he told me that he had been in college but his grades were not so hot and the Draft was breathing down his neck.

He knew if he was drafted into the Army that he’d surely be an infantryman and sent right to Vietnam.  So, cleverly (he thought) he enlisted in the Navy.  After finishing recruit training, he received orders to Hospital Corps School.  He asked a Chief Petty Officer what that was.  The Chief replied it was a good deal.  You were trained to assist nurses and would be assigned to a nice big hospital somewhere.  No worries, eh?

After finishing that school, he received orders to report to the Field Medical Service School at Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, CA.

He wondered, “What was that?” Then he found out that he’d be serving with the Marines.

THE MARINES!

Arriving in Vietnam, he was assigned to the Combined Action Platoon —a very small unit serving in the middle of Indian Territory and a very long way from rapid reinforcement or extraction. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units had overrun many of the isolated CAPs. It was, on the best day, an iffy assignment.

So, here he was, our “Doc,” the clever lad who wanted to avoid the Army infantry, stuck amongst a small group of Marine infantry in the very unfriendly boondocks.

As the day wore on I received radio instructions to establish an ambush site at specific grid coordinates.  This was very unusual.  I had never had that happen before. Further, a machine gun team from an adjacent infantry battalion arrived to augment our small platoon.

I made repeated inquiries to my superiors by radio to clarify our mission, but no clarification was forthcoming and it remains a mystery to me to this very day. I gathered my Marines and let them know what little I knew and elected to go with a bit larger number of troops for the pending mysterious mission.

I informed the “Doc” that he would accompany us —to see first hand what is was that we did for a living.

We departed our compound around mid-afternoon. We had a long way to go and in order to disguise our true destination we meandered through the countryside. In this way, no observer would be able to figure out the location of our ultimate ambush site. When it got completely dark, we pushed up to the intersection of an old French dam and the Cau Hai Bay.  The damn kept salt water out of the rice paddies on the other side.  The damn was pretty low and there was no water behind it —just dry rice paddies.

I set the Marines into their positions; we were without any cover or concealment —there was only short grass and darkness.

ExplosionWe waited.

And then…

Precisely at 2000 [1], fours rounds of 155mm came crashing in.  Two landed in the dry paddies and two in the bay. Hugging the ground, we heard the shrapnel zinging through the air just overhead.

Then it was quiet.  I got on the radio and informed “Tiger” (our overlords at Phu Bai) what had just occurred; they patched me to “Hershey Bar” (the fire control coordinator at an adjacent artillery regiment).  They claimed they didn’t know anything about it.

This occurred two more times —and exactly on the hour.  By this time I was furious because since Phu Bai was higher in elevation than we were, I could observe the flash of the guns as they let loose their barrage. I was swearing on the radio.

This was obviously a major screw up and after three attempts to kill us the lanyard snappers finally gave up. We remained in position for the rest of the night because I had no intention of taking my Marines back through a series of hamlets in the pitch black of night.

As the dawn broke, we saddled up and began our long trek back.

At some point the Corpsman asked if that sort of thing happened often.  Oh, sure, said I.  His facial expression was no longer one of a carefree lad. I didn’t let him suffer too long.  I told him the truth.  He was somewhat relieved —but he was still looking at thirteen months ahead of him in his Vietnam tour.

Aside:  Someone at Phu Bai learned out about the artillery firing Harassment & Interdiction (H&I) fires right on our position and the result of this was that the Artillery Regiment Executive Officer, along with a Master Gunnery Sergeant came out to investigate what happened. They wanted to do a crater analysis with the goal (I supposed) of putting someone in jail or something. The artillery team had no security and wanted us to escort them back out to the site.

I was able to talk him out of it.  We were mega tired, it was a long way out there, and beyond this, there was plenty of enemy around (which may not have been true given the time of the day). The colonel took our statements and departed back to the safety of Phu Bai. I never heard anymore about it.

The sad truth of warfare is that too many friendly forces are killed or wounded due to errors or blatant stupidity —or failure to coordinate.

A few months later I was able to read “Doc’s” promotion warrant to Hospitalman Third; he turned out to be a solid gent and ended up doing plenty of good work taking care of a large number of villagers with all sorts of maladies.  But, that is another story.

Continued next week—

Notes:

[1] On a 24-hour clock, eight o’clock pm.

4 comments

  1. I wonder what Doc did with his life.

    1. Mustang · ·
      Ed, I can’t add anything to this story because it belongs to my friend Tad. Those of us who served in the military are not very good at staying in touch with our “friends” with whom we served on active duty. Personally, given the hundreds of Marines I served with in three decades of service, there are only four with whom I maintain any contact. That said, you may be interested in this story, which I titled A Jolly Green Miracle. Here the man whose protection under intense enemy fire can only be explained on the basis of divine intervention admitted that he never made that trip to the alter. We humans are strange creatures.
  2. The possible motive for Doc to have enlisted was the draft, your friend writes. As I had a low draft number, I was seriously considering enlisting in the USAF as I loved planes. Fortunately – and with a question mark – Nixon stopped the draft. I still have my draft card, banged out on a typewriter by a hypnotized older lady at the draft board.

    While I have a son of draft age and another coming of that age soon, I believe we need the draft. I feel that would be a deterrent to this childish, whiny behavior shown by many college students – and their wayward professors.

    Of the men I knew that went to face death, not one ever mentioned being there when fired upon by our own forces. I am eternally grateful for that although it may be they just won’t mention it.

    With that said, Doc here did do his duty. He didn’t avoid the draft like scumbag Bill. Corpsman are as brave as any grunt and many Marines see them as larger heroes as you have written.

  3. FMF Corpsmen, especially those assigned to infantry companies and platoons are truly brave. With bullets cracking around their heads, they attempt to save the lives of Marines. Lots of old gents still alive today because of the “Docs” that shared the horror of the battlefield.

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