Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part VI

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

LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC

LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC

I always tried to think about what we were doing in terms of how the enemy would view it: our defensive positions, our offensive tactics, and in our relationship with the civilians who surrounded us. Politeness and courtesy toward village officials, women, and the elderly was very important.  The medical treatment of villagers by our Navy Corpsman paid dividends.

The quality of my Marines was mostly good, although I did have a few knuckleheads —but dealing with these Marines as an older brother always brought them around. As a Sergeant I didn’t have official disciplinary powers, but I could rail at them and also send them away if they failed to abide my rules.  I was also older than the average sergeant. I had already seen a good bit of the world, and I was (and continue to be) an avid reader of military history. I understood insurgencies and how to best counter them. I hoped that my knowledge about the Special Air Service, the Long Range Desert Patrol Group, Popski’s Private Army (Number One Demolition Squadron), or how the Philippines dealt with the Huks in the post WW II Era —all apples and oranges, mind you— might help us in the fulfillment of our mission.

The PFs did a terrific job, particularly considering how poorly they were paid and supplied. They also had a few slackers, but in the main, they were courageous and further, there was no end of tour for them.  If they were in the American military, all of them would have received medals for valor. I continue to wonder what became of these brave men. [1]

By the time that I left in late November of 1967, I thought we’d done pretty well.  No Marines had been killed and all of our wounded survived permanent injury.  We didn’t have to worry about mines and booby traps as the villagers walked the same paths as we did.  We suffered the loss of Trung Si [2] Ti who was the PF leader.  He was much older than I, maybe ten years or more and had served in the French Union Forces.  He had a stack of medals, but was barred from becoming an officer because he had no formal education.  He was murdered while attending a political rally.  It wasn’t a firefight.  It was an assassination. In the instant of Ti’s death, one of the Hamlet chiefs pulled out his .38 caliber revolver and shot the VC bastard square in the eye.  It was a sad day because all admired Trung Si Ti.  He was a tough and proven combat leader.

We organized a memorial ceremony with the RVN flag over his casket.  The Marines took up a collection and we gave his family several hundred dollars.  Not much by U.S. standards, but a fair amount by Vietnamese standards. The government of Vietnam provided damn little support and not one official attended his funeral —another example of lousy leadership by ARVN officers.  For too many, the war in Vietnam was a business; corruption was part of the deal.  Corrupt officials could not see that they were dooming their own future. Not all ARVN officers were this way, but too many were promoted for their personal loyalty rather than for their combat performance. [3]

Given the totality of the war in Vietnam, I have to conclude that the United States of America failed to acquit itself in line with its reputation in previous wars. Our national leadership was abysmal, our diplomats inept, our generals stuck in the middle of previous wars, the colonels more focused on becoming generals themselves rather than fighting a successful war. There are dozens of things the Americans should have done, but never seemed to get around to doing —and the point of this is that had we done things differently, the outcome might have been a happier one for the Vietnamese people, and ourselves. As an example, the importance and worthiness of CAP demanded more than a few weeks of schooling. We should have become proficient in the Vietnamese language, and the people assigned to the CAP should have been of the highest quality military professional. What actually transpired is that when line company commanders were forced to give up Marines to serve in with CAP, they only gave up those whom they would miss the least. Knowing this, many Marines felt as if they were being “shit canned” to the CAP —and no one with any brains can imagine that this attitude was a program enhancement. While many very good Marines were assigned to the program, the quota filler aspect was not a plus.

Considering the money the United States spent in Vietnam, it should have been an overwhelming victory. Seeking out the enemy by thrashing around the jungles and mountains was near idiocy.  Further, we had far too many troops of various services and job specialties in Vietnam that were more hindrance than help.  Alas, there were so many lessons that might have been learned from our mistakes in Vietnam but I feel that we ignored most of these lessons, and as a result, the human cost of subsequent wars has been unacceptably high.

Notes:

[1] Bing West reported that many of the PFs in his village “disappeared” after the fall of Vietnam in 1975. I agonize over this every day.

[2] Trung Si is Vietnamese for Sergeant

[3] My good friend and the author of this blog recently returned from Vietnam; he reported to me that the corruption is worse now than it ever was —only today the stakes are higher; as China menaces Vietnam, Vietnamese leadership grovels at the feet of China’s leaders. They enrich themselves at the cost of national autonomy.

Blog Owner’s Post Script: Staff Sergeant Curtis relinquished his command on 22 November 1967. His time in Vietnam, both in an infantry platoon and Combined Action Platoon had a dramatic effect on him. Shortly after returning to the United States, Curtis was ordered to Officer’s Candidate School and subsequently received his commissioned to Second Lieutenant. Lieutenant Colonel Tad Curtis retired from active duty with eight years in the enlisted grades and twenty-four years as an officer—serving thirty-two years of honorable active duty service. In spite of many personal decorations, Curtis is proudest of his Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal —it is only awarded to enlisted Marines.

24 thoughts on “Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part VI

  1. A truly moving story told by an amazing bloke. Thanks Mustang for enticing Tad to tell it!

    • Thank you for stopping by. He often forgets that I still possess certain negatives, so I hope he’ll make further contributions in the not-too-distant future.

  2. It’s not clear to me if this is the epilogue, but I can’t wait any longer to tell you that I’ve gotten a much clearer view of what went on in the Vietnam war reading these posts than I did in all of the other input of any category in the last 49 years. Thank you for taking the time to put this together for this civilian.

  3. This is the end of this particular series. Thanks go to Mustang for publishing it and doing a great job on photos and drawings.

    I am obligated to respond to your comment.

    The war in Vietnam went on for a long time and it was very different at different times and places. Thus, one person’s experience in that conflict is more often different (sometimes dramatically different) than the next. This, of course, means that drawing conclusions from one participant (or a few) is likely to lead to a not very accurate conclusion.

    My conclusions are based more on research than just my own experience. Further, most of the more famous books written on the Vietnam war were written before it was over. The majority were written and published by Left leaning authors and publishing houses. You can find some that are more balanced, but it is a tough slog. You may have heard that the media was mostly anti-war. This was true for the major newspapers and TV networks. That being true, the people of America (and the world, generally) were given a distorted version of reality.

    There were significant mistakes made by the U.S. government and our armed forces, but it wasn’t the way that is mostly portrayed in the press/media. By the early 1970s, despite all the bad decisions, mistakes and errors, the war was being won. The American military and the South Vietnamese military (and government) began to see that the war needed to be fought differently.

    If they defended the people, used less firepower in the South and were less corrupt in their dealings with the people, they would win over the people and a better outcome would result.

    That was not to be. Politics in the U.S. drove our support to flag and then dry up. We went back on the promises made to the South Vietnamese. It harmed them in disastrous ways and harmed American foreign affairs from then right up to the present.

    OK, that is enough for now. If you have any specific questions, from the smallest things to larger ones, do not hesitate to ask.

    Thank you for reading what I had to say.

    Semper Fidelis,

    William C. “Tad” Curtis USMC (Ret.)

    • Different for the many different people and jobs they were doing – yes. The feeling I had when finishing your story was I’d never heard anything relative to our being guardians of villages, and such that Navy Corpsmen were village doctors. I don’t think anything that would come close to portraying that aspect ever found its way to print or sceen. As you say – media.
      Thanks,

  4. “Tad” – you historical overview of the Vietnam War has given me a different view on that war- the war in which my brother- husband – and friends were involved –Thank You-
    C-CS

    • C-CS,

      Thank you for giving my poor efforts at writing a look. My salutes to those of your family who served.

      BTW Departments: I am sure I make far more spelling and grammatical errors than thee. In my haste to get my thoughts down, the errors go to the page and then I do not proofread close enough.

      Regards,

      Tad

  5. Tad, I would like to publicly thank you for taking the time to write about your experiences in CAP. It rounds out very nicely Bing West’s book, The Village. Anyone who has yet to read this book should get to it. I hope to see more of your work here in the future, particularly as it relates to counter-insurgency operations. It is only a matter of time before our own cities explode with insurgents; maybe “lessons learned in combat” will help to prepare our citizens here at home.
    • Mustang, And in return, tis’ I that must thank you for encouraging me to write a bit. Further, your superior job of arranging photos and drawings added to the overall effect. I am not sure that what I have to say would be worth the effort as few people seem to read and the lessons of the past also seem lost on our fellow countrymen…or the bulk of them. At any rate, I will most likely present some more offerings for consideration. Again, thank you for your efforts in my behalf.

  6. Excellent series! Does anyone here have an opinion on the recently published book by Geoffrey Shaw, The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam? I heard the author interviewed, and he portrays Diem quite differently from the autocrat we read about in the media – as a capable patriot of integrity. Shaw had access to a lot of de-classified material the journalists writing during the war didn’t, of course.

    • I have yet to read Shaw’s book, but I do share his view with respect to Ngo Dinh Diem. The United States was never on the same page with Diem. It was almost as if the US and Viet Nam were in two completely disparate universes. Diem and Minh had the same goals: unification of Viet Nam —under each of their respective leadership, of course. Diem was nearly as ruthless as Minh when it came to forcing compliance with his will, but this is what we should expect whenever there is civil upheaval. The problem, in m view, was that Ho Chi Minh had only one war to fight; Diem had two. He had to oppose the Northern regime, and he had to battle Washington. It was an untenable position. He tried to placate Washington: they were the holders of the money and equipment. In some areas he was pliable, in other areas he was headstrong, but I do not think Diem ever contemplated that the US would have him assassinated. I think his murder is the precise moment when the USA lost the war in Vietnam. Never before and not until only recently has the US government failed so miserably in war as during the Kennedy/Johnson era.

      You also may find interest in Decent Interval by Frank Snepp, a CIA insider who characterized our part in the war as inept and approaching the level of criminal malfeasance.

      Hopefully Tad will weigh in on this.

    • I have read quite a few books that deal with the run up to the U.S. putting hundreds of thousands of troops into South Vietnam. Nearly every one of them paint Diem in a very negative light. I have no idea on the validity of my thoughts here but how about this: Using Korea for a model. Rhee was hardly a man of sweetness and like. However, since the U.S. (largely, though others helped too) gave him back the South, we dictated just what was going to be done and how. This, naturally, is a tough call from a psychological standpoint. Humans have their pride and do not want to be seen as lackeys of the Americans. However, if we were going to pour blood and treasure into the endeavor, it seems to me that the country needing our help ought to do as we say. If they think we’re too dictatorial or just plain crazy, they can ask us to leave…and we should. Vietnam had the South Vietnamese govt (which meant the Army after Diem was murdered) doing what they wanted and we tolerated it. Meanwhile, all up and down the country, thousands of Americans were being killed or wounded badly. Added to all that, the corruption was so mammoth as to be hard to be believed. Getting back to Diem. If we’d told him that we’d do much for him and his country, but he and his people had to get on board and struggle at our side. It might have worked out better. We seem to be seeing the same things today. In Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention many others, we pour in blood and treasure only to see our valor wasted and our money stolen. Seems to me we need tougher diplomats and tougher generals. I would end with this: We do not require our elected politicians nor our State Department (and Foreign Service officers) nor our military to do nearly enough study of the long histories and cultures of the areas we are concerned with. Damn shame.

  7. Here’s a question for both Colonel’s Mustang and Curtis.

    Do you feel you did such good there, that you’d do it again anohter infinite number of times, or do you feel the South may have been better off without our involvement?

    • I don’t think we did any good at all in Vietnam. We killed innocents, destroyed entire regions with carcinogens, people are still dying today as a result of that, and worst of all, we broke our promise to people who had become reliant on our “adult” leadership. The military fought the good fight, but the flag politicians and diplomats were mostly shit. No, I have no interest in doing Vietnam again … but what I would do again is serve with Marines no matter where in the world they go. There was nothing better than that …

    • Mustang, my question was directed on an individual basis rather than the 10,000 foot level, but there may actually be no difference between the two. Fantacizing as a Marine who was there, I may have been glad I saved some number of individuals from extreme abuse, but at the same time, not feeling any victory over the end result.

    • PS – My apologies Mustang, I should have been more specific with my question and asked would you Personally have….

  8. Tad here. I would have done it again. I would have done a number of things differently.

    The world is a dynamic planet. There are wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. If the sheepdogs do not protect the sheep, it ALL will come crashing down.

    We need – today, to recall the perceived strength and power we had in 1945. We ought study the failures and the too many stupid mistakes. We ought to learn the hard won success and why it took so long.

    War is a dirty business, but it can be done with less violence and better understanding of what our goals are and what they will cost. We always should plan for worst case scenarios. Plans always seem to go awry. We ought be very ready for that.

    My experience and reading tells me that we can “win” with less troops (sometimes) if we hammer the enemies without harming the populace. Psychological operations and low cost civic actions down at the village level is way more valuable that stuffing millions in leaders (thugs) pockets.

    We ought not be the world’s policeman. We need to convince other enlightened (?) countries that it is their best interest to help us solve problems that seem always to lead to war.

    • W, S, and SDs, Yes. I believe we have given up most of what we had in 1945 to the world. I think we should have nuked N.Korea (Or did whatever it would have taken to end it). By not decisively ending that conflict we sentenced millions of people for many decades of torturous life. How many more? We haven’t won anything since WWII. Iraq and Afghanistan have been exercises in stomping some relatively small number of cockroaches who will be replaced in short order, and many incredible American soldiers and their families will be punished for the rest of their lives with their deaths and dismemberment’s.

      We got nothing got the effort imo. We probably got negative value because the moslem vermin will point to these events and claim incredible victory. It will embolden them to come at us that much harder.

      Anyway, big subject and as you suggest? we should be simultaneously projecting an incredible strength and a incredible tolerance for other cultures as long as those cultures are not actively working to kill us or change us.

      We are no where near anything like that. How sad.

  9. My admiration of the Marine Corps has been increased reading not only reading this super series but Fix Bayonets in total. Further, I am in the audience of two mustangs. Mad Dog has great company.

    I, for a civilian, likely wouldn’t have able to internally handle the abysmal presidential leadership of that time if I were to have been able to survive and return home. Perhaps such leadership has reached a new low today. Operating in a vile environment for weeks on out and to still do as ordered – along with the knuckleheads – attests to your character. My heart also grieves with LtCol. Curtis with respect to his admired PF leader who was assassinated. In concept only, it is similar to what Obama did to Mad Dog, I feel.

    I have yet to see accurate reporting by jounalists of our current combat actions in the media as the LtCol wrote of his time. If anything, the articles only flourish when one of their own is killed or captured. Worse yet, as reported by Brian Williams or Killary.

    And if I read the LtCol’s comment correctly, I believe the buffooons comprising our political leadership are so distanced from the lessons of WWII as is Hillary from the truth.

    This was a wonderful series and my respect for my three close friends who are Vietnam vets has increased even more. You all did your duty on our behalf. Thank you.

  10. Reblogged this on Masako and Spam Musubi and commented:
    A marvelous conclusion to a man’s combat experience in Vietnam along with his learned insights. If someone in your family or a friend went to Vietnam, I recommend you read this excellent bit of writing.

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