I was assigned as the Operations Officer for a Combined Action Group. The basic unit was a Combined Action Platoon (CAP) which consisted of a squad of Marines (and a Corpsman) and a Popular Forces Vietnamese platoon (Popper Foxtrots). These PFs were the lowest level of Vietnamese military and they received half the pay of a regular infantry soldier in VN. However they were assigned to protect the villages in which they lived which provided some motivation.
Name: William (Will) J. Lannes, III
Class: 1959 Degree: Electrical Engineering Service: USMC
Years of Service: 11 years Years in VN: one
Are you willing to record an oral history of your time in service? YES
Your Vietnam Story:
When I arrived in VN in summer of 1969 I was a Major with both a primary MOS in infantry (0302) and electronics specialist (5903). I was awarded the secondary MOS, 5903, after completing a MSEE program at the NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL in Monterey CA. Prior to getting orders to VN, I was the Communications Electronics Officer (CEO) at MACS-2 air control squadron in Hawaii. I Also spent a short time as the Opns Officer there. Upon arriving in VN, I was assigned as the Operations Officer for a Combined Action Group. The basic unit was a Combined Action Platoon (CAP) which consisted of a squad of Marines (and a Corpsman) and a Popular Forces Vietnamese platoon (Popper Foxtrots). These PFs were the lowest level of Vietnamese military and they received half the pay of a regular infantry soldier in VN. However they were assigned to protect the villages in which they lived which provided some motivation. The Marines brought firepower and radios and military training to the CAP and the Sergeants that led these units were outstanding. The primary operation of these units were night patrols and ambushes designed to protect the villages and their rice crops. The VC and NVA would come into these areas to get food (and sometimes recruits). In some villages families had one son serving with the PFs and one son serving with the VC. To better understand this program there are several books that describe the CAPs, one of the first was “The Village” another was “Our War Was Different” but probably the best book to describe the CAP program is “Defend and Befriend: The USMC Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam”.
I was assigned to the 3rd Combined Action Group stationed in Phu Bai which is just South of Hue City. Our headquarters were in the Army’s 24 Corps Base Camp. Our group covered all of Thua Thien Province, including the City of Hue. We had approximately 21 CAPs in Thua Thien Province. I arrived just after all of the fighting for Tet 68 had ended, Hue was one of the cities in which a prolonged battle was staged by the Marines and the invading NVA. Once it was clear that the NVA and VC had lost the battle they massacred hundreds of civilians because the communists who were posing as ordinary civilians in the city had come out of hiding and they realized the citizens would take their revenge so they panicked and massacred many before they fled. I witnessed the digging up of the mass graves in Hue during my tour. Because of this we got a great deal of co-operation and intel during my tour.
To say the CAP program was controversial is an understatement. Some Marines felt large units finding and defeating main NVA units was the best strategy. CAPs also took manpower away from the infantry battalions. It was also a high level difference of opinion between the Army and Marines as noted from these excerpts from Defend and Befriend
“During the war, Westmoreland told the FMFPAC, commander, Victor (Brute) Krulak that fighting with CAPs “will take too long”. The quick-witted Krulak, the most vocal Marine opponent of the U.S. Army during the war, quickly responded, “Your way will take forever”. This brief but direct exchange between Westmoreland and Krulak epitomized the blame game that took place between the U. S. Army and Marine Corps over which service was applying the correct strategy in Vietnam. Caught in the middle of the interservice debate was the Combined Action Program.
Westmoreland used U.S. mobility superior firepower, and advanced technology to attain high enemy body counts. U. S. Forces scoured the jungles of South Vietnam to search for and destroy main force units, and these missions were for Westmorland the primary means of measuring success (enemy bodies) in the war of attrition.
During his time as III MAF commander, Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt (USMC) gradually began to realize that a strategy determined by the number of dead enemy bodies was not a wise choice in Vietnam. Unlike Westmoreland, Walt defined a successful body count as “three thousand healthy, secure people, living decently, with hope for the future. Walt, as well as his successors at III MAF pursued a strategy that paid ample attention to aiding and securing the rural population. Yet this contradicted William Westmoreland’s insistence on seizing the offensive initiative via search and destroy missions.
“There was a lot of controversy over tactics and strategies in Vietnam and CAP was caught in a storm of conflicting views: not just a simple Army v. Marine rivalry.”
The general U.S. manpower shortage in Vietnam provided the most formidable barrier to CAP program growth. During the first three years of war, Marines participated in numerous battalion-sized or larger operations in I Corps while using a portion of III MAF resources for pacification efforts. ……The Marines did see value in large-unit operations that prevented enemy main force units from disturbing the major urban centers of I Corps. ….. Realizing the dire situation near the DMZ but also staying true to their efforts to provide for the rural villages, Marines had to balance their use of main force units with pacification.”
Since the CAP program was not well understood and often misunderstood I have applied this background before providing some of the details of my own tour with 3rd CAG. CAG units were lightly staffed. We had four CACOs (company level lead by a Captain and a Gunnery Sgt.) that coordinated about 6-7 CAPS each. Part of the job of the CAG Operations Officer was to coordinate support for the CAP units. At this time the 3rd Marine Division had left VN and we were operating within the 101st Airborne’s AO. We received helicopters, artillery, and other support from the 101st and we had a liaison Marine Staff Sergeant located at Camp Eagle to assist is coordination.
During my tour our CAPs had in excess of 400 encounters with the enemy. Most were nighttime ambushes. It was noted that not all enemy KIAs were the result of those encounters although often blood trails were located leaving the ambush site. One problem was the when the ambush was opened, the PFs (and often even the Marines) would have their ARs on full automatic. Even though we were in the middle of the war we did have the opportunity to do some night time live fire training at an ARVN firing range. The training consisted of ten positions 50 feet away from 10 silhouette targets. It was at night so appropriate safety procedures were in place and some time was allowed to get used to the darkness of the night. The first round was to have the weapons on full automatic with two fully loaded magazines. The signal to fire was when I flashed a light across the targets. While on full automatic there would be the roar of rapid firing then a distant lull and the clanging of magazines as they reloaded. Upon examining the targets the PFs and Marines were amazed to find only a couple of hits on the targets. The second round consisted of two magazines but ARs were not on full automatic. When the targets were examined there were usually 30-40 hits on the targets. It was clear to those that participated that firing rapid single shots resulted in a more efficient ambush. Unfortunately because the units were needed at night to protect the villages we were only able to run two units through the training but we passed the results to all units. The Marines were in charge of the CAPs which sometimes caused tension with the PFs. Also there was the language problem. The Marines lived in the villages along with the people. Initially the Marines lived in compounds but that offered easy targets to heavy firepower (mortars, RPGs, etc) so during my tour the CAPs were required to relocate each night to a new position. I will mention a couple of incidents that happened during my tour which relate to the difficult environment in which the CAPs operated. One was very unfortunate and involved a death by friendly fire. One night a 101st patrol decided to “ghost a patrol” (take a night off from the war). They moved into an area in which they thought was not under survelliance and safe. Unfortunately the PFs observed the movement and checked that no friendly units were supposed to be in that area. They concluded it was VC and called for the Marine machine gunner up. He opened fire on the unknown group. Immediately they knew it was a problem (because all the tracers were red). Unfortunately the first machine burst killed the 101stPatrol’s radio man so it took some time to sort out who they were and they were friendlies. The Marine gunner was really shook when he realized he had inadvertly killed an American soldier but the next day he was cleared of all questions about the incident but that night remained with him for some time.
A second significant incident occurred during the daytime. The PFs and Marines were resting each positioned on each side of a road in the village. Word came that the mail truck was arriving at the village and someone had to go meet the truck. The newest CAP Marine was told to go meet the truck. He did not want to carry his AR so asked the machine gunner if he could use his 45 pistol to go get the mail. He said ok and everything went well until he sat down to clear the pistol and return it to the machine gunner. He improperly tried to clear the weapon and it went off killing the PF sitting directly across from him. The discharge of the weapon startled everyone and all they saw was the Marine with the smoking 45 and the dead PF in front of him. The PFs all jumped up and locked and loaded and pointed their weapons at the Marines, the Marines responded by doing likewise. There was a lot of shouting and screaming from the villagers and the PFs about the dead PF. They called in their regional leader (an ARVN Captain) and we called in our company commander and the two of them were in between the two armed groups when I arrived with my ARVN liaison officer, Lt. Thuc Tran. The MPs also were called in to take the Marine away who had fired the weapon and with much effort, and greatly assisted by my ARVN liaison officer we were able to calm the situation down. Then there was a serious discussion as to whether the tempers and mistrust were down enough to go out on the CAP planned ambush that night. Because of the language problems, Lt. Thuc, agreed to go out on the ambush with the CAP that night. His presence was essential and by the next morning the incident was considered as an accident and the CAP had begun to function as a unit again.
Another major incident occurred when the 3rd CAG CO decided to have a meeting of all his company commanders in Hue. This included lunch at a VN restaurant on the Perfume River. Commanders had to travel a considerable distance to attend the lunch/meeting in Hue so that by the time it was over darkness began to set in. Capt Tucker was the CO of the CACO in Phu Loc which was the furtherest away (near the Southern Border of Thua Thien Province). We suggested he stay with us at Phu Bai for the night to avoid the long nighttime drive down Hwy One but he said it was his turn for the watch and he had to get back to relieve the Gunnery Sergeant. We said Ok but call us on the covered net when he got back to let us know he had arrive safely. About 10:30 he checked in and said on his trip to Phu Loc he was fired at with a RPG but it hit in front of the jeep and he did not believe there was any damage. Everyone settled in for the night. At midnight an NVA Regiment attacked all of the firebases from Phu Bai to Phu Loc with heavy machine guns, mortars, and RPGs. The exchanges at each of the firebases was intense and some damage was inflicted on some of the firebases. About two hours after the initial attack the NVA regiment slipped back into the mountains. Phu Loc was the location of the District Chief along with some Army units and the CACO. The next morning I drove down to Phu Loc to talk to Capt Tucker and assess the damage. Some of the buildings were destroyed by the mortor fire but it did not involve the CAPs. Capt Tucker did sayone of his machine guns was damaged by mortar fire and was asking about getting it replaced. Since he did not bring it up I asked him how did he enjoy his ride through the entire NVA Regiment? He grinned and said it had not yet sunk in. We had determined that the NVA units were all in place for the midnight attack when he drove down the road and they allowed on shot at him since it was not uncommon to be fired upon when on Hwy One at night without giving away their positions.
He must have had a Guardian Angel that night and I am sure I had one for my entire tour. While I was not involved directly in any of the CAP firefights or attacks on the CACOs I was constantly covering the entire province in visiting our units. This was an area subject to ambushes and bobby traps (IEDs). I seemed to always be there the day before or the day after something bad happened. A good example of this was one day I was visiting our units in the Phu Tu area. This was an area known for its booby traps and was the basis of the book about the French when they were fighting the Viet Mingh called “The Street of No Joy”. The very next day a jeep was blown up on the same road with a booby trap (IED). Most of my trips around the Province was with my driver, L/Cpl Tom Borngraber. Normally he had a radio and his AR. On some occasions my driver was LT. Thuc and was when I was most likely to get into difficulty. One such occasion was when he and I went to Quang Tri, the province North of us and near the DMZ. Once we finished our business there, Lt. Thuc said we were near the King’s Tomb (which was very similar to those found in China with the terra cotta soldiers). We did visit the site which was very interesting. Also in that area was a Catholic Montasary and we stopped to talk to them. They said we had just missed a band of VC who had come by for food. I told LT. Thuc let’s get the heck out of there. Once again my Guardian Angel protected me.
My job required that I go once a month to DaNang to visit the CAP Headquarters and School. I usually picked up our allocation of VIP (variable incentive pay) money which was used to pay for turned in weapons and intelligence. One one trip I ran into Colonel Barrow, who had been our MOI at Tulane and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Also during those trips I would visit and sometimes spend the night on Monkey Mountain with the Marines of MACS 4. I had several friend in MACS 4. As mentioned in the book, Our War Was Different, it definitely depended on what you did and with whom as to what your Vietnam experience was. The activities of the MACS 4, the CAPs, the infantry battalions was totally different.
I believe I was fortunate to have served in the CAP program. I got a different prospective of the war and the Vietnamese people. When the war ended in 1975 I personally sponsored Lt. Thuc and his extended family. Thuc had become a Captain in the ARVN and was serving at the US Embassy when South Vietnam lost the war. Through the help of friends and family we found him a house and job. He and his brother got jobs in the hotel and restaurant business. Eventually the family became independent and successful. He and part of his family now live in San Antonia; his younger sister is in California and one brother, Cong, still lives in New Orleans. We consider them part of our family.
By sponsoring Thuc my contact with Vietnam never ended. For those who have not seen the PBS video, The Last Days of Vietnam, I highly recommend it. For my service in Vietnam I was awarded the Bronze Star with combat v and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.