April 2016

Vietnam: Combined Action Company

50 Years Ago in Leatherneck
Volume 99, Issue 4

Reprinted from April 1966

The Chinese communist master of guerrilla warfare, Mao Tse-Tung, teaches that one of the most important ingredients for a successful “war of national liberation” is the support of the people. In his words, the people are the “sea in which the partisan fish swims.”

And he instructs that this support need not be given voluntarily to be effective. Terrorism, he says, is an effective tool to gain this vital necessity if the people do not voluntarily give it.

This “tool” of Mao’s is being used today by Viet Cong guerrillas in much of the Republic of Vietnam. Villagers are tortured, maimed, even murdered, by the insurgents to force the compliance of the people with their dictates.

The typical Vietnamese villager cares little for politics or ideological causes. His biggest worry is raising enough food to feed his family and earning enough to provide for their other necessities.

In areas controlled by the communists, he sees his sons conscripted into the VC forces; sees much of his hard-won rice crop confiscated as “taxes” by the guerrillas.

As long as the VC control his village, they hold over him and every other person in it the power of life and death. Defying a communist order or refusing to pay his “taxes” brings quick punishment from his communist masters.

Any hope of winning a war against the guerrillas must separate the insurgents from the people, dry up the vital “sea” they desperately need to survive, break up the Red domination of the villages.

This is being accomplished by various means in different parts of Vietnam.

In the northernmost Marine enclave in Vietnam, Hue-Phu Bai, it’s being done very effectively by a unique company of Marines and local militia.

Four villages surround the U.S. base at Phu Bai with a combined population of more than 16,000. Responsible for their security, and indirectly, for the security of the air base, is the Combined Action Company (CAC), originated by the 3d Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, and currently operated by the 2d Bn, 1st Marines.

The CAC numbers only 91 enlisted men, including four Navy corpsmen. Two Marine officers, a Vietnamese army officer and fewer than 100 Popular Forces or local militiamen make up the rest of the force.

Commanding the company since September [1965] is its originator, Captain John J. Mullin Jr. The captain was the civil affairs officer for 3/4 when the battalion landed at Phu Bai to provide security for the base. In mid-summer, the battalion’s Tactical Area of Responsibility was expanded to include the four villages, which up to that time had been fair game for the VC. The situation was a familiar one in Vietnam: friendly forces controlled the villages during the day; the VC controlled them after dark.

“Ordinary patrolling wasn’t enough,” Capt Mullin said. “We knew we had to offer more security to the people than we were doing by patrolling.”

Mullin’s suggestion was to put a squad of Marines in each of the villages on a permanent basis to live in them day and night.

Major Cullen B. Zimmerman, 3/4’s executive officer, bought the idea and developed the actual plans for setting up the company. His proposals were approved by the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel William W. Taylor, and the CAC, then known as the 1st counterinsurgency platoon, was activated.

Command of the new unit was given to First Lieutenant Paul Ek, a Vietnamese-speaking Marine borrowed from the Third Marine Regiment specifically for this purpose. He served as the company’s commanding officer until his rotation home in September.

Appointed company executive officer was Lt Nguyen Dien Doung, former psychological warfare officer for the local district chief.

Members of the four CAC squads were selected from volunteers from the four companies of 3/4.

“Every man was hand-picked,” Lt Ek said. “Because of the magnitude of the job, I picked men who were mature, intelligent, who possessed leadership capabilities and tact.

“Tact was the most important qualification,” he added.

The squads, each commanded by a sergeant, underwent a week of preparation before moving into the villages. It was a busy week. In the mornings, the troops attended classes in spoken Vietnamese, Vietnamese government organization and village relations. In the afternoons and evenings, the individual squads made recon patrols of their village areas to familiarize themselves with the terrain and to give the villagers an opportunity to become accustomed to them.

At the end of the week, on Aug. 3, the squads moved into the villages.

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Village number two, a complex of three hamlets with 2,200 residents, became the new home of a squad led by Sergeant David W. Sommers. Named Thuy Tan, the village lay a couple of miles southeast of the U.S. base and 4 miles inland from the Gulf of Tonkin.

The building Sommers and his men would occupy was a small three-room concrete brick house located near the center of the village. In front of it, across a narrow road, rice paddies stretched out to a river a mile away. Behind the house, a tree line partially blocked another smaller rice paddy complex.

Sommers had his men set up sandbag fortifications at each corner of their area, including one checkpoint on the road itself.

The Marines were not quickly accepted by the villagers. The residents of Thuy Tan were suspicious of the newcomers and doubtful of their commitment and ability to protect them from the nightly maraudings of the VC.

Up to the time of the Marines’ arrival, Thuy Tan’s defense force consisted of some 20 Popular Force (PF) troops. The PF is a home guard or local militia, normally employed in protecting the village in which they live. Most of the members were veterans of years in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and were experienced and battle-tested in the anti-communist struggle. The PF’s command post was located several hundred meters down the road from the Marines’ command post.

When CAC was formed, the PFs of the four villages, by special order of the ARVN commander of the Hue-Phu Bai sector, were placed under the operational control of the Marines.

“Winning over” these tough little fighters was the first task of the Marines.

“We learned from each other,” Sommers said. “When we first started going out on night patrols and ambushes, they complained we made too much noise. By slightly revamping our equipment, we were able to meet their standards of silence.”

The Marines instructed the PFs in small unit tactics and specific military skills necessary in defense of the village. They instilled new confidence in the home guard that made them more aggressive guerrilla fighters.

It didn’t take long for a warm bond to form between the Americans and the PFs. Several weeks after their arrival in Thuy Tan, the Marines decided to expand their living area by building a Vietnamese-style thatched hut. The PFs watched them struggle for a while with the unfamiliar bamboo and straw, then moved in and took over the construction.

Another quick friend the Marines met was an elderly woman they immediately named “Mama-san.” She showed up at their hut a couple of days after they arrived, carrying a big box of bread and soft drinks to sell to them. After that first day, Mama-san became a regular fixture.

In those first few weeks, three youngsters also “adopted” the Marines. The youths picked up English quickly and acted as interpreters until the Americans could learn enough Vietnamese to converse with the villagers.

Through their close association with the PFs, their aggressive patrolling to keep the village free of VC, and a warm recommendation from Mama-san, the squad gradually began to win over the villagers and become accepted members of the community.

In December, 3/4 was rotated to Okinawa, and members of the squad who had completed their overseas tours were returned to the States for reassignment. Sgt Sommers and nearly half his squad were among those leaving. The others volunteered to remain longer with CAC to continue their job in Thuy Tan. They proved invaluable when replacements from the new battalion, 2/1, arrived to fill the vacancies in the village. The “old hands” were able to pass on much of what they’d learned in their months there, and it made the transition very smooth.

Sommers’ relief was Sgt John J. Cooney, right guide of the 1st platoon, “Golf” Co, 2/1. It didn’t take him long to become familiar with the area for which he was now responsible. In addition to the regular nightly patrols and ambushes, Cooney instituted a crash program of recon patrols during the day for himself and the other new men. He also worked at learning the Vietnamese language and, after a week, was able to make himself understood by the village PF commander.

It didn’t take the VC long to begin probing the squad after the replacements arrived. Their third night in the village, two men on an observation post (OP) spotted movement near the squad’s area. Since the village was under a strict dark-to-dawn curfew, anything moving at night was considered VC. The men on the OP opened fire, and the intruders hit the deck. As soon as the shooting started, Cooney radioed for illumination. Less than three minutes later, the first flare popped overhead to light the area. A couple of minutes later, the PF contingent came racing up the road from its CP. They began a sweep of the area where the VC had been seen, but found nothing. Somehow the elusive guerrillas had gotten away.

Cooney’s first job every morning is to prepare the overlay for his next patrol or ambush. He plans the nightly operations himself, based on intelligence he gets from the villagers, the district police chief, or Capt Mullin.

On the overlay, he must mark his patrol route, noting specific checkpoints and ambush sites and the times he expects to arrive and depart from each. In addition, he plots pre-planned artillery concentrations on the overlay and supplies the coordinates for the artillery unit which will be supporting him. Standard concentrations are plotted around the squad CP every night; others are planned to cover possible ambush sites along the patrol route.

“The artillery is probably the only reason the VC haven’t tried to overrun us,” Cooney said. “The artillery could chop them to pieces before they ever reached us. And we could handle those who get through the artillery until reinforcements could be brought up.”

Their artillery support is so vital that Cooney has instructed each man in the squad on the procedure for requesting fire missions and adjusting them on target.

Another factor which prevents the VC from launching a full-scale attack on the squad CP is Cooney’s policy of never doing anything on a set schedule. One night the squad may depart on patrol immediately after dark; the next night they may wait until 0100 before moving out.

Even meals are eaten at different times each day.

“We try not to set a pattern in anything we do,” said Cooney. “If we did, for example, start moving out at the same time each night, it wouldn’t be long before ‘Charlie’ would be waiting for us, and we’d be zapped hard.

“This way, by doing everything at different times every day, we keep ‘Charlie’ guessing about what we’re doing and where we are.”

In order to prevent any possible leaks of information to the enemy, Cooney briefs the PFs on the night’s operation when they arrive at the squad CP just before dark.

Sometimes, he takes all the PFs with the Marines; on other nights, he leaves most of them to provide security at the squad CP. This, too, is part of the policy of not setting a pattern.

The squad never moves at night without at least one PF.

“We always use a PF as point,” Cooney said. “For some reason, most of the PFs seem to sense the VC before the rest of us can see or hear them. And not only this, they know the area much better than we do because they’ve lived here all their lives.”

In addition to its combat patrols and ambushes, the squad also is responsible for the security of village officials. In many of the outlying villages in Vietnam, the village chief and his assistants spend only the daylight hours in their villages. To remain after dark courts death at the hands of VC assassination squads. That’s why most of them spend the night in larger towns where they can be protected.

This isn’t the case, however, in the four villages in which CAC operates. The officials live in the villages day and night, and it’s up to Cooney to ensure that VC assassins don’t murder the authorities in Thuy Tan. This is an every night job for the Marines and the PFs. Occasionally, the group of village leaders spend the night at the Marines’ CP, but usually they stay at one of the villagers’ homes in the area. The location is secret, and the chief’s host doesn’t know he’ll have company until the group arrives after dark. A bodyguard of Marines or PFs stays with the officials during the night.

Since the squad operates every night, Cooney has established standard operating procedures (SOP) for equipment and tactics on patrol.

For example, on every patrol or ambush, each man carries a minimum of one “Willie Peter” or white phosphorus grenade, two fragmentation grenades, six or seven magazines loaded with tracers every other round, and an extra bandolier of ammunition.

Cooney explained the reason for the WP grenades and tracers: “Documents we’ve found on the VC indicate they hold great fear of white phosphorus tracers.”

The point man in the column always carries a shotgun loaded with double-O buckshot; the second man in the column and one man in each of the other fire teams mounts a WP grenade on his rifle with a crimped cartridge in the chamber and a fully loaded magazine in his weapon. Thus he can fire the grenade, then follow it up immediately with 20 rounds of automatic fire. All the M14s carried are equipped with selector switches, allowing them to be fired on full automatic. In a firefight, everybody fires the first magazine on automatic, then everybody except the designated automatic rifleman in each fire team switches to semi-automatic fire.

Each man in the squad has camouflaged utilities and covers. No canteens or steel helmets are worn because of the noise they make. When possible, the men utilize camouflage make-up to better blend into the shadows.

Should the patrol run head on into a VC patrol during a night operation (and this is by far the most common form of contact between the VC and the CAC squads), the SOP calls for the lead fire team to hit the deck and fire straight to their front. The second fire team deploys to the right and the third to the left, with every man firing to his front. This covers the path or road and avenues of escape on either side of it.

Protecting the people from the VC is not the only way in which the CAC squads serve their villages. Each squad has instituted a civic action program to try to improve living conditions in its village.

In Thuy Tan, Cooney’s men are building playground equipment for the village school. They have assisted the villagers in constructing sanitation facilities and instructed them in sanitation procedures in an attempt to eliminate causes for disease. Clothing and soap are distributed to people who had little of the former and none of the latter. Much of the relief supplies have been sent to Thuy Tan by a lady in Anaheim, Calif., Mrs. Barbara Verrinder. Verrinder collects soap from hotels and motels and clothing from her neighbors in Anaheim. She turns her collections over to Marines at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, and they deliver them to Phu Bai.

And more relief shipments should be on the way. Soon after arriving in the village, Cooney and his second fire team leader, Corporal Robert D. Ward, wrote a letter to newspapers in their hometowns, explaining the job they are doing and asking for any help possible from the folks back home.

An important part of the civic action program is the medical attention provided the villagers by the squad’s corpsman, Hospital Corpsman Third Class Jack C. Hill Jr.

Sick call begins for the villagers at noon every day and continues until “Doc” has no more patients. On an average day, Hill treats upwards of 50 people for ailments ranging from cuts and skin ulcers to colds and arthritis. He has one patient with tuberculosis and another recovering from a gunshot wound in the hip.

Most of his patients are children, who stop by with a cut finger or a scratched leg. Doc is a favorite with the kids, and they continue to come back daily, even after their reason for coming is healed. They still get a smile from Hill and a bar of soap.

“Most of the troubles people come here with could be prevented by using soap and water,” Hill said. “A buffalo boy, who drives water buffalo through filthy rice paddies every day, can count on having any cut or leech bite become infected.

“But if he would wash the wound with soap and water, and keep it clean for a few days, he’d have no trouble.

“That’s why we’re trying to educate the people, especially the kids, in proper health and sanitation procedures, and why we give so much soap away. And the best thing about the program is that it’s paying off. We see more kids every day walking past the house here on the way to school with clean faces and hands.”

When Hill discovers someone seriously ill that he can’t help with his limited facilities, he requests the person be evacuated to the field hospital back at the base for treatment.

Hill also accompanies the squad on all operations.

And, like every other man in the squad, he has a price on his head. The Viet Cong have put a bounty on each man in the company, from Capt Mullin on down, but so far, no guerrilla has collected it.

They still keep trying, however.

Cooney only had been in Thuy Tan a week when the VC again probed his CP. Lance Corporals Harry E. Bates and Gary W. Martinson were manning one of the rear OPs about midnight when they heard dogs barking in the village.

“The dogs are our distant early warning device,” Cooney had said earlier. “Despite what you hear about how great the VC is as a night fighter, we’ve found him to be pretty bad. He doesn’t move quietly and his noise alarms the dogs.”

Fifteen minutes after the barking started, Bates and Martinson saw four shadowy forms slip across the path 40 meters away. They opened fire and heard one of the VC moan. Another of the enemy fired one round at the OP. The rest of the squad poured outside and added their fire to that of Bates and Martinson. Cooney fired 15 rounds, covering the area, from his M79 grenade launcher.

He shouted to the radioman, Private First Class Robert B. Knutson, “Call for illumination!”

But while they waited for the flares, they again heard the dogs barking, close at first, then farther away. By the time the illumination arrived, there was nothing to be found except a broken bush and marks on the ground, indicating a body had been dragged away.

Thirty minutes after this action, the squad moved out on the night’s operation, a four-hour ambush on a likely VC approach route.

Apparently, the firefight chased away the VC, for the squad saw nothing on its ambush. The Marines came home just before dawn, tired and wet, and a little angry that the VC had again escaped them.

But not all the VC get away. Since it was formed last August, the men of CAC have killed 10 VC, confirmed by body count. They estimate another 10 were killed and their bodies removed by survivors. The company has captured 30 confirmed VC, including one wounded.

Most of the 30 were captured after villagers provided information on their whereabouts. Many of them were taken into custody in the village markets as they tried to buy food.

The villagers are quick to tell the Marines of any VC activity in the area. Usually it’s only a matter of minutes after a villager learns of information until the Marines know about it.

It wasn’t always like this. It took time for the people to realize that the Marines were capable of protecting them and were willing to fight the VC to keep the village free.

“The villagers know,” as Cooney put it, “that if the Marines ever pulled out of here, the VC would move back in and torture and kill them for collaborating with us.

“That’s why we had to convince them we were going to stay.

“They don’t help us because they’re afraid of us, but because we’re now their friends and they know we’re here to assist them.”

This estimate was reinforced by Capt Mullin. “The Marines and the people have attained a relationship seldom seen in such a situation.”

He continued, “The CAC company has cured a large area of the battalion’s Tactical Area of Responsibility with a minimum of troops deployed.”

Eventually, the company hopes to have the village defense forces strong enough to resist the VC without our assistance.

But until that day comes, the Combined Action Company will continue to guarantee the freedom and safety of 16,000 loyal South Vietnamese.