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The Combined Action Platoons: The US Marine's Other War in Vietnam
By Mike Peterson
I was a member of a team that constituted at most two percent of the Marines' total effort in Vietnam: the Combined Action Program. Nevertheless, we patrolled the individual hamlets twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and formed friendships with the Nghia Quan, or Popular Forces, the lowest of the low as far as the South Vietnamese forces were concerned, and certain villagers.
The CAP Platoons were spread out over the Marines' vast Tactical Area of Responsibility throughout I corps ("Eye" corps), principally along Route One ("The street without joy,'' as Bernard Fall put it) and adjacent areas. They lasted from 1964 to 1970 when the Marines largely withdrew from Vietnam. For example, my CAP platoon was stationed between Phu Bai and Hue City in Houng Thuy district.
As such, we were offered a unique version of the war: Bottom line: I was "gungy" pro-war when I began duty with the CAP platoons (we were no more than 14 Marines, plus a US Navy corpsman). I ended up anti-war, at least as far as how we were fighting that war: US Army and Marine grunt outfits raising all kinds of hell with the Vietnamese peasantry.
Richard McGonigal, one of the "twin gods" of the Program, referred to it as "an armed Peace Corps." I am no pacifist: there are real toads out there, such as Idi Amin and Pol Pot. That would involve the United Nations, rather than US support, in future campaigns.
When I returned home, I went to UC Riverside for my BA. One of my professors was Mel Gurtov, and, besides speaking fluid Mandarin, was responsible for turning out the first chapter of what was to be known as The Pentagon Papers. The facts behind that war opened my eyes. No matter what the CAP Program was, we couldn't win that war.
Mike Peterson lives in Eugene, OR, with his wife and daughter and her family. Mike is a retired cook (NOT chef, dammit!), and Jan is a retired CPA.