||Physical security for the Vietnamese village's leaders-its chief, teachers, priests, and militia honchos- was a powerful local concern in this war, true to Communist objectives, the Viet Cong made no bones about replacing the existing leadership hierarchy of a village with their own "ringers." The VC assassinated 6,000 village officials in this manner during the war. Marine commanders would always ask when moving into a new area: "Where does the village chief sleep at night?" If he retreated to the city at sunset, he is effect forfeited his village to marauding VC. But if he remained in the hamlet, he did so at great risk, often with a price on his head. (South of Da Nang in 1969, the Viet Cong offered big bucks to anyone who could knock off a brash Catholic priest who stayed his ground and protected his walled convent with a Thompson submachine gun.)
Beginning quietly in 1965, and spreading rapidly throughout Eye Corps in subsequent years, was a Marine Corps innovation known as the "Combined Action Program" The CAP concept was simple. A handpicked, carefully trained (language, customs, weaponry) Marine rifle squad, with a Navy medical corpsman attached, would be assigned to a village to be integrated with several dozen Popular Forces troops, the much maligned, barely trained local militia. The Marines would move into the village to stay (sleep, eat, fight), patiently teaching military skills and virtues to the PFs, in exchange for their intelligence about local VC operations. Cultural misunderstandings abounded, but gradually-some said, miraculously- the PF's and other villagers accepted the Marine presence, gained confidence, and began producing villages and hamlets that were secure day and night. In nocturnal firefights against the VC, some PF's "skied" at first, but most stayed to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Leathernecks. In the words of General Brute Krulak: "The Vietnamese knew who the guerrillas were and where they hid; the Marines knew how to kill them." Before long the number of CAPs grew to the size of a full regiment, which made the top brass in Saigon uncomfortable. They thought the Marines should stop frittering away their resources in civic action projects and get on with the grandiose "search and destroy" missions, which were sure to bring victory.
One fact illustrated the viability of the Marine CAP program. During the 1968 TET Offensive, when the VC or NVA overran so many of these villages, not a single one reverted to Communist authority.
The senior American in each of these vulnerable villages was a Marine sergeant, typically twenty-one years old. Few NCOs in any war, in any service, ever dealt so effectively with so much responsibility with so much on the line. Many voluntarily extended their tours.
Despite its unpopularity at the highest levels, the CAP Program was the major and most successful Marine Corps contribution to the Vietnam War.