Kit Carson Scouts
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The Kit Carson Scouts belonged to a special program initially created by the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War involving the use of former Viet Cong combatants as intelligence scouts for American infantry units. Enemy cadre and combatants (e.g. Viet Cong, NVA) who defected and rallied to become aligned with the Saigon government were known as Chiêu Hồi or Hồi Chánh Viên, the latter being a term loosely translated as "members who have returned to the righteous side". Only a very small number of these Chieu Hoi were selected, trained, and deployed with American infantry units as Kit Carson Scouts.
Origins of the Program
The concept of using soldiers and cadre who had previously fought on the enemy side in this way originated in late 1966 with the 5th Counterintelligence Team, which had counterintelligence tasks within the DaNang Chieu Hoi Center as one responsibility. Major General Herman Nickerson Jr., commanding the 1st Marine Division at the time, welcomed the idea and enthusiastically facilitated its development. The first six Kit Carson Scouts were placed in the field with the 1st and 9th Marine Regiments as part of a trial program in October, 1966. The Viet Cong defectors initially recruited to work as intelligence scouts with U.S. Marine infantry units were paid by the U.S. and were treated as staff non-commissioned officers with a nominal rank (not official) of staff sergeant.
Most Hồi Chánh Viên recruited into the fledgling Kit Carson Scout program had defected to Saigon's side in the war because they suffered either from malaria or grave wounds beyond what could be medically treated with the rudimentary medical care available on the Viet Cong/NVA side. Those Chieu Hoi (Hồi Chánh Viên) who volunteered for selection and training as Kit Carson Scouts had, during their service with the enemy, little or no contact with anyone speaking English. Few had any knowledge at all of the English language, creating a communication challenge as they were deployed with American units. A further complication was that almost all Hồi Chánh Viên had a distrust of Vietnamese soldiers and interpreters because of the degree to which friendly forces had been infiltrated by enemy agents.
Less than a month after the first Kit Carsons were assigned to American combat units, a Staff Sergeant with 5th CIT (counterintelligence team) placed two additional former Viet Cong with the 7th Marine Regiment in Chu Lai. These two newest Kit Carson Scouts were for the first time paired with an American handler able to speak Vietnamese, U. S. Marine Pvt. Allen Sells, who had weeks earlier graduated with the first class trained at the Marine Corps Vietnamese language school at Camp Del Mar in Camp Pendleton. Pvt. Sells had been in Vietnam ten days when he was made team leader and charged with the hands-on development of combat tactics resulting in the best use of these Kit Carson Scouts.
Vo van Tam had been an assistant platoon commander with the 409th Sapper Battalion, while Huynh ngoc Chanh had been an assistant platoon commander with the 38th Local Force Battalion operating in Quang Ngai Province. During their years with the Viet Cong, these former enemy combatants had also spent months on end in combat training and indoctrination, largely in the mountainous areas of Kontum Province. The 409th Sapper Battalion, Tam's Viet Cong unit, came under the direct command of Military Region V, the top National Liberation Front military headquarters in the northern provinces of South Vietnam. The battalion was considered an elite, specialized organization. Tam had himself participated in one of its well-known military successes, an attack on the key U.S. airstrip at Chu Lai. In this stealth operation, Tam and his sappers had slipped under the protective barbed wire and breached the defenses of the massive American base to attack jet aircraft parked on the flight line alongside the base's twin runways.
The 7th Marine TAOR (tactical area of operational responsibility) included the coastal plain areas in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin provinces, where both scouts had operated while with the Viet Cong. Pvt. Sells and his two scouts were immediately transferred to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, operating south of the Chu Lai perimeter in Binh Son District. At 1/7, the three-man team was joined by LCpl Ernest C. Jaramillo, an S-2 Scout already assigned to 1/7. Jaramillo, while not part of the team, played a useful role in early development of operational tactics through his knowledge of S-2 procedures. On November 11, 1966, Sells, Jaramillo, Tam and Chanh deployed for the first time with Delta Company, 1/7 on a company-size patrol on the Mui Nam Tram Peninsula, targeting the hamlets of Phouc Hoa and Tuyet Diem.
Early tactics for the two scouts were the identification of Viet Cong guerrillas and cadre among the civilian populace. Both Kit Carsons offered narrative insights about how the Viet Cong moved and interacted with civilians within the areas where Tam and Chanh had previously operated as enemy combatants. The scouts additionally proved adept at identifying booby traps, caves and tunnels and caches of enemy weapons. These two early Kit Carsons also were found invaluable in their abilities to conduct tactical interrogations in the field and thereby gain immediately useful information before newly detained prisoners were sent to the rear from their point of capture.
The third American recruited to the program in Chu Lai was Pfc Richard Gualano, who arrived in Vietnam in early December 1966. Pfc. Gualano, like Sells, was in the first class and a graduate of the Marine's Del Mar Vietnamese language school. The arrival of Pfc. Gualano allowed for the formation of two Kit Carson Scout teams. Each team was part of the battalion's intelligence gathering section. Both teams accompanied combat Marines from the battalion's four rifle companies during patrols, ambushes, sweeps and larger operations. Sells later left the battalion to begin recruiting new scouts from the Chieu Hoi centers in Quang Ngai City and DaNang to be trained and deployed with other U.S. Marine units in I Corps. Gualano remained with the battalion to continue the field work with the rifle companies and assisted in the formation of additional teams as more scouts and language-trained Marines arrived.
During the final two months of 1966, the Kit Carson Scouts assigned to the 7th Marine Regiment participated in numerous local patrol actions and one large multi-battalion search and destroy action, Operation RIO BLANCO. Command interest in the activities of the Kit Carson Scouts grew quickly. The most obvious barrier to expansion of the Kit Carson Scout Program as it grew in these early days was that few Americans could speak the language, however the program developed despite this problem and quickly gained command level interest throughout the 1st Marine Division and the 3rd Marine Division. During the first week of January, 1967, Pfc. Sells and his scouts participated in a Task Force X-Ray briefing held in Chu Lai and explained the workings of the program to Lt. General Krulak, the commanding general of all Marine Forces in Viet Nam, and to General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps. The following week, Pfc. Sells and his Kit Carson Scouts briefed Lt. General Lewis W. Walt, the Marine Chief of Staff for Viet Nam, and U. S. Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert H. B. Baldwin, on the workings of the Kit Carson Scout program.
On April 29, 1967, the Intelligence Section of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) published a procedural document detailing the expansion of the Kit Carson Scout Program for all active American Army units in country, including the scout's terms of service and wages (Tovy). As the program evolved, recruitment of non-military Viet Cong cadre and defecting North Vietnamese officers were added, and these Kit Carson Scouts also became valuable sources of intelligence in the conduct of the war. General Westmoreland issued an order in September 1967 directing all infantry divisions in Vietnam, including U.S. Army units, to begin using Kit Carson Scouts in conjunction with friendly operations. He directed that a minimum of 100 scouts per division was necessary to ensure effectiveness. The 3rd Marine Division organized its own Chieu Hoi recruitment and training program for placing Kit Carson Scouts with units extending all the way north to the DMZ. When the division's fourth Kit Carson Scout class graduated from a school in Quang Tri City during December 1967, the 3rd Marine Division became the first American unit in Vietnam to reach General Westmoreland's targeted level for Kit Carson Scout deployment. From 17 Kit Carson Scouts at the end of 1966, the number of returnees countrywide choosing to become scouts rose to 247 at the end of 1967 and over 2,200 by the end of 1969. A report given to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, 1970 listed 230 Kit Carson Scouts killed in action and 716 wounded.
- Tovy, Tal. (2006). "From Foe to Friend: The Kit Carson Scout Program in the Vietnam War." Armed Forces & Society 33, No. 1: 78-93.