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Combat Tracker Teams: Dodging an Elusive Enemy

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army was faced with a type of warfare it had not experienced since the Indian wars of the 19th century. ‘They just melted into the jungle was the constant refrain of line commanders frustrated by the elusive tactics of the VC guerrillas.

Guerrilla warfare wasn’t new to Southeast Asia, of course. In the 1950s the French had vainly pitted some of their finest troops against the Viet Minh. But even the French Foreign Legion had been stumped by the Communist guerrillas. During the same period, Communist forces used identical tactics against the British on the Malay Peninsula, but the results were different. In 1949 the British governor became alarmed when several plantation owners were assassinated by terrorists well stocked with war materiel and supplies left over from the defense of the area against Japan during World War II. With the Allies committed throughout the Pacific, there had not been enough forces left to fight in the smaller Asian states. Thus, the indigenous populations had been armed to defend themselves against the Japanese.

In 1950 the British colonial governor declared a state of emergency and asked the Ministry of Defence in London for assistance, but the peacetime British military had few units that could be spared for Malaya’s aid. Several of the renowned Gurkha units were ordered in, but there was little time to train or restaff. As the violence continued, the governor requested more help.

A former Special Air Services (SAS) officer, Major Mad Mike Calvert, was dispatched to the area. After assessing the situation, Calvert proposed a two-tier defense. The first element of the plan required relocating the smaller hamlets to areas with a larger village. Small British units would live with the villagers, providing medical and other assistance while protecting them from Communist insurgents. This part of the program was dubbed Hearts and Minds, and it was so successful that American Special Forces were later taught the techniques at the British Jungle Warfare School (BJWS).

The second element of the defense strategy involved reconnaissance or hunter-killer teams. Each 10-man team was composed of two identical subteams, made up of a team leader, a visual tracker, a radio operator, a cover man and a dog handler with a trained Labrador retriever. These teams took the war to the enemy wherever he was hiding. They were used to find and eliminate Communist troops who were using hit-and-run tactics against unarmed civilians. The British used this technique with great success against Communist insurgents in Malaya, Borneo and Brunei, as well as in Africa, Cyprus and other parts of the world. The units, also known as Combat Tracker Teams (CTTs), became a reliable tool for stopping the same sort of terrorist and guerrilla tactics that contributed to the defeat of the French in Indochina.

This was precisely the kind of solution General William Westmoreland was seeking for the U.S. Army. American troops had been repeatedly stymied because the enemy had the ability to strike and then disappear almost at will. The general and his staff first met with British representative Robert L. Hughes to discuss the BJWS program. Westmoreland then sent a group to observe the training at Johore Bahru, Malaysia. The British system was the only successful counter being used anywhere in the world at that time to the Communist guerrilla tactics. Simply put, the British had figured out how to outguerrilla the guerrillas. They didn’t see the enemy as stronger or stealthier, but as a problem to be eliminated with the resources at hand. The conclusions drawn from the British experience offered new responses to the unorthodox warfare facing the American and allied forces in South Vietnam.

The observers sent by Westmoreland were very impressed by the tactics being taught at the school. The BJWS effectively taught soldiers that no enemy was too potent or too elusive. The decision was made to offer American troops similar training — courses that would push the men to the limits of their endurance and reshape the teams through excellent instruction from the warfare school’s cadre of New Zealand SAS soldiers and the combat veterans of British War Dog Training Unit Number 2 (WDTU-2).

WDTU-2 was a part of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. This particular group of instructors consisted of veteran British CTT members, brought to the warfare school to help the Americans develop their own teams. The New Zealand SAS instructors were combat veterans, trained by the British SAS at Hereford, England.

The training contract provided for 14 training groups that consisted of two or four five-man teams, each team with a Labrador retriever. The Labs were perfectly suited for the work. They were quiet in the field and even-tempered, and they also proved that they could deal with changes in handlers. In contrast, some of the other canine specialties in the Vietnam War, including sentry and scout dogs, were one-handler dogs.

The American deployment of CTTs was based on four teams per division, each team led by an officer and a senior NCO. The CTTs assigned to a brigade included two complete elements, usually led by a senior NCO and under the administrative control of the headquarters company of the respective division or brigade. The division or brigade operations or intelligence officer exercised operational control over the teams. The original 14 teams were designated CTTs 1 through 14 and were provisionally attached to divisions and brigades, as shown in the chart on page 40.

The visual element of each team consisted of a team leader, a visual tracker, a radio telephone operator and a cover man. The visual members of the team, including the officer and the senior NCO, were in training for at least 65 days. The dog handler’s training was longer, at least 95 days. He was expected to learn how to observe and understand every action and reaction of his Lab before they went into combat together. In the last two weeks of training, the dog and the handler were linked up with the visual trackers.

The warfare school instructors made the Americans’ training as difficult and realistic as possible. To simulate combat situations, Gurkhas were used as the enemy, directed by the New Zealand SAS instructors. More than one American trooper could be heard cursing vehemently after the enemy popped up in a mock ambush, pointing and laughing at the students, chanting the infuriating refrain, Ha! Ha! All dead! At times the frustration of the trainees was intense. But the training credo was Train hard, fight easy.

The Americans who attended the school went to Malaysia on official government passports. They were told to bring nothing with them from the U.S. Army, to travel in civvies and to use British uniforms and gear while at the school. These highly sensitive procedures had to be accomplished with the greatest discretion. The United Kingdom was officially neutral, even outwardly critical of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It would not have done for the world to know the British were training American soldiers to fight against the VC.

On the first day of training, a British officer greeted the young Americans. They did not know his rank. In fact, names were seldom used, and all the identifying badges or patches worn by everyone involved were unobtrusive.

The welcoming address included some startling statements. The Americans were told that the problem with the U.S. Army was that it was too much like the Soviet and German armies — there was more focus on rank than knowledge. The spokesman summed up by saying: When you entered this school, I already knew everything that you know. When you leave our school, you will know everything that I know. This put the team concept on the table at the very start. It’s probably fortunate that the same officer did not tell them about the final exam — a long one-day trek, during which they would have to fend off Gurkhas and New Zealand SAS members posing as the enemy. If they had been told, most of the trainees would more than likely have headed straight back to Vietnam. By the time of that final exam, however, they did exactly what was required. Had they not been able to do so, they would have been cut from the program long before then.

The primary objective of the training was to equip the Americans to re-establish contact with the enemy. The secondary objective was to train them to determine whether there had been recent enemy activity in a given area. The main skill they would acquire would be jungle craft. In the normal duration of a typical one-year tour in Vietnam, the average American soldier was at a disadvantage because of his total unfamiliarity with his surroundings. Rather than becoming disoriented by the environment of Vietnam, the Combat Tracker graduates would learn to feel at home in the bush. The alien terrain of South Vietnam would become natural to them — more so, in fact, than to the North Vietnamese.

The instructors went to great lengths to show the men how to thoroughly train even the least-able soldier. In doing so, they ensured there were no weak links in the teams. It was a different approach for all these men, many of whom would drop out before that final exam. The attrition rate was between 35 and 69 percent. Some groups started with 73 men and finished with 23.

The instructors themselves had used every technique they taught to their students, and most had seen combat in various parts of the world. The New Zealand SAS soldiers and the members of WDTU-2 had been handpicked to ensure the highest level of proficiency in the instruction. The instructors also did everything the students went through. This meant they routinely carried packs heavier than 100 pounds, as well as slept and ate with the trainees.

At the end of the first day’s training, the Americans looked around and realized that they had survived. But more surprises were coming. At the end of the second training day, the visual trainees spent their first night in the jungle, where they were introduced to the basha, a cross between a hammock and a cocoon. But before getting bashad-up for the night, they still had to have their evening meal. It was then that improvisational culinary skills came to the fore. The Gurkhas, who were part of the training team when not playing the role of the enemy, really liked the Yanks. In an effort to bridge the cultural gap, the Gurkhas presented the trainees with various delicacies of the jungle, which might include fish caught with thunder flashes, frogs, lizards, bugs, monkeys, bats or snakes. As one trainee put it, If it walked, crawled, flew or swam, we ate it. If they were unlucky in catching their dinner on an evening, they always had the British rations to fall back on. These consisted of tea, sweet biscuits and a meat bar that none of the Americans could figure out how to eat.

Trainee Dick Burke thought the Kiwi instructors had stacked the deck. He firmly believed that instead of having to set up the night bashas, the New Zealand SAS veterans already had their bashas stashed in position, making it much easier for them at the end of the day. Others were equally convinced that the instructors were going through the exercises just the same as the trainees.

The Americans had to learn to develop a sixth sense. In the jungle, that extra bit of perception could mean life or death. Things most people would never catch a glimpse of became signs as big as outdoor billboards to the trainees. The jungle telegraph was one of the first lessons taught at school. As one American CTT vet said: No matter how steep the embankment, you could not touch any trees to prevent you from falling or to pull yourself up. The top of the trees’ motion was the tip-off to the Kiwi troops. Another of the new rules was, Always basha-up in a place difficult to get to at dusk, and impossible to sneak into at night. That made for some interesting sleeping accommodations.

The days were filled with hard and realistic training. Flashers (light explosive charges) were placed in specific areas to teach the trainees what to avoid. The Kiwi SAS instructors were so determined to make the training realistic that they sometimes went overboard. One of them decided to place a cluster of flashers around a large tree adjacent to the trail that the Americans would pass during an exercise. In his determination to teach the lads well, he overdid the explosives a bit. When the trainees came to the spot, he command-detonated the charges, knocking down the tree with him in it. Fortunately, he suffered little more than a bruised ego.

One of the most important skills the trainees had to master was speed. You were not going to catch the elusive enemy if you could not move like the wind. The daily physical training was geared so that it would become second nature for the trainees to feel comfortable in the jungle. The trick was to become so at ease in the environment that you could move fast enough to overtake the enemy, yet remain so quiet that he didn’t know you were coming. The tactics completely shifted the men’s attitude toward the jungle.

The trainees were fitted out like proper British recruits. Tracker officer Captain Don Hendricks recalled: We were issued British PT boots, which looked like green high-top basketball shoes, and all too small for large American feet. They lasted for about five days of PT and jungle training, and would then rot off the trainees’ feet.

However much the Americans scorned the boots, they loved the scarf, the slouch hat and the British machete. The scarf was made from what appeared to be camouflaged mesh mosquito netting. With the scarf worn over the head, the wearer seemed to disappear in the bush. The slouch hats also became standard with the American trackers, as did the machetes.

There were sharp differences in dog handler and visual tracker training. While the handlers had a longer time to make the transition, the visual tracking group was given a complete course in jungle survival in a month’s less time.

According to Don Hendricks: We started our first day of physical training with our New Zealand SAS instructor commanding us, ‘Lightly on your toes, right wheel, go!’ As we all stared at one another, we were thinking that an English-to-English dictionary might be in order. Couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say. It became apparent when he directed us with sign language. He was telling us to ‘double-time, column right, march.’ We had no clue that he had been speaking English!

During the week, after the training day ended, the young Americans could swim and relax at the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute — the equivalent of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service) with ‘alf and ‘alfs. These peculiar British concoctions used beer as a base and included fruit juices or a mixture of stout and light beers. The New Zealand SAS instructors were heard going on about buying aw case aw piss (a case of beer). The staff and students often became friends, and some bonds forged at the BJWS would become lifelong.

The extreme emotional and physical demands on the trainees created some interesting situations. For example, two jump-qualified trainees were telling one of their instructors how tough and highly qualified you had to be to be in the airborne. The combat veteran instructor replied that he felt members of the airborne were stubborn and stupid. The trainees insisted that airborne soldiers always executed their orders precisely. The British sergeant said that he could respect that and promptly ordered the more outspoken of the two Americans to run headfirst into a nearby tree.

Looking puzzled at first, the American trainee realized that he had stepped in it, and he had to obey the order. He got up and ran straight into the tree, ending up on the ground, bleeding and dazed. The Kiwi sergeant just shook his head. The other airborne trooper, not to be outdone, also ran headfirst into the tree. This was the last straw for the instructor, who rolled on the ground in gales of laughter, sputtering something about the stupid, bloody, f — ing Yanks!

Oddly enough, some of the visual tracker trainees initially had no idea there would be another man and a Labrador retriever on the team. The standard comment on the first day when the members were merged into a team was, What the hell’s that dog doing here? The groups were told that the dog definitely would get their egos back into perspective.

The dog actually taught his master how to track. The handler and dog generally moved out at a faster pace than the visual trackers. The Lab would catch a scent and be gone, and the handler had to be ready to go with him. The handler also had to know how to take care of the Lab and read the dog’s actions, and how to give the dog medical assistance.

WDTU-2 had a different approach to the training. On the first day of one cycle, the Royal Army Veterinary Corps trainer took his new students out of their camp and across the road to a ridge. As they all sat together, still in civilian clothes, their new boss stood and pointed at a visual tracking group running below, obviously being pushed to their limits by the Kiwi instructors. The war dog trainer waved his hand in such a way as to gather the visual group along with their trainers.

Then the trainer thoroughly confused his new charges by announcing to them, They are nothing! We do not train that way. Today we will walk a distance, tomorrow a bit more, and so on. You must think of it as steps within steps and goals within goals. When you are finished here and go on to the marry-up between visual and dog handler, you will be able to run them into the ground. They are nothing!

One immediate need was for more trained Labs. There were some veteran dogs from the Malay and Borneo campaigns, but with at least 14 teams coming to the school, many more dogs had to be trained. Some of the first trainees who went through the school between October 1966 and February 1967 had to learn their own combat skills plus train the green dogs. To this day, however, no one is sure whether the British instructors were allowing their Labs to train the Yanks or the trainees to school the young dogs.

David Layne, a veteran handler who was a part of the process, said years later: Chances are when a guy said, ‘This dog or that dog wasn’t any good,’ it was really a comment about the first handler who had the dog. Nobody else could be blamed if a dog didn’t work properly. The fifth and sixth months were tough. Up and down the damned hills every single day except in the very beginning. River crossings, ants, hornets and the heat — it went on and on. Pups and teenagers trying to do something that was as foreign and distant as the unexplored planets.

Sometimes I get down because I remember those pups, Layne continued. Sometimes they just wanted to play and be a puppy. But that couldn’t be, they were needed for the war, just as we were. I think that most of us who were in that particular phase will always regard the two segments of dogs and men as equals, as partners. Those 18 original dogs, those pups, they didn’t DEROS — they were there for the duration. They were trained in Asia, and they grew old in Asia.

The teams were complete when they had merged to the point of being able to think in unison. They could tell what one another was thinking as they moved in absolute silence in the jungle. Even the Lab could run like the wind and not make a sound that the NVA or VC would suspect.

The attrition rate for trainees not making the grade was high, but those who did graduate were some of the most highly trained American troops of the war. One of the early teams was attached to the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

The Screaming Eagles normally did not let any new recruit or group go into the field until they had gone through their own finishing school. But when Tracker Team 9, which was attached in October 1967, began the process, the cadre stopped the training on the first day. The verdict from the 101st was, You don’t need to go through this test course — you already know more than we could teach you.

During the course the trainees were pushed to the limit on a daily basis. They were trained to operate with a much higher level of autonomy and initiative than they would ever be granted in Vietnam. They wanted to use their skills to make a difference in a war they could now understand. But the average soldier — and unfortunately, many line officers — had no comprehension of what the tracker teams’ capabilities were.

Those who did excel at the training became a breed apart. There was no special ceremony when they graduated, no article in the hometown papers. However, the men themselves were well aware of what it took to become a CTT member. The U.S. Army later established its own CTT school in Fort Gordon, Ga., under an advisory panel of four SAS soldiers and a veterinarian from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. The school used veteran U.S. Army trackers as instructors and duplicated the original training as much as possible. But the Fort Gordon school closed in 1970, after which the CTT program was phased out.

The CTT members served honorably, but they came home to a generally disdainful public and the disbelief of their own fellow vets. There had been so little documentation of the program that some former trackers had problems for years applying for benefits. In 1998 a new Web site — www.combattrackerteam.org — was established to document and record their story. In June 2000, the first International Combat Tracker reunion took place in New Orleans.

This article was written by Sue Rogers Merritt and originally published in the October 2001 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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