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Self-Defense Corps (Popular Forces)

The Popular Forces were voluntary locally recruited forces, organized into squads and platoons, used primarily as security forces in villages and hamlets. The chain of command extended from the Ministry of the Interior to the province chiefs, district chiefs, and village councils.

Throughout the late 1950s the paramilitary Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps remained poor cousins of the regular Army. The Self-Defense Corps had existed locally since 1955. It was officially established in April 1956 with some 48,000 non-uniformed troops armed with French weapons. The Self-Defense Corps, like the Civil Guard, was established to free regular forces from internal security duties by providing a police organization at village level to protect the population from subversion and intimidation. Units of four to ten men each were organized in villages of 1,000 or more inhabitants. The Civil Guard and the Self-Defense Corps were poorly trained and ill-equipped to perform their missions, and by 1959 their numbers had declined to about 46,000 and 40,000, respectively.

Between 1960 and 1964 the territorial forces received more training but were still stepchildren of the growing South Vietnam armed forces family. One basic problem was organizational. While these units were operationally controlled by province and district officials, training was usually an Army responsibility. Nevertheless, beginning in 1960 much effort was expended on strengthening the operational capability of the Civil Guard and the Self-defense Corps by improving their training and supplying them with weapons and communications equipment.

The Self-Defense Corps, supported by MAP funds, was reorganized into squads and platoons and underwent intensified training. Training centers were established in twenty-six provinces where a six-week program of instruction was offered. MAAGV's goal was to have all Self-Defense Corps units completely equipped and trained by the end of 1962.

With the lowest recruiting priority, the Popular Forces (formerly the Self-Defense Corps) suffered grave deficiencies in all aspects of training. Popular Forces strength initially fell far behind programmed force levels until July 1964, and leadership training quotas were never filled during the entire year. Training had been programmed for the year based on an authorized force structure of 110,000. But serious training lags developed early in the year owing to the late publication of the 1964 program, difficulties in recruiting, and the reluctance of province chiefs to relinquish their units to training centers because of local security conditions.

Thus, despite much emphasis by Military Assistance Command, both units and leadership training continued to trail as much as 60 percent behind programmed levels. On October 1964 Military Assistance Command proposed the consolidation of Popular Forces training centers to improve facilities and the conduct of training and reduce cost of manpower and matriel without reducing the over-all training base capacity. In addition, a proposal was made to turn over the training responsibility of the Regional and Popular Forces from the Vietnamese Training Command to the national Regional and Popular Forces headquarters in order to ensure unity of effort. However, as yet there was no agreement as to which agency should be responsible.

General Westmoreland believed that the territorial forces were one of the keys to pacification, but felt they were not receiving enough attention from the South Vietnam government. U.S. financial support for continual larger force levels was not enough. The Regional and Popular Forces depended on volunteers to swell their ranks, and often such individuals joined only to escape the more burdensome service in the regular Army. As Vietnamese armed forces recruiting pressures grew more intense, however, competition for manpower increased and territorial strength declined in 1965 and 1966. High desertion rates of the territorial forces and recruiting restraints placed on them by the Joint General Staff in 1966 were the immediate causes. These restrictions prohibited the Popular Forces from recruiting men from twenty to twenty-five years of age; later in the year further bans prevented them from recruiting those in the seventeen to thirty bracket. To make matters worse, the restrictions were retroactive to 1 January 1966, making the status of some 17,000 recruits in the restricted age group illegal. Although these restrictions were later relaxed in September and the Popular Forces were authorized to retain the recruits in the retroactive category, the change came too late to compensate for the losses of the first nine months.

After the Communists came out in the open and used terror indiscriminately in Tet, the common people of many villages abandoned their neutrality and said spontaneously to the government, "Give us guns." In April 1968 President Thieu organized the Peoples Self-Defense Force, ultimately joined by four million, equipped with some 600,000 weapons. This was clear proof of Thieu's confidence in the loyalties of the people and clear evidence of the government's legitimacy. Civilians, most of whom were no longer young, were taught to shoot obsolete weapons like US M1 carbines and Ml Garand rifles. These men were not soldiers and never would be. Organized into People's Self-Defense Force (PSDF) groups, they trained mostly in civitian clothes.

Although the mobile advisory teams initially concentrated on working with Regional Forces companies, later they operated with the smaller Popular Forces platoons, and in the end they became extensions of first the province and then the district advisory teams. The mobile advisory teams remained mobile, however, and were transferred to other areas whenever necessary. Since 1970 the mobile advisory teams' success has been periodically reflected in the fine performance shown by territorial units operating independently and with minimal outside support.

By 1969 the Vietnamese troops suffering the heaviest casualties and inflicting the most casualties on the enemy in proportion to their numbers are the "Ruff Puffs," the laudatory title unofficially given the 391,000 militiamen of the Regional Forces and the Popular Forces. The PF were organized into 35-man platoons for local village and hamlet security.

Armed mainly with Garands and carbines, the PF manned guard compounds and the perimeters of their home villages. As the first line of community defenders they often were the first target of any attacking force. The PF, much better armed as a result of a US $200-million militia modernization program, maintained static defense posts but also sent out roving patrols to meet the enemy before he reaches the PF perimeter.

Although not as well trained, armed or paid as the regular ARVN divisions, the Ruff Puffs were recruiting food men, for a number of draft-age youths enlist in the RF so they can stay in their home provinces, or in the PF so they can live with their families in compounds near their own villages.

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