"One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger."
~ Duc de la Rochefoucald, Maximes
The year is 1963. Ngo Dinh Diem sits on the seat of power in South Vietnam and John F. Kennedy has drawn America into a war that will outlive him and his successor. The USS Maddox wouldn't fire at those "phantom boats" for another year yet and it would be two years before those idealistic young men gave such brave account of themselves in Ia Drang. There wasn't a draft yet. And yet in this year a watershed battle occured in the Vietnam War, one largely forgotten among others (the Tet Offensive, the siege of Khe Sanh, and that last helicopter lifting off from the embassy roof in Saigon) that are etched in fire on the American psyche. In a war in which each operation often seemed as incomprehensible to the public as it did to the soldiers fighting and dying in it, a battle of this magnitude and importance was rare.
The People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, Viet Cong or "those raggedy-assed little bastards" to the higher echelons of American command) were growing in confidence. Since 1960 they had been infiltrating South down the Ho Chi Minh Trail1, and by 1961 the PLAF's size was estimated at 15,000. Most were organised in guerrilla units scattered around the South, and the focus of Ngo Dinh Diem's discontent was the Plain of Reeds. The Plain began just northwest of My Tho (a port city in the South) and spread west to the Mekong River and the Cambodian border. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had been inflicting what, on the face of it, seemed like good casualties on the guerrillas in this area, but the American advisors on the ground were facing the war with growing pessimism due to the conduct of the ARVN troops2. Their commanders would frequently fail to apply full military expediency for political reasons and Ngo's pathological fear of a coup crippled the effectiveness of the Army. Furthermore, officers in command of combat units frequently showed cowardice and inability when under fire. The upper echelons of American command remained, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the difficulties.
What all the American military structure wished for, though, was an open confrontation with the guerrillas. The sweep operations which were taking place at a rate of up to 3,000 a month usually involved only small confrontations. When large units were encountered they would usually inflict some damage on the ARVN then scatter under strafing and bombing. It was presumed that if a large unit - say, a battalion - could be trapped, it would be decimated. On January 2, 1963, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann became the recipient of the common wish, only to have it turn into a nightmare.
The aim of the mission was to seize a radio transmitter that was being operated by the Viet Cong out of the hamlet of Tan Thoi, fourteen miles northwest of My Tho. There were approximately 300 guerrillas in the area, in the hamlets of Bac and Tan Thoi (it's the battle of Ap Bac because "ap" means "hamlet" in Vietnamese). The guerrillas didn't know what the target of the strike was going to be, but by New Year's Day they knew it was coming the next morning. This means that, theoretically, they could just have dispersed (they didn't know the radio was discovered, so didn't think they needed to specifically defend it). But it has emerged that the reason for them standing and fighting was to restore confidence in their own abilities among the local population, who had apparently been wondering if it was wise to continue to support the Viet Cong in the face of the American military machine. Ap Bac was to turn out to be a great victory for the PLAF in this regard.
The hamlets were surrounded by a number of tree lines, in which the guerrillas situated themselves. There was a heavy ground fog that day. Vann, in an L-19 spotter plane, circled over the battlefield. There was no way for him to tell how heavily defended and in what manner the hamlets were. The basic idea was this - infantry companies, the ARVN Civil Guard, would approach the western and southern tree lines of the hamlet, and helicopters with more ARVN troops onboard would land troops inside the hamlets, beside the tree lines. There were ten H-21 transport copters with five gunship HU-1's (Hueys) in support. Scarcely a part of this plan was executed without difficulty. Firstly, the ARVN did not practice transmission security, so not only did the guerrillas know they were coming, but they knew exactly where they were coming. When the Civil Guards got within thirty yards of the southern tree line, the guerrillas opened fire from their foxholes. The commander of the unit and second-in-command were killed instantly, and further attempts to dislodge the guerrillas in the southern tree line were ineffective. The Captain now in charge of the unit eventually lost a leg, ending any attempt.
Meanwhile, four helictopers got shot down. The guerrillas had made rudimentary attempts to shoot down helicopters before, never with much success, even when able to deploy .50 calibre arms (captured from the ARVN, usually). Because of disparate chains of command among American forces, the helicopter crews were not obliged to follow Vann's order to land 300 yards from the tree lines. This distance would have been far enough to make targetting the choppers with small arms very difficult for the guerrillas - instead, the helicopter crews chose to land within 200 yards of the western tree line. This was disastrous. Then, when the ARVN and their American advisors were on the ground, the ARVN began to pull their usual indecision act. Sergeant Bowers of the 101st airborne divison and American advisory force, who was in the first downed helicopter, knew that he needed to get the ARVN unit he accompanied out of the paddy they had landed in and to the southern tree line (he didn't know guerrillas were there as well) so they would have cover from the guerrillas in the western tree line. But he couldn't persuade the ARVN to budge.
As soon as the first helicopter had been shot at, the Hueys opened up on the tree lines. Much of their fire was wasted on the southern tree line, were the guerrillas were engaged with the Civil Guards. There was a river in the tree line, and the Huey pilots shot at the wrong side of it. Even the fire they put into the western tree line proved ineffective because the guerrilla foxholes were so well concealed. Even worse, the guerrillas actually focused fire on the Hueys as they made strafing runs - this was contrary to their usual tactic, which was running away. Today, Hanoi was standing and fighting.
Helicopter pilots had a code in Vietnam at this time. If a crew went down, they rescued the crew. It didn't matter if there were Hanoi or Saigon forces around - they rescued the crew. Vann didn't even try to stop them, although he believed fiercly that it was a bad idea. A H-21 actually managed to touch the ground near the other one, but the chopper was soon put out of service by concentrated fire from the tree line. Now two crews needed rescuing. Spec 4. Donald Braman, twenty one years old, was wounded in the shoulder and died in the second helicopter waiting for evacuation which Bowers, due to communication problems, could not secure. The ARVN forces lying in the paddy continued to take heavy casualties.
There seemed to Vann to be one way out of this mess - there was still a prong he hadn't used. To the west, M-113 Armoured Personnel Carriers waited. Vann communicated with the American advisors with the unit, Capt. James Scanlon and Capt. Robert Mays. He told them to assault the western tree line at speed. The ARVN commander with the unit was less than keen, pointing out correctly that it would take an hour to traverse the canals that laid between his vehicles and the tree line. After much goading, he was persuaded to cross (at one point Vann instructed Capt. Mays to shoot the "rotten, cowardly son of a bitch", by which he meant the ARVN officer) the canal. Their assault on the western tree line was, however, a disaster. They believed the guerrillas would flee, just as they had always fled from the M-113s in the past. The vehicles were one of the most deadly recourses the ARVN had and they had inflicted massive casualties on the guerrillas in the past. The odd mortar shell exploding ineffectually around the vehicles as they advanced through the paddy seemed to confirm the guerrillas were trying to delay the carriers as they moved out. But the guerrilla's commanding officer was entertaining no such ideas - he knew he couldn't pull out until after night fall, because if he did he would be exposed to aerial fire. So he sat and waited, encouraged his men, and reminded them of their training - focus fire on the lead M-113, just like with helicopters.
The nerve of the ARVN inside the carriers started to crack as fire rained on them. The men operating the .50 calibre machine guns on top were most frequently killed, and many gave up trying to fire accurately and squatted behind the weapon, perforating the sky. The advance continued until it was nearly on top of the guerrillas, and all might have been lost for the Hanoi forces. One of the APC's had a flamethrower on top, and it got in range of the tree line. The operator aimed at the tree line and fired - only to discover that human error in combining the "ingrediants" of the flame had rendered it ineffective. Then, as the rest of the APCs approached the tree line, the PLAF forces suddenly broke ranks. But this wasn't a rout. One man (identified later as Squad Leader Dung) leapt forward out of his fox hole and lobbed a frag grenade at one of the carriers, which it exploded on top of. His comrades followed suit, and three lost their lives. The M-113s turned tail and ran. The guerrillas had accomplished what no-one expected. At night fall (following an "attempt" to cut them off by the ARVN which was never going to succeed, nor intended to) they pulled out.
The guerrillas had humbled the military technology of the Americans. Poor integration between the ARVN and the Americans, the perfidy of the ARVN command structure and unexpected tenacity from the guerrillas had humbled the South. The guerillas quickly launched an "Ap Bac emulation drive" to encourage further feats of such prowess, and Party historians mark this battle as the start of their ability to engage the Americans on a large scale. At this time the casualties for the Americans were measured in handfulls. Soon they would be measured in dozens.
1. The Ho Chi Minh Trail
became the focus of the CIA
's "Secret War
" from the air after the political settlement of the Laos Question in 1962
- because Laos was officially neutral, neither America nor North Vietnam could admit their activity on the infilitration routes. The USAF
began bombing and strafing the trail in 1964
. On the Trail see its node
, on Laos cf. Operation Lam Son
2. General Harkins, commander of Military Assistance Command in Vietnam at this time, was confident beyond doubt that America would prevail. The growing gap between his perception and reality and the battle of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann against it is recorded in the biography of the latter, A Bright Shining Lie by press corps journalist Neil Sheehan.
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam 2nd. ed.: Westview Press, 1996.
Giap, General Vo Nguyen. The Military Art of People's War: Selected writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap: Monthly Review Press, 1970.
Maclear, Michael. Vietnam: the Ten Thousand Day War: Thames Methuen, 1981.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: Pimlico, 1988.