On January 3,1963, several American war correspondents approached General Paul D. Harkins to ask what he thought about the battle the 7th Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Division had just fought at a village named Bac. Harkins, about to climb into his aircraft to fly back to Saigon after receiving a briefing on the action from Brigadier General Huynh Van Cao, the Vietnamese IV Corps commander, remarked to New York Times correspondent David Halberstam that ‘we’ve got them in a trap and we’re going to spring it in half an hour.’
Halberstam and Peter Arnett, an Associated Press correspondent, had just landed at the same airfield after flying over Bac in a helicopter, but they had seen no fighting there, much less evidence of a trap about to be sprung. Hoping to iron out the inconsistency between what the Military Assistance Command (MACV) commander had told them and what they had seen, Halberstam, Arnett and Neil Sheehan turned to the American adviser to the 7th Division, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, who told them a different story. They learned that the fighting had ended the day before, and that it had not been a success. ‘It was a miserable…performance,’ Vann raged to Sheehan. ‘These people won’t listen. They make the same…mistakes over and over again in the same way.’
Such stark contrasts between high-level evaluations of the fighting and the view of advisers in the field were not news to the press, for MACV Headquarters seemed to have a policy of putting the best possible face on events. Close relations between correspondents and advisers such as Vann gave the other side of the picture. The battle at Bac, however, was more than just another case of official optimism. It became something of a cause celebre that changed American views on the war. After Ap Bac, Americans increasingly lost hope that the Vietnamese armed forces could win their own war, lost faith in the ability of the Saigon government to pursue the war competently, and grudgingly began to conclude that American combat troops would be needed. This was one of the turning points in a long war.
If not altogether rosy, the situation at least looked hopeful in the months before the battle at Ap Bac. In the last months of 1962, the great prize in Vietnam was the Mekong Delta, an incredibly rich area producing most of the rice and a wealth of other crops in South Vietnam. The southern part of the delta had been a Viet Cong stronghold for years, as it had been a base area for the Viet Minh during the French Indochinese War. Although the government maintained an infantry division in the southern half of the delta, it had really given up trying to control the region. In those provinces, the real government was run by the Viet Cong.
The situation in the northern half of the delta was not so bad. The Viet Cong did not have such a tight grip on the villages, and firm, positive government action could still sway the two million inhabitants away from Communist forces, which the United States estimated at 2,000 main force and 3,000 regional guerrillas. The five provinces, some 6,000 square miles of difficult terrain ranging from the swamps in the west to the checkerboard of rice paddies in the central regions, were the responsibility of the 7th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Many thought that the war would be won or lost in these provinces, lying just to the south of the capital. If that were true, then the ARVN 7th Division would fight the critical battles of the war from its headquarters at My Tho, less than 40 miles by road from Saigon.
The tactical situation seemed to be improving, with the implication that President Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime was strengthening control in this decisive area. In May, shortly after Vann arrived as adviser to division commander Colonel Huynh Van Cao, 7th Division patrols surprised a large number of guerrillas who unwisely tried to flee across open terrain. The Vietnamese Air Force, cooperating with the 7th Division, had easy targets and killed almost a hundred, including a battalion commander. Among the 24 prisoners was another battalion commander. Colonel Cao was naturally pleased with such a striking success, particularly since he had obtained it at almost no cost to his own forces. The operation convinced Cao of the wisdom of cooperating with Vann, and of allowing Vann’s operations staff to ‘assist’ his own in planning the 7th Division’s strikes against the VC.
Thereafter, the 7th Division moved from success to success. Under Vann’s tactful guidance, Cao’s troops continued to make contact with the VC and kill large numbers of them. Vann’s intelligence officer showed his Vietnamese counterpart how to develop scattered and diverse bits of information into profiles of enemy activity that could exploit any VC mistakes and pinpoint their base areas. Superior armament helped to. Although the Communists were learning not to flee into the open where fighter-bombers could attack them, they were still being surprised by the extraordinary mobility that helicopters gave the government troops and by the discrete firepower of armed helicopters.
Perhaps the most effective technical wrinkle was the armored personnel carrier, the M-113. The APC was ideal for work in the delta because it had a limited swim capability and could maneuver in the marshy and wet ground throughout the region. Its light aluminum armor was proof against any weapon the VC had in those days and its .50-caliber Browning heavy machine gun gave it exceptional firepower. When first confronted with the APC, surprised Viet Cong troops broke and ran, and thus were easily killed. Taken together, the APC, the helicopter and artillery gave ARVN forces a mobility and firepower that was almost irresistible.
The upshot was that, by the end of 1962, the 7th ARVN Division was well on its way to establishing a reputation as the most aggressive and successful in the South Vietnamese Army. In the last quarter of the calendar year, Cao’s troops claimed to have killed slightly more than 4,000 Viet Cong in the 7th Division’s tactical zone at a time when the South Vietnamese Army claimed only around 8,000 VC killed in the entire country.
Allowing for the inevitable inflation in claims, the American advisers could still calculate that the 7th Division had killed more than 2,000 enemy soldiers, enough to cut deeply into Communist operations in the northern delta region. But the hard fact, as Vann privately pointed out to an unreceptive General Harkins at MACV Headquarters, was that the 7th Division’s successes were deceptive, and that a complex of military and political problems prevented real progress against the Communists.
Huynh Van Cao was not the hard-fighting general he appeared to be, nor was he a particularly able military commander. In actuality, he was one of President Diem’s political appointees, given command of the prestigious 7th Division because he was loyal to Diem and because his background and his religion — like Diem he was a Catholic from Hue — marked him as a supporter of the regime. In 1962, Diem remained fearful of military coups like the earlier abortive paratrooper coup. He, rather than the general staff, named key commanders, and he always chose men on the basis of their personal loyalty to him. In Diem’s view, the 7th Division was not important because its tactical zone was crucial to Vietnamese security, but because its location 40 miles from the capital made it his chief guarantee against another military coup.
Similarly, Diem appointed the province chiefs from the Vietnamese officer corps, again selecting men on the basis of their loyalty and reliability. He took care to separate the chains of command so that the province chiefs in the 7th Division’s zone were answerable to Saigon, but not to the division commander. This was one more piece of insurance against collusion among his officers. Military units assigned to the provinces might cooperate with Cao’s division in operations against the Viet Cong, but Cao had no authority to issue orders to those troops, a fact that later had an important bearing on the fighting at Ap Bac.
Unfortunately, the president’s outlook on the war meant that there was little chance that officers loyal to Diem might also be good combat leaders. Diem feared high casualty rates because he believed that casualties were the factor that had triggered the paratrooper coup attempt. Neil Sheehan, reporting on this phenomenon, noted that the real frustration among the elite airborne officers had been casualties generated by pointless and unproductive fighting. Diem apparently never grasped that subtle distinction, and simply measured his commanders on the basis of how few casualties their units suffered. Fear of casualties naturally produced a tendency among the division commanders to avoid contact with the enemy whenever possible.
There was, however, a second reason for the wise Vietnamese commander to avoid battle, even if casualty rates could be kept down. Diem permitted no real authority in Vietnam except his own, which tended to drive men of ability out of the armed forces and government service. Successful military commanders, men whose units got headlines by defeating the Viet Cong regularly, became threats, the sort of popular figures around whom other officers might rally to depose the government. For most commanders with an interest in keeping their jobs and gaining further promotion, occasional successes were sufficient to obtain them recognition in the presidential palace without making them threats to Diem’s personal security.
As a consequence, American advisers found fewer really capable officers in the higher ranks of the Vietnamese Army than they expected. Paradoxically, being stuck at a junior rank did not necessarily mean that an officer was a poor one; more often, it meant that he was just the opposite. The command exercised by the politically savvy and technically deficient senior Vietnamese officers was rarely good enough of itself to produce satisfactory results against the VC. Thus, the advisers had to find diplomatic ways to get timid and often incapable officers to pursue the enemy effectively.
Further problems existed in the battle-readiness of the soldiers. Even in the much vaunted 7th Division, the standard of individual training was very low. Cao had no interest in putting his battalions through the regular training cycles that Vann kept urging on him. In their home stations, commanders were more apt to allow their troops simply to relax than to work with them, and ignored such fundamentals as rifle marksmanship. Frustrated American advisers reported to Vann that the individual soldier was brave, willing and cheerful in the main, but that his training was woefully deficient.
Vigorous operations still netted good results for the 7th Division in late 1962, but Vann knew that the trend would not last. He was dealing the Viet Cong a series of surprises through his use of firepower and new equipment. When confronted with the helicopter and the armored personnel carrier, the VC initially ran and were killed in great numbers. As time went on, the enemy began to find ways to cope with the American equipment, and the situation was beginning to stabilize again. Sooner or later, the VC would develop an effective means of evading, avoiding, or even countering helicopters and light armor.
So far, the killing had been done at arm’s length, by air power, by artillery and by heavy weapons fire. Cao’s successes had been on the cheap, but they could not go on indefinitely. Sooner or later, Vann knew, the Vietnamese infantry would have to carry the battle to the Viet Cong, and there was absolutely no question that Cao lacked the will to order that kind of fighting. The other downside to the ARVN style of war was that it was indiscriminate. Vann firmly believed that the Vietnamese had to fight a very personal war, carefully identifying the enemy they killed. ARVN commanders, however, preferred to use artillery and air power to smash villages they suspected of harboring Viet Cong. High civilian casualties produced resentment against the government, giving the Viet Cong the propaganda they needed to replace their combat losses.
By October of 1962, the situation in the 7th Division tactical zone had reached its crisis. Under Vann’s tutelage, ARVN troops had done well against the enemy, but Cao’s luck eventually had to run out. On the fifth day of the month, the Viet Cong 514th Regional Battalion ambushed and all but wiped out a platoon of the division’s ranger company, and the losses had come to President Diem’s attention. Perhaps the casualties themselves would not have been enough, but Cao had also been so indiscreet as to be unusually successful during his tenure at My Tho. Thus, Diem summoned him to Saigon for a conference, the upshot of which was that if Cao wanted his promotion to general, he had to limit casualties. From then until the end of the year he did so, brilliantly. More than a dozen operations were launched, not one of which succeeded in finding the enemy. Evidently using his intelligence sources to send his troops to areas where he was certain they would not find the Viet Cong, Cao diligently obeyed Diem’s orders to be more ‘prudent’ — his regulars suffered only four casualties in the entire period.
The cost of his prudence was considerable, for he also gave up control of the countryside to the enemy. Vann fumed and argued, but was unable to get Cao to apply pressure to the Communists. Those areas that had been under marginal control began to slip away, and the Viet Cong main forces had the opportunity to recruit and train to make up the losses of the previous four months. Vann had never been able to persuade Cao to send his troops out on night patrols, thus turning over the provinces to the VC as soon as darkness fell. Now it seemed the enemy would own the daytime as well. The momentum, both politically and militarily, swung back to the Communists.
At the end of December, Cao got his reward. Diem promoted him to general and reassigned him to command the newly organized IV Corps, which included the 7th Division. As his final act, Cao recommended that the division’s operations officer, Bui Dinh Dam, be promoted to command the 7th.
One of the persistent ideas of American advisers in the early 1960s was that even the ARVN infantry could defeat the VC if the enemy would only stand and offer a conventional battle. Anticipating Lyndon Johnson’s later characterization of them, General Harkins and his staff called the Viet Cong ‘raggedy-ass little bastards,’ a contempt that Vann and his advisory team did not share. Still, Vann sought a decisive battle that would really hurt one of the enemy’s main force units. It was in this context that the operation against the Communists at Ap Bac was conceived. Vann convinced the new division commander to try to trap main force Viet Cong units that his intelligence showed him to be concentrating in that area, hoping that Dam might be more aggressive than Cao had been.
Western Dinh Tuong Province was very definitely ‘Injun country,’ as American advisers liked to call Viet Cong strongholds. The home district of the 514th VC Regional Battalion, it was an area where villages were fortified with well-prepared foxholes and bomb shelters. This was where the 7th Division’s ranger platoon had been ambushed, and G-2 evidence was firm that about 100 men of the 514th were resting in the general vicinity of the village of Bac. This presented the ARVN with an excellent opportunity to pin down a VC unit and destroy it by using all its advantages of mobility, firepower and armor.
The intelligence was correct that the enemy was there, but underestimated both their number and quality. In fact, more than 300 VC were there, elements of both the 514th Regional Battalion and the 261st Main Force Battalion. Moreover, the Viet Cong commander intended to give his opponents just the sort of battle they had wanted for so long. Using a capability that the South Vietnamese forces did not suspect they had, the VC listened to ARVN radio transmissions that tipped off the intended movement against Bac. Armed with that knowledge, the VC battalion commander determined to stand and fight, in part to convince the local peasants that the guerrilla government was there to stay in the province. He disposed his troops in a fashion that would have earned the respect of any instructor at the U. S. Army’s Fort Benning (Ga.) Infantry School and waited for the attack.
The plan was a good one. One infantry battalion of the 7th Division would land just to the north of the villages of Tan Thoi and Bac, while two Civil Guard battalions would move up from the south to block any attempt of the VC to withdraw in that direction. Meanwhile, a company of infantry in M-113 armored personnel carriers would sweep the western flank of the area. With support from artillery and the air force, the regular troops would move into the villages to hit the VC. Vann deliberately left the open rice paddies to the east uncovered. If the enemy fled in that direction, they would be easy targets.
At 0730 hours on January 2, 1963, the first of three lifts of 7th Division infantry arrived by H-21 helicopters in the rice paddies to the north of Bac, and almost immediately the plan began to go wrong. Ground fog delayed the next two lifts, and the Viet Cong had ample warning of the direction the attack would take. Surprised by helicopters in the past, the Viet Cong had by now learned how to deal with them. Not only did the individual guerrilla know how to fire machine guns at them, but also they had learned the technique of air defense by unit small-arms volleys. The pilots of the ten H-21s elected to land too close to the tree lines, and their aircraft were immediately taken under small-arms fire. Three H-21s and one of the five escorting UH-1 gun ships were shot down within five minutes, and every single one of the H-21s and all of the UH-1s except one sustained battle damage. The Vietnamese troops piled out of the aircraft and went to ground against the paddy dikes, where strenuous efforts by their American advisers failed to move them for the remainder of the day.
In the south, the two Civil Guard battalions ran into security forces the VC commander had set out against just such an attack. The troops came under fire and halted. One young officer wanted to continue the attack but could not obtain permission from his commander to do so. The Civil Guard battalions, like the infantry company mounted in M-113s to the west, were under command of Major Lam Quang Tho, the province chief. Under pressure himself to limit casualties, Tho refused to order his units to advance against the Viet Cong, and the only result of the contact was a continuing exchange of fire that produced a slow but steady stream of killed and wounded.
Because of their carefully prepared locations in the tree lines, the VC were very hard to spot. Even muzzle flashes of weapons firing were difficult to see. The enemy also had the advantage that their fighting positions were higher than the surrounding rice paddies, with the effect that they could deliver grazing fire across the fields. The helicopter gun ships never managed to bring fire on the Viet Cong effectively because the enemy was careful to avoid disclosing its positions when the helicopters attacked. In an attempt to get the attack moving, Vann called for artillery and air support. Both the artillery and the air force attacked the villages rather than the tree lines, however, producing spectacular effects but not harming the Viet Cong.
Vann, flying over the battlefield in an observation aircraft, saw what was happening and tried desperately to get the units to move. If the dismounted troops were pinned down, then perhaps the armored unit could break the stalemate. Eventually, and only through the best efforts of the American adviser with the armored unit, he managed to get the M-113 company to attack the Viet Cong troops that he determined were well dug-in along the tree line in Bac. The belated appearance of the armored personnel carriers did not have the intended effect, however, for the Viet Cong had begun to learn how to deal with them as well. The VC concentrated their rifle fire against whichever vehicle happened to be in the lead, an easy task since the company was attacking in piecemeal fashion, and tried to kill the drivers and the exposed gunners on the .50-caliber machine guns. As one gunner after another was killed, the attacking ARVN lost heart and broke off their assault. By late in the afternoon, there was still no progress against the enemy.
In despair at the disaster that was developing, Vann tried every argument to persuade his counterparts to deliver an effective attack against the Viet Cong. These arguments consumed even more precious daylight because the senior commanders were at their headquarters, rather than in the field with their troops. Realizing that he was failing and that the day was almost over, Vann then became concerned that the enemy would escape when night fell. If he could put troops on the open eastern side of the battlefield and keep the area illuminated by artillery-delivered flares all night, he would still have a chance to crack the VC defense the next morning. He finally managed to convince the corps commander, General Cao, to throw in his reserve force, one of the elite parachute battalions. Cao, horrified in his own way at the disaster of heavy casualties, delayed bringing in the airborne until late afternoon and then dropped them not to the east, where Vann wanted them to block the enemy’s exfiltration, but to the west. Concerned to halt the costly fighting for political reasons, Cao had deliberately left an escape route open for the Viet Cong commander.
The incredible had happened, confirming Vann’s predictions that new weapons would not finally beat the enemy. The Viet Cong had finally stood to fight the ARVN, and refused to be driven out of their positions even by attacking armored vehicles. Using good fire discipline, the guerrillas kept both the regulars and the civil guards pinned down until darkness fell, when they gradually slipped away, taking with them their wounded and dead. When morning came, the infantry moved into Bac where, of course, they found nothing, the Viet Cong even having carried away most of their empty shell casings for later reloading.
The same day, General Harkins came to hear what had happened. By that time, General Cao had assembled a briefing that showed how the 7th Division and supporting province troops had trapped a Viet Cong unit at Bac and were about to annihilate it. Artillery fire, sounding at that moment, gave verisimilitude to the story. In fact, the fire that was falling on Bac was doing nothing but inflicting more casualties on South Vietnamese troops, a fact observed by Neil Sheehan, who happened to be there at the time. Harkins, however, was satisfied with Cao’s briefing and left without observing the battlefield himself. He found Vann’s subsequent report on the action to be too critical of the South Vietnamese commanders and refused to accept the journalists’ accounts of what happened at Bac.
The real outcome of the battle at Bac was sobering. The South Vietnamese troops suffered approximately 80 killed and more than 100 wounded in a battle that might have been, but was not, a decisive one against the Viet Cong. Three American advisers were killed and eight more wounded. The Viet Cong had stood up to massive firepower from helicopter-delivered machine guns and rockets, artillery, tactical air power and heavy machine guns of the armored personnel carriers; had coolly fought the battle on their own terms; and had broken contact on their initiative. It was, from beginning to end, a Communist victory.
This article was written by Charles E. Kirkpatrick and originally published in the June 1990 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!