Tien Giang


Visiting Ap Bac battle field in January

Photo of Entry:  Visiting Ap Bac battle field in January

The route to Ap Bac (Northern Hamlet) todayis not the same as it was described in “The Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan (The New York Times). The American journalist was not wrong (although he possibly has never visited Ap Bac) because from Wikipedia to every article posted on the 45th anniversary of the Ap Bac victory (2 January, 1963), camp Hung Thanh Commune (now called Tan Phu Commune, Cai Lay District, Tien Giang Province) was just a marshy habitat with a complicated network of canals.

Forty five years is enough time to eliminate any traces of war, even for Waterloo, Stalingrad or Berlin.The black sticky road of the past has been asphalted and lined with frarice-fields.


However, the road to Ap Bac in 1963 was packed with mines and high mounds to thwart enemy tanks.


Leaving behind the busy National Road 1A, the Tien Giang Tourist busturned right towards Ap Bac: a peaceful landscape emerged with thorny bamboo hedges reflected in the small waterway, a farmer bending his back to ride his bicycle, a 5-year-old boy sitting on the luggage carrier on a pack of fertilizer! When we passed a concrete bridge a group of foreigners took photos of children in their school uniforms skipping on the schoolyard.


The sunshine was sparkling on the water surface. “This was the site of the first great battle between the Saigon army and the main forces of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. You can still see pieces of concrete marking where many of the American helicopters and M113 amphibious tanks were destroyed”, the tour guide explained. Inside the fence there was a copper statue named “Three cast-iron soldiers” in front of a row of objects on display, including an M-113 armored vehicle and UH-1 helicopter.


At the end of 1962, South Vietnam intelligence agencies thought there was a broad100 km from Saigon). Commander John Paul Vann was ordered to lead the battle to seize the transmitter.


The Ap Bac battle started in the early morning of 2 January, 1963. The plan was to surround and destroy a Vietnamese Communist company of 100 or more soldiers in Tan Thoi Commune. An infantry battalion was commanded to attack Ap Bac field while two “Bao An” battalions attacked from the rear along the river bank. There was also the 7th Company, commanded by Captain Ly Tong Ba (who was later promoted to senior colonel and taken alive in Cu Chi on April 30, 1975).


However, the total number of soldiers was more than 1,400, twelve times more than expected.


To give a brief description of the H-21 helicopter, it was used by the United States in the early 1960s.Known as the ‘Flying Banana’, it was the forerunner of the powerful Chinook CH-46 and CH-47.The H-21 was full of defects, including the fact that it could not fly on only one of its two engines.


At the onset of the battle two H-21 helicopters fell into the river and the battalions in the rear were caught in an ambush immediately! When the two battalions were broken by firepower from the Vietcong’s heavy machine-guns, John Paul Vann - sitting in an L-19 reconnaissance plane - began to understand that the enemy was not “a gang of thugs armed with some crappy hand-made guns”.


All the documents displayed at the Monument of Ap Bac Victory show that the Liberation Army deployed two companies (most of them from two regular battalions, Battalion 514 and Battalion 216, which were different from the guerrillas that Vann had expected). The Vietcong Commander was Bay Den - or Dang Minh Nhuan, who came from the North after graduating with an excellent commission from the Military Training School of North Vietnam.


The operation of Ap Bac ended that night with heavy casualties for the Saigon army: 83 dead and 108 wounded. Five helicopters and an armored car were destroyed. “The enemy suffered from heavy casualties with 450 dead and injured, three U.S. advisers killed in action, nine helicopters and three M-113 armored vehicles were destroyed,” according to the report at the Monument.


An explanation for this loss is that John Vann underestimated his enemy by deploying his army in the middle of the flooded rice paddies, whereas the Liberation Army was well hidden behind the tree line. Also, the M-113 was not effective, and many gunners were taken down from the very beginning of the battle because of General Stilwell’s belief that bullet-shields were unnecessary. The deployment of two companies of well-armed and experienced paratroopers with the hope of rescuing the situation that late afternoon was a deadly reinforcement: 18 of them were brought down as the plane dropped them right into a Liberation Army-based village. The rest, instead of being dropped in the north to block the withdrawal of the Liberation Army were, by an unintelligible mistake, dropped into muddy rice paddies in the south.


Although Ap Bac was just a medium sized battle compared to later battles in the Vietnam War, its victory had a significant meaning. After the loss of Ap Bac, US newspapers and magazines started to criticize the weakness of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).


In 1965the US officially started to pour their Marines into Danang, but everything had been decided long time ago, particularly after the Battle of Ap Bac.

Source SaigonTimes

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