January 2, 1963 - The Battle of Ap Bac
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
January 2, 1963. The Vietnam War rages, but at this point very few American troops are on the ground.
The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and their American advisors learn of a Viet Cong resistance cell near Ap Bac. When they attempt to crush it with soldiers and armored vehicles, the 350 Viet Cong guerrillas of the cell pin down South Vietnamese forces and cause the Americans to launch a rescue operation. Of fifteen US Army helicopters sent to help the ARVN forces, five are shot down. The American aircrews and South Vietnamese soldiers, cut off due to ARVN cautiousness and bungling, are killed. After the Viet Cong inflict almost 200 casualties on the South Vietnamese and American forces, they fade back into the jungle, suffering only about 50 casualties themselves. With only 350 lightly armed troops, the VC held off 1500 ARVN troops with air, artillery, and armored support for a day.
The Battle of Ap Bac is a huge humiliation for both South Vietnam and their American advisors. For the Viet Cong, it's a tremendous victory – the first time they've won a stand-up battle against the South Vietnamese. From this moment on, they know they can win battles, and that knowledge doesn't change when they began to fight American troops instead of their fellow Asians. For the South Vietnamese, it shows that dictator Ngo Dinh Diem’s government could not defeat the VC, resulting in Diem’s overthrow and death later that year.
The US government tries to spin Ap Bac as a victory - after all, they held the ground and the enemy withdrew. Only a tiny handful of clear-eyed Americans see the truth. Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, the chief military advisor to the ARVN forces during the battle, believed that the South Vietnamese government was so fundamentally broken and corrupt that it could not win the war on its own. Vann called Ap Bac a “miserable damn performance.” Brilliant but controversial to this day, Vann’s story, including the Battle of Ap Bac, would be summed up in his friend Neil Sheehan’s biography *A Bright Shining Lie.* Ap Bac, in Sheehan’s eyes, came to stand for the ultimate futility of the Vietnam War as a whole. Even as the Diem government was humiliated and the VC won a major victory, the US government refused to accept or learn from failure. This would be a pattern for the next decade.
The US ultimately concluded that if the South Vietnamese couldn’t beat the Viet Cong, maybe someone else would have to. Ap Bac was important not for itself, but for what everyone learned from it - or thought they did.
The classic book for the Battle of Ap Bac is the late (2021) Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Vintage Books, 1988). For a more focused tactical analysis, there is David Toczek's The Battle of Ap Bac: They Did Everything But Learn From It (Westport, CT: Naval Institute Press, 2001).