The battle of Ap Bac, sixty-five kilometers southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta in January 1963, illustrates the early problems faced by the developing armored forces of the ARVN . The month before, Vietnamese Army intelligence had reported a reinforced Viet Cong company in Ap Tan Thoi, 1,500 meters northwest of Ap Bac. (Map) The Vietnamese 7th Division planned an operation to trap the Viet Cong by landing the 11th Infantry Regiment to the north by helicopter while a provisional regiment of two battalion-size task forces of Civil Guards (later named Regional Forces) moved in from the south. The 4th Mechanized Rifle Squadron, 2d Armored Cavalry, commanded by Captain Ba, was attached to the provisional regiment and was to attack from the southwest. Three Vietnamese Ranger and infantry companies were in reserve, with artillery and air support on call.
In contrast to the intelligence estimate, the enemy force actually consisted of three main force companies, reinforced with machine guns, 60-mm. mortars, and several local guerrilla units. The Viet Cong after action report subsequently captured revealed that the enemy knew a battle was imminent and had carefully prepared defensive positions along the Cong Luong Canal from Ap Tan Thoi to Ap Bac. The canal, bordered with vegetation, offered concealment and unobstructed fields of fire across the open rice paddies.
On the morning of 2 January 1963 the Civil Guard task forces started north, while in three uneventful trips helicopters lifted the Vietnamese 11th Infantry Regiment into position. About 0730 Task Force A encountered the southern flank of the Viet Cong positions along the Cong Luong Canal. During the first moments of battle, the task force commander was wounded and a company commander killed. Major Lam Quang Tho, commander of the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment and also province chief, refused to allow the provincial forces to advance, and changed their mission to one of occupying blocking positions. Colonel Bui Dinh Dam, 7th Division commander, decided to commit a reserve force to the west side of the canal that runs through Ap Bac. At 1020 as the helicopters came in for their fourth lift, the Viet Cong antiaircraft crews hidden along the canal opened fire. Of the 15 helicopters bringing in the reserve, 14 were hit, and by noon 5 had been shot down.
Lieutenant Colonel John P. Vann, division adviser, radioed Captain James B. Scanlon, senior adviser to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, that the helicopters were down about 1,500 meters to the southeast of the regiment. After considerable argument with Captain Scanlon, Captain Ba finally agreed to move across the Cong Ba Ky Canal and secure the helicopters. Three hours later, as the first of the APC's approached the helicopters, enemy fire suddenly raked the two leading vehicles and their dismounted infantrymen. The APC's began backing up, abandoning the wounded. A few minutes later they advanced again, firing their .50-caliber machine guns, and again they were hit by enemy fire. Exposed from the waist up, the machine gunners were particularly vulnerable; fourteen of them died before the day was over.
Captain Scanlon ran to the aid of the wounded helicopter crews, and with the help of Sergeant Bowers, another adviser, carried them to the APC'S. By now more APC's had crossed the canal and they too tried to maneuver forward, but without success. Because there was no unified effort, the Viet Cong was able to concentrate fire on each vehicle in turn as it ventured forward.
By mid-afternoon, when it was apparent that the enemy could not be overrun, the South Vietnamese Army commanders and the advisers decided to request reinforcement by an airborne battalion. Despite the vehement objections of both Colonel Vann and Colonel Daniel B. Porter, who was the IV Corps Tactical Zone adviser, the corps commander decided to drop the South Vietnamese airborne battalion to the west, behind the mechanized squadron, rather than east of the canal, where it would have completed the encirclement. At dusk the 8th Airborne Battalion parachuted into the rice paddies. The night was quiet save for artillery fire and the popping of flares over the enemy positions. Taking advantage of the open eastern side, the Viet Cong withdrew during the night and were gone by daylight. Early in the morning dismounted troops from the APC squadron crossed the canal, passed the empty enemy positions, and swept through most of Ap Bac before being ordered to hold. The airborne battalion was still organizing and collecting parachutes and was not ready to attack. Finally, at noon the force staged an attack that was really nothing more than a walk-through.
Because of the large number of South Vietnamese troops involved, and especially because of the number of U.S. helicopters downed early on the first day, the battle of Ap Bac drew much attention. Although estimates of the results of Ap Bac varied, Colonel Vann considered the operation a failure. Several days later he stated:
The fighting at Ap Bac and more specifically the employment of the mechanized rifle squadron, illustrates many of the problems faced by advisers. Poor coordination and planning were apparent at all levels in the South Vietnamese command; the airborne forces were not correctly employed and there was no unity of command on the ground. Politics also played a part. The South Vietnamese cavalry commander was the political leader of the province, and because his political and military future depended on his keeping casualties in the Civil Guard and armored cavalry to a minimum, he was reluctant to have these forces attack. Finally, strained relations between the advisers and the South Vietnamese unit commanders materially contributed to the lack of cohesion. Politically, the battle was reported as a victory, but for the armored forces it was much less. Only when the crews had had further training and experience and when improvements had been made on the equipment would the APC's be employed to better advantage.
Armored Combat in Vietnam, General Donn A. Starry, Blandford Books Ltd., 1981, ISBN 0-7137-1166-3