The Battle of Ap Bac

September 28, 1999


The assault by the 60th Infantry’s ‘Wild Ones’ on a Viet Cong stronghold in the Mekong was the kind you see in the movies or on the blackboard, but rarely in actual combat.

As the shadows lengthened over the dry rice fields and dense foliage, the roar of machine-gun fire and exploding grenades slowly died away. Darkness finally came to the rice paddies of Dien Thoung Province in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, but it came slowly. Even so, it was of little help to the Viet Cong, most of whom had died. This time, darkness would provide no convenient cover for their escape.

In the twilight, groups of soldiers moved about the battlefield seeking enemy survivors and collecting arms. Particles of phosphorus from the heavy artillery that had lashed the area flared fitfully, lighting up shattered palms and underbrush with a ghostly glow. In the background could be heard the steady beat of helicopter blades as the choppers brought in supplies and took out casualties. Occasionally the throaty whine of an armored personnel carrier would rend the eerie darkness momentarily as the carrier jockeyed on the battlefield. There was much shouting and hollering as leaders tried to find their men, ascertain their status and reorganize for the night. Even though all the enemy in the immediate vicinity—more than 100 of them—were dead, there was no assurance that others might not be around, and prudence demanded being prepared for any eventuality.

These soldiers, infantrymen of the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry (“the Wild Ones”), and their attached mechanized support (Company C, 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry), were utterly exhausted and physically weak from their exertions. Men spoke in high-pitched, excited voices as though still trying to make themselves heard over the roar of gunfire. As they held their cigarettes their hands shook from the terrific nervous tensions they had been under. Fear, too, played on their frayed nerves. Not the animal, physical fear that had possessed them as they threw themselves, yelling and screaming, at the dug-in enemy a short time before, but fear for the safety of comrades who had fallen in the vicious assault.

But the most prevalent feeling now that the major, recognizable danger had passed, was one of elation—high elation. To have met the enemy on his own terms after so many fruitless months of seeking him, suffering daily casualties from mines and booby traps until frustrations reached a crescendo that seared the mind and bloodied the heart; to have met the enemy and destroyed him completely, provided a joy and a sense of accomplishment that caused their hearts to glow and animated each man. Such is the aftermath of violent combat.

Customarily, when major events occurred in Vietnam, there was nothing to indicate that the day’s operation would be other than routine. True, our division G2 had indicated that a sizeable enemy force was in the Ap Bac area. But experience had shown that at best this was an educated guess, one that all too often had proved false. In fact, if anything, the operation got off to an inauspicious start.

Originally, our 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, had been promised two helicopter companies for the operation; however, late on the day before the operation began, one of these was withdrawn. In view of this, the brigade commander, Col. William B. Fulton, changed his scheme of maneuver. He adopted a conventional formation of two battalions advancing abreast, the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, on the west, the 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry on the east, with Highway 4 as a line of departure.

In order to establish a blocking force that would prevent any enemy from withdrawing ahead of our advance, it was decided that Company A, 3/60th, would utilize the helicopters beginning at 0700 to make an airmobile assault and secure a blocking position astride the most likely route of enemy withdrawal. Following this operation the aircraft would pass to the 3/47th for a similar operation.

The rest of the troops would move to their jump-off positions by vehicles with the 3/60th departing first because it had the longest distance to travel. Jump-off was scheduled for 0800. This was the plan finally coordinated on the evening of 1 May 1967.

Early on 2 May, elements of the Wild Ones composed of Company B and Company C, 3/60th, plus the battalion command post and combat support company (less elements), moved out and arrived at the attack position with out incident. Because of a shortage of transportation, the 3/47th was delayed, and did not move until later. Meanwhile, Company A, 3/60th, was formed up and waiting at the helicopter pickup site for the promised company of choppers. It soon became apparent that the craft would be delayed, and after a wait of more than an hour, the battalion was notified that the helicopters would not arrive because of a tactical emergency elsewhere.

At this point, the situation was confused, and the brigade commander was unhappy. Two companies of the 3/60th were at the jump-off point, the 3/47th was en route but had not yet arrived, and one company of the 3/60th was sitting in the brigade area at Dong Tam without transportation. In short, a nice, tidy plan had gone awry.

After discussing the pros and cons with the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, the brigade commander decided to continue the operation, even though the loss of the blocking force did not augur well for success. Company A was to move by trucks furnished by the brigade besides organic vehicles form the battalion, and upon arrival would go into battalion reserve near the line of departure. Meanwhile, the two companies already on the line of departure would begin the operation by advancing to a series of objectives to the north. The 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry, would also advance to the north as soon as it arrived.

In the zone of the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, the attached mechanized company (Company C, 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry) was given the deeper objectives because its mobility and speed would allow it to quickly search out those objectives. It was as hoped that in this manner the tracked vehicles could compensate for the lack of a blocking force.

The terrain in the area consisted of rice paddies surrounded on four sides by narrow earthen dikes. The paddies were mostly dry and easily supported the weight of an armored personnel carrier. However, throughout the area, the small streams could be crossed only at certain points. Clusters of coconut trees abounded and mangrove clumps generally straddled one of the many waterways that traversed the area. Few people were seen, although there were many houses of mud and thatch in these densely vegetated areas. In addition, farmhouses were scattered throughout the rice paddy terrain. Many of their large haystacks concealed bunkers. Visibility was excellent and the day was hot and clear.

By noontime, troops of the the “Wild Ones” had reached and searched as far north as objective Queen without contact or major incident. Some rice had been found, more proof that Viet Cong had been in the area. Perhaps more significantly, no mines or booby traps had been encountered, usually a good sign that you are in an area highly frequented by the Viet Cong. Company A, 3/60th, had moved forward several kilometers from the line of departure in order to remain in supporting distance of the forward companies. For the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, it looked like another dry hole.

However, for the “Tigers” of the 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry, and especially for Company A of that unit, what had started out as a routine walk in the sun was rapidly becoming a grim one. Almost form the moment it crossed the line of departure, it had begun to meet fire. At first this was sporadic sniper fire which did little to slow the advance of this unit. Moving aggressively, the company closed on the enemy, killed several and forced the others to flee to the north. Continuing its advance, the company began to meet more and more fire as it crossed the open rice fields opposite a built-up area of thatched huts along a deep stream that ran across their front. Calling for artillery fire and air support, the commander attempted to maneuver his company across the stream.

Meanwhile, the battalion commander of the 3/47th had committed his company B to the right of Company A; but Company B was soon stopped by a heavy fire from along the same streamline. At about this time, Company A succeeded in getting a squad across the stream under cover of supporting fire. Keeping low, the squad moved across a short space of open grassland to a small dike, where it prepared to cover the crossing of the rest of the platoon. Suddenly, a concealed automatic weapon opened fire at a range of 50 meters, completely enfilading the line of troops. Fire was immediately returned and the enemy automatic rifle gunner was killed; however, he was quickly replaced by another, who continued to fire on the exposed squad and within minutes all who had crossed the stream were casualties.

By now, fire from all sides was intense, but despite this, several men of the platoon crawled forward to aid the wounded, only to die themselves. In a short time, all of those forward were dead from multiple bullet wounds, and the platoon was temporarily wrecked as a fighting force. The rest of the company dug in on the south side of the stream and continued to blast the area with fire from artillery and small arms.

Learning that elements of the 3/47th were in contact, and anticipating that his battalion would become involved, the commanding officer of the 3/60th ordered company B to move toward the area of contact, followed by Company A. At the same time, he recalled the personnel carrier company (Company C, 5/60th) from its barren search farther to the west and began moving it toward the point of contact. Because of its earlier start and lack of contact, this battalion was already north of the general line of contact, although some three kilometers to the west. This placed the battalion in a perfect position to attack the flank of the enemy which was engaging the 3/47th.

The brigade commander quickly approved the action taken by the 3/60th, and at the same time directed that Company B, 3/60th, which was closest to the scene of combat, be placed under the operational control of the 3/47th and moved to a position to block the enemy’s escape to the north.

Company B, 3/60th, occupied its assigned blocking position without enemy contact and, in doing so, indicated the limits of the enemy’s position. Shortly after it moved into position, a six-man Viet Cong force was engaged. Three VC were killed and the others fled to the south.

Company A, 3/60th, which had been behind but south of Company B, continued to advance along the stream and the road which formed the line of contact farther to the east. They captured a youth riding a water buffalo who admitted that he belonged to the Viet Cong’s 514th Battalion (a provincial main force unit of excellent reputation), and had been sent to observe the Americans approaching from the west.

By 1500, Company A had reached the restraining line designated by the brigade commander, and was deployed along it in assault formation with three platoons abreast. Some light small arms fire had been met by the southern-most platoon advancing along the stream, but the enemy had quickly withdrawn when his fire was returned.

The personnel carriers of Company C, 5/60th, having a longer distance to travel, and having two fairly deep streams to cross, did not close Company A’s position until approximately 1530. When it arrived the 11 carriers quickly deployed in line to the north of Company a so that the battalion was deployed on an assault line 1,000 meters long and facing the east. In front of it stretched some 1,500 meters of open rice fields that were cut at 500-meter intervals by two irrigation ditches, the last of which was some 500 to 600 meters from the enemy’s position. On the north and south was a line of dense coconut trees and undergrowth. Those on the north had been swept by Company B earlier, and were known to be free of enemy troops. Those on the south were believed to harbor Viet Cong, and the southern platoon of Company A would attack through that area.

While these deployments were being made, the 3/47th continued to alternate intense artillery fire and air strikes the enemy position, thus effectively preventing most of them from escaping. Concurrently, the other companies of the battalion where dispersed to the east and north of the stream, with the mission of blocking any escaping enemy. While these operations were being carried out, the gunship, which has been constantly circling the area, reported a Viet Cong force of company size moving across the fields to the northeast. The gunship immediately attacked this group, killing an estimated 40.

By 1600, everything was ready for the coordinated attack. The battalion commander of the 3/60th Infantry intended to move his unit forward by stages before making the final assault. This was prompted in part by the need to get as close to the enemy as possible before assaulting, plus the necessity of crossing the tracked vehicles over the two tracked vehicles, would continue to advance by using fire and maneuver within the platoons to destroy individual enemy positions as they were discovered. Even though the general location of the enemy was known, the excellent camouflage and small holes customarily used by the Viet Cong made it impossible to spot exact fire positions until very close to them. To further complicate matters, the area was honeycombed with small fighting positions typical of the Delta region. They all had to be searched and cleared, even though most were found to be unoccupied.

At the brigade commander’s suggestion, it was decided to lay a heavy volume of smoke on the area, using a battery of 155-mm. Howitzers to screen the battalion’s approach. It was also planned to place a battery of 105-mm. Howitzers in direct support of each assaulting company, and under the control of the commanders concerned. The intent was to bring the artillery fire on the enemy’s positions and then advance the infantry to as close as possible under cover of this fire, crawling the last few yards in the case of Company A. Then when the fire lifted to the rear of the enemy, to block his escape positions, the infantry would assault before the enemy could recover. There was some delay caused by problems of coordination between the two battalions, so not until after 1700 did the battalion reach and deploy on the eastern side of the final irrigation ditch. Now the brigade commander faced a serious problem. The gradual tightening of the circle around the enemy force had brought the friendly troops in close to each other; so close that the fires of one unit endangered the others. Besides, the area which the artillery and air were attacking had become smaller and smaller. For the artillery, it was especially difficult; the tubes were so hot from continuous use that now the rounds they fired were beginning to become erratic. Also, all commanders were concerned about the possible effects the .50 caliber fire of the armored personnel carriers would have when they assaulted. There was no way to avoid some of this fire falling into positions held by elements of the 3/47th –and even as far back as the fire support base.

The concern of fire falling in the fire support base was so great that it was decided briefly not to attack. However, by this time all elements of the 3/60th had closed the final assault line and were beginning to meet enemy fire. When recoilless fire began hitting the tracked vehicles, the die was cast. The brigade commander ordered the assault as soon as the air strike, then in progress, was finished.

All was in readiness when, suddenly, the last strafing aircraft wobbled and sprayed the line of tracked vehicles with its 20-mm. mini-guns. Several personnel carriers were hit and several troops killed and wounded. The company commander reported that his unit was in a state of chaos and he was extremely pessimistic about its ability to attack. Meanwhile, the battalion commander of the 3/60th was experiencing great difficulty in getting the artillery fire support needed for his assaulting companies. Due to a misunderstanding, the artillery battalion commander refused to relinquish control of his batteries to the forward observers on the ground. Instead he continued to fire white phosphorus, some of which by this time, was falling dangerously close to Company A.

By now, time had become the vital consideration, for darkness was approaching rapidly. Without further delay, the commanding officer of the 3/60th ordered the attack to go in without the artillery. Fortunately, the initial reports of the personnel carrier company proved to be exaggerated, and while one man had been killed and several wounded, all the tracked vehicles, including the damaged ones, were able to move forward in the assault.

What followed was a classic, coordinated assault such as can be seen only on a movie screen or at a demonstration at Fort Benning, but seldom in live combat. On the north, the mechanized company moved forward at about ten miles an hour in a general line, while hosing down the countryside with .50 caliber-fire. Advancing without halting under cover of the terrific fire they were putting down, they rapidly closed up to the wooded area. As soon as the woods were reached the infantrymen jumped out and began destroying the enemy troops in their position, where they had been trapped and pinned down by the heavy volume of fire.

On the south, Company A was exchanging fire with most of the enemy defenders. The two platoons in the rice until they could gain fire superiority, then moving again. In half an hour they had advanced to within 100 meters of the main enemy line, but were held up by intense fire from small arms and mortars.

Ammunition was rapidly dwindling, for the effort to maintain fire superiority caused huge expenditures. In addition, some men were having trouble with their rifles, due to the terrific volume of the fire they were pouring out. Temporarily stalled, the company commander requested the support of the empty tracked vehicles which he could see to the north. These vehicles quickly joined and began to add the fire power of their .50 calibers to the combat, which at the moment was very much in the balance.

So far as the battalion commander of the 3/60th was concerned, all his chips were in the pot. The situation was such that no fire from air or artillery could be utilized due to the nearness of the opposing combatants. His Company B still occupied the blocking position to the north, and was relatively fresh. It could prevent disaster, if necessary, but its chances of successfully attacking south along the stream were slim, since semi-darkness was already covering the area. Thus the units in contact would have to finish the job.

It was apparent that the climax was rapidly approaching. If we were going to win, the enemy must soon begin to break and run. We continued to pour fire into his position and to inch forward, taking best advantage of the cover.

The break we were looking for finally came on the right (southern) flank, where the platoon was coming along the stream line. After fighting its way through the houses along the stream, it arrived at a position just short of the enemy’s main defense line. In front of the platoon was the small pasture where the lead squad of Company A, 3/47th, had been destroyed earlier. The dead lay along a small dike extending perpendicular to their front. Farther to the north (about 30 meters) was another dike, parallel to the one behind which the dead lay.

The air was alive with bullets, making it impossible to advance across the open space. Quickly dividing his platoon, the platoon leader directed his men to start crawling along the sides of the two dikes under cover of the supporting fire of Company A, 3/47th, from the southern side of the stream. As the men worked their way toward the enemy, they were forced to crawl over the dead of the other unit. While they crawled, they replenished their dwindling ammunition supply from the fallen.

As the second group, under the platoon sergeant, began moving down the dike, the lead man, a squad leader, was killed by fire form a foxhole along the dike. Seeing this, the two men following, a machine gun team, quickly jumped up and rushed the position, dispatching the Viet Cong with a burst. Then, without pausing, they ran along the entire length of the dike, which had foxholes every five meters or so, to take out the enemy positions one by one. In rapid succession they destroyed an automatic rifle position and light machine gun post, and then penetrated the enemy’s main line to destroy a mortar which had been causing some trouble for the rest of Company A.

Inspired by the performance of these two men (who have been recommended for the Medal of Honor), the rest of the platoon jumped up and attacked, destroying the other enemy troops in close combat. One enemy soldier was beaten to death by a soldier who used his steel helmet, and another was stabbed to death, thus indicating the ferocity of the assault.

This attack broke the back of the enemy’s defense. Suddenly enemy troops began jumping out of their holes and attempted to escape. Most were shot down as the troops of Company A, seizing the break they had been waiting for, quickly overran the position.

Thus, the battle ended. A hundred Viet Cong died in the area. No doubt, some escaped in the fading light. Since no officers could be identified among the enemy dead, except for the battalion surgeon, there was reason to suspect that these key people may have moved out earlier in the day, and possibly were some of those that had been encountered by Company B.

In the 3/60th, casualties were unbelievably light. Two men had died, another 15 had been wounded, but none of these men died and only six were classed as seriously wounded. Losses in the 3/47th were more severe. Thirteen men had died in the little pasture and many more had been wounded.

However, overall enemy losses had been more than 200 men. A reinforced company, and possibly more, had been lost for the time being to the Viet Cong 514th Battalion. For the “Wild Ones” of the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, and the attached troops, the action had confirmed what they believed all along: that given the opportunity, they could whip anybody. It had proved once again that the American fighting man, when well trained and aggressive, is the finest in the world. Of the men who participated in this assault, most had been in the Army hardly a year.

Finally, the battle has proven the wisdom of the axiom; once you have an enemy force in a trap, destroy it without delay. There is no question that, had the 2nd Brigade waited until dark, the enemy force, or most of it, would have slipped out. Although the enemy would have suffered heavy casualties, his defeat would not have been nearly as final as the one which occurred. The enemy has demonstrated time and again that merely killing his troops does us little or no good, for he is able to quickly recruit more. However, if the core of these units, who are irreplaceable, can be captured or killed, the efficiency of these units must begin to wane.