The Battle of Ap Bac II
Recollections of 2LT Howard Kirk/3/47th Recon Platoon
Ap Bac II was a different day for me – I felt my platoon should have been there, but we were on an Tango circling around the Benewah in brigade reserve. We listened to the fight on our radio and then I received a radio message that we were attached to the 4th Bn 47th Infantry, which was in the major fight. We arrived in time to observe part of the fight, but we were not employed until late.
My best memory of AP Bac II will always be Tangos and Monitors “floating” by with the United States flag flying. The entire area was flat rice paddies early in the rain season with the fields being very wet. After dark my platoon was ordered to help the wounded – as I recall the wounded we found, 3 or 4, were taken to a Tango for evacuation. One of my worst memories was finding my West Point classmate Fred Bertolino on the field.
The 9th Infantry Division was reactivated in the spring of 1966 for deployment in Vietnam – it was the first division formed for war since WWII. The forming of the division was unique with the brigades forming at the same time at differing stages of soldier training – one brigade received soldiers starting with basic training – one brigade with soldiers joining after basic training and undergoing advanced individual training, and one starting with troops fresh from advanced individual training with the units going into unit training.
The soldiers were primarily draftees. We were critically short of noncommissioned officers. The Army was ramping up for Vietnam and NCOs were not available. For example, in my first assignment as a rifle platoon leader I had 2 NCOs – my platoon sergeant and my weapons squad leader. I should have had 13 NCOs – 3 more E-6’s and 8 E-5. The good news was our young draftees responded magnificently with many filling the key NCO leadership positions.
I was one of my 27 West Point Classmates who joined the 9th. Doing the math, 27 was one third of the infantry platoon lieutenants in the division. Because of the rush to get officers to the division we did not attend our 5 month long Infantry Officer Basic Course. We did attend the Army’s 9 week long Ranger Course which was a lifesaver for our knowledge and skills for Vietnam. We had less than 3 months with our platoons before deploying and in my case that included soldiers in Advanced Individual Training where we were not leading and training soldiers in unit operations.
Stories about the haste and shortages can go on and on. We trained with M-14 rifles and then were issued M-16s as we deployed – we did get to fire 10 rounds each.
We had 10 days leave before deploying. My weapons squad leader went AWOL, so I had only one NCO, SFC Claude Onley. When we arrived in Vietnam at Bear Cat we spent a couple of days sorting everything out and then the brigade deployed for a “shakedown” operation to get us acclimated. On the 2nd night SFC Onley was killed in a horrible accident by one of my soldiers. The soldier was on outpost with another soldier and we lost contact with them. Onley thought they were sleeping and went out to check on them – an absolute don’t ever do that. We believe Onley missed the outpost and when realizing where he was he approached the position from the right front – the enemy side. A young soldier in his 2nd day in the field in Vietnam fired 3 rounds killing Onley. The platoon then had no NCOs – only a young, inexperienced lieutenant. The young draftees met their challenges.
A couple of days after Onley died the battalion, 3-47th Inf, was sent into the Rung Sat Special Zone – the most god awful place imaginable. We were sent there because of VC attacks against ships on the Soi Rap River going to Saigon. We were there about 6 weeks living in the mud with no showers or hot food. We were joined in our misery by the Navy! The Navy arrived in an assortment of boats “borrowed” from the Vietnam Navy. They were basically WWII landing craft. They were sent from heaven though as we could now ride in boats to areas rather than walking through mangrove swamps.
After about 6 weeks we were taken to Vung Tau where we billeted on a Navy troop ship (I think it was the USNS Henrico) and conducted riverine training with the Navy – for us it meant riding around on boats – getting on and off a boat with a ramp is not a difficult task. Life was good on the ship with my soldiers sleeping in tiered racks 16 high – and maybe 8 or 6 – but stacked. Officers faired better. The food was great and the showers better than great.
We then went to Dong Tam and conducted operations using helicopters, trucks, and Army LCMs for transport. Then the Navy arrived with the Tangos and Monitors – what a sight. We had a few operations along the Mekong with one major battle in May involving the new Navy boats. We were very impressed with the Navy firepower. I had moved to take over the battalion recon platoon which resulted in us working very early with the Navy in separate operations including reconning streams to see where the boats could go. My platoon was initially billeted on the USNS Whitfield – nice living except the first day we realized that going down many ladder steps – and then going up many ladder steps might make it hard to get out if water came in. We then moved to the USNS Benewah – the ships the battalions were on could not hold everyone, so the recon platoons got the live on the Benewah. I have nice memories of the Benewah – great sailors who treated my soldiers extremely well, great food, good movies, hot showers, and on and on. Many times when we deploying in the middle of the night we had a night meal where we could have anything they had. My favorite was a fresh load of bread with a stick of butter melting in it.
In June the MRF formally formed. Our first operation was in the northern Rung Sat. Then we went back to Dong Tam – and then in an incredible operation the MRF moved overnight to Long An Province and early the next morning launched the operation that led to Ap Bac II.
My personal memories of Ap Bac II include AWE – and I will always say AWE – was about the Navy guys! There is no doubt in my mind that Ap Bac II made the MRF a joint unit.
Enough of the memories as this is how we got to Ap Bac II. I had the honor of serving as the Aide-de-Camp to Bill Fulton when he was promoted to Brigadier General – and then again when he commanded the reactivated 9th Division at Fort Lewis. He wrote his book Riverine Operations while there and I enjoyed hours of reading and “editing” (spell checking). He refrained from writing about battle results and body counts as he wanted it to be history and the joint command.
Here are some PDF files that Howard prepared:
0 Ap Bac II Intro – 1 Ap Bac II Overview – 2 Ap Bac II Overview – 3 Ap Bac II Overview – 4-47 AAR Jun 1967 – Recon 3-47 – Tutwiler AAF