At one-thirty in the afternoon, the armored personnel carriers reached the site of the disastrous helicopter landing, their metallic skin repelling the Viet Cong’s bullets. The vehicles stopped to pick up some survivors and unload infantrymen, then readied themselves for a frontal assault on the tree line. Mays boarded the carrier of Lieutenant Cho, the most aggressive of the platoon leaders. Like the other Americans, Mays believed that the Communists would fire a few shots at the armored personnel carriers and then run for their lives, as they had in the past. The numerous and spectacular successes of the M-113s had made the vehicle one of the most dreaded enemies of the Viet Cong, who called them the “green dragons.” Although they had fought very well thus far, the Viet Cong had little desire to face the dragons on this day. They had, in fact, planned for this battle with the intention of avoiding the M-113s, for they had predicted that no M-113s would be able to reach the battlefield before the fighting was over. If the guerrillas stood up to the dragons to fight, they could be swallowed up, yet if they retreated, they would have to flee across open paddy, exposing themselves to merciless pursuit by the fire-breathing dragons as well as helicopters. Colonel Hai Hoang, an outstanding officer who was in command of all the Viet Cong forces at Bac and Tan Thoi, concluded that a retreat through the muddy rice fields meant certain death and therefore they would stay put and throw everything possible at the enemy. “Do not let your men leave their fighting positions,” Hoang told his company commanders. “If they abandon their foxholes, if we leave our positions, we will lose.”
Shortly before two o’clock, the M-113s steamed towards the tree line. Dis- mounted South Vietnamese infantrymen, accompanied by Scanlon, fanned out and ran forward while firing their rifles. It was exactly what the Americans had trained the South Vietnamese to do. When the foremost two vehicles came within fifty yards of the tree line, a VC machine gunner took them under fire, and other Viet Cong quickly joined in. Because the government’s attacks had already stalled to the north and south, the Viet Cong were able to concentrate their troops on the segment on their western edge where the South Vietnamese were now attacking. Lacking cover and unable to see any enemy targets, the dismounted government troops began dropping. After witnessing the volume of enemy fire, Scanlon concluded that the infantrymen would be wiped out if they continued to charge ahead. He and the infantry unit retreated behind the downed helicopters, to wait until the armored personnel carriers had knocked out the enemy’s strong points.
Advancing on the tree line, the company of M-113s sprayed the fortified enemy positions with their powerful .50 caliber machine guns. The gunners, however, did not know where to shoot because they could not see the enemy. So dense was the vegetation that they could not even locate the Viet Cong’s muzzle flashes. The main victims of the M-113 machine guns turned out to be the trees. The Communist fire, on the other hand, struck the M-113 crewmembers with deadly precision. In order to operate the .50 caliber machine guns, the M-113 gunners had to stand up in the command hatch, leaving themselves unprotected from the waist upwards. In the past, this arrangement had not been a problem, since the Viet Cong had not offered serious resistance. It was a major defect in the design of the American vehicles, one that would be corrected later by adding armor for the gunner’s upper body. Fourteen South Vietnamese soldiers were killed that day while manning the machine guns on the thirteen M-113s. Eventually, after the first assault had come to naught, the vehicles retreated to a safe distance and then began to attack in groups of two or three, except for one occasion when the carriers moved in unison. The Americans had taught the M-113 commanders to attack in small formations, rather than as a whole group, and this approach had worked when the Viet Cong had fled in fear of the machines. Now that the Viet Cong were holding their ground, however, this method permitted the revolutionaries to concentrate their firepower on a small number of exposed gunners.
Captain Ba’s vehicles engaged in repeated duels with the Viet Cong machine gun on the right side of the enemy line, which had inflicted horrific casualties on the attackers. If this gun were eliminated, then the government forces could outflank the defenders with ease. Ba’s men shot the head off of one of the weapon’s gunners, but could not silence the weapon because of the efforts of one very brave man who kept on firing. The armored company tried some other solutions, too. An M-113 with a flamethrower drove within effective range of the tree line and attempted to fire, only to have its flamethrower malfunction. Ba’s carrier and two other carriers moved forward to a position fifteen yards from the irrigation dike, and from there the carrier crewmen lobbed grenades at the critical Viet Cong machine gun. The Viet Cong, however, responded with a storm of grenades, which compelled the carriers to retreat. Vann wanted the Vietnamese to drive the carriers straight into the Viet Cong position and jump out there, but they did not, for American armor officers had taught them that enemy soldiers would pounce on the vehicles and throw grenades in as soon as a hatch opened. Finally, after two M-113s were put out of action, the entire mechanized company pulled back to a safe distance.
Colonel Vann and a few of the Vietnamese field commanders wanted all of the government ground forces to renew the attack, based on the belief that the Viet Cong would not have enough troops to defend on the north, west, and south sides simultaneously. This plan, however, was tossed out by the newly promoted corps commander, General Huynh Van Cao, who had come to the 7th Division’s command post to direct the battle. Cao preferred to use heavy weapons against the Viet Cong and request reinforcements. Upon his instructions, artillery and AD-6, T-28, and B-26 aircraft pounded Bac again. Some would later cite this decision, and earlier decisions at the northern and southern ends of the battlefield to use heavy firepower and await reinforcements, as evidence of South Vietnamese aversion to casualties. While some South Vietnamese officers squandered opportunities during the battle because of excessive caution, as a whole the conduct of the South Vietnamese at Bac and Tan Thoi did not demonstrate a strong propensity for avoiding losses. In each of the instances in question, the troops had already suffered heavy losses during repeated assaults on extraordinarily well-defended positions. Under such circumstances, it made sense for a commander to change his method of attack. Most armies with heavy firepower at their disposal, moreover, prefer to use it liberally against well-defended positions, rather than simply launch repeated infantry assaults, in order to save soldiers’ lives. Commenting on the South Vietnamese decision to halt the ground attacks and call in the air and artillery during this battle, Lt. Gen. Dave R. Palmer wrote: “those cautious tactics were, in spite of the very sincere exhortations of the U. S. advisors, precisely the same that any American commander would have used after U. S. troops were committed in 1965. Moreover, the American’s fate for accepting human losses in lieu of calling for firepower to do the job would have been the same as that of the South Vietnamese commander – removal from command.”
The South Vietnamese Joint General Staff decided to send one of its strategic reserve units, the 8th Airborne Battalion, to the battle. Vann asked Cao to have this battalion land to the east of Bac, so that it could stop the Viet Cong if they tried to withdraw to the east, which at present remained the only direction in which there were no government forces. This move would also enable the South Vietnamese units to attack the Viet Cong from all directions. Cao, however, chose to drop the airborne battalion to the west of Bac. Vann, and hence his press protégés, would claim that Cao had sent the paratroopers to the west with the intention of holding them in place rather than attacking, because Cao had wanted to let the enemy escape so as to avoid further South Vietnamese casualties. In reality, Cao wanted to use the elite airborne battalion, in concert with the M-113s and air support, to flush the Viet Cong eastward before nightfall and hammer them with heavy firepower once they were in the open, as envisioned in the original battle plan drawn up by the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The paratroopers received clear orders to attack the Viet Cong position as soon as they landed. Cao’s approach was consistent with a Sun Tzu maxim that he and other South Vietnamese officers held dear: “To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape.” A surrounded and entrenched enemy would fight more fiercely and from a much more advantageous defensive position than a retreating enemy. Another likely factor in Cao’s decision on the airborne battalion was a loss of confidence in Vann’s judgment. The abrasive adviser had already made many mistakes, berated his counterparts in front of others, and put the South Vietnamese forces in an unfavorable position in order to rescue a handful of stranded Americans.
In the late afternoon, the three hundred paratroopers of the 8th Airborne Battalion flew towards Bac in C-123 Providers. As the whale-shaped Providers approached, the Viet Cong peppered them with machine gun fire, prompting the pilots changed course. Either the jumpmaster or the lead pilot did not adequately compensate for the change and therefore when the paratroopers jumped, they came down much closer to the enemy than planned, with some of the paratroopers floating down directly over Viet Cong positions. The Viet Cong shot many paratroopers while they were still in the air or caught in tree branches. Once on the ground, the surviving paratroopers had little cover from close-range enemy fire and they could not move with any speed because the water in the rice paddies came up to their knees. Some tried to break through the Viet Cong’s perimeter, but, despite their bravery and their excellent military skills, they could not advance very far under such conditions. “They kept trying to move ahead,” said Fletcher Ware, an American captain who parachuted in with the 8th Airborne Battalion, but “they couldn’t move very fast and were just getting picked off.” The battalion quickly sustained fifty-two casualties, including Ware and Russell Kopti, the other American adviser present. Sporadic fighting continued until sundown.
Colonel Hai Hoang knew that the government forces around him were growing stronger, and that the government had troops to his north, west, and south but not to his east. Many of his guerrillas had been killed or wounded, and the others were low on ammunition and energy. After the sky turned black, he ordered all of his forces to assemble at Tan Thoi. From there, sheltered by darkness, they headed eastwards with most of their dead and wounded. No bullet or bomb disturbed their escape.
All told, eighty South Vietnamese government troops were killed and one hundred and nine wounded during the battle of Ap Bac. Casualties among the American advisers totaled three dead and six wounded. Based on the number of Viet Cong bodies recovered and reports from civilian witnesses inside the ham- lets, Colonel Vann estimated that the battle had claimed the lives of more than one hundred Viet Cong. This estimate may have exceeded the actual total, as some of the men whom Vann counted as dead may have been wounded soldiers who had been evacuated by stretcher or other ancillary means. On the other hand, Communist sources, which are inconsistent with one another, almost certainly understated the Viet Cong’s losses by a large margin, presumably in order to brighten their achievements, a practice as common on the Communist side as on the government side. Hai Hoang reported that only eighteen of his men had been killed, while Communist military region commander Le Quoc San said that just twelve Viet Cong had perished and thirteen had been wounded. Actual Communist casualties must have exceeded one hundred, and may have been substantially larger. Supporting this conclusion are the civilian reports, evidence that large numbers of Viet Cong forces were subjected to heavy weapons fire, and a statement by Le Quoc San that Hai Hoang had wanted to attack the Airborne troops during the night but had decided against it because of substantial Viet Cong losses sustained that day.
The government’s attack on Ap Bac constituted a tactical failure, for government forces did not annihilate the Viet Cong and they suffered heavy losses despite having many more troops and far better weaponry. On the other hand, Ap Bac was a defeat for the Viet Cong in a strategic sense. At the beginning of 1963, the government’s regular forces outnumbered the Viet Cong’s regulars by approximately ten to one, yet the ratio of government to Viet Cong casualties at Ap Bac was no higher than two to one, so the Viet Cong lost a much higher portion of their total armed strength. The government’s casualties at Ap Bac amounted to only a few hundredths of one percent of total strength.
Soon after the battle ended, Colonel Vann gave Sheehan, Halberstam, and other reporters a highly distorted version of the events, in which all of the day’s failures were the fault of the South Vietnamese. “It was a miserable damn performance,” Vann told the reporters, “just like it always is. These people won’t listen. They make the same goddamn mistakes over and over again in the same way.” Vann sought to expose South Vietnamese flaws as a means of pressuring the South Vietnamese into accepting the changes he favored. He was also trying to escape responsibility for the day’s unpleasent results by putting all of the blame on his South Vietnamese counterparts, whom he especially resented for failing to overcome the difficulties created by his mistakes. The journalists gobbled it up. Sheehan, for example, wrote that American advisers faulted the South Vietnamese commanders for a “lack of aggressiveness,” and the Americans were “disappointed – and angered – that the South Vietnamese troops should fail one of their biggest tests after more than a year of training.” The South Vietnamese inaction at Ap Bac, Vann went on to tell the reporters, was the result of serious defects in the Diem government. “The advisers feel that there is still too much political interference in the Vietnamese army and that promotion too often depends on political loyalty rather than military ability,” wrote Halberstam in the New York Times. “Some commanders are said to feel that they will not be promoted and may lose command if they suffer too many casualties.”