TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 2, Part 1
When it came down to deciding what to cover on this, the last week of Shawt
By Mark Light
September 27, 2017
But the intelligence was wrong. There were around 340 Viet Cong there. Their spies had alerted them that an attack was imminent, and they made preparations to fight rather than flee.
Ten American helicopters ferried an ARVN company to a spot north of Tan Thoi while two South Vietnamese Civil Guard battalions approached Ap Bac from the south on foot. The Viet Cong let the Civil Guard get within 100 feet before opening fire. They killed several soldiers and the rest hid behind a dike. Ten more helicopters with troops and five helicopter gunships came in to help.
The Viet Cong had set a goal of destroying 5 to 10 helicopters. They opened up and hit 14 of the 15 with machine gun fire. Five were destroyed, killing and wounding the American crewmen. They shot at ARVN trying to get out of the helicopters. They were easy targets.
Vann, circling overhead in a spotter plane, called Scanlon and asked him to move up the armored personnel carriers (APCs) to help. But both Vann and Scanlon were advisers with no authority. South Vietnamese Captain Ba had the authority to order an advance, but his superiors had told Ba to stay put. It took Scanlon and hour to get Ba to move, and it took two hours more to get through the rice paddies.
They intended to spray the treeline with automatic fire. That had made the VC run away before. But this time the VC stayed put and hit eight of the 10 APCs with their fire. Scanlon described it like a battle on a pool table. ARVN was on the green and the VC were firing from the pockets. VC hurled hand grenades at more APCs approaching. None did any damage but the APC drivers were demoralized and they retreated. While Scanlon and Vann urged them to advance, the South Vietnamese just hunkered down.
That night, the Viet Cong used the darkness to melt away. At least 80 ARVN were dead along with three Americans. Reporters arrived from Saigon before all the ARVN dead had been removed and were horrified. They tried to find out what happened. John Paul Vann took Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam aside and told them that the battle of Ap Bac had been "a miserable goddamn performance." The ARVN won't listen. They make the mistakes in the same way over and over.
Back in Saigon, General Harkins declared victory despite what Sheehan and Halberstam reported. The Viet Cong had stood and fought the helicopters and the APCs and won. This did more for their morale than anything else. Le Duan in Hanoi took the battle of Ap Bac as a sign of the inherent weakness of the South Vietnamese government.
Perhaps the biggest effect Ap Bac had on the American President, John Kennedy. He told a friend that they couldn't stay in South Vietnam, but he couldn't give it up until after the election. This creates another great "What If" question for the viewer. What if Kennedy had lived and was re-elected? Would he have pulled us out like he privately said he was going to do? Would the mistakes of the Johnson administration been avoided?
The Battle of Ap Bac concludes the first part of Episode Two. In the next recap, we finish the episode, going from Diem's repression of the Buddhists to the end of the Kennedy administration.