The Battle of Ap Bac: Causes and Impacts

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  • 0:03 Significance of the Battle
  • 1:13 Planning Phase
  • 2:16 The Battle
  • 4:10 Establishing the…
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Battle of Ap Bac was the first significant engagement between tenets of North and South Vietnam. Learn about the battle, including the cause, the tactics and its impact on the Vietnam War in this lesson.

The Significance of the Battle

On January 2, 1963, the Battle of Ap Bac occurred in the Dinh Tuong province of South Vietnam. The 7th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, which was the military force of South Vietnam under the leadership of General Huynh Van Cao and American advisor Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, engaged the 261st Main Force Battalion of the National Liberation Front, or NLF, the insurgent arm of North Vietnam. The battle represented the first major confrontation between ARVN forces and the NLF during the Vietnam War; it was also a significant victory for the NLF.

The clash at Ap Bac was important for two reasons. First, the United States believed it could use a confrontation with the NLF as a means of boosting the morale of the ARVN. Many American advisors believed that the strength of the 7th Division would intimidate the NLF into immediately retreating from the field of battle. This would lead to a heightened South Vietnamese confidence. Second, the catastrophe that transpired at Ap Bac led to the beginning of the credibility gap, which was the difference in war reporting between politicians and military personnel in Washington, D.C. and the media in Vietnam.

The Planning Phase

After American reconnaissance flights located numerous NLF radio transmitters in the village of Tan Thoi, which coincidentally was near the staging ground of the ARVN 7th Division, the United States and South Vietnam planned for a major assault against the enemy. American intelligence reported that there were an estimated 120 NLF soldiers on the ground in Tan Thoi. Unfortunately, the reports were highly inaccurate. The NLF had positioned roughly 400 soldiers on a defensive line between Tan Thoi and Ap Bac. They were also highly entrenched and well-covered under the thick jungle vegetation.

Nevertheless, the United States and South Vietnam planned a 3-pronged attack on Tan Thoi. The strategy was to fly American CH-21 helicopters in from the north, send the Civil Guard (which was a paramilitary force) in from the south and deploy the infantry and the M-113 armored vehicle mechanized company from the west. Again, as mentioned earlier, the goal was to frighten the NLF into retreating and claim a victory for the relatively untested ARVN.

The Battle

The Civil Guard began the assault on Tan Thoi at roughly 7 am on January 2. The paramilitary force took immediate heavy fire while attempting to move in on the enemy position. The NLF was able to administer significant damage to the Civil Guard due to the fact that the helicopter attack from the north was delayed by the weather. When the South Vietnamese battalion was finally able to land, it too was assaulted by the NLF. The United States and South Vietnam quickly realized that it needed to shift its forces in order to stretch out the NLF. Vann decided to land reserve troops on the western edge of Ap Bac. This proved to be a dangerous decision.

As the first wave of reinforcements arrived, they were immediately engaged by the NLF soldiers who were not expected to have an extensive foothold in the area. The NLF shot down five American helicopters and decimated dozens of ARVN soldiers. Vann called for an immediate second aerial landing of reinforcements, but it never arrived on time. The mechanized division did, however, reach Ap Bac by the afternoon. The M-113's were able to recover a number of soldiers, both South Vietnamese troops and American pilots, but the division also was punished by unrelenting NLF soldiers.

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