|Battle of Ap Bau Bang II|
|Part of Operation Junction City, Vietnam War|
|United States||Viet Cong|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Sidney S. Haszard||Unknown|
|129, 6 M48 tanks, 20 M113 APCs||Two battalions (~600)|
|Casualties and losses|
|227 bodies (US's bodycount)
The Battle of Ap Bau Bang II occurred during the night of 19–20 March 1967 during Operation Junction City, a search and destroy mission by American military forces in Tay Ninh Province of South Vietnam, to the west of the capital Saigon.
Forces from the 5th Cavalry Regiment were entrusted with the securing of Fire Support Base 20, around 1.5 km north of the village of Ap Bau Bang, and they had expected an attack, as their area was a known communist stronghold. During the evening of 19 March, the Viet Cong attacked the base with machine guns, mortars, rockets and small arms fire. The mortars fired from afar while a large number of infantrymen dressed in black charged from the foliage. Initially, they swarmed over the American armored vehicles, but were dispersed by the vehicles shooting on one another, although some of the vehicles were destroyed. With the help of artillery and air strikes, as well as flares and aerial searchlights to spot their enemies, the Americans repelled the communists with ease. They claimed 227 communist killed and captured three, while losing only 3 and suffering 63 wounded.
At 11:50 on 19 March 1967, A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Captain Raoul H. Alcala, deployed within the perimeter of Fire Support Base 20. A unit of the 1st Brigade, 9th Infantry, attached to the 1st Infantry Division, A Troop had 129 men, six M48 tanks, twenty M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs), and three 4.2-inch mortar carriers. The troop formed into a circular (wagon train) perimeter defense. Their mission was to secure the base for B Battery (105-mm.) of the 7th Battalion, 9th Artillery, commanded by Captain Duane W. Marion.
Fire Support Base 20 was located in relatively flat terrain 1.5 km north of the village of Ap Bau Bang and immediately west of Route 13. To the south of the position was a rubber plantation, while wooded areas were prominent to the north and west. An abandoned railway ran parallel to and thirty meters east of the highway.
American Intelligence sources had indicated that the area was densely populated with Viet Cong guerrillas, noting the existence of a well-used trail to the north of Fire Support Base 20 which ran east and west. Alcala sent his 2nd Platoon commanded by First Lieutenant Harlan E. Short to establish an ambush along the trail at a point 1.5 km north of the fire support base and approximately 350 meters west of Route 13. The ambush was to be in position by 18:00. The perimeter was manned on the west by the 1st Platoon, commanded by First Lieutenant Roger A. Festa and to the east by the 3rd Platoon under Second Lieutenant Hiram M. Wolfe, IV.
At 22:50 that night a Viet Cong probe signaled the start of the battle. The probe was spearheaded by a herd of fifteen belled cattle being driven across Route 13 at a point 150 meters northeast of the perimeter. At 23:00 the Viet Cong opened fire on the northeast section of the perimeter with a wheel-mounted .50-caliber machine gun located on the railway embankment. One tank operator trained his searchlight on the Viet Cong machine gun position and returned fire along with three APCs for around three minutes. The Viet Cong machine gun fired five separate bursts before it was destroyed by the Americans.
During the lull that followed, reconnaissance by fire was conducted by Wolfe's tank along the wood line to the east beyond the railway. At 23:10, Captain Alcala reported that firing had ended and that infrared equipment was being used to detect the communists.
At 00:30, 20 March 1967, the Viet Cong resumed their attack, hitting Fire Support Base 20 with mortar rounds, rifle grenades, rockets, and recoilless rifle fire. This was the start of the main phase of the battle. Festa's track was hit, wounding his sergeant, as fire came in from the west. Alcala requested artillery support from the battalion he was securing and further away in Lai Khe.
The Americans concluded that the communist mortar positions were 1.5–2 kilometers west of Ap Bau Bang in and around an old village that had been destroyed. The positions were located by radar from Lai Khe, although one officer thought that airborne artillery observers seeing the flashes were more effective.
The communists increased their intensity and two M113s were hit directly, wounding several Americans and destroying the vehicle. Two 3rd Platoon tanks were hit, but were not disabled. Throughout the mortar and antitank bombardment, Alcala maintained radio contact with his squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney S. Haszard, who was located to the south. Within 20 minutes of the start of the mortar attack, the Viet Cong ground assault began. The main attack came from the south and southwest, accompanied by a secondary attack from the north. These were the troops of the 273d Viet Cong Regiment, who had been waiting in position in the rubber trees before moving forward under mortar fire cover, wearing dark clothes.
Captain Alcala advised his superiors at 00:50 that he felt able to repel the attack, but he asked for a ready reaction force to be put in place. Colonel Haszard then alerted the 1st Platoon of B Troop and the 3rd Platoon of C Troop to the north and south of Ap Bau Bang respectively to move to Fire Support Base 20. He gave Alcala permission to recall his 2nd Platoon from the ambush site to the perimeter. Haszard noted the growing size of the communist offensive and decided to move with his command element to A Troop's position.
In the 3rd Platoon sector on the eastern side of the perimeter, Wolfe detected communist movement and requested night illumination from a 4.2-inch mortar, which revealed Viet Cong troops crossing the highway from east to west. Wolfe's men fired and the Viet Cong stopped, having struck one American vehicle's gun. By 01:00 a Spooky 742 armed with Miniguns, and a light fire team of helicopter gunships were sent to aid Wolfe's platoon.
The communists troops on the southwest portion of the base perimeter were mobbing some of the APCs. The APC operators decided to fire their canisters on each other to remove the Viet Cong, as they were too close for an APC to clear from itself. This killed the communists, but in one case, Viet Cong mortar hit simultaneously, blowing up the APC, killing one and injuring many others. Later Wolfe's track was directly hit for a second time by an RPG-2 rocket. The entire crew was wounded and evacuated.
At the same time, the 2nd Platoon returned along Route 13 from its ambush site, the men firing intermittently as they came. They crossed to the southern half of the perimeter under the heaviest communist attack. As they took their positions, they were hit with recoilless rifle fire and grenades.
The elements of B and C Troops move in from afar to assist their colleagues. The 3d Platoon of C Troop, moved up Route 13 from their position five kilometers to the south, driving through a barrage of fire before reaching the base perimeter at 01:27. At the direction of Alcala, the platoon swept 1.5 km south of the defenders along the rubber tree line. Firing continually during their sweep, they turned west, then north, before doubling back and entering the perimeter from the southeast. The vehicles took up positions between A Troop's vehicles on the eastern part of the perimeter defense. At the same time the 1st Platoon of B Troop moved down Route 13 from its position eight kilometers north. After knocking past a hastily built communist ambush just north of the perimeter, they moved around to the south. Moving into the perimeter, the platoon took up positions between A Troop's vehicles on the western half of the defensive ring.
The perimeter now contained the artillery battery, all of A Troop, and the two relief platoons, which provided a large quantity of armor. Alcala expanded the perimeter by 40 m with a counterattack at 02:20. Several Viet Cong who attempted to remove the .50-caliber machine gun from one of the burning tracks of Festa's unit were killed, as were others trying to storm the foxholes containing the wounded. While fighting continued, part of Festa's unit were trying to evacuate their wounded.
Meanwhile, Haszard travelled in an APC followed by another M-113 bearing his command group as the tried to move into the perimeter. Close to the perimeter, Haszard's APC was disabled by a communist hit. Alcala sent a tank out of the perimeter to help. Haszard was fired on as he left the APC to attach the towline. The command track, and its communications equipment, was safely pulled into the perimeter without losses to the communists.
At 03:00 another attack began on the southern perimeter. Alcala concluded that it was an attempt by the Viet Cong to recover bodies. The attackers were followed by a line of unarmed troops carrying ropes and wires with hooks to recover the fallen communists. The attacking force was stopped within 15 m of the perimeter.
During the attempted retrieval operation, and for the next four hours, Miniguns and air strikes hit the Viet Cong from above. An Air Force flareship kept the battle area continually lighted. Initially the artillery covered the northwest, west, and southwest sides of the perimeter while aircraft attacked on a north-south axis east of Route 13. Later a switch was made and the aircraft attack runs were made from east to west on the south and southwest sides of the perimeter.
During the battle, resupply and medical evacuation missions continued under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Paul F. Gorman of the 1st Infantry Division. Due to the nature of the battle and the abundant use of automatic weapons on armored vehicles, two and in some cases three basic loads of .50-caliber and 7.62mm. ammunition were expended. At 03:30 the communist fire eased; resupply of the units and evacuation of the wounded was completed during the next 75 minutes while the artillery and air strikes continued. Of the 63 wounded, 26 were evacuated.
By 04:50 flares and tank searchlights detected that the Viet Cong were was massing for an attack on the south and southeastern sides of the base. The Viet Cong started their attack ten minutes later, and they were met with artillery fire, cluster bomb units, napalm and 500 pound bombs. This last wave of firepower ended the offensive. At 07:00 the final air strike and artillery rounds were fired.
During the battle of Ap Bau Bang III, the Americans killed at least 227 communists, and captured 3, as well as much equipment and weapons. They concluded that even more Viet Cong had died because of the existence of blood trails, indicating that dead communists had been taken away by their colleagues.
Although more infantry than usual are killed by small arms fire, they attack cavalry and armored units, most Viet Cong deaths in this battle resulted from artillery and air strikes. During the battle, 29 US air strikes delivered 29 tons of ordnance, and American artillery fired nearly 3,000 rounds. The Americans reported their battle losses at 3 killed and 63 wounded. Viet Cong prisoners confessed that they were from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 273rd Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division. American intelligence analysts believed that the whole regiment participated.
Following the battle, General Hay wrote a propaganda letter to the 9th Vietcong Division commander, taunting him about the communist defeat. The letter was translated into Vietnamese, and leaflets were dropped into the communist area. The original English was
This is to advise you that during the battle of Ap Bau Bang on 20 March the Regimental Commander of Q763 (273d Regiment) and his Battalion Commanders disgraced themselves by performing in an un-soldierly manner. During this battle with elements of this Division and attached units your officers failed to accomplish their mission and left the battlefield covered with dead and wounded from their units. We have buried your dead and taken care of your wounded from this battle.
- Rogers, Bernard William (1989). Vietnam Studies Cedar Falls – Junction City: A Turning Point. United States Army Center of Military History. http://www.history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/90-7/cont.htm.
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