On 28 December 1962, US intelligence services detected a Việt Cộng radio transmitter broadcasting from Ấp Tân Thới hamlet in Định Tường Province, which also revealed a sizeable force of 120 People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) soldiers. As Định Tường Province was the home for 7th Infantry Division of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN), it was decided to attack Ấp Tân Thới hamlet from three directions, using two provincial Civil Guard battalions and elements of the ARVN 7th Infantry Division, which would be supported by M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and helicopters. ARVN and US forces were unaware that their plan of attack had been leaked to the NLF beforehand.
On 2 January 1963, as the South Vietnamese Civil Guards marched on Ấp Tân Thới hamlet from the south, they were pinned down in the hamlet of Ấp Bắc by PLAF forces, almost 30 kilometres to the south of Ấp Tân Thới. To the north of Ấp Tân Thới, ARVN 11th Infantry Regiment was committed into battle and struggled to overcome PLAF troops who had entrenched themselves in the area. Reinforcements were flown in from Tân Hiệp District around midday. However, the helicopters were riddled with gunfire and five were shot down as a result.
The APC 4th Mechanized Rifle Squadron was then deployed to rescue ARVN soldiers who were trapped to the southwest of Ấp Bắc, but the commander refused to advance over the local terrain, considering the high probability of hidden mines and boobytraps. He lost more than a dozen crew members as a result. In a scene that typified the day’s fighting, the ARVN 8th Airbourne Diviosn was deployed to the battlefield but were pinned down almost immediately by the PLAF.
As night fell, PLAF soldiers fled the battlefield to the east under the cover of darkness, securing their first pitched battle victory of the war with America and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). On the morning of the 3 January, when Western journalists were allowed onto the battlefield, reporter Neil Sheehan asked Brigadier General Robert York what had happened. York replied: “What the hell’s it look like happened, boy? They got away, that’s what happened.” Shortly afterwards, more than 18 hours too late, the ARVN hit Ấp Bắc with an artillery barrage. The artillery rounds killed another five South Vietnamese soldiers and wounded 14 others.
Although an obvious defeat for the ARVN and US forces, General Paul D. Harkins, commander of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV), insisted that it was a success for southern allied forces, citing the eventual capture of the hamlets.
However, the reaction from Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann was a telling example of not only the battle’s result but the general lack of coordination between South Vietnamese and American forces. As described by Mark Moyar in his book, Vann said,
Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954–1965, 2009, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
According to Moyar, in blaming the South Vietnamese, Vann wanted to conceal America’s flawed intelligence and poor leadership. He hoped to pressure the South Vietnamese to accept future changes he favoured.