31 March 1967: The Battle of Ấp Gù

On the 31 March 1967, American military forces were sent on a search and destroy mission as part of Operation Junction City in Tây Ninh Province, to the west of Saigon in South Vietnam. The forces were scheduled to make an airborne assault into an area near the border with Cambodia to secure some roads and US bases as well as to search and destroy Việt Cộng personnel in the surrounding area. The assault was scheduled for 30 March, but poor weather meant that one of the battalions did not land until the day after.

In the early afternoon of 31 March, American troops began their reconnaissance missions and one platoon was put into difficulty by a Việt Cộng attack that killed their commanding officer. A few hours later, an American company was attacked by a battalion-sized Việt Cộng force that put them in some difficulty until supporting artillery allowed them to withdraw. The Việt Cộng tried to exploit their advantage but were driven back by American firepower.

Before dawn the next day, the Việt Cộng launched their main attack on the American landing zone and fire support base at Ấp Gù with mortar-fire and an infantry charge. They managed to overrun a number of bunkers before the Americans called in air strikes and cluster bombs. This wore down the Việt Cộng and they were forced to withdraw by early morning on 1 April with heavy casualties.

The battle was a victory for US forces and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig. The battle left 609 Việt Cộng killed according to US sources, with 5 captured and over 50 weapons of all types recovered, while the Americans lost 17 with 102 wounded. Lt. Col. Haig attributed the success to superior mortar and airborne firepower. He also claimed that the US victory proved the Việt Cộng were tactically and strategically naive and inflexible in large-unit open combat.

11 Replies to “31 March 1967: The Battle of Ấp Gù”

    1. I read in a 2011 document that: Twenty-nine years after the event, Colonel Egersdorfer recalled that he and his First Sergeant, conducted no careful withdrawal: “In fact, ‘Top’ Mulcahy and I were the last to run back to the perimeter.” (Col. Egersdorfer, 1996)”

      In my memory M-60 Gunner Bobby Weller and myself, when returning finally to our perimeter from the tree line where A Co. had encountered the enemy after previously crossing the about 1,200 meter open area to get to the tree line, where our troops were in conrtact and where Lt. Col. Haig’s “bubble chopper” was eventually brought down. At the end of the contact we attempted to bring back a KIA found somewhere in that open area on the way bavk to the 1/26th perimeter.
      We had great difficulty moving him. As I recall when Bobby Weller and I entered our new NDP the CP group was gathered there already. In my memory M-60 gunner Weller and I appeared to be the very last A Co. troops to re-enter the 1/26th Perimeter late in the afternoon or early evening of March 31st, 1967 at Ap Gu. As memory serves after so many years.

  1. Part I-The battle of Ap Gu

    I was a member of 2d Platoon, A –1-16 Infantry, 1ID SEP 66-SEP 67

    On the 31st of March, 1967, we flew from Phuoc Vinh to Lai Khe anticipating a rest. After we cleaned up, we were making plans for a trip to the ‘Ville,’ when, twenty minutes later, in typical Big Red One fashion, the rest was over. Our battalion was the 1st Infantry Division’s ready reaction force. Another battalion was in heavy contact and we were sent to reinforce. At 1600 we were alerted for a mission. Another unit, the 1-26 Infantry, commanded by LTC Alexander Haig, had made contact and was heavily engaged with a large enemy force near the Cambodian border. Haig’s helicopter had been shot down, and a number of his men were killed or wounded. Rations were issued and we were trucked back to the airstrip.

    We loaded onto helicopters and flew west. As we approached the landing zone, we could see jet fighter-bombers circling the LZ. One by one they would peel off and go in low and fast. They were hitting the tree-lines around the LZ with napalm and high-drag 500 pounders. The bombs had built in air brakes which popped open when they were released and slowed their descent, allowing the plane to fly past before the bombs exploded.

    The smoke was billowing up in columns, and it looked like we were flying into a hornet’s nest. Just before we landed, the door gunners began firing long bursts into the wood-line on our right. We were out on the skids when the crew chief shouted “Go!” Jumping to the ground, we began to move toward the tree-line, firing our rifles as we moved. Fortunately there were no enemy forces, or we would have had a hard time.

    Incoming!

    We formed up by platoon, spread out, and began to move across a large open area to a distant tree-line. It appeared that things were not as bad as they seemed when we were coming in. We had gone about 500 meters and we had about 500 more to go, when I heard the sound of many mortar rounds leaving tubes somewhere off to our right. We didn’t know who was firing, so we continued on our way.

    Then I heard the hissing sound of about ten incoming mortar rounds which went off in quick succession around us a moment later. This was the first time I had come under mortar fire this close to me in daylight. Everyone hit the ground but the CO who told us to get up and move on the run toward our objective.

    We were up and running when I heard the hissing announcement of more rounds coming in. The enemy had us under observation and adjusted his fire. I hit the ground along with those around me. As soon as the rounds exploded, we were up again; running toward our objective. This happened two or three more times before the Air Force drew a bead on the mortar locations and silenced their fire.

    Losses

    We stopped at the thin tree-line and began to form a perimeter with Bravo Company. My squad was facing out across the large open area we had just traversed. I went out in front of our position to check some equipment that was lying on the ground. I found a helmet with a bullet hole through it and some blood on the inside. There was a picture of a young woman with a couple of smiling children taped inside the helmet liner. It belonged to one of the men from the 1-26 Infantry who had been part of the initial fight that morning.

    A man walked up to my side and was looking at the helmet as I held it in my hand. It was Colonel Lazzell, the battalion commander. I said something about it being a shame that the soldier with a wife and children had been badly wounded or killed. Although I was a Spec-4 and he was a colonel, we were both touched by the apparent loss of a soldier and the sorrow that was heading toward a new widow and her children via Western Union.

    After a moment, he told me I was doing a good job and said goodbye. It may have been that he appreciated the moment with another soldier who wasn’t intimidated by his rank and shared a sentiment with him. I returned to my position, and with Maguire, a fellow Californian, took turns digging and filling sandbags. Some of the guys nearby had hit rock about three feet down. They asked me to use some C4 to blow up the rocks. I tried, but the rock was too large so eventually they moved the hole, and we all continued to dig in.

    No one could say what was going to happen next, but that wasn’t an issue. Every position was built to the exacting standards of our SOP, and no one rested until their hole had a berm in front, 45 degree firing ports, sandbags for overhead cover, camouflage, and claymores out front.

    This is an excerpt from my book: “Content With My Wages,” A Sergeant’s Story: Book I-Vietnam

  2. The Battle of Ap Gu-Part II 1 April, 1967.

    I was a member of 2d Platoon, A –1-16 Infantry, 1ID SEP 66-SEP 67

    It took me and McGuire until 2300 to complete our hole. It was very dark that night, and I was exhausted. Maguire and I began pulling one hour shifts; I went first. Nothing was going on; it was very quiet. At 0300 after he woke me up, I looked to my front across the large open area and saw nothing. Sentry duty was a struggle, and we were constantly nodding off. We had to stand up, kneel down and smoke cigarettes without allowing the light to be seen; it wasn’t fun.

    Incoming!

    I finished my turn and woke Maguire. He got up, and as soon as I saw that he was really awake, I lay down and started to slide into sleep. I heard some faint explosions in the distance, and then someone behind us said ‘stand-to,’ but I was going down fast.

    ‘Ka-Blaamm!’ a mortar round landed close by. Wide awake now, I could hear more coming in as I dove into the foxhole. We were being shelled, and the rounds were coming in hot and fast.

    I found myself upside down on top of Maguire who had done the same thing a second before me. He was hollering for me to get off him, and I was telling him to shut up. I managed to roll off his back to the right and sat in the bottom of the hole, holding my helmet on my head. Explosions hammered our ears, the ground was shaking like an earthquake, and dirt was falling into the hole, covering us.

    The enemy barrage was extremely accurate. There were a lot of rounds landing very close to our foxhole. I was sure that one of them was going to land right on the overhead cover and nail us. Maguire wasn’t saying anything, so I asked him if he was ok and if he had his weapon and ammunition. He said that he did. I didn’t have mine so I told him that as soon as the mortar fire had shifted or stopped, I was going to stand up and grab my rifle and web gear which were laying right outside our hole.

    The rounds were still coming in, so we waited in silence. I had an overwhelming need to pee, so I got on my knees and peed in the corner of my side of the hole. The mortar rounds began to slow down, and I could hear the sound of rifle fire. I stood up in a crouch, stuck my head out of the entrance of the foxhole, and grabbed my rifle and web gear. Maguire had also stood up and was manning his firing port; I did the same.

    A Series of Malfunctions

    I could hear the bullets cracking as they passed over our hole. I couldn’t see anything, but since the guys on our left and right were firing, I took my rifle off safe and fired a round into the darkness. A round, because when it fired, the cartridge did not eject. I had a malfunction called a ‘failure to extract’ with the cartridge case remaining in the firing chamber of my rifle. I didn’t have a cleaning rod to clear it, so I couldn’t shoot. To our left I could hear my squad leader shouting, “Here they come; we’re going to be overrun.” Thinking that it was claymore time, I grabbed my clacker and squeezed. Nothing happened. The mortar rounds must have cut the wire.

    Great, I thought, no rifle and the Claymore is a dud. I still had my grenades so I told Maguire that my rifle was jammed and that I wouldn’t leave him but I needed to get a cleaning rod. I climbed out of the hole, my hand reaching for the ground to steady myself but it found no ground, and I fell a short ways into a hole in our sleeping area that hadn’t been there before.

    It was a crater from a mortar round and it was a big one. All my equipment was shredded including a five gallon water can that was full of holes. The enemy had come very close to taking us out.

    Sergeant Smith was still hollering and Maguire chose that moment to fire a twenty round burst of tracer ammunition into the dark, where, as it turned out, the enemy was. I threw a grenade as far as I could to my front, still believing that we were being overrun, but it didn’t explode.

    So far, my combat career was going nowhere. My rifle was jammed and my Claymore was a dud along with my grenade. I still had another one and I decided to save it until I actually saw an enemy. I ducked behind our bunker and called to the next position over, a machine gun position manned by Robert’s gun crew, and asked for a cleaning rod. One of them shouted something, but I couldn’t hear what he said because a storm of bullets blew through the branches of the tree that was right behind our position. It was like a hundred bullwhips cracking at once, and small branches and leaves began falling on top of me and our position.

    I had seen the stream of tracers fired by Bob, and so had the enemy. Tracers are a two-way street. They let you see where your bullets are going, but they also let the enemy see where your bullets are coming from. Now we were the center of attention for the entire enemy force. Long bursts of machine gun fire cracked over my head and into the trees behind me, dropping more branches and leaves on me and our position. I yelled at Maguire to stop shooting tracer. The sky was just starting to lighten when I heard movement to my left.

    Squad Leader Again

    It was Sergeant Smith, crawling down the line. He had been wounded. I asked about his condition and he said that his wound was not real serious but he needed medical attention. When I asked him if he needed any help, he said no, and to stay where I was. I saw he was carrying his rifle and asked him if he would trade with me, suggesting that he wouldn’t need one at the aid station. He gave me his rifle, took mine and crawled off down the line. The sky was getting lighter. There was a lot of firing across the field where the other battalion had their perimeter.

    The 1-26 Infantry, commanded by LTC Haig, later to be Secretary of State under President Reagan, was under heavy attack by a regiment of the 9th VC Division. The enemy breached the perimeter and attacked the battalion CP before they were repulsed and the perimeter was reestablished.

    Meanwhile, it was now light enough to see. The Air Force showed up and began bombing the enemy forces on the far side of the open area. F-4 Phantoms came in very low and dropped high-drag bombs and napalm. Puff the Magic Dragon showed up and poured a thick stream of red tracer fire on enemy forces below them. All of a sudden, I saw a string of green tracers coming up from the ground and going toward the plane. This was a serious fight. The enemy had heavy mortars and anti-aircraft guns.

    Sergeant Magee came by to check on us and stayed for a while. Dum-Dum also showed up. He was lying behind a foxhole like the rest of us and trying to get a better view of the action when an airstrike came in. Sergeant Magee told him to get down but he continued to rubberneck. I saw a bomb go off and a piece of shrapnel came skipping across the field like a flat rock skipping across a pond.

    Before anyone could say something, the piece of metal struck him in the side and stuck there. The medics came and bandaged him. He was all right but needed a dust-off. This meant that we would be getting a new XO. Later, I was directed to write recommendations for both of them for Bronze Star Medals. Apparently my way with words made a big impression on the clerks and jerks in the rear, because they upgraded the recommendations and gave them Silver Stars.

    Mopping Up

    Unbeknownst to us, the enemy force in front of us had crawled across the huge open area to our front while it was dark. They managed to dig shallow fighting positions, and when the mortar fire ended they opened fire on us. We later determined that their mission was to pin us down and prevent us from maneuvering on their buddies who were making the main effort.

    Now, the enemy soldiers in front of us were either dead or wounded. Sergeant Magee and I were watching the area when one of them started crawling across our front. We began to fire at him because it looked like he was crawling toward a machine gun near him. I don’t know if any of my bullets hit him, but he suddenly stopped crawling and thrust one of his legs into the air, all most straight up, where it remained for a moment and then came down slowly to rest on the ground.

    One of the other squad leaders was told to take his squad and check the enemy bodies to see if any of them were alive for the medics. Airstrikes and artillery continued in the distance and helicopters began landing nearby. Some of them were dust-off choppers and some were bringing resupply.

    I surveyed the area around my foxhole and was amazed by the number of mortar near misses. I counted four large craters within five feet of our hole and a larger number of 82mm mortar craters. It was later determined that the large craters were made by 120mm mortar rounds. They were the equivalent of a 105mm artillery round. There were quite a few of these craters around our platoon’s positions.

    My canteens were full of holes and the top half of my rucksack was shredded, but my pistol belt, ammo pouches and shoulder harness, though damaged, still functioned. I was considering how I was going to carry water, when a helicopter landed about a hundred meters to the right front of my position.

    In the distance I saw the squad leader approaching a body. Suddenly he began backing up and firing his rifle with one hand. Puffs of dust appeared around the enemy soldier as the squad leader continued to back up and fire his rifle. Then he stopped, brought the rifle to his shoulder and fired several rounds before walking back toward the enemy soldier. When he was close, he stopped and looked at him, then put his rifle muzzle to the man’s head, and looking away, fired a round into his head.

    None of this could be heard from where we were because of the helicopter noise. The squad leader later told me that when he walked up to the enemy soldier the first time, the man snarled at him and grabbed at a hand grenade on his belt, so he shot him several times. When he checked him again and saw that he was still alive, he took no more chances and shot him again, in the head.

    The battle at Ap Gu was one of the most lop-sided victories of the Vietnam War. We had one man wounded, and there were about forty enemy dead in front of our positions. The Blue Spaders lost ten KIA in the battle and it was reported afterward that 609 enemy bodies were found in front of the battalion positions. That was a kill ratio of unprecedented proportions, and the higher commands were impressed. LTC Haig received the Distinguished Service Cross and was given command of the 2d Brigade after its commander was wounded. This battle was a total validation of the defensive positions envisioned by General DePuy.

    This is an excerpt from my book: “Content With My Wages,” A Sergeant’s Story: Book I-Vietnam

  3. On this same afternoon, about the time we were engaged in this shootout with the ambushers, the men inside our perimeter would have been able to see several lines of Hueys in the distance as they passed by our NDP at “Trust” on their way to land the “Blue Spaders” at LZ “George”. The “Blue Spaders” were led by Lt. Col. Alexander Haig. The LZ was only about three miles from our own location. There would be no enemy resistance as they landed.
    The forty two year old Haig was not the kind of commander who left anything to chance, yet he was not a “fretter” either. In addition to overseeing the initial landing at LZ George and the exact placement of his own battalion’s defensive positions, he also met soon afterward with his officers and key N.C.O.s including the F.O. (forward observer) assigned to his unit. His faithful S3 (operations officer) and long time companion, to be, Capt. George Joulwan, was by his side. As he stood there in the tall grass, getting feedback from his security patrols, and forming a picture in his mind of the “lay of the land”, I doubt that any of his subordinates, save George, realized how fortunate they were to have a man like Haig leading them at this point, though he was somewhat of a “shot in the dark”. For sure, however, his grunts had been with him long enough now to have gotten a slight mental scent of his competence, but only a scent. He was wired very differently than our commander, Dick Cavazos. He was not as “earthy”, and definitely not as apt to expend energy on the particular needs of an individual grunt, as Dick routinely did. Yet, he was not as aloft from us grunts as a Denton, or a Lazzell, or even a DePuy. In a single phrase, he was just “matter of fact” and the average grunt could live with that, providing a commander could prove to be competent. So far, in the two months that he had been in command of the Blue Spaders” he had passed every “pop quiz” thrown at him, but a detailed final exam was headed his way. Could he pass that exam? Dick Cavazos had already taken his command leadership exam on multiple battle fields in Korea and he had gotten an A+. Until recently, Haig had been General DePuy’s G3. Most of the general staff believed it was a waste of talent for a man like Haig to be put in direct command of a field unit. DePuy certainly thought that. Although Haig had repeatedly requested that DePuy let him step down into a battalion command slot, DePuy kept refussing his request. Finally, when DePuy was ordered by his corps commander to release Haig for staff duty in III Corps, DePuy quickly did a “slight of hand” replying that he had already assigned Haig to take command of the “Blue Spaders” (Which he had actually not done). In place of Haig, DePuy offered up the “Blue Spader’s” present commander for that staff position and immediately informed Haig that he was now the new commander of the 1/26th. Why not, since he was going to lose Haig anyway? Shortly afterward DePuy was replaced, himself, by Hay. The “Blue Spaders” was Haig’s first “front line” combat assignment, where he actually carried a “long rifle” and personally led men in combat. However, once in his presence, few doubted Haig’s ability to command a field unit. No, he had never led in actual combat before, and its true that a commander like Dick Cavazos was the grunt’s dream while Haig would never be a grunt’s dream. That was like winning the big lottery. However, most of us grunts would have been more than glad to settle for a commander like Haig. No, Haig had not been tempered by the heat of battle in physical combat, but that’s not the only battle a commander faced in Vietnam. Haig did possess the stringent interpersonal skills, required in the First Division, to better coordinate air strikes, artillery and rifle fire, while at the same time, he was more than capable of withstanding the stupid “ass chewing chiding” and the humiliating piety commands from generals flying above the battle, which hog tied many field commanders’ ability to recognize and do what needed to be done. Haig’s leadership ability had been meticulously honed in Korea under a “crusty ole” Lieutenant General named Ned Almond. This experience had more than prepared him to now feel at home in his present position. He had long since learned not to waste time doing “stupid”. He knew how to ask the right questions of those under him, but he had also developed the rare ability to use the proper protocols when communicating with those who outranked him, as well. He could put himself into their skin, supplying them with logical answers, during the heat of combat, before they, themselves, had a chance to fall into the “mental briar patch” of their own insecurities. When generals did that, they started doing crazy things like asking for “sitreps” every five minutes. Haig’s experience at division level allowed him to see things from that command level, which was now a tremendous help to him as a field commander. He knew just how to rapidly and accurately assess the combat “state of affairs” for a battalion or an entire division, for that matter, and then put a plan together without trampling on the pride of a general, or the personal insecurities of a young Second Lieutenant. Actually, the prerequisite lessons for this learned ability went way back. Entry into this training program began when he married a general’s daughter “right out of West Point”. This exposure had conditioned him to be less dazzled when he “gazed upon a star”. Familiarity, starting with these family ties, had long since taught him that those who wore shinning stars on their shoulders were not “gods” to be feared or worshipped, but men like him. This mindset freed Haig’s mental processes so he could concentrate on defeating just one enemy, the one in the jungle in front of him. He had already defeated those in his own head. Yes, it was a rare thing for any grunt in Vietnam to be blessed with a leader like Haig. Yet, if Haig was in the middle of transforming the “Blue Spaders” into a great fighting unit, he, himself, was also about to become transformed. Haig had always been the underling of elites and would soon return to that position as the underlying of higher and higher levels of earthly elites. However, during this very brief window in time, I was about to witness a battle unfold from afar, which would mark Haig’s baptism into the highest levels of elitism on this earth and he definitely would not be just an underlying this time. He was about to join those elites who throughout history have offered up all that they are and all that they will ever be on this earth for the right of other humans to be able to chose freely how they want to live their lives. There is only one level of elitism higher than that.

    1. Hello, Wayne. Thank you for leaving a very eloquent and detailed account of that day at Ấp Gù. We are very grateful to all veterans of the war who share their experiences with us.

    2. Then Lt. Col. Alexander M. Haig Korean War: “General Edward Almond,[2] who awarded Haig two Silver Stars and a Bronze Star with Valor device.[11] Haig participated in four Korean War campaigns, including the Battle of Inchon, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and the evacuation of Hŭngnam,[10] as Almond’s aide.”

  4. I read in a 2011 document that: Twenty-nine years after the event, Colonel Egersdorfer recalled that he and his First Sergeant, conducted no careful withdrawal: “In fact, ‘Top’ Mulcahy and I were the last to run back to the perimeter.” (Col. Egersdorfer, 1996)”

    In my memory M-60 Gunner Bobby Weller and myself, when returning finally to our perimeter from the tree line where A Co. had encountered the enemy after previously crossing the about 1,200 meter open area to get to the tree line, where our troops were in conrtact and where Lt. Col. Haig’s “bubble chopper” was eventually brought down. At the end of the contact we attempted to bring back a KIA found somewhere in that open area on the way bavk to the 1/26th perimeter.
    We had great difficulty moving him. As I recall when Bobby Weller and I entered our new NDP the CP group was gathered there already. In my memory M-60 gunner Weller and I appeared to be the very last A Co. troops to re-enter the 1/26th Perimeter late in the afternoon or early evening of March 31st, 1967 at Ap Gu. As memory serves after so many years.

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