On this day in 1963, the Viet Cong inflicted a serious defeat on the South Vietnamese regular army. This defeat caused a lot of anxiety among the Americans and it demonstrated to them once again that the South Vietnamese were not a match for their communist enemies. The Viet Cong battled a much larger unit of the South Vietnamese unit at Ap Bac, a strategic village in the Mekong Delta. The battle was just 60 miles south of Saigon. The Viet Cong despite their smaller numbers were able to inflict significant casualties on the South Vietnamese.
The battle of Ap Bac involved some 300 Viet Cong fighters who were equipped with light arms, mostly Ak-47s and rocket launchers. They fought a 2,400 strong South Vietnamese army unit. That was equipped with heavy equipment and had armored amphibious personnel carriers. The Viet Cong had no air support but the South Vietnamese had air support and were backed up by helicopter gunships. The South Vietnamese initially went on the offensive and they attacked the smaller Viet Cong. Their commander boasted to an American reporter that they had the communists in a trap. The communists were ready for the Southern soldiers and they ambushed them on several occasions. They exploited the terrain to great effect.
Despite being outnumbered and outgunned the Viet Cong managed to kill 80 South Vietnamese soldiers and wounded over 120. They also managed to shoot down five helicopters that were carrying South Vietnamese troops. The American’s saw the fighting as ominous and it proved to them that the Southern soldiers could not match the fighting spirit and the strategic thinking of the communists. The failure of the South Vietnamese was particularly worrying as it was widely assumed that the unit involved was one of the better in their army. The outcome of the battle meant that much of the south of the Mekong Delta was controlled by the Communists.
US advisors embedded with the South Vietnamese reported that they were badly led and poorly motivated. The US advisors’ assessment was not welcomed in Saigon and they blamed a lack of American support for the setback. The communist Vietnamese were elated by what they saw as a victory at Ap Bac. They declared it to be a sign that there was a coming revolution in the South. The ruling Vietnamese Communist party declared Ap Bac to be a great victory and made used it in their propaganda.
The battle was very significant in that it persuaded many American politicians and military leaders that South Vietnam needed more help. The South would be defeated by the communists without American help and this led to more military aid to Saigon. Crucially, it persuaded many that US military units were needed to prevent a communist takeover of the South.