Battle of Ap Gu
The Battle of Ap Gu occurred during 31 March and 1 April 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. The battle near the border with Cambodia left 609 Viet Cong killed, 5 captured, and over 50 weapons of all types captured, while the Americans lost 17 killed and 102 wounded.
Two American infantry battalions were scheduled to make an airborne assault into an area near the border with Cambodia to secure some roads and US bases, and to search and destroy communists 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, the Americans began reconnaissance missions, and one platoon was put into difficulty by a communist attack that killed their commanding officer. A few hours later, an American company was attacked by a battalion-sized communist force, and were in difficulty until supporting artillery allowed them to withdraw. The communists tried to exploit their advantage but were driven off by American firepower.
Before dawn the next day, the communists launched their main attacks on an American landing zone and fire support base with mortar-fire and infantry charged. They managed to overrun a few bunkers and capture 0.4 ha of territory before the Americans called in air strikes and cluster bombs. This wore down the communists and they forced the Viet Cong to withdraw by early morning with heavy casualties.
On 26 March the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig, was told to prepare for an airborne assault deeper into War Zone C and nearer to the Cambodian border. At that time, the Battalion was attached to the 2d Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division and was located at Fire Support Patrol Base C at Sroc Con Trang, where they were engaged in perimeter defense, road security, and occasional search and destroy operations. The plan was to make the landing on the morning of 30 March into what would be Landing Zone George, some 14 km (9 mi) to the west. They would secure the zone for a follow-up landing by the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, and then conduct operations together in an area where Viet Cong were expected to be positioned.
On the scheduled day of the assault, poor weather delayed the preparatory air strikes around and on the Landing Zone (LZ), resulting in a two-hour delay. Thus, the assault of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Infantry was postponed until 31 March, and the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry landed in the afternoon of 30 March at LZ George. The LZ consisted of open fields covered with tall, meadow-like grass and the area was surrounded by medium to heavy jungle. The remainder of the Battalion landed within an hour. Upon landing the Battalion dispatched cloverleaf patrols to try to intercept the Viet Cong. The patrols uncovered fortified positions in and around the LZ but made no contact. That evening the unit organized its night defensive position in the vicinity of the LZ. Fighting positions were dug with full overhead cover and interlocking fires all around, as was the standard practice. Listening posts were established and ambush patrols sent out. No significant contact with the Viet Cong occurred overnight.
The next morning, 31 March, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry led by Lieutenant Colonel William C. Simpson landed at LZ George without incident. After this, they moved to 2 km (1 mi) southwest. The 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry began search and destroy operations in the surrounding area. Company A went south and C Company east. B Company remained in reserve, manning and patrolling the Battalion perimeter at the LZ. The Battalion's reconnaissance platoon was searching the woods northwest of the perimeter. The Viet Cong were expecting the Americans and had hung small signs written in English on the trees, warning that Americans who went beyond the signs would not return.
At 13:00 the platoon moved further north into a wooded area, approximately 5 km (3 mi) south of the Cambodian border. There, first contact was made. The platoon's point man was hit by enemy fire, and First Lieutenant Richard A. Hill went forward to check the situation, only to be mortally wounded. Only Hill's radio operator was left in contact with the Battalion headquarters. Hill had advised the Battalion that his platoon was heavily engaged with automatic weapons, small arms, and grenades. Haig called for artillery support and after being advised that Hill was incapacitated, taking action to co-ordinate the artillery fire and air strikes in support of the platoon.
At the same time, B Company was closing on the perimeter after a sweep of the Battalion's defensive zone. When advised of the reconnaissance platoon's desperate position and that Hill had been hit, the commander of B Company took his men to the north to the assistance of the embattled platoon without the knowledge of Haig.
Colonel Haig boarded his helicopter, and it was not until he was airborne that he learned of B Company's move. As Haig pointed out later, while Company B's move was necessary, the lack of accurate control of artillery and air support complicated the problem. As a result, B Company had entered the battle without sufficient preparation and found itself heavily engaged along with the reconnaissance platoon.
The B Company commander reported that he was confronting a Viet Cong force of at least Battalion-size, and his optimism gradually faded; his men were pinned down by heavy machine gun fire, rockets, mortars, and recoilless rifles, and was running low on ammunition. Haig realized that reinforcements and relief was necessary. Company A was alerted and ordered to move forward to relieve B Company.
Haig landed near the battle and had his Battalion operations officer take to the air to control fire direction. Haig found Hill's body and the B Company commander wounded. Haig stayed and was joined by the A Company commander, who had moved his unit through and gained fire superiority over the enemy force.
The American artillery and air strikes increased, permitting all units, except initially two platoons of A Company still in contact, to be withdrawn under fire cover. As the Americans moved back, the Viet Cong left their bunkers and moved forward to try to keep the pressure on the Americans, but they were forced to stop because of the American bombardment, and the fighting stopped at 17:05. Seven Americans were killed and 38 wounded in the initial skirmish, while the Viet Cong casualties were unknown at that time.
Meanwhile the Division commander, General John H. Hay, had ordered reinforcements. At 1555 the first element of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, except C Company, touched down at LZ George under Viet Cong sniper fire and occupied positions to the west and northwest of the 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry. The Battalion, led by Colonel Rufus C. Lazzell, established night defensive positions. The two Battalions co-ordinated defensive plans to improve their fighting positions, established listening posts, and sent out ambush patrols.
During the night, American harassment and interdiction artillery and mortar fires were placed in the area around the perimeter. From midnight until 04:00 on 1 April, listening posts to the north, east, and south reported movement to their front; however, their contact was insignificant contact. Mortar fire was directed into areas of suspected Viet Cong activity.
Main Viet Cong attack
At 04:55 a single Viet Cong mortar round exploded to the front of the perimeter of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry. Haig heard and correctly interpreted it to be a registration round for a mortar attack. He immediately ordered all of his companies to be on full alert posture and directed them to take cover and be prepared for an attack. He also recommended that the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry do the same, and Lazzell's unit complied.
Haig immediately requested Capt. Dave Ernest lay down artillery cover fire. Five minutes after the Viet Cong registration round landed, the first of several hundred rounds of 60-mm., 82-mm., and 120-mm. mortar fire were directed into the northern portions of the American areas. The Americans estimated the source of fire to be 1 km (1 mi) northeast of the defensive perimeter. They could hear the rounds being fired and concluded that the Viet Cong were nearby, and that so many mortars were firing that they "sounded like loud, heavy machine guns." Due to the early warning and thus the rapid response, only 12 men were wounded.
At the same time the mortar attack opened on the units in LZ George, a coordinated attack was launched against Fire Support Patrol Base C, where much of the artillery for the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry and the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry was dug in. The incoming mortar and 75-mm. pack howitzer rounds hit the artillery base and made it more inefficient. However, the artillery that had moved into Fire Support Patrol Base Thrust on 29 March was not under incoming mortar attack and could provide support unhindered. The Americans were surprised that the Viet Cong did not attack this base to try to hinder their artillery fire.
Haig felt that the Viet Cong had wanted to press on after the previous day's attack, and that he would have taken the initiative if his opponents had not. The heavy mortar attack ended at 05:15, but continued for a further hour at Fire Support Patrol Base C. During this time flareships, a light helicopter fire team, and forward air controllers were furnished by the 2d Brigade tactical headquarters on request. Seven minutes later the Viet Cong started their ground attack against the northeast edge of the perimeter.
The attack mainly hit B and C Companies of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, and A Company and the reconnaissance platoon of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry. As the soldiers manning the friendly listening posts withdrew to the perimeter, the Viet Cong followed them in. The withdrawing Americans had accidentally set off flares, allowing the Viet Cong to see them and open fire will small arms and machine guns, backed by mortars.
The surprise attack caught the Americans off guard and resulted in the capture of three bunkers and the capture of territory roughly 40 m by 100 m wide in the C Company sector and close-quarters hand-to-hand fighting occurred. Haig later admitted that the night defensive position he selected, with a natural wood line-leading into the northeast portion of the perimeter made this the most vulnerable portion of his perimeter, and that the Viet Cong were clever in attacking at this point. The Americans had to fall back 75 m to consolidate.
The commander of Company C, Captain Brian H. Cundiff, defying the intense fire, moved among his men and organized an effective response to the Viet Cong penetration. At 06:30 the reserve of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, the reconnaissance platoon, moved into a blocking position behind C Company and, along with B Company, fought to re-establish the original perimeter. Meanwhile the Viet Cong launched diversionary attacks from the east and west. By this time, flights for air strikes were coming over the target area four times an hour, providing continuous air cover.
Initially, there was some difficulty in getting the flights loaded with cluster bombs; these were seen as essential and the most effective ordnance for the situation, as the Viet Cong were in the open, in close range to the Americans, and as the pilot can release the cluster bombs from a low level within 30 m of the Americans without harming them.
The main Viet Cong attack was beginning to be worn down by the American firepower. Light and heavy helicopter fire teams were aiming rockets and miniguns on the wood line to the northeast; artillery was massing along the east flank and in depth to the east. As the flights arrived with cluster bombs and attacked within thirty meters of the American positions, large groups of Viet Cong bodies formed. As the ordnance began taking its toll, the Viet Cong started to run, many throwing down their weapons.
In the meantime, Captain Cundiff led elements of C Company, reinforced by the 1st Platoon of B Company, in a massive counter-attack that pushed the remaining Viet Cong back into the American artillery barrages and air strikes and by 08:00 the perimeter was restored.
As the Viet Cong began withdrawing, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry and the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry passed through the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry to pursue the Viet Cong to the east and northeast. However, they could not make substantial contact. Artillery and air strikes were ordered on suspected withdrawal routes and camps.
After the battle was over, the Americans found 491 Viet Cong bodies in their base area, but concluded that there were many more deaths. The Americans concluded that they had confronted three battalions of the 271st Viet Cong Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division and elements of the 70th Guard Regiment, and that they had killed 609 and captured 5, and recovered over 50 weapons of all types. The Americans reported 17 killed and 102 wounded.
During the mortar attack on Fire Support Patrol Base C, where the 2d Brigade command post was located, Colonel Grimsley was wounded and evacuated, and General James F. Hollingsworth took command. Later that day, Colonel Haig took over.
During the battle, artillery from Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion 7th Field Artillery, under Captain David Ernest, had fired around 15,000 rounds, while United States Air Force jet fighter-bombers recorded 103 sorties amounting to over 100 tons of ordnance dropped.
Haig felt that the air power, particularly cluster bombs, were the main factor in the US success, although he also acknowledged the artillery and mortar in grinding down the Viet Cong. However, he also claimed that without all of the components used in the American effort, it would have failed.
I was a riflemen at the battle of Ap Gu. I found that about 90% of the information in this article was basically true. I was in Company B of the 26th Infantry Company. There are 100 to 200 men in a company. So when the article says there were 17 dead and 102 wounded you can see that almost every man in Company B was wounded or DOA. When we went on a cloverleave to the north where we lost our commanding Officer Lt. Hill and our point man. We did not have any artillery. The artillery was moving on the road to get into position, we only had our mortars that did a fantastic job, and then B-52s from Guam. Haig was never at the battle. I was assigned to a machine gun as an ammo bearer. I had been in country for only 40 days. This was my first of many firefights. After Ap Gu I transferred to the 101st Airborne, 2nd 502, Recon.
The 271st VC Regiment was waiting for us. They used local villagers in the ground attack on the morning of April 1, aka April Fool's Day. Most of the villagers did not have weapons and they were there to draw fire. The VC took out one machine gun position and then came after ours. Our position was covered and I was sent outside to the ammo bearer side pit to stop them from throwing demolition into our pit from the front. When I stepped into the pit, my M-16 was shot out of my hands, and I noticed about 20+ Tri-com grenades in the left angled ammo bearer protection pit. We were being over-run so we escaped to the motor pit and set up returning fire. I could see the third machine gun pit fighting hand to hand and they survived. I can't remember if they also moved to the mortar pits to return fire.
After the battle was over we filled many B-52 bomb craters with hundreds of 271st VC soldiers and villagers. There were no artillery craters, we never had artillery. HCQ actually sent us into a site that was surrounded by VC Regulars and VC, and was not prepared for the battle. The intell was completely inadequate. They did not drop Bouncing-Betties during the battle, they were already there when we got there, and it made our aggressive actions quite precarious. We were completely out of water and had to drink the muddy water from the bottom of our machine gun pit. I remember that we had destroyed the 271 VC Regiment and that there were over 600 dead.
(( Dr. Chris Ward, May 23, 2015))
- Rogers, p. 141.
- Rogers, p. 142.
- Rogers, p. 143.
- Rogers, p. 144.
- Rogers, p. 145.
- Rogers, p. 146.
- Rogers, p. 147.
- Rogers, p. 148.
- Rogers, Bernard William (1989). Vietnam Studies Cedar Falls – Junction City: A Turning Point. United States Army Center of Military History.