THE BATTLE OF AP BAU BANG

12 Nov 1965

Opening Guns - Friendly and enemy situations during this battle



The rubber forest on the Lai Khe plantation was mature. The dense, deep canopy cooled the red earth sixty feet below, and the men of the 3rd Brigade were grateful for that. Now, as October passed into November, the yellow blast of the midday sun was truly debilitating, but the green of the forest made it bearable. The wet furnace of the southwest monsoon would soon give way to the northeast flow that would bring dry air from the northern Asian plains. The days would still be hot, the nights more comfortable. The soldiers did not yet use blankets for sleeping; light ground-sheets were just right.
The Lai Khe plantation covered the gently rolling terrain north to the fortified hamlet of Bau Bang, about two kilometers from the command post, by the Soui Ba Lang, a paddy-lined stream that crossed Hwy 13 at that point. Just short of the bridge and on the east side of the highway, slept the hamlet of Ap Ben Cau, once home to a few rubber workers but now abandonded.
Another three kilometers north was the small settlementcalled Ap Ben Dong So. Here the old railroad bed approached the highway from the southeast and the little yellow station still stood sadly alongside. From here to Bau Bang, two more kilometers north, the rubber trees grew close to the highway only on the west side, while the railroad bed advanced through brushland paralleling the highway on the east. Bau Bang straddled the highway, and the narrow ribbon of pocked asphalt cut a wide breach in the earthen wall that surrounded the hamlet.
Four months after its violent but inconclusive engagement with the 272d Viet Cong Regiment at Bau Bang, the 5th ARVN Division was still unable to secure, with any confidence, passage between Lai Khe and Chon Thanh. Its successive failures throughout its zone during the spring and summer and the punishment it absorbed at the hands of the Viet cong main force, doubtless softened whatever starch was in the original fabric. The relative absence of aggressiveness by the ARVN divisions was not so much a consequence of timidity as it was a recognition by their commanders that the resources for successful forays into enemy territory were not available. The indispensable resources were enough helicopters to carry battalions into enemy zones, capitalizing on shock, concentration of mass, surprise, and the firepower necessary to over come ambush. Lacking this mobility and firepower, ARVN expeditions usually used trucks as far as practical, then the infantry continued on foot. Almost inevitably this technique invited ambush with disastrous results. The ARVN infantry lack the firepower to neutralize the enemy’s advantages of surprise, shock, and concentrated, pre-planned fires. There were no fighters-bombers on call, usually no artillery in range, and few if any armored vehicles in the column. Furthermore, Viet Cong agents had little difficulty penetrating ARVN headquarters; there was ample evidence that planned operations were regularly compromised.
The Third Brigade was settle and ready to go. General Westmoreland wanted to give it some field experience as soon as possible in order to build its confidence in its ability to deal with the enemy main force.
MACV intelligence analysts believed that all three regiments of the 9th Viet Cong Division were near Bau Bang. The Phu Loi Battalion was also in the vicinity, probably east of Hwy 13.
When General Thuan’s request for assistance in securing the move of his 7th Regiment on Hwy 13 reached headquarters MACV, it was a made-to-orfer mission for the 3d Brigade at Lai Khe. The brigade commander Colonel William D. Brodbeck, on of the several seasoned combat infantry leaders in the 1st Division, selected the 2d Battalion of the 2d Infantry for the task. The 2d Battalion was let by LTC George Shuffer, the only black battalion commander then in the division.
Highway 13, someone called it Thunder Road and the name stuck. It seemed to draw steel, a magnet for fire and destruction. The 2d Battalion of the 2d Infantry, with Troop A of the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry attached, and with Battry C of the 2d Field Artillery Battalion, 33d Artilery in sport, would soon find out what the name meant.
The 2d Battalion was assigned responsibility for securing the road from the brigade perimeter at Ap Ben Cau north to Bau Long Pond, just south of Ap Bau Long. The distance to be covered was about 13 kilometers. Because 105mm howitzers could range onlya little past Bau Bang from positons at Lai Khe, Battery C of the 2d Battalion, 33d Artillery (reduced from six to four cannons for this mission), would march with the column and select a firing position from which it could cover the entire area of operations of the task force. This meant, of course, that the infantry would have to provide security for the artillery battery position.
The 2d Battalion task force moved out of the brigade perimeter on the warm morning of November 10th. The lead elements reached Bau Long pard without incident. The brigade and battalion civil affairs teams distributed 950 pounds of rice, 100 pounds of beans, boxes of milk, clothing and CARE packages to the villagers of Ben Dong So and Bau Bang. The brigade’s medical team treated minor ailments in both villages.
The first night in the field passed without enemy cotact. Colonel Shuffer and his command group bivouacked with Company A in a clearing just north of Bau Bang. By four o’clock in the afternoon of te 11th, the last ARVN unit cleared the task force area. Colonel Shuffer ordered Companies B and C to move into their night defensive positions: one was north of Bau Bang, the other south. He ordered Company A and the Cavalry troop into a defensive position on the southern edge of Bau Bang to provide security for C Battery there. Also in the perimeter were battalion’s reconnaissance platoon and the task force command group.
LTC Shuffer chose this position because it was close to the center of his area of operations and, in the no unlikely event that the Viet Cong had reconnoitered his position the night before, the new position would frustrate any plans the enemy might have for an attack this night. The battery could fire in support of the other two companies from here, and except for the berm around Bau Bang that rose fifteen feet or so above the terrain to his north, he had good observation and field of fire in all directions. This small force of fewer than 350 men occupied a perimeter 900 meter from east to west; 600 meters from north to south. The hard-baked ground was an old peanut field overgrown with waist-high brush. As they moved into their positons, the howitzers and personnel carriers beat down most of the vegetation and covered everything with a fine gray dust
The C Battery commander laid on platoon of two howitzers so that its primary direction of fire was west. The other platoon was laid pointing north. The guns at Lai Khe could handle missions south of the Position. The four 105’s went into position just north of the center of the perimeter, behind two rifle platoons of Company A that manned the forward edge.
Three mortar carriers (M-106’s) of Troop A were positioned on the left of the howitzer battery. Their hatches were open to permit firing the 4.2-inch mortars from the carriers. The 18 armored personnel Carriers of Troop A covered the southern approaches in a line that curved on each flank to tie in with the infantry platoons. Behind the carriers, in the center of the line, was Company A’s first platoon. In the center of the perimeter was LTC Shuffer with his command group and reconnaissance platoon. The eastern edge of the perimeter was 200 meters from highway 13. The jungle on the west was at least 500 meters distant, and the rubber trees and jungle on the south were 300 meters from the line of cavalry. It was a good perimeter with barbed-wire all around. Individual fox holes were dug by everyone, but darkness fell before these hasty fortification could be improved with greater depth and overhead cover. The artilleymen constructed earthen wall in front of their howitzers.
The company A mortar platoon, 81mm, registered its defensive concentrations and its barrage, as did Troop A’s 4.2 inch mortars. No barrages were assigned to te artillery, but a few concentrations had been registered by Battery C and Lai Khe artillery.
The only thing that worried Shuffer was that earthan wall, the berm around Bau Bang, only 150 meters from his forward foxholes.

INTRODUCING THE OPPOSITION - VIET CONG)


Nguyan Khac Minh had an abscess on the inside of his right ankle. It had started three days ago with an insect bite. Then it became infected. Tiger Balm did not help and now there was a red line approaching the underside of his knee. The throbbing was persistent, almost unbearable.
Minh saw the Americans for the first time just south of Bau Bang. They were making clouds of dust with their “tanks” on the old, shattered and cratered asphalt of Hwy 13. (Minh thought they were tanks, and he counted 21 as they filed past.) Now and then he could see the tall Americans walking through the rubber on the west of the road. Minh limped into Bau Bang to see that many women, children, and old men, amny of them friends of his, had gathered near the center of the compound. Something unusual was happening. Three American trucks were in the midst of the crowd. One had a red cross on a white background painted on it’s side. Minh drew closer.
There, beside the market, beneath a sheet-metal roof, were a table and a few chairs and six or seven big Americans. They were obviously medical people, for they were treating the villagers who came forward. The Americans had cases of pills, bandages and bright instruments. Minh’s let hurt so badly, Minh hobbled forward.
The doctor was quick and kind. The pain was sharp when the lance entered the pustule, but it was brief and the yellow mass discharged swiftly under the pressure of the surgeon’s fingers. The relief was wonderful. Then there was an injection of some wonderful American cure and a small box of tablets. The Vietnamese interpreter with the Americans, a young man from Saigon, explained how and when Minh should take the pills.
With a bandage covering the wound, Minh expressed his genuine gratitude and left the market of Bau Bang, walking slowly on the trail toward Ap Nha Mat, nine kilometers west through the jungle of the Long Nguyen Secret Zone.
Nguyen Khac Minh was not the only Viet Cong agent who reported to the advance headquarters of the “Cong Truong 9) that afternoon. Several others had seen the American force on Hwy 13. The main elements were centered on Bau Bang. Here was a beautiful opportunity to show how the combat-seasoned soldiers of the 9th Division could destroy the best the Americans could put in the field, “tanks” included.
The division cadre discussed the situation. The reconnaissance party returned late in the afternoon of the 11th with the news that there were no tanks, but there were 21 armored personnel carriers, four 105 howitzers (their muzzles pointing north), and about 150 soldiers in the clearing on the northern edge of Bau Bang.
The plan, discussed, completed, and put in motion, was no departure from previous successful operations. Just at sunset, six soldiers from the 273d Viet Cong Regiment entered Bau Bang through a secret tunnel on the west edge of the hamlet. The squad was escorting two political cadre, one from the 9th Division and one from the regiment, who met with the Bau Bang Viet Cong hamlet chief and his staff in a small house near the market. They explained that the Cong Truong would bring some weapons and the soldiers into the hamlet that night. There would be a brief battle in the morning as the “peoples’ soldiers” annulated the Americans. No people should leave the village but all should sleep in ther shelters and tunnels that night. Each house had a deep pit under the floor, and each pit opened into a tunnel that would provide protection from any enemy bombardment. The village chief reported that the Americans had moved from north of the hamlet to the peanut field on the south. The 9th Division cadre departed immediately upon hearing this news. He and the squad of riflemen hurried back along the familiar trail to Nha Mat, covering the five miles in under an hour. The attack plan would have to be changed now that the Americans had moved south of Bau Bang. Fortunately, none of the force had begun to move east out of Hha Mat.
A brief radio message was sent to the Phu Loi Battalion commander, alerting him to a change in the plan. A liaison agent was then dispatched to meet the Phu Loi Battalion east of Highway 13 at Bau Bang. He carried with him a sketch and orders detailing the changes in the attack plan.
The mortars and recoilless rifles were moved after dark into familiar positions at Bau Bang. Firing data for the mortars was already available; ranges and deflections were known. Even so, some check-rounds were needed. Two rounds from the base 60mm mortar were fired just after 10 o’clock. Then they were ready. The recoilless rifles were placed on the reverse slope of the berm that surrounded the village, on the southern edge facing the American position.
One battalion of infantry from the 273d Regiment quietly moved into Bau Bang. Another, the Phu Loi Battalion from Ben Cat, infiltrated stealthily into the brush on the east side of highway 13. It took up positions behing the old railroad bed. The third battalion, part of the 271st Regiment, following a guide from the reconnaissance company, was delayed reaching it’s position in the rubber southwest of the Americans. It’s reconnaissance party was ambushed by an American Patrol just almost daylight. A detour was required, and the battalion was not in position until almost daylight.
LTC Shuffer had passed the order that stand-to would be at 0600 hours. In order to be ready, the men on watch began waking the sleeping troopers at 0500. The drivers performed their before-operation checks and started the engines on the personnel carriers. The night ambush patrols returned to the perimeter; the patrol from the southwest sector reported with more details about its brief midnight fire-fight. The men were looking forward to a hot breakfast. It was being prepared in Lai Khe and would arrive on the company mess trucks shortly after six. The task force would resume its sweep of Hwy 13 as soon as breakfast was over.

THE BATTLE AT BAU BANG, 12 NOVEMBER 1965

It was five minutes past six in the morning. Platoon Leaders were meeting with their Platoon Sergeants discussing the plans for the day’s operations when the first volley of mortar rounds fell inside the perimeter, belching black smoke. In the clouds of gray dust that followed, infantrymen scrambled for their foxholes; the Cavalrymen to their armored sanctuaries to man the machine guns. The cannoneers ran to the guns and prepared for the first fire-mission of the day. LTC Shuffer told his radio operator to call brigade and tell them that the battalion was under attack. Among other things, that call cancelled breakfast. He radioed for reports from B and C Companies. Nothing going on in either sector.
The mortar bombardment continued for ten minutes. It was all 60mm, between 50 and 60 rounds in all, and the only casualties were two wounded cavalry troopers. Immediately the Viet Cong infantry assault began in the southwest sector. From fifty meters beyond the wire, under the covering fire of another volley of mortar shells, machine guns and rifle fire, the battalion of the 271st Regiment charged forward out of the thicket of bruch and young trees. The cavalry troopers responded with their .50 caliber machine guns, their m-60’s, rifles and grenade launchers. Then to the obvious dismay of the Viet Cong, the cavalrymen on the south side of the perimeter charged the advancing enemy over the wire with a sweeping assault and a storm of machine gun fire, roaring engines and crushing tracks. The cavalrymen then wheeled and returned to it’s positin within the perimeter without a loss. But during this action one of the mortar carriers sustained a direct hit. The round detonated inside the carrier, setting off the ammunition load and killing or wounding the entire crew. By this time all officers of Troop A were seriously wounded and unable to continue in the battle.
By the time the Viet Cong commander ordered his decimated battalion to withdraw, the 105mm howitzer concentration called for by LTC Shuffer had begun to fall in the rubber to the rear of the retreating battalion. Pulling back was not easy. Nearly every able soldier was dragging or helping another wounded, dead or dying comrade.
While the Viet Cong companies and platoons were making their tortuous withdrawal from the machine gun beaten zone, here came another line of armored personnel carriers, guns blazing, engines roaring. The American cavalry platoons pressed the counterattack to the edge of the rubber forest. Three Viet Cong mortar crews had no chance to escape the fire or to recover their weapons. The cavalry run over the mortars, grinding them into the dust of the peanut field. An enemy infantryman ran forward out of the trees. He aimed his flame thrower at an armored personnel carrier but was killed by a machine gunner on the vehicle before he could light his torch.
It was not yet seven o’clock. But to the troopers and infantrymen it seemed that the attack had lasted all day. Heavy fire from mortars, recoilless rifles and machine guns continued to pour into the perimeter from inside of Bau Bang and from behind the berm.
LTC Shuffer was in constant radio contact with his brigade commander, Colonel Brodbeck. The brigade was responding to all requests for artillery support. By 6:45 a forward air controller (FAC) arrived overhead with a flight of A1H Skyraiders. LTC Shuffer asked them to put their load on the woods north of Bau Bang. He couldn’t ask them to strike Bau Bang itself because it was a populated area, therefore designated a “no fire zone”. The bombs and 20mm cannon fire in the woods had no effect on the incoming ordance LTC Shuffer was receiving from Bau Bang. He was in the midst of his request to COL Brodbeck for permission to fire into Bau Bang when the next Viet Cong assault began.
The Phu Loi battalion charged across Hwy 13 from the jungle and brush behind the old railroad bed. It was met by concentrated fire from the right flank of Company A and the heavy machine guns of the Cavalry APC’s on the west end of Troop A’s Line. The assault withered, staggered and died in the middle of the road. As the shaken Viet Cong dragged their wounded back to defilade behind the railroad embankment, the 155’s and 105’s from the Lai Khe batteries began raining high-explosive on the Phu Loi Battalion’s assembly area. Casualties mounted rapidly as the battalion commander ordered a withdrawal eastward away from this storm of fire and flying steel.
Meanwhile LTC Brodbeck relayed and reinforced COL Shuffer’s request to hit Bau Bang. He called General Seaman at Di An. The 2d Battalion task force was suffering many casualties from fire out of Bau Bang and from the earthen wall surrounding it. It had beaten off three strong infantry assaults but was still dangerously vulnerable to destruction by attrition. It had no way to silence the mortars in Bau Bang or the recoilless rifles firing from position-defilade behink the berm. The artillery battery and Mortar Carriers of the cavalry were firing into the berm with little observed effect on the enemy gunners.
Relayed through COL Brodbeck, LTC Shuffer received General Seaman’s approval to strike Bau Bang just as the enemy infantry, the battalion of the 273d regiment, swarmed over the berm and charged the front of the two platoons Company A, four howitzers and Cavalry Mortar Carriers. It was quickly obvious that this was the main attack. Violent and costly as they were, the first three attacks were probes compared to this one, although the 9th Division Commander probably would have reinforced the success of any one of them. But they had challenged the strength and mobility of the American position and had not broken through anywhere; they had not even reached the barbed-wire barrier.
Covered by the fire of their machine guns, recoilless rifles and mortars, the 273d reached the concertina in front of the American infantry. Here they were stopped by the Machine guns of the cavalry and infantry, and by the devastating fire of the 105mm howitzers. The gunners of Battery C set the projectiles for two-second delay. Then they lowered the muzzles to fire into the ground just a few yards in front of the battery. The shells would hit and skip like flat stones across a still pond and, when they were above the attacking enemy infantry, explode in dark red and black clouds and jagged shards of steel.
The violence and volume of the American fire forced the enemy to withdraw. But not before one squad had worked its way through the barbed-wire and up to the number one howitzer (on the left of the battery). The Viet Cong squad lobbed a grenade into the midst of the crew serving the connon, killing two and wounding all the rest. But this courageous enemy squad died there too.
Now it was 0730, and another flight of bombers was overhead, ready to be directed to its targets by the FAC. These were A4 Skyhawks from a US Navy carrier. LTC Shuffer told the FAC to hit the berm. He wanted most of all to silence the recoilless rifles and heavy machine guns that were firing from that position. The flight of A4’s did it’s job, and it was quickly followed by two more flights of skyraiders with 500-pound bombs, napalm, and followed by two more flights of skyraiders with 500-pound bombs, napalm, and CBU*(Grenade sized bomblets, a devastating anti-personnel munition) that they expended on the berm. Meanwhile, Battery C continued the fire with more high explosives into the berm and, now that permission had been granted, with rounds timed to burst over the mortar positions in Bau Bang.
A brief quiet descended over the smoke, dust, and mournful murmers of the battlefield. Helicopters for medical evacuation, call “dust-off,” settled into the center of the perimeter. The “dust-off” departed quickly with the wounded that had been gathered near the command group.
It appeared for awhile that the enemy was through for the day. Many of his soldiers lay dead or dying in front of the American positions. But he was not finished. At 0900 he attacked again over the berm. Battery C responded with 65 more rounds of 105, timed to burst over the attacking ranks. Another flight of fighter-bombers appeared overhead. These were F-100’s carrying napalm, which they placed directly on the attacking formation. After this devastating bomb-run the left-over napalm canisters were tossed onto the mortar batteries in Bau Bang.
The nine-o’clock assault failed as decisively as had the earlier ones. The mortars in Bau Bang were silenced, as were the heavy weapons on the berm. Desultory enemy rifle fire continued for an hour or so, probably designed to cover his withdrawal. By noon all was quiet.
The tenacity, courage, dedication, and teamwork shown by the artillerymen in this particular battle were remarkable, even for soldiers who are trained, indeed indoctrinated, to believe that service of the howitzer comes above all other considerations. The cannoneers of C Battery stood and sweated out there in that peanut field by Bau Bang and fired 300 rounds of high explosive during the morning. It is likely that without them the enemy assault over the berm would have carried to the center of the perimeter.
The mortar men of Company A also did yeoman duty. They fired 225 high explosive 81mm shells in close-in defensive fires during the battle. That works out to 76 rounds per tube, a prodigious effort!
During the after mop up, B and C companies sweep the battle area to include around Bau Bang. They counted 198 Viet Cong dead around the perimeter and in the village. Because of the Viet Cong practice of recovering all dead and wounded soldiers possible, the enemy’s losses must have been substantially greater. He also lost numerous rifles, machine guns, light and medium mortars, light and heavy recoilless rifles, a radio, and a flame thrower.
The Americans lost 20 Soldiers killed in action, 103 wounded in Action (every third man had been wounded or killed). Five armored vehicles were destroyed (all three mortar carriers); three more were damaged badly enough to be withdrawn from service for repairs. The Vietnamese interpreter with the battalion, who had helped the hospital team in Bau Bang was also dead, and Bau Bang itself was completely destroyed, a lifeless ruin. It’s villagers had crawled out of their holes and bunkers and disappeared before the smoke, dust and confusion of the battle.

A Troop Multi-MOS Team

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