Written by Todd DePastino

Front and back of a commemorative coin for the Battle of Ap Bac, an infamous 1963 skirmish in Vietnam

At our recent event at Grist House Brewing, Vietnam Air Force veteran Larry Woods showed me an unusual commemorative coin about the infamous Battle of Ap Bac, a 1963 skirmish that rocked the US political establishment and raised serious questions about the viability of ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

The battle took place in the Mekong Delta on the second day of 1963. The Viet Cong claimed a tactical victory by holding its ground and killing many of the enemy, including three American advisors, and before withdrawing from the field. It’s not a battle much commemorated or remembered in the US, except by the handful of American advisors who were there and students of the war.

The coin is a Kennedy Half Dollar with a full-color vinyl overlay covering the face. The image is of an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), which figured prominently in the battle. Larry wanted to know if there may be a veteran of the battle who would like to have it. I’m wondering whom the creator of the coin had in mind when they made it.

The fight was initiated by US advisors who were looking for ARVN to score an easy victory, one that would demonstrate its battle worthiness.

The target was an enemy radio transmitter in the hamlet of Ap Bac south of Saigon. The idea was to move 1,200 ARVN troops into position to wipe out a Viet Cong (VC) force one-tenth its size.  As always, ARVN would have the advantage in firepower, as well as numbers, bringing infantry, artillery, and APCs to bear on the battle while US advisors watched from the air and ground.

ARVN forces moved into position early in the morning. But the VC had advance knowledge of the attack and prepared defensive positions, reinforced by extra fighters.

When ARVN troops landed by helicopter near Ap Bac, they encountered fierce resistance and quickly bogged down in the muddy rice patties, huddled behind a dike. ARVN soldiers seemed to freeze, and their officers were tentative in their failed attempt to flank the VC positions.

Attempts to support the ground troops by helicopter and additional APCs were thwarted by effective enemy fire.

By the end of the day, the ARVN withdrew, suffering heavy casualties: around 80 killed, 100 wounded, and 5 helicopters lost. The VC reported significantly fewer casualties, around 18 killed.

Three American advisers are also killed that day at Ap Bac: Specialist 4 Donald Braman, Sergeant William Deal, and Captain Kenneth Good.

Despite South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s declaration of victory at Ap Bac, a claim supported by MACV Commander Gen Paul Harkins, the debacle exposed ARVN’s fecklessness and called into question US support for Diem’s government.

Back in Washington, DC, news of Ap Bac shook the Kennedy administration, which had put its hopes in a modernized ARVN defending South Vietnam from Communist takeover. The defeat at Ap Bac convinced JFK to double down on its investment in Vietnam to fund more training and advisers.

All this goes to show why Ap Bac, though celebrated today in Vietnam as a great VC victory, gets little attention here in the US. That someone would create a commemorative coin suggests there may be ARVN veterans of the battle living in the United States and hold first-hand memories of a day that would presage many more to come.

Vintage stamp showing Vietnamese soldiers shooting down a US Army helicopter