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Jack Heslin  

Stolen Honor – The Battle of Ap Bac

Most of us understand the concept of stolen valor when someone claims heroic acts and military awards they do not deserve. There has been much written about this to include “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History” by B.G Burkett and Glenna Whitley. There have been public cases revealed of men who have made false claims and there have been legal efforts to hold these men responsible for their actions.

There is however, a different way that false assertions or lies can damage the very soul of a soldier. That is his honor can be taken from him by the malicious, deceitful acts of others. I call this stolen honor.

General Ly Tong Ba was an extraordinary man by any measure. A true hero of the people of South Vietnam and a very accomplished, brave soldier who often faced death in his long and illustrious career. He was the Commander of the 23rd ARVN Infantry Division in 1972 during the Battle of Kontum where I became aware of who he was. He fought with honor throughout the war until he was captured in 1975 as he was fighting to save the city of Saigon. After his capture he was imprisoned for a period of thirteen years enduring great pain and suffering that almost took his life many times. After he was finally released from prison he finally made his way to America where he was able to join his family who had come to America as refugees in 1975. They had been boat people.

I became close friends with General Ba in 2005 after he joined me for a presentation in Washington DC at the annual reunion of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. Over the years, our friendship grew and we had a number of visits together one of which was at my home.

Throughout my years of friendship I have been very aware of the pain he has carried from the war. One of the sources of that pain was the false narrative about his performance as a young captain in January 1963 during the battle of Ap Bac. One of the worst indictments you can make about a soldier is that he showed cowardice in the face of the enemy. General Ba lived with that for most of his adult life because of lies that were told about his actions during the Battle of Ap Bac, January 2 -3 1963. Those lies were told by an American adviser who was with Ba in the battle and by LTC John Paul Vann who was the Senior Advisor to the 7th ARVN Infantry Division. Those lies of cowardice and incompetence were believed by the American Press at the time who then reported on the perceived failures of the ARVN soldiers and Ly Tong Ba. Those lies fit the narrative that the communist Viet Cong wanted told to advance their agenda of defeating the ARVN and overthrowing the government of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Those lies perpetrated a false narrative that drove a wedge between the US government leadership and that of President Diem. Those lies stole the honor of Ly Tong Ba.

In 1972 General Ba as the 23rd ARVN commander in Kontum worked with John Paul Vann. Vann was the American Senior Adviser for II Corps and the most senior American during the battle. General Ba told me during one of our visits that John Vann apologized to him for what Vann had said about Ba after the Battle of Ap Bac. That meant a great deal to General Ba because it was an acknowledgement by Vann of the lie and telling the truth brought about a reconciliation of the truth for the two men and a healing.

Others have not faced that truth and the false narrative persist to this day. In the article below, which is a translation of General Ba’s work, he describes, in his own words, the truth as he knew it and lived it. I think it is amazing that Ba called out Neil Sheehan for what he wrote about the battle of Ap Bac, and Ba’s performance in Sheehan’s book “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.”

It is important to remember that at the time of the battle of Ap Bac one of the prime sources of information for the reporters was Pham Xuan An, a Vietnamese reporter working for the American Press and at the same time a super spy as a communist Colonel in the army of North Vietnam. The false narrative perpetrated on the American Press met the agenda of the communist enemy of the United States and South Vietnam. The false narrative stole the honor of General Ly Tong Ba. The false narrative about the Vietnam War persist to this day and has stolen the honor of America’s Vietnam Veterans.

“Memoir of 25 Years of War; Thoughts of a General Who Commanded Troops on the Battlefield”

By General Ly Tong Ba
Self-Published in San Marcos, CA, 1999 (Third printing)

CHAPTER II - Page 55

DAYS OF FIRE: The 7th Mechanized Company (M-113) and the Plain of Reeds

In the early 1960’s, faced with increasing Viet Cong attacks in the Mekong Delta, most notably in the Plain of Reeds, the U.S. Government supplied a new weapon to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) – the M-113 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). In South Vietnam the M-113 served as a light armored vehicles. In addition to its amphibious capabilities, it had a composite metal outer shell strong enough to withstand enemy bullets of all types, from rifles to heavy machine guns. A 50-caliber machine gun was mounted on top of the vehicle.

Before the vehicles were given to larger units, like regiments and task forces, two M-113 companies were formed to serve as test units. I was one of the two company commanders selected by the Armored Command to command of these two companies: the 7th Mechanized Company (M-113).

The company was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, whose operational area was the Upper Delta Tactical Zone and whose headquarters was located in My Tho City, the capital of My Tho province. At that time Colonel Huynh Van Cao, later promoted to major general, was the division commander.

After spending some time organizing and training at the Thu Duc Armored School, the 7th Mechanized Company (M-113) began to conduct regular operations. It participated in virtually every military operation conducted in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, especially in the Upper Delta Tactical Zone, which contained a number of famous VC base areas in the Cai Lay-Moc Hoa area. During this period everyone, friend and foe alike, knew the 7th Mechanized Company, because the company was used as the division’s spearhead during sweep operations. The company was even awarded the Armed Forces Unit Citation, ARVN’s highest award, given only to combat units that had performed numerous outstanding feats of arms – a standard that very few company-sized units were able to meet.

When discussing feats of arms and military victories, everyone recognizes that a price must be paid for such achievements – they do not just happen on their own. In the 7th Mechanized Company, my fellow soldiers and I endured pouring rain and blazing sun, rolling from place to place, night and day, in response to the needs of the battlefield. Sometimes we plowed through soggy rice fields, and sometimes we were transported by ship. No matter what the situation, no matter what the environment, 7th Company not only carried out every operational plan with precision, it also decisively pursued and destroyed the enemy, to say nothing of the fact that we also had to study the terrain beforehand when the situation permitted and when we had the opportunity.

Once, while talking to my men, I said, “Every time we go out on an operation we face difficulties. We have to slog through mud, drive over rice-paddies, and cross canals, in both pouring rain and blazing sunshine. We often have problems and have to tow our vehicles out of mud when they become stuck or haul them up from the bottom when they sink after a bridge collapses. Therefore, when we arrive at the battlefield we must fight to WIN! We are too good to be willing to settle for a draw in any fight. If we win once, things will go better for us the next time we fight. No matter how determined we are, every time we march into battle we know we will have to endure countless problems, because the enemy can choose his own place and time to fight, and in this type of terrain he can cause us many problems. We are very familiar with this area; this is the Upper Delta Tactical Zone, and in it lies the Viet Cong heartland: the Plain of Reeds, an area that the communists used earlier to torment the Army of the French Union.”

The 7th M-113 Company was also dispatched to support operations in areas outside of its area of responsibility. One day the company might be in Cai Lay-My Tho, the next it might be sent to Can and Xinh hamlets in Tan Uyen District, Bien Hoa Province, and the day after that the company might appear in Dai Ngai in Ba Xuyen Province in IV Corps/Military Region 4. The company also took part in numerous sweep operations penetrating into Viet Cong secret zones on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border where no unit had ever gone before. During this period, whenever they fought the 7th Mechanized Company (M-113), the Viet Cong always suffered heavy losses. The 7th M-113 Company, performing as if it was hunting for wild birds or driving rats from their holes, swept away a line of enemy positions from Tan Chau and Hong Ngu districts in Chau Doc province up to Duc Hoa and Duc Hue in Tay Ninh province. These were important operations that must never be forgotten.

During the two-year period between 1962 and 1964, I can safely say that no Viet Cong unit ever dared to try to hold their position and stand up against any of the units under my command that were equipped with M-113s, from the 7th Mechanized Company (M-113) up to the Regiments and task forces at My Tho.

Only once, during the Battle of Ap Bac, did the Viet Cong temporarily manage to hold off the 7th Company for a short time before finally being overrun and dispersed. At this point I should make it quite clear that the true facts of that battle and how that battle developed bear no resemblance to the account in Neil Sheehan’s book, “A Bright Shining Lie,” published in 1988. The book did not describe the key points of the battle or the precise reasons behind each separate development in the battle. The author provided only a general description of the battle based on superficial and inadequate statements and reports made by Captain James Scanlon, the unit advisor. Like it or not, “Honest People Tell the Truth,” so how could Scanlon turn white into black, even given the personal ire of John Paul Vann. Captain James Scanlon, who had acted in such a cowardly fashion, distorted the facts for his own reasons, dishonoring the blood, sweat, and tears shed by ARVN troops in general and by the 7th M-113 Company in particular. He did this just to satisfy the needs of his own immature personality. Either Scanlon was a warrior lacking in sincerity and afraid to accept his own responsibility, or he showed a total lack of understanding of the situation!

There is one thing that still bothers me: even though it won hundreds of battles and captured piles of enemy equipment as proof of its victories, not one single ARVN unit, generally speaking, and speaking particularly about the 7th Mechanized Company, ever received any public praise or encouragement. However, when on one single occasion, we encountered unavoidable difficulties, both our friends and our enemies took turns slandering us. Who benefited from this injustice, besides the Communists? The inhumanity of the Communists is shown in the fact that they never gave a second thought to the losses suffered and the sacrifices made by their cadres and soldiers. Their only thought was success in achieving their objectives, even if those objectives were not what people think. Marxism-Leninism, which in principle sacrifices for the workers, for the poor, etc., even though in fact they make everyone poor so that they can rule over the people, was prepared to sacrifice unlimited numbers of soldiers to win victories for Uncle Ho and the Party.

I have almost never heard of any VC commander who was demoted or relieved, no matter how many times his unit suffered horrendous losses.

The 1968 Tet Offensive was a classic example of this. General Vo Nguyen Giap and his subordinates were beaten to a pulp by the U.S. and South Vietnamese armed forces, but in the end the VC were credited with winning, at least in some kind of strategic sense?! In this way the Vietnamese Communists avoid many difficult questions in the eyes of those countries that know little of the Viet Cong, especially those countries where the people do not enjoy full legal rights and where the population is still lacking in intelligence. During this period, between ourselves and the enemy, ARVN faced difficulties on many fronts: with families, relatives, widows, the press, and in those places where battles damaged or destroyed houses, fields, crops, livestock, etc. In the eyes of the people we were always on the defensive about these problems, and the VC exploited this fact in its “psychological warfare” propaganda efforts. No one ever mentioned the fact that during this same period the Viet Cong committed all kinds of barbaric acts, including kidnappings, assassinations, setting booby-traps, laying mines, and conducting indiscriminate shelling attacks that killed innocent civilians. The 1968 Tet Offensive was the most vivid example of this unjust attitude toward us.

In my opinion, from the war in general down to individual battles and on down to a type of warfare known as psychological warfare, it seemed as if we, the South Vietnamese and American soldiers, were always targets for psychological brainwashing by both our own domestic media and by the foreign media. While they exploited in an unconstructive manner those mistakes we made inadvertently, they neglected to mention the goals of our struggle, and they intentionally ignored both facts that were a thousand times more barbaric and the defeats suffered by the enemy. The members of the media supported and advocated the same kind of harmful dictatorship advocated by Marxism-Leninism and practiced by the Communists.

On occasion they even unintentionally supported the Viet Cong and said the VC cause was a just cause (?). Could it be that many of these people forgot the real source of the modern, civilized, and democratic life-style that they themselves enjoyed? We, the Vietnamese people who loved Freedom, longed for just a small measure of the kind of life that they enjoyed. These members of the media often presented things about us that, in fact, were sometimes true, situations or events, things we had done either unintentionally or irrationally. If they had only made a fair comparison of the two sides, who was right and who was wrong, who was just and who was unjust, they would have presented a clearer picture to their readers and their viewers. The things that the enemy did on the battlefield, both during the Vietnam War and right up to the present, in terms of damage done and crimes committed by the enemy, are a hundred times, a thousand times worse than anything our side has done. I do not understand why the media forgets this (!).

For instance, with regards to the difficulties our army encountered in the Battle of Ap Bac, naturally at that time there were problems that needed to be addressed, that needed to be discussed, to present a clearer picture from which we could learn, to further develop our combat capabilities in the future, to say nothing of the victories that our people and our soldiers won.

A clear example is the My Lai incident in Quang Ngai province, when one American company that had suffered some casualties burned and destroyed a village and murdered a number of civilian residents. If that incident were to be compared to the Viet Cong’s massacre of civilians in Hue in 1968, when thousands of people were murdered, then we could clearly see the true savagery of the communists. While First Lt. Calley, the American company commander, was prosecuted and sentenced to prison, the communists who massacred civilians in Hue received promotions. Among those promoted are certainly some who are now generals in the communist army today. So, in this situation, who should we say was right and who was wrong? Which side respects the spirit of democracy? Does a victor always truly serve a just cause, or is he less barbaric than the one he defeats? The revolution is still a dictatorship; the People’s Army is an army that serves a new power elite, a new regime, and it is the master of a new wealthy class, enjoying wealth that has been blatantly stolen from the working class, the class that has lost everything, from the spiritual to the material.

They are the ones who are the true victims of exploitation. This is the situation in Vietnam at the present time. Who won? Who lost? Who overcame whom? The war is over, but that does not mean that the sources of disturbances and upheaval have disappeared. The vast majority of the Vietnamese people live under oppression, in shame and poverty, alongside the wealthy Reds with their ill-gotten gains.

I have heard a few American generals say, “We fought the war with one hand tied behind our backs.” Clearly, now we can see that they were not wrong.

A few years ago Neil Sheehan wrote an inaccurate description of the Battle of Ap Bac because he accepted the statements of Captain Scanlon, the company’s advisor, and this was exploited by the VC. I would like to raise one question about the account given by Neil Sheehan in “A Bright Shining Lie”: How could I refuse an order from the Division Commander and accept an order from a province chief, Lt. Colonel Lam Quang Tho, to refuse to cross the canal to attack the enemy? How could I refuse to cross the canal in front of hundreds of my subordinates as Captain Scanlon reported to his superiors? This report is just a product of the imagination of someone who wishes to conceal his own cowardice, or perhaps it was made because some idiot resides in the body of Captain Scanlon.

What does this action say? Is it not an attempt to evade one’s “Honor and Responsibility” as a soldier? We, as front-line combat soldiers, cannot refuse to speak out against these kinds of elements, and especially against Captain Scanlon. In my opinion, the only reason the Cold War lasted until the decade of the 90s was because of the actions of unwise people like him.

I would like to remind people of a number of exemplary victories won by the 7th M-113 Company in the scrub jungles of Moc Hoa in 1962. Not even counting the number of enemy bodies left on the battlefield, the company was the first to capture Soviet-made rifles with red stocks [Translator’s Note: This is a reference to the Soviet SKS semi-automatic rifle]. In the battle of An Thanh Thuy in Cho Gao district, My Tho province, the company captured a 75mm recoilless rifle. In the O Qua [Crow’s Nest] Forest of Tan Chau, Hong Ngu District, out of an entire enemy company hidden in individual foxholes, not one single man escaped alive.

It was also in this area that in early 1964 I fought alongside four-star General Cao Van Vien, who was at that time a colonel commanding the airborne brigade. At that time we were within hand-grenade throwing range of the enemy. General Viet was wounded only a few meters from my position. At the time, General Lam Van Phat, the Commander of III Corps/Military Region 3, was standing beside me in my command vehicle.

Finally, I would like to mention an extremely rare feat of arms: on 18 September 1962 the 7th Mechanized Company (M-113) destroyed the entire 502nd Kien Phong Province Main Force Battalion, killing 60 enemy soldiers on the battlefield and capturing another 40 enemy soldiers. These are the victories that I can still remember, but in addition to them there were many other victories, big and small, too many for me to count and remember fully.

The proof of these combat achievements, the demonstration of the courage of our soldiers, was provided by the captured enemy equipment I described above and by the hundreds of enemy bodies we left scattered throughout our area of responsibility. So many comrades-in-arms can read this, all except that slacker advisor, Captain Scanlon. My comrades-in-arms include those from the 7th Mechanized Company (M-113), the 4/2 Mechanized Troop, the 2nd Armored Regiment, and finally the 6th Armored Personnel Carrier Task Force in My Tho. My comrades-in-arms still live and they will read and recognize the truth of what I write here.

Jack Heslin <>
NC USA - Tuesday, March 07, 2017 at 19:38:15 (EST)

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