Massacre on April 2, 1966

This is going to be a difficult tale to tell, because I did not want to tell it in the first place. It is being told because my friends insist upon it.

I had someone check the computer for the date of April 2, 1966 to find out how many men died in Vietnam on that day. I think they said it was ten. Wrong!!

I was a fire team leader with Delta Company, First Battalion, First Marine Division (1-1). We had lost many men by this date, having arrived in Vietnam on August 27, 1965. Our squad alone was only about eight men, when it should have been thirteen (three fire teams of four men each and one squad leader). A major battle was in progress and, because we were so small in numbers, our job was to set the company up with a river on one side and a mountain base on the other. We were to be the anvil to an Army unit's hammer. We cleared the fields of fire, dug in, and waited for the Army to push the enemy toward our position. In the distance, down in the valley, we heard gunfire and artillery and Phantom jets dropping payloads of napalm and bombs.

A desperate call came in from the Army unit saying they were under attack and surrounded. The order was passed to mount up so we could go get them. My squad had the company point, and I was the point man for the squad. First we ran into one weak ambush and fought our way through; then, a second (and more heavily manned) ambush took us half an hour to get by. Finally, a third ambush was set up with barbed wire fences, which had to be blown up with Bangalore torpedoes flown in by chopper. It was also fortified with three heavy machine guns.

After the first burst we hit the deck, and everyone ran up on line to return fire and try to gain fire superiority. That did not happen, as we were seriously outnumbered. My squad leader and a few other men were hit by gunshots almost immediately. They were in the rice paddy and bleeding badly, so Lance Corporal Frank August ("Augie") and I ran to them. We dragged three wounded Marines back to an area of cover, while continuing our fire on the enemy emplacements. Once the Bangalore torpedoes did their job of removing the barbed wire obstacles, the enemy broke contact and ran. Again, I picked up the point, after first helping to load several wounded Marines on choppers to be evacuated to DaNang.

Augie and I had gotten too far ahead of the main body as we rushed by; now, damned near totally exhausted, we moved in the direction of the last communication from the Army unit. As we neared a village ahead and on the right, we saw a large rice paddy with another village to its left. We saw a large pig eating the back portion of a burned man's leg, and from our vantage point, the entire rice paddy was dotted with American bodies. How we prayed they were mostly wounded, but it was not so.

Augie kept a cover position for me, while I crawled out and looked for wounded that needed help. I used each body as cover while going from one to the other, about fifty or so, before realizing they were all dead. Many had been shot in the head as well as other places, and it was obvious what had happened. Their commanding officer had them march across the paddy on line in a classic conventional warfare maneuver. But he was wrong for having done so in a guerilla setting. When they were hit in the middle of the paddy, they were hit from two sides. By the end of the day, we put two-hundred forty-two men in body bags and loaded them on choppers. It was the most Americans I ever saw killed at any one time.

By the time the rest of our men caught up to us, I was covered from head to toe in the blood of the men I had crawled over. Even my eyes were caked in blood. The next thing I remembered was Augie helping me to my feet and saying, "They're all dead, Rio." Everyone had a nickname in Nam and, because my last name is Labriola, they just called me "Rio" for short. The enemy had all but disappeared into the surrounding jungle, carrying all the weapons of the 242 men who lay dead in the paddy.

Small, fire-team sized patrols were sent out in several directions looking for trails, but no contact was made that day. While choppers began ferrying in to take out the dead and drop off more body bags, Augie and another Marine were carrying water from the village well to pour over me. I stood there in my shorts. At my feet was a large puddle of dead men's blood. A priest came out with one of the choppers, and he was saying mass only feet away from where I stood trying to rinse most of the blood off. As men passed by, I asked anyone if they had a fresh jungle fatigue top and pants. A few cherries had what I needed, so I could throw away the uniform I had been wearing.

We stayed in that area for three days, just running one patrol after another. At one point, we found several LAW's rockets that had been dropped. We blew them in place just in case they had been booby-trapped. We replenished our water in the canteens from the village well which, after three days, had significantly reduced in level. At the bottom of the well we spotted another American who had been badly blown up, presumably by grenades. Everyone in our company came down with dysentery; so badly that we split the entire seam at the back of our trousers — then all we had to do was squat, without taking off our ammo belts or unbuckling the pants. As we squatted, the pants parted in the back so we could expel the water. Dehydration set in quickly and we could not get enough water, so some of us had kids climb trees to cut down coconuts so we could drink the milk. We knew the milk would act as a laxative, but when you were that thirsty it did not matter. You just needed to replace the water you were so rapidly losing.

The ceiling had been low and no choppers with resupply were coming in, so we had to walk back the way we had just fought our way from. At one point, as I was leading the squad, I climbed over a small hedge row and right there in front of me was a Viet Cong carrying an AK. He saw me at the same time I saw him. He screamed, dropped his rifle, turned, and ran like hell. I had him in my sights but did not shoot, because I was delirious and weak from dehydration. I began laughing, and when Augie caught up to me, he asked why I did not shoot the man. I replied, "Look, he dropped his weapon. What is Charlie going to say to his CO when he gets back to his unit: 'Sir, I dropped my weapon upon seeing a Marine'?"

Two days later we were evacuated back to an area just a little southwest of DaNang, and we were put in GP tents to recover from our dysentery. Next to each cot was a table with wooden bowls full of codeine pills and cheese to bind us up. Still, we made many trips to the latrine for about a week.

Later, we read an article in "The Stars and Stripes" newspaper about the battle. The article reported that ten enemy soldiers were killed and US casualties were "light."

To this very day, no one has written about nor taken responsibility for the 242 men we bagged and tagged that day. I am not the only one who saw this, and I am hoping someone reading this might have been there and remembered the incident. Augie was killed by a sniper four months later, and his name is inscribed on the Wall.

If anyone reading this was there, I hope you will come forward and let me know. We need to let the world know what really happened that day. It was a massacre that has been denied for far too many years, and light needs to be shed on it. I do not know the unit the dead soldiers belonged to, but I do know that they were fresh in-country, because their uniforms were still green and not faded from salt and sun. It was the very first Army unit I saw this far north in Vietnam. Until then, the northern part of the country, or "I Corps" as it was called, was the bailiwick of the Marines only.

The country did not want the rest of the world nor the American public to know there had been a massacre and, to this day, I cannot help but wonder how all those 242 bodies got home? Did they place some in freezers and send them home ten or twelve at a time? Were the Generals afraid if the American public saw or read about the massacre that they would lose the waning support for the war? I do not know the answers to any of this. I only know what I witnessed, as it has been an almost daily sight in my memories. Who could ever forget something like that?

I remember there was a tall, light-skinned black guy in fatigues taking pictures and crying the whole time he snapped away. There were the priest, the chopper pilots, and (perhaps still alive?) some of the Marines there that day. Please, if you were one of these people, help me tell this story. At the moment, I stand alone on this, and sure as hell, there will be detractors trying to dispute my claim. This is a heavy burden that I carry, and it will be lighter if someone out there also remembers and will help me air the truth.

The truth: a novel concept for such a long ago war — and the current one as well.

Joe Labriola, former Sergeant, USMC

  • View Joe's Bronze Star Medal citation for April 2, 1966
  • View Joe's final uniform ribbons
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