It was 1966, and the United States was at war again, this time in Southeast Asia, fighting Communists in South Vietnam. Our forces were also holding the line against the same foe in Europe and in faraway places such as Korea. My name is Bill Carpenter, and I was 24 years old. I had just graduated in March from Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, with a bachelor of science degree in wildlife management. I’m originally from the hills of West Virginia, but my family moved to Denver after I graduated from high school.
Ever since Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the fighting in Vietnam was increasingly on the news. The resolution granted President Lyndon Johnson virtually unlimited power to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. In the spring of 1965, the president sent several thousand marines to assist the 23,000 US military advisers already there. In August, the US Army’s First Cavalry Division followed that commitment with its 20,000 men and 450 helicopters. This first-of-its-kind “airmobile” division was based at Camp Radcliff, along Route 19, by An Khe City in the Central Highlands. This was where US military strategists thought the enemy planned to cut South Vietnam in half with one powerful thrust from Cambodia to the South China Sea.
At home, an antiwar movement was developing because of the draft, our increasing casualties, and a growing sentiment that South Vietnam’s government was more oppressive than the North’s. The sharp rise in US causalities began in November 1965, when members of the First Cavalry fought the first large-scale battle against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). It happened in the Ia Drang Valley, west of Camp Radcliff. In that short four-day fight, the First Cav suffered 237 men killed. The enemy lost more than 1,500 men, many of them from close-support air strikes and B-52 bombardments.
Military life was not a tradition in my family, and I didn’t want to go to war. But I was a college grad who had been in ROTC, and I figured I could serve my country as an army officer. I was sworn into the army on Tuesday, May 10, 1966, with the understanding that upon completing basic training and advanced individual training (AIT) as an infantryman, I would attend Officer Candidate School (OCS).
During AIT, a few second lieutenants who had just finished OCS gave us pep talks. The message I got was that OCS basically resembled a college fraternity initiation that lasted six months. Though it was probably not the intent of the talks, I heard a lot of stories about pranks and not much about learning to lead. I knew I would head for Vietnam and be given a platoon of about thirty-six men to keep alive. I also knew that if I was going to be a competent officer, I needed real military experience. So I dropped OCS and became just another army private.
I finished AIT at the end of September and was assigned to the Third Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard,” at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. The Old Guard, the oldest active-duty regiment in the US Army, has been around since 1784. Our mission was ceremonial: to honor fallen soldiers and visiting foreign dignitaries. The Vietnam War was still ramping up, so the army started gutting units Stateside and in Europe to meet the demand. Since the Old Guard was, first and foremost, an infantry unit, we all knew we might see combat.
Thursday, January 5, 1967, twelve men from my platoon and one guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier––where three men lay interred after sacrificing not only their lives but their very identities in answering our nation’s call––received orders assigning us to the Ninetieth Replacement Battalion in Vietnam.
* * *
On Wednesday, March 15, 1967, I arrive in Vietnam at Ton Son Nhut, a massive army and air force base near Saigon. Five days later, I’m assigned to the First Cavalry Division. I figure an infantryman is an infantryman, so it doesn’t matter where I go. I’m just glad I’m not a marine up by the DMZ—those guys are getting the shit shot out of them. I’m flown north to Camp Radcliff, at An Khe. Camp Radcliff is a large base not far from the Ia Drang Valley, where, two years back, more than 200 cavalrymen were killed and over 500 wounded.
While I’m at the First Cav’s Replacement Center, Captain James D. James, from the division’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols––small, heavily armed teams that patrol deep in enemy-held territory—comes to talk to us about joining. His unit, LRRP (pronounced “Lurp”) Detachment G2, became operational just months before, on January 1, 1967, and is under the direct command of division intelligence (G2). Captain James is a Special Forces‑trained officer who previously commanded the Airborne Recon Platoon, First Combat Aviation Company (Provisional), in Verona, Italy. He emphasizes that all LRRPs are volunteers and that we can leave his unit at any time, with no repercussions. He also says we won’t be put on a team until after we complete LRRP training by his cadre. After that, if we don’t uphold professional standards, we’ll be reassigned out of his unit. This sounds a lot like the “real military experience” I was looking for, and I’m thinking, Why not? I’ll be with better-trained troops, who will keep me safer.
When Captain James speaks with me, I tell him, “The West Virginia hills where I was raised are a lot like the Vietnam hills. And I spent years hunting and camping, so sleeping on the ground in the rain won’t be anything new.”
Captain James takes my name, and Tuesday, March 28, 1967, I’m shipped farther north to Company A, First Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment––one of our division’s infantry regiments––at Landing Zone (LZ) English. The LZ is just off Route 1, near Bong Son Village and the South China Sea. My company executive officer (XO) is a Montana State grad who, like me, has a degree in wildlife management. He says, “Hang in a few weeks. You’ll be better use to us as a ‘Remington raider’”—that is, a company clerk, so called because desk jobs often mean using a Remington typewriter.
Since I’m a private, I spend the next week doing maintenance on the barbed wire and bunkers along our perimeter and pulling nighttime security. I also get intimately acquainted with the true meaning of the term “shit detail.” The infamous task known as “shit burning” involves using a tent pole to haul cutoff fifty-five-gallon drums out from under latrines, dousing the contents with fuel, and stirring it while it burns. The black smoke is vile, and I do my best to stay upwind.
Six days later, Monday, April 3, my XO hands me orders transferring me to the LRRPs. He’s ticked because he had offered me a safe job with his company, and the LRRPs are getting a reputation for taking the best men from field units. I look at my orders and pause, wondering whether I made the right decision. But I figure, the LRRPs will be a challenge, and the real job of a soldier is to be out in the field, keeping other men alive.
Five other soldiers and I return to the LRRPs at Camp Radcliff. Since the unit is new, it has only eighteen men—and, now, the six of us. Captain James is the commanding officer, Lieutenant Ron Hall is XO, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Fred Kelly is first sergeant, Staff Sergeant (SSG) Tom Campbell is our operations sergeant, and SSG Rudy Torres is our communications specialist. The unit has only two six-man teams: Team 1, led by SSG Ron Christopher, and Team 2, led by SSG Pat O’Brien. We new guys set up our tent and then spend a few days scrounging around Camp Radcliff, “requisitioning” canvas cots from other units (never mind the paperwork).
US Army Special Forces have been training South Vietnamese soldiers (ARVNs) and conducting covert operations in Vietnam since 1957, perfecting the art of long-range patrolling along the Cambodian and Laotian borders. But the idea of division LRRP units is new. In Europe, two LRRP companies, D and C, were attached to V Corps in Frankfurt and VII Corps in Stuttgart. But because of South Vietnam’s dense mountainous, often uninhabited terrain and the questionable loyalty of the locals––we’re fighting both conventional forces from the North and local guerrillas, the Vietcong (VC)––it is decided that every US Army division and brigade will respectively have a company or platoon of LRRPs. This way, every divisional or brigade commander can always have eyes and ears in the field to report where the enemy is and where he isn’t.
US Marines already employ a reconnaissance battalion attached to each division, modeled off the Marine Raiders of World War II. But their teams are eight- to twelve-man squads equipped with heavy 7.62mm M14 rifles and belt-fed 7.62mm M60 machine guns to take on the enemy. The army follows the Fifth Special Forces Group’s principle of using five- or six-man teams, which are much stealthier than larger platoons, provided with some of the latest weapons and dehydrated LRRP rations, and supported by the most modern rotary aircraft in existence. The tradeoff is, the odds are against us if we make direct enemy contact. Thus, our mission is to engage the enemy only as a last resort. If we do our job right and have that vital ingredient, luck, we’ll discover the enemy without being seen, and direct air strikes, artillery, or large infantry units to kill them.
Our training will be by the other noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in our unit. Fortunately, most of the NCOs are Ranger trained, which mean they have graduated from one of the finest light-infantry courses in the world. They’re also experienced, having served in the field with line infantry units and, now, as LRRPs.
Team 1 has been pulling missions since January, and Team 2 since February. They have targeted and killed numerous enemy troops while remaining undetected and haven’t made serious direct contact with the enemy yet.
For the next two weeks, SFC Kelly and SSG Torres teach us everything they know. And our XO, tall, thin LT Hall, loves to run, so when it comes time for daily PT, he runs the wind out of us. The training is intense and focused on weapons, explosives, radio procedures and techniques for calling in airstrikes and artillery, first aid, the art of patrolling, and enemy organization and strength. I had a lot of training about topography maps and first aid when I served in the Civil Air Patrol in high school and as a Forest Service hotshot fire crew member in Colorado, so no problem there. But I’m not comfortable with radios, and the idea of calling in air and artillery strikes worries me. SSG Torres is intimidating, though, and he makes sure I learn.
We complete training in mid-April, just as several more new guys come in to train for Team 4. We’re issued tigerstripe camouflage fatigues worn only by special-operations troops such as the Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and LRRPs. We’re also issued 5.56mm CAR-15 carbines, “Commando Armalite rifles,” instead of the larger 5.56mm M16 rifles that most army infantrymen carry.
Team 1 is now down to four members. One member completed his yearlong tour and was rotated home, and the other was transferred out. It is the army’s policy at the time to rotate men in and out of combat as individuals, not as units. Our team positions are Art Guerrero, front scout; John Simones, team leader (TL); David Ives (one of the new guys who came with me, communications specialist with the Second Battalion, Twelfth Cavalry), radiotelephone operator (RTO); Geoff Koper, medic; Doug Fletcher assistant team leader (ATL); with me as rear scout. Simones is a sergeant and I’m a private first class, but everyone else is a corporal. And other than David Ives, who is 20, we’re all in our mid-twenties.
We’ll soon be heading out on a mission, so the other team members take David Ives and me to the NCO club on base for a few beers, to get to know each other. From inside the club, a jukebox keeps playing the Beatles’ newly released “Strawberry Fields Forever.” An hour later, as we all walk back to our unit, John Simones starts humming the song and David Ives joins in: “Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about . . .” The melody is comforting on this dark night, in this strange country.
Art was raised in Denver’s inner city and served with the Fifth Battalion, Seventh Calvary Regiment—Custer’s old outfit. He earned a Silver Star––our nation’s third-highest medal for gallantry––in the An Lao Valley, where the NVA and VC had a long-established sanctuary. John served in the Marine Force Recon in Southern Europe before coming to the army, where he believed promotions happened faster. Geoff was a combat medic who served in the Forty-Seventh Medical Battalion. Doug served with the Fifth Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment, and was also awarded a Silver Star for action in the An Lao Valley. Everyone but David Ives and me had several months in-country before coming to the LRRPs. They’re experienced and have pulled about ten missions as LRRPs. They will take care of David Ives and me.
At dusk, Thursday, April 20, 1967, Team 1 is inserted by helicopter into our area of operation, north of Camp Radcliff and An Khe. We’re put in at the head of a shallow valley, where a stream begins on top of a 2,000-foot mountain. The surrounding slopes are covered with double- and triple-canopy forest, but clear areas lie along the stream. Intelligence has it that small Vietcong units are operating in this area and grouping together for attacks. By using established trails, an enemy battalion of 600 men could leave this mountain; spend a day traveling, and attack Camp Radcliff that night.
It’s hot and humid, and the mosquitoes start in on us as soon as our birds lift away. We are to follow this southwest-flowing stream and look for any sign of the enemy, since people never stray too far from a reliable source of water. We will stay in the field for seven days with only what we’re carrying. Thus, having a source of water is as vital for us as for the enemy, because no one can carry a week’s supply.
The closest US Army troops are at Camp Radcliff, fifteen kilometers south. The nearest friendlies of any kind are at Kan Nak, seven kilometers away. Kan Nak is where this stream empties into the Song Ba River. The Green Berets once had a base there, but only ARVNs are there now. Our escape-and-evasion plan, if we should make contact and can’t get extracted, is to hightail it on foot to Kan Nak.
We are outside our artillery cover. And because of the mountains and the lack of any radio relay points, radio contact will be difficult. We have only one twenty-three-pound PRC-25 radio and two spare batteries. The PRC-25 has a range of twenty-four kilometers, but that’s in ideal terrain and weather conditions. It is VHF, which has more range than the lower frequencies and can penetrate adverse weather. But VHF doesn’t hug the earth as well, and here, bracketed by the wall of mountains around us, its effectiveness will be limited.
We are to radio only a brief situation report, once in the morning and once in the evening, so that enemy troops listening in on radios can’t triangulate our position. Most of the time, to make radio contact, our tactical operations center (TOC) at Camp Radcliff will need to put a chopper in the air.
On our second day, Friday, April 21, we continue downstream, making our way through thick eight-foot-high elephant grass. I quickly learn more than I ever wanted to know about leeches. The elephant grass is loaded with them. Walk a hundred meters; pick off six or eight leeches; walk, and pick off six or eight more.
We hear someone chopping wood—not necessarily a problem, since some friendly locals live out here. I later hear a hen cackling, but apparently, they run wild in the Central Highlands. This isn’t West Virginia; chickens didn’t necessarily mean people. It’s going to take some time getting the hang of all this.
Saturday morning, April 22, we move through open timber and into thick new-growth jungle, still gradually descending into the valley. Unable to see more than ten or fifteen feet in any direction, we move slowly to keep as quiet as possible. We stop in this dense foliage and eat a LRRP ration—the first meal of the day. With the heat and humping heavy gear, we’re low on water, and all our rations are dehydrated.
Art and I take the canteens down to the stream, about forty meters away, but on the way we discover a major trail––a “high-speeder.” The tall timber keeps the trail hidden from aircraft. Only someone on the ground can see it. Finding this sort of thing is exactly why the LRRPs are out here. This trail is wide and smooth enough to drive a jeep on. This means it sees a lot of foot traffic and is likely an enemy transit route that leads directly to An Khe and Camp Radcliff.
A thatched hut stands on low stilts by the trail. The trail runs close to the hooch and curves below it. There are several firing positions on the downhill side of the hooch, overlooking the trail. The door to the hooch is on the uphill side, and Art and I don’t see or hear anyone.
Art decides to check out the hooch. We left our rucksacks with the rest of the team, but we’re carrying our rifles, wearing our web gear with ammo pouches and grenades. Art peeks inside and sees papers on a shelf. I pull security while he goes after the papers. Art is a big guy and his web gear gets stuck in the small door.
Hearing non-English voices from the other side of the hooch, I let Art know we have company. He gets free from the door without making any noise and hand signals me to get back to our team while he pulls rear security.
The high-speed trail lies between me and the welcoming cover of the jungle. I take off too fast and hit the brush too hard—this by a guy who spent his life in the woods and knows how not to spook the game. Back across the trail, Art links up with me again. He says a woman and several men were on the other side of the hooch, and when I hit the brush, she screamed and threw what she was carrying up in the air. They’re wearing the typical black pajamas—most likely Vietcong.
We get back to the team, and they ask what took us so long to go forty meters. We quickly explain and call in a situation report to TOC—which takes several attempts because of our radio’s limitations. We’ll get water another time.
A hillside across the stream from us has a clearing big enough to get a chopper in, but it’s getting late. John decides to move across beside the clearing and set up for the night in case we need to be extracted. We hear something behind us as we moved––we have an enemy trailer.
After crossing the stream, we buttonhook near the clearing to see if we can pick up our trailer. This is a standard maneuver going all the way back to Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian Wars. The team simply curls back onto its own trail to see if anyone is following. We set an ambush but see no one. When it’s darker, we move about thirty meters to a position that John checked before we buttonhooked.
Procedure permits a team leader who believes his team has been compromised to call for an extraction. Since we didn’t detect a trailer and since our job is to find the enemy, who we now know is out there, Simones decides to continue the patrol. Also, there’s a nagging suspicion at headquarters that Simones doesn’t want to reinforce: a LRRP team leader was recently transferred out of our unit for emptying his magazine into the jungle and radioing for an extraction when the other team members knew that no one was there.
We set up a night defensive position in a small cove with heavy brush around us and place claymore mines facing likely enemy approaches. We have the open field uphill and are in an excellent fighting position should the enemy decide to take us on.
Art Guerrero and Geoff Koper, our front scout and medic, take a position slightly downhill and to the right of me. David Ives, our RTO, is to my left, next to a huge tree with big exposed roots. Behind the tree, facing the other direction, are our TL, John Simones, and our ATL, Doug Fletcher.
In the middle of the night, we hear movement. It’s pitch black, and we can’t see anything, but something is approaching Art and Geoff. They raise their CAR-15s, ready to fire but not wanting to shoot prematurely and give away our position. Meanwhile, the noise keeps coming and getting steadily louder. Just as they’re ready to fire, they hear snorting and snuffling that sounds like a wild boar. It heads away, but just in case the enemy is out there, I pull out the eight-inch Buck hunting knife I brought from home. I’m wondering what it’s like to kill a man in hand-to-hand combat.
When my turn comes to rest, I sleep well. I’m exhausted from humping eighty-five pounds through the jungle all day. I don’t know how Geoff does it—he weighs only 150 pounds.
Sunday, April 23, 1967, is our fourth day in the field. David Ives and I are sleeping side by side, sharing a poncho liner to protect us from the bugs. We wake for the five to seven a.m. watch. Not a morning person, I sit leaning against my pack, which is propped against the tree. There’s a good chance the enemy is still searching for us, so I try not to sit too high. But I don’t want to lie down too flat, either, and risk nodding off.
There’s another problem. The LRRP rations, the malaria pills, or maybe the stream water has given me diarrhea. It’s about six a.m., and the sun is rising. I tell Dave, pick up my rifle and some toilet paper, and walk a short distance away to let ’er rip. Then I go back and sit against my pack while the other men stir a little, ready to start another day.
The next thing I know, a bright flash dazzles my eyes and I’m lying ten feet down the hill. A hand grenade has gone off, and I just became the LRRP’s first wounded in action. I can’t hear a thing and feel no pain, but I know I’m hit. Shrapnel has chewed up my face and left arm, and I’m covered in dirt, sweat, and blood.
I crawl back up the hill to my weapon and rucksack. The explosion has also hit my rucksack, the tree, and, I think, Dave Ives. As I approach my pack, a burst of automatic gunfire hits the ground in front of me, spitting dirt and rocks up into my face. I come out of my daze and realize that one of the “rocks” is a ricocheted bullet. The round goes through my lower left jaw and breaks it, taking out a bunch of teeth.
The impact knocks me out. After this, events come as intermittent flashes of awareness.
During periods of semiconsciousness, I want to cover my sector by returning fire, but I can’t see. I feel a disturbing lump dangling under my left eye and reach up to touch it. The pressure I put on the lump makes me dizzy, and I realize that this is what remains of my left eye and lower eyelid. I wipe dirt and blood out of my right eye, and for a moment I can see. I think that with just the right pressure, I’ll be able be able to hold my left eye in place and return fire.
I try to raise my rifle and fire, but my left arm is too weak to support it. I realize that the grenade tore muscles from my forearm, which are hanging out in shreds, and that one of my knuckles is torn open and broken. With my right hand, I try to shove the muscles back into my arm, where they belong. It doesn’t work, so I prop up my left arm and rifle with my right hand, but when I move my right hand to the trigger, the rifle sinks. Damn, I think, I need another hand!
When the grenade went off, Dave and I were shoulder to shoulder. The grenade exploded to my left—on Dave’s side of me. Through my blurred vision, I can see he’s lying on his back, next to the radio. I can’t see any wounds on him, but he’s not moving, and somehow, I know, Dave is dead. I later learn he was wounded shouting for help and lived long enough to get the radio operational with the long-range antenna—just before he took a round to the head.
I can hear automatic rifle fire and smell gunpowder and explosives. I’m slipping in and out of consciousness more rapidly and still feel no pain. Art reaches up and yanks my foot to wake me. The nerve damage from the bullet and the grenade has almost deafened me. I hear high-pitched ringing in my right ear, echoing cracks and the earth shaking from grenades exploding, and Art shouting, “Get me the radio!”
“I can’t see to return fire!” I yell.
“I know! Just get the radio!”
“But Dave’s dead!” I shout.
“I know! That’s why I need the radio!”
Dave’s rucksack and the radio in it are on the other side of Dave. Still hearing weapons firing, I crawl on top of Dave to reach his pack. Blood is pouring from my face and arm onto his body. The pack and radio weigh sixty-five pounds. I grab it with my right hand but can’t pick it up. So I try sliding it down to Art, but I can’t, because I’m lying on my chest, and with one hand it’s too heavy and I’m too weak. I don’t get it all the way to Art.
Suddenly, I hear Art yelling, “I’m hit!” He’s shot through a leg and a shoulder, but he’s still fighting, using our sawed-off 40mm M-79 grenade launcher, lobbing one high-explosive fragmentation round after another at the enemy, who are spread out behind a small nearby ridge.
John and Doug are on the other side of the tree, and they must be okay, because I can hear them firing. The twenty-round magazines in our rifles are loaded with tracers, so on initial contact the enemy see solid streams of red tracers sailing at them and, hopefully, think there are more of us.
Our medic, Geoff, starts crawling up the embankment to help me and to check on Dave, not knowing for certain that Dave is dead. As he reaches me, Geoff suddenly takes a round to the left shoulder and is knocked unconscious. I’m hit again by another round, which slices through my left hip and sails out the thigh without hitting bones.
We’re losing the battle, but I’m not experiencing fear. Okay, you’re bleeding, but do your job, soldier! The other guys’ lives depend on you!
I try again to return fire but have the same problem with my arm.
Geoff comes to and grabs the radio but is incoherent from his wound. Art finally grabs it and lets TOC know we need the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and a medevac.
The enemy tries to seize the moment and overrun us in one desperate charge. There are about a dozen of them. Perhaps they think there are only the four of us who are either wounded or dead. Our TL and ATL, John Simones and Doug Fletcher, have been firing from behind the roots on the far side of the tree, but apparently, in all the noise and confusion, the enemy doesn’t know they are there—until suddenly, John and Doug stand up and boldly face the attackers. They raise their CAR-15s, flick the selectors to auto, and fire aimed bursts. Art Guerrero, lying on the ground closest to the enemy, takes aim with the grenade launcher and fires another high-explosive round at the attackers. He sees it hit a woman in the chest and explode. Her head flies up in the air, arms fly outward, legs drop, and the torso disappears in a pinkish mist.
John yells, “Take cover!” We duck, and he squeezes the small handheld generator of a claymore mine facing the enemy. It detonates, shaking the earth and hurling 700 eighth-inch steel balls at the enemy at 4,000 feet per second.
The enemy stop their attack and retreat. John and Doug rush to take care of our wounds, and I pass out again.
The first chopper arrives. It’s from the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion and is piloted by Warrant Officer James Bracewell, a former air force enlisted man and Distinguished Flying Cross recipient who now regularly inserts and extracts our LRRP teams. The QRF isn’t airborne, so Bracewell keys the intercom to his copilot and two door gunners.
“Guys, we got six LRRPs down there. One’s dead and three’s wounded. We can wait for more birds and risk hauling out six bodies, or go in now and risk putting four more bodies on the ground. Your call?”
The helicopter lands in the open field just up the hill.
I come to, and Doug is carrying me to the Huey. Still no pain, but I hear rotor noise, and Doug has me in his arms like a baby. I’m six feet and weigh 225, and Doug is six-two and 210 pounds—not big enough to carry me alone. And yet, he’s doing it. John is walking beside him. I think he’s carrying someone.
Suddenly, I realize my rifle is in my left hand. My right side is toward Doug, and the rifle is dangling down. Is the weapon on safe? What if the trigger catches a branch, and a bullet hits someone? I better check the safety. I can’t flex my left arm, so I move my right hand to check the rifle.
Doug says, “It’s okay; it’s over . . . it’s over.” His voice is calm, like a father comforting a child after a bad dream. I pass out again.
I come to, and it’s cool. We’re up in the air, heading to Camp Radcliff, and wind is rushing over my body. I lift my head and see my blood on the chopper floor. If I can see my blood, I must be alive. I look out the side of the chopper at the forest below: so green, so quiet, so calm, just like my old West Virginia hills. It would be fun to walk in the woods, to watch the squirrels. Maybe I can take the old redtick out and let him run a coon.
I see feet to my left. There’s a pool of blood around the feet. Someone is sitting on the bench. It’s Art, and he says, “We’re safe now, buddy. Lay down.” I raise my head and look to my right and see another pair of feet but no blood. I try to lift my head to see a face, but I can’t. Somehow, I know it’s Geoff.
In a blur of thoughts I wonder where John, Doug, and Dave are. I guess they’re taking another chopper. I know they wouldn’t leave Dave behind.
I come to again, and they’re taking me off the chopper. They put me on a stretcher on the ground. A female in olive drab fatigues, with curly red hair and freckles, bends over me. She smiles, and I try to smile back. I’m thinking, Little Orphan Annie’s grown up, and she’s in the army! She then talks to someone else. “You’ll be fine, soldier. You’re at the hospital now.”
I come to, and Art and I are in the Second Surgical Hospital at Camp Radcliff. They’re using scissors to cut off all my clothes. In the confusion of it all, I think, don’t take my boots! I want my boots! And then I pass out.
Geoff is flown to the Forty-Seventh Medical Battalion, his old unit, because he’s just bleeding slightly from one clean hole in his shoulder. But when they can't find an exit wound and his heart rate increases and blood pressure drops off the chart, they rush him by ambulance and he joins us at the Second Surgical Hospital.
He’s still conscious, and they hurry him to an operating room where he’s placed spread-eagled and naked on a table. He has to be embarrassed, just as I was, what with nurses walking everywhere. He’s operated on, and doctors find the bullet that entered his shoulder, penetrated down through his chest and abdomen, and ended in his pelvis. It did a lot of damage in between and destroyed his spleen.
I come to on a gurney being wheeled down a hallway. Someone is holding my hand.
I come to again, and they’re putting me on an X-ray table. They lay me on my chest and extend my head forward, then rest my chin on the table. Horrific pain––the first I’ve felt since I was wounded. “My jaw’s broke!” I mumble through whatever teeth I have left. They pad my chin and do the x-rays.
Art and I are given IVs and stabilized in different operating rooms and undergo our initial surgeries. The ricochet was a .45—probably from a Thompson submachine gun spitting out ten rounds a second from its thirty-round magazine. The round had smashed my lower left jaw and ten teeth, pierced the roof of my mouth, severed the nerve to my left ear and several nerves to my left cheek, and stopped a half inch from my brain.
The next day, the three of us are rushed by choppers to the Sixty-Seventh Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon, where we undergo more surgeries.
The following day, April 25, 1967, my parents receive this message:
WESTERN UNION TELEGRAM
APRIL 25, 1967
Mr. and Mrs. Ova M. Carpenter, don’t phone, report delivery
The Secretary of the Navy has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, PFC William D. Carpenter was placed on the seriously ill list in Vietnam on 23 April 67 as the result of gunshot wounds to left arm, left thigh, buttocks, facial fractures and loss of left eye. He was on reconnaissance patrol when hit by hostile small arms fire. In the judgment of the attending physician, his condition is of such severity that there is cause for concern, but no imminent danger of life. Please be assured that the best medical facilities and doctors have been made available and every measure is being taken to aid him. If there is a change in his condition you will be advised immediately. Address mail to him at 67th Evacuation Hospital, APO San Francisco 96238
Kenneth G Wickham Major General USA
The next day, I’m moved to where Art and Geoff are. We learn that eight Vietcong bodies were found at the battle site.
I come to again, and CPT James, LT Hall, and John Simones are standing by my bed. Privates salute officers, so I sit up and salute, say, “Hello, sir,” and go back to sleep.
Sometime later, a Donut Dolly wakes me. “Would you like to write a letter home?” she says.
“I can’t. My left arm’s messed, and I’m left-handed.”
“I’ll write it for you.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” she says. I talk a little and go back to sleep, and when I wake up, she’s still sitting next to me. This happens repeatedly until, after some unknown number of starts, we have a letter to my family, letting them know I’m alive and being well looked after and will be coming home as soon as I’m stable.
A few days later, I’m a little stronger and able to stay awake longer. I’m put on a stretcher and loaded onto a US Air Force four-engine C-141 Starlifter. The aircraft is a jet built to hold 155 paratroops, but it’s gutted and refitted to carry wounded. Eighty of us are stacked on metal racks three high, with several docs and nurses along to help us.
I leave Vietnam completely naked, with only a thin blanket. I have served four days in the field, seen one firefight, and never fired my weapon. I don’t think I even had a chance to flick the safety off. (The average infantryman serving a one-year tour participates in several campaigns and battles, and the average LRRP pulls twenty-five to thirty missions.)
I have my pocketknife, Buck hunting knife, and one dog tag in a paper bag on my stretcher. I don’t know what happened to my other dog tag. These three items are my entire memorabilia from Vietnam except for some shrapnel in my body, and one .45-caliber submachine-gun slug still inside my head.
We fly to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where I spend one night in a hospital. The next morning, we’re off again to the closest hospital with beds available. It’s in Japan at Camp Zama, near Tokyo. This will be my eighth location in two months. My mail will never find me, and we can’t call home.
The next day, a Japanese woman comes to change my bed. She grabs the sheet I’m under and pulls it down. I’m still naked, so she hollers to another nurse to bring me pajamas. Later, I need to urinate, so I grab my IV stand and try to use it as a cane. The bathroom is only a few beds away, and I’m a LRRP, after all––I can walk that far. A medic sitting at a desk at the far end of the room yells, “Where ya goin’?” I tell him and he says, “Get back in bed. I’ll bring a pee jug.”
Later, a medic wakes me. He wants me to sit up so they can x-ray my chest. Instead of wheeling me to X-ray, they bring a portable machine to my bed. “Why do you want to x-ray me?” I ask.
“You’re not breathing well and you have a fever over a hundred and three.” They x-ray me, and I undergo a number of reconstructive surgeries.
Weeks pass, and it’s Saturday, May 20. I’m at the debarkation center in Tokyo, awaiting my flight home, when up walks Geoff, our medic. He’s headed home and has somehow found me. He’s ambulatory, though he walks with a slump and has difficulty breathing. But we’re both alive. We make small talk, and he leaves to catch his flight. How can we sum up what happened?
A bunch of us walking wounded are sitting on benches, waiting to board the plane. An air force one-star general comes and shakes each man’s hand, saying, “Thank you!” When he comes to me, I come to attention and he says, “Sit back down. I’m here to salute you, soldier!”
Tuesday, May 23, 1967, is my twenty-fifth birthday, and the C-141 I’m in lands in Denver. I’m finally home! A major gets on the plane and is looking for Private Carpenter. Uh-oh, I think, what’d I do? Majors don’t escort privates, but he does and I’m first off the plane.
Standing at the bottom of the ramp is my entire family. My parents, Ova and Sarah, my older brother, Tom, and his wife, Ann, my older sister, Barbara, my younger sister, Carolyn, and my baby brother, Ronnie. Ann had raised hell with everyone until she learned from the Red Cross when I was returning.
I’m forty-five pounds lighter and don’t look the same as the last time they saw me, two months ago. But I’m thrilled to be home again with everybody.
I spend the next month as an inpatient at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado, having reconstructive surgery on my face, left arm, and hip. Aurora is a suburb of Denver, so Art Guerrero visits me regularly. He’s still being treated for his wounds, as an outpatient.
After a couple of weeks at Fitzsimons, I’m given a weekend pass. The first day home, my mother fixes my favorite meal: brown beans and corn bread. My mouth is wired shut so my broken jaw can heal. I stuff food through the hole where my teeth were, and smash it with my tongue. It’s the first solid food I’ve had in almost two months, and it tastes like heaven. Some of the beans get stuck in the wire holding my mouth shut, but I don’t care. Until now, the only food I had was through a straw. Try sucking thinned mashed potatoes through a straw sometime.
On Friday, June 23, 1967, exactly two months since I was shot, and one month after I returned to the States, I’m released from Fitzsimons, on outpatient status. I’m to return periodically for more facial surgeries and physical therapy on my left arm. I eventually get a plastic prosthetic eye fitted where my left eye was.
When I’m healthier, Art and I get together and we hit most of the bars in Denver. The wife of a friend of mine decides it’s time for me to settle down. She introduces me to this cute girl, Pam, who lives next door to her. Pam is no doubt apprehensive about dating this scarred-up veteran with an eye patch, so she insists on a double date. She has a friend, Ellen, and, of course, I have Art. The four of us go on first dates together, to a silver mine up in the Rockies that’s been turned into a tourist attraction.
Art and Ellen are married on November 26, 1967. Two days later, on Thanksgiving, I ask Pam’s parents for permission to marry her.
A year later, in the fall of 1968, I’m back at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, working to fulfill the requirements to be accepted into veterinary college. One afternoon, I get a phone call from a woman who says she’s Geoff Koper’s mother and asks if I’m the Bill Carpenter who served with him in the LRRPs. “Yes, I am,” I reply. She sobs and says Geoff passed from his wounds two days ago. I’m dumbfounded but finally manage to mumble something. Tears flow from my remaining eye. She doesn’t say anything more, and I thank her for calling and hang up.
Geoff was shot trying to give me medical aid. I realize I forgot to ask where his funeral will be, where to send flowers, or even how she found me. The last I knew, Geoff was doing okay in New Jersey. I had hoped no one else would die in “my war.”
I decide to call Art in Denver and share the sad news. He tells me Geoff isn’t dead unless he just kicked the bucket in the past few hours, since they spoke on the phone. He reminds me about the Denver Post article on him a few weeks ago, which also mentioned Geoff and me. We decide the lady’s either a wack job or a war protester who gets her jollies inflicting emotional pain on returning soldiers, or both.
The thing is, I’m sure it never occurred to her that there is no way she could inflict more harm on me than the pain and loss I suffered serving my country in the war she so despises. She doesn’t realize that the biggest opponent to war is the person being shot at.
*David Allen Ives was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received against a hostile force, and a Silver Star for gallantry in action. John Simones, Doug Fletcher, and Art Guerrero were also awarded Silver Stars. It was Doug and Art’s second Silver Star, and Art was also awarded a Purple Heart and the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor. Geoff Koper and Bill Carpenter were each awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star (First Oak Leaf Cluster) and “V” device. Bill said, “I’m not sure why I received my medal. I feel the only constructive thing I did was try to get our radio to Art. Perhaps any soldier who is half a world from home, trying to take on a bunch of bad guys, deserves something. But what I really did was get the shit shot out of my team because of the noise I made running into the tree line.”
*CPT James D. James returned from Vietnam as a major assigned to the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg. His last duty station was at the Pentagon, and he retired as a full colonel. In 1974, Bill Carpenter completed his degree in veterinary medicine and returned to West Virginia with his wife. He established a private practice and became a professor of veterinary technology at Fairmont State University. Art Guerrero returned to his job at the Denver Post and became the distribution manager and national president of the Newspaper Guild. Art had been shot in the leg, but the bullet wound to his shoulder was near his spine, and over the next fifteen years, it caused spinal degeneration, paralyzing him from the waist down. But Art isn’t stopped. On the 9/11 anniversary, he wheelchaired 226 miles from New York City to Washington, DC. He testified before Congress in behalf of disabled veterans and was instrumental in the new billion-dollar VA Medical Center under construction where the Fitzsimons once stood. John Simones made a career of the army, then went to college and became a schoolteacher in Boston, and a veterans’ advocate. Doug Fletcher got a master’s degree and worked for the National Security Agency. He died of diabetes in 1999. Goeff Koper became an architect on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And David Allen Ives is forever a 20-year-old LRRP, laid to rest at Cedar Lawn Cemetery, Council Bluffs, Iowa.
*Special thanks to Geoff Koper for the detailed account he sent to Bill Carpenter on January 2, 2002, describing the firefight and subsequent hospitalization. And thanks to Kregg P. J. Jorgenson, former First Cav LRRP and author of The Ghost of the Highlands: 1st Cav LRRPs in Vietnam, 1966‑67 (New York: Ivy Books, 1999) for his research about this patrol. Thanks also to the First Cavalry Division LRRP/Rangers Association of the Vietnam War for information, photos, and documents, and to COL James D. James for his input. Thanks to CDR Ken Davis, US Navy (ret.), and his associates of the Coffelt Database of Vietnam casualties, for their invaluable help with our research. And to Robert Ankony’s wife, Cathy, the unseen editor of all his work; and to his editor, Michael J. Carr, for tidying up.
 The battle of the Ia Drang Valley was the first large-scale battle against the NVA. However, the first large-scale battle against the Vietcong occurred six days before, on November 8, 1965, when members of the US Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade took on the enemy at Hill 65 near Saigon. In that two-day battle, the 173rd lost forty-nine men.
 In the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the First Cavalry Division was awarded its second Presidential Unit Citation. The first was awarded in 1945, when the division liberated Manila in the Philippines.
 LRRP Detachment G2 was redesignated “Headquarters & Headquarters Company LRRP Detachment” in April 1967, then redesignated “Company E, Fifty-Second Infantry (LRP)” on December 20, 1967. Later, when all LRRP units were folded into the US Army Rangers on February 1, 1969, Company E was redesignated “H Company, Seventy-Fifth Infantry (Ranger).” It is credited with the longest continuous combat tenure of any Ranger outfit in US military history and became the most decorated unit in LRP/Ranger history. Its colors and lineage were passed to the Second Ranger Battalion, Seventy-Fifth Ranger Regiment.
 For the rest of Bill Carpenter’s life, whenever he feels down he quietly sings the refrain from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to remind him that things aren’t too bad after all.
 Major Robert Rogers is considered the father of the US Army Rangers. His legacy dates back to colonial North America, when rifle companies from Rogers’ Rangers made long-range attacks against French forces and their Indian allies. During the Revolutionary War, many colonial commanders were former Rangers.
 Faking enemy contact to get out of the field happened rarely, but those few incidents would haunt LRRP units throughout the war.
 David Allen Ives was the first to die in action in the First Cav LRRPs. Our company later fought in Cambodia and, on June 9, 1972, lost SGT Elvis Weldon Osborne Jr. and CPL Jeffrey Alan Maurer to enemy action. They were the last Rangers killed in the Vietnam War.
 CPT James was in his jeep at Camp Radcliff and heard Art’s radio call for the QRF. James Bracewell’s helicopter had lifted off and was en route, but the QRF didn’t respond. CPT James raced to their chopper pad and found the men shirtless outside, playing basketball. “What the hell’s going on?” he asked a lieutenant. The lieutenant said the team was outside artillery range and that he needed battalion approval before they could respond. CPT James flew to the battle site in another chopper but could not touch down, because it was low on fuel. Other helicopters and gunships were already there.
 The First Cavalry Division suffered more casualties than any other army division in the Vietnam War: 5,444 men killed in action and 26,592 wounded in action. LRRP Team 1 is part of these statistics.
 The telegram read “Department of the Navy” because Western Union operators were receiving so many messages about killed or wounded serviceman in Vietnam, they often failed to start a new message header and just added the message and sent it off.
 Over 1,000 men served in the First Cav LRRP/Rangers in Vietnam. More than half were wounded, yet only 35 were killed in action.
 In 1969, the flattened .45-caliber slug eroded its way through the roof of Bill Carpenter’s mouth. He spat it out and picked it up off the ground.
 On Sunday, April 9, 2006, Bill’s wife, Pam, died from multiple sclerosis. The disease started when she was in junior high school, and she spent the last four years of her life a quadriplegic.