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.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Potsdam Agreement stipulated that Berlin would be occupied by the four major allied powers of World War II: the Soviet Union, the United States, the UK, and France. But the war’s end seemed to herald an even graver danger: a world split into two hostile camps, both armed with nuclear missiles. The East, with the centrally planned economies of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, faced the West, with the democratic, market-driven economies of the United States and its NATO allies. Nowhere was this tense rivalry more starkly depicted than in the divided city of Berlin, deep inside Communist East Germany.
At dawn, Friday, August 30, 1968, I woke inside my cockroach-infested hooch at LZ Betty, sixteen miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, to go on my twenty-second and last patrol. I was the sergeant and team leader of a five-man long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP, or “Lurp”) assigned to the First Cavalry Division’s First Brigade, whose area of operation was from Quang Tri City, near the coast of South Vietnam, to the heavily forested mountains out west, halfway to Laos.
The Army of South Vietnam (ARVNs) had a reputation for being corrupt and incompetent, and I noticed that the paratroops carried grease guns, along with other World War II‑era weapons. Since I wanted an extra one to send home, I thought I’d make them an offer. I took a walk to the ARVNs’ compound, but when I saw how careless they were about leaving their weapons lying around, a new plan began to take shape. If I tried to buy a grease gun but failed to close the deal, I would only draw attention to myself. Then, if one of the weapons should later go missing, things could get awkward. Better just to steal one.
The U.S. military tradition teaches that the infantry is “the queen of battle.” Like the queen in the game of chess, the infantry is the most powerful and versatile piece on the battlefield, and it is the only force that ultimately takes and holds the ground.
In 1966, I was an 18-year-old paratrooper assigned to the 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Wiesbaden, West Germany. I was a rigger, the soldier who packs personnel and cargo parachutes, rigs vehicles and artillery pieces for aerial delivery, and inspects parachutists before a jump. It’s a lot of responsibility. Lives are at stake, and the riggers’ motto is “I WILL BE SURE ALWAYS!”