Dear Coleridge—Did you seize the opportunity of seeing Kosciusko while he was at Bristol? I never saw a hero; I wonder how they look.
—Charles Lamb, in a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge June 24, 1797
This is an article from the Oct. 4, 1993 issue
At about half past three on the afternoon of June 9, 1966, on an exploding finger of land in a dense bamboo jungle of South Vietnam's Central Highlands, Capt. Bill Carpenter barked into his radio-telephone the message that would echo through his life as a combat soldier. "We're being overrun!" Carpenter called to the air spotter circling above the battlefield. "Bring it right on top of me. Put it right on my smoke."
From the east an Air Force fighter, laden with napalm, swept over the treetops toward Carpenter's position.
So it was there—with his company trapped on that ridgeline, pinned down among the raking machine guns and exploding hand grenades, and now nearly surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers—that William Stanley Carpenter arrived at the defining moment of his professional life. A 28-year-old company commander, he was seven years and half a world removed from West Point, where he had captained the Army football team of 1959, his second and final season as the Black Knights' storied Lonesome End, that remote, hauntingly romantic figure who stood apart from Army huddles, out near the sidelines, facing his teammates with his arms akimbo, picking up signals from the footwork of quarterback Joe Caldwell.
Suddenly there he was again, surfacing this day on a far more perilous field and surely more alone than he had ever been and ever would be—as only a combat infantry leader can know the meaning of alone—caught in the jungle with a brave but crippled company of soldiers. Enemy mortars were so close that he could hear the rounds scraping as they dropped down the tubes, and through the bamboo he could hear the North Vietnamese chattering. This fight was but a small piece of a larger engagement known as the Battle of Tou-morong, the brunt of which had been carried one bloody day after another by the First Battalion, 327th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Led by Maj. David Hackworth, who would soon become the most decorated soldier in the U.S. Army, that battalion was in terrier pursuit of the 24th North Vietnamese Regiment.
On the late morning of June 9, the Screaming Eagles of Carpenter's Charlie Company, Second Battalion, 502nd Airborne Infantry Regiment, were ordered north to set up a blocking position ahead of Hackworth's advance. One of Carpenter's four platoons had been detached the day before on another mission, leaving Carpenter with only three platoons, or about 90 men. By early afternoon, as Charlie Company moved up a slight rise, the head of the lead platoon, Lieut. William Jordan, radioed to Carpenter that he could hear Vietnamese voices 200 meters away, down along a streambed below the rise.
At around 2:30 p.m. Carpenter called his platoon leaders together. Using the name by which enemy soldiers were known, Jordan asked him, "Do you want to establish the blocking position or do you want to hunt Charlie?"
"Let's hunt Charlie," Carpenter replied. Turning to Lieut. Jim Baker, one of the two other platoon leaders. Carpenter told him what to do if Jordan needed help: "Bring your platoon around to the left of Jordan." He ordered Lieut. Bryan Robbins, the leader of the other platoon, to wait to move wherever he was needed.
Returning to his platoon, Jordan set out for the voices down toward the creek. His lead squad was approaching the creek bed when several North Vietnamese soldiers materialized out of the bamboo growth along the bank. One of them, carrying a roll of toilet paper, turned his back on the creek and squatted to relieve himself. The others were bathing, or scrubbing clothes and utensils. The Americans opened fire, instantly killing the squatter and cither wounding or killing the rest, the survivors scrambling up into the bush.
So the battle began. Carpenter would learn soon enough that he had roused a terrible beast. "We had surprised them, and for the first 15 or 20 minutes it was a Cakewalk," he recalls. "Most of the fire was ours. As the fire built up. I knew I had found more than stragglers on the tail end of a regiment. I could hear 50-caliber machine-gun fire, and I didn't have any 50-caliber machine guns. Then, when the mortars kicked in, I knew we were in the middle of a regiment. I didn't have any mortars, either."
North Vietnamese soldiers were soon swarming around the narrow mountain finger on which Charlie Company had deployed to do battle. Robbins heard Jordan on the radio: "I'm taking fire. I'm pinned down. I can't move." Carpenter ordered Baker to swing his platoon around Jordan's left in an attempt to flank the fire that was pinning down Jordan's men from the front. Baker had just wheeled his men around Jordan's left when they were flattened under murderous automatic-weapons fire from their own left. Crippled and bloodied, Baker's platoon was now pinned down itself.
Then, suddenly, intersecting fire from several heavy and light machine guns began raking Carpenter's command position. He ordered Robbins and his platoon up the ridge, hoping to relieve the pressure from over there, but, recalls Robbins, "all of a sudden we got hit. We couldn't maneuver. Carpenter was pinned down on our left. They were really getting hit over there."
All three platoons had wounded men, so withdrawal was unimaginable to Carpenter. "When you've got a bunch of guys wounded, you're not going anyplace," Carpenter says. "At least I'm not going anyplace, leaving wounded kids around, and that was the crux of the whole thing."
Thus Carpenter stuck. From Baker's left the North Vietnamese had just launched their first assault, lobbing grenades and attacking behind bursts of automatic-weapons fire, one of which killed Baker instantly. Seconds later Baker's platoon sergeant died when two grenades exploded near him. The platoon was leaderless. "There was no way to figure out what was happening over there," says Carpenter. "They were only 30 meters away, but you couldn't see anything in the bamboo."
Then came a chilling, nameless voice calling Carpenter on Baker's radio: "We're all dead. We've been completely overrun. I'm the only one alive. We're all dead." The voice broke off.
"I thought I'd lost one whole platoon," Carpenter recalls. Enemy soldiers now made a second assault, this one against Jordan's front. Carpenter began to see the North Vietnamese in and among Jordan and his men, some of whom dropped back to form a tight defensive perimeter around the command post. No one experienced the surrcal terror and chaos of the unfolding drama more vividly than Mike Baldinger, a medic, who was dashing frantically around the position answering cries for help.
"I knew we were surrounded, because everywhere I went on the perimeter, I could hear [Vietnamese] voices," Baldinger recalls. "You could see them running past you in the bamboo. I remember working on a wounded soldier named Marcus Hurley. I was lying next to him and trying to put albumin in his arm with a needle. I was holding the bottle up in the air when it got shot out of my hand. I started to reach back for another when this sergeant yelled, 'Doc, look out! Grenade!' "
Baldinger glanced back and saw a potato masher bouncing toward him, and a North Vietnamese soldier about 100 feet away. Baldinger pushed himself up against Hurley's body to shield him from the blast. The grenade exploded, driving shrapnel into Baldinger's back. Glancing around, he saw the sergeant and the North Vietnamese soldier lying dead. He returned to Hurley. "I was trying to stick the needle into a vein when I heard some firing right on top of me," Baldinger says. "I turned around again, and an NVA soldier was about 30 feet away. He was walking backward and spraying an AK-47. I didn't have my rifle with me—I needed both hands to work—so I took my .45 out of the holster and shot him twice in the back. They were running around all over. They were like ghosts."
There was really only one thing left to do. About a mile and a half away, Carpenter's battalion commander, Lieut. Col. Hank (the Gunfighter) Emerson, listened anxiously on his radio-telephone as the circumference of Carpenter's world grew smaller and more violent. Emerson had been Carpenter's tactical officer at West Point, and he had come to admire the young captain so much as a soldier that when Carpenter returned to Vietnam for a second tour of combat duty, Emerson asked for him. Yet the Gunfighter never thought more of him than he did at that hour, when he heard Carpenter talking coolly to the aerial spotter.
Carpenter: "They're in real close to us. They're in among us."
Spotter: "I have two birds on station. If you have a target, we can bring it in."
Carpenter did not know what kind of ordnance the planes were carrying, but he reacted instinctively, popping a yellow smoke grenade and heaving it 15 meters to his front. He dropped to the ground and watched the cloud as it curled up through the canopy of trees. "Put it right on my smoke!" Carpenter said.
Listening, Emerson was stunned. "I said, 'Holy crap! He's called it in on himself,' " recalls Emerson, now a retired three-star general. "Mind-blowing."
Emerson's voice broke over the radio: "If I don't see you again, I'm going to put you in for the Medal of Honor!"
"That's bull——!" Carpenter yelled back.
The napalm canister tumbled end over end from the jet into the bamboo thickets, into the yellow smoke, exploding in one apocalyptic roar of wind and fire—whoosh!—as flames sucked the breath out of the jungle and crackled through the burning bamboo tops. "The world turned orange," says Baldinger. "Hot and orange."
And the battlefield, of an instant, turned eerily quiet. "A lot of NVA got caught in it," says Robbins, now a retired lieutenant colonel. "I saw NVA running up the ridge, on fire. That napalm strike, I'm convinced, saved our lives."
Not another shot was fired at Charlie Company for 30 minutes, giving Carpenter time to gather his wounded and dig in around a tighter perimeter. By the time relief arrived late that night, his company had lost only eight men, none to napalm. Of course, the instant the Saigon press corps got word of Carpenter's act—with Emerson, true to his word, immediately putting him in for the nation's highest award for bravery—reporters winged north to Dak To, the city nearest to the scene, and feted him in a rush of dispatches.
What made the story so compelling, to be sure, was less the act itself than the man who had performed it. Over a June 9 article that began on page 1, The New York Times ran a headline that set the tone for all the lavish coverage that followed: A DARING CAPTAIN SAVES A COMPANY. The subhead made the telling connection: EX-ARMY FOOTBALL STAR, IN VIETNAM, CALLS FOR AN AIR STRIKE ON OWN POSITION.
At military bases like Fort Benning, in Georgia, the home of the Army Infantry School, where Carpenter had earned his patches as an airborne Ranger, he became not only the object of admiring colloquies but also the source of debates on all the implications, from the tactical to the moral, of calling one's own fire on one's own self. If he had always had a commanding presence, with that mystique spun from his exploits as the Lonesome End—that blue-eyed, flattopped All-America who on one Saturday, with one arm strapped to his side to protect a dislocated shoulder, ran around catching passes one-handed—he was now thrust into a domain so rare as to be quite exclusively his own. The classic American football hero had become, in a stroke, an even more triumphant figure in the real-world business of infantry combat, with which football, in its wildest institutional fantasies, most identifies. Carpenter never talked about his days as the Lonesome End or of that desperate afternoon outside Dak To, but together they gave him an aura, as some would call it, that made him about as close to untouchable as a military man can be.
Carpenter knew early on where he wanted to go, and his life as a soldier grew out of the most wounding trauma of his childhood years. He was born in Woodbury, N.J., in 1937, the only child of a semipro football player and car salesman, William ST., and his wife, Helen. "I never got up during the night with that child," says Helen. "His daddy always did: 'You have him all day; he's mine at night.' "
After the Army drafted William in 1944, at age 36, he and the boy exchanged letters frequently. On April 11, 1945, one month before the war ended in Europe, Carpenter was killed by a German artillery round. The boy was 7½. "I was worried about him," says Helen. "I knew he was grieving inwardly. He wasn't eating like he should, he wasn't playing like he should, he wasn't himself."
Helen remarried in 1947—gentle Clifford Dunn would soon become the comptroller at the Philadelphia Navy Yard—and the man and the boy became like father and son. Carpenter recalls listening to Army football games on the radio in the days of Blanchard and Davis, and those games drew him toward football and the Point. At Springfield High, outside Philadelphia, he was a sprinter with 9.9 speed in the 100-yard dash and, at 6'2", 200 pounds, a halfback in football with strength and sure hands.
A score of colleges pursued him as a player, but all it took was one visit to West Point and the issue was settled. Those were still glory days for Army football, when the Army-Navy game was treated like Armageddon and Army football heroes glowed in the dark. In the season of 1958, Carpenter's junior year, no player glowed brighter than halfback Pete Dawkins—captain of the corps of cadets, captain of an undefeated team (8-0-1) and winner of the Heisman Trophy. Carpenter, not a man to mince words, says, "I think Pete was vastly overrated. There were seven or eight players who were better. Bill Rowe and Bob Novogratz were great linemen, and Bob Anderson was a better halfback." End Don Usry, he says, was the team's best all-around player.
Army was ranked third nationally in '58. Pittsburgh held the Black Knights to a 14-14 tie, but they whipped Penn State 26-0 and Notre Dame 14-2. That year coach Earl (Red) Blaik introduced him as the Lonely End. Sportswriter Stanley Woodward was the first to use the term in print, and it gradually evolved into the Lonesome End over Blaik's protestations.
Blaik decided to keep Carpenter out in the fiat during huddles because he was lining up as a "far flanker," and Blaik feared the young man would wear out dashing back and forth between plays. In '58 Carpenter tied the Army record for receptions in a season, with 22. He gained 453 yards and scored two touchdowns, and on the train ride home after Army had licked Navy 22-6 in the year's final game, the Cadets elected Carpenter their captain for 1959.
It is not a season fondly remembered. Cursed by one injury after another, Army went 4-4-1 under Dale Hall, who had replaced the retired Blaik. Carpenter was everyone's All-America that season, catching 43 passes for 591 yards, both single-season Army records that would last until 1970. His finest hour came against Oklahoma when he grabbed six passes for 67 yards and ran back four kickoffs for 65 yards, playing with one arm strapped down so that he couldn't raise it above his dislocated shoulder. Carpenter's remarkable athletic career at the Point did not end until the spring of 1960, when he was voted an All-America defenseman in lacrosse a year after he first picked up a stick. "He was like a gazelle," says Ace Adams, his coach. "Probably the best pure athlete that I ever coached. Just plain, raw-boned athletic ability."
What Anderson recalls most fondly about Carpenter, his best friend at the Point, has nothing to do with sports. He and Carpenter had made a pact to raise some hell after graduation, but Anderson realized before their senior year even began that those days were not to be. One balmy night the two were sitting on the porch of the boathouse at Camp Buckner, where cadets train during the summer. "Andy, see that girl over there?" Carpenter said. An attractive young woman was passing in review. "I'm going to marry her someday." Toni Vigliotti, a model from nearby Central Valley, was dating a plebe at the time.
"He pursued me," she says. "He really did. He pursued me."
She got her first glimpse of Carpenter's nature when she visited his home in Springfield a few months later. "After we had dinner, the town fire alarm went off," says Toni. "Bill dashed out the door. The next day in the paper was a picture of Bill on the roof of a house with an ax in his hands, ready to break out this second-floor window. The caption said something about 'the Lonesome End working to save someone's life.' "
She married him anyway. In fact, they got engaged the night before he graduated, in 1960, and made plans to marry in June of the following year. But one night in the summer of '60, Toni received a moony phone call from him while he was training at Fort Benning, beseeching her to move up the date. "I'm really lonely," he said. "I need a wife."
They were wed on Jan. 2, 1961. A month later the young second lieutenant became a platoon leader at Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, and set about to make himself a troop commander. Even as a young officer Carpenter began resisting the brass. That fall, when the division commander at Fort Campbell, a two-star general, told him he had to play football for the base team, Carpenter refused. The general was leaving the command, and he did not force the issue. However, the two-star who followed him did. In the fall of 1962 Carpenter was ordered to give up his company command and play football. He became furious. "Football for me was over with and done," he says. "I wanted to go on and be something else."
He ultimately yielded to the brass and played that year, but he vowed never to do it again. Sure enough, the following spring he was ordered to give up his new command and rejoin the team. Playing football for the base team was cushy duty, but Carpenter wanted no part of it. He had been drafted by the Baltimore Colts, and he was thinking that he would rather leave the service than play service ball. He called his assignment officer at the infantry branch, in Washington, D.C., and said, "Look, if I am going to be forced to play football, I'm going to do it for a hell of a lot more than $200 a month." That was lieutenant's pay.
"Where do you want to go?" the officer asked.
"Anywhere I'm not forced to play football," he said.
"How would you like to go to Vietnam?"
So in the spring of 1963 he went to Southeast Asia as the adviser to a South Vietnamese army unit. On that first tour he was twice wounded—once by shrapnel and earlier by a VC bullet; as he was setting fire to a stand of sugarcane, he surprised a Viet Cong soldier, who shot him in the right arm. "I threw three grenades at him lefthanded, emptied my carbine into his foxhole and then emptied my pistol," he says. "Jesus, I was mad."
Home by June 1964, Carpenter returned two years later, just in time to climb that finger near Dak To. For his extraordinary gambit there he did not receive the Medal of Honor—he got the nation's second-highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross—and he lost his company command. Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, pulled him out of the field and made him his aide-de-camp. "I thought he was going to get himself killed," Westmoreland recalls. "It was kind of a reckless affair. I'm not saying it critically. It was a battlefield decision that had to be made. I was a little shocked by it."
Carpenter liked Westy well enough, but not the job. Most rising young captains would have considered being named an aide to Westmoreland a plum assignment, but within a week of joining the staff Carpenter began urging Westmoreland to release him. After a few weeks of this steady pestering, Westmoreland said to him, "Only ask me once a week from now on." So Carpenter set aside every Tuesday morning to spring the question.
"Can I leave yet, sir?"
Yet only four months into his supposed six-month stretch, Westmoreland let him leave. Carpenter never did get his command back, but he did not stop making news. On Feb. 1, 1967, a C-123 transport plane in which he was flying made a belly landing at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon. A major suffered a broken ankle in the crash, and Carpenter carried him on his shoulders from the plane, CARPENTER HERO AGAIN AS HE RESCUES MAJOR read the headline in The New York Times. As much as he wished to, Carpenter never made it back to Vietnam after leaving in the spring of '67, and only years later did he discover in his file a directive issued by the Army Chief of Staff, stating that he never be assigned there again. Westmoreland's fear—that Carpenter was going to get himself killed—had ultimately resonated at the highest levels of the U.S. Army.
If by his instincts Carpenter had always been a troop commander, then his experience at Dak To clearly enriched and deepened them. Throughout his next 26 years in the service, all the way up to his retirement last year as a three-star general, Carpenter worked strenuously at ducking assignments that would take him to the Pentagon and fought to train and command troops for as long as he could. "I've never met a senior officer who did not say, 'The soldier has to come first," says Terry Roche, a retired full colonel who was one of Carpenter's garrison commanders at Fort Drum, in upstate New York. "But a lot of that's only rhetoric. Bill felt it in the marrow of his bones. He never, never strayed from that."
Indeed, if there is a single cord that runs through Carpenter's career, it is his affection for foot soldiers. "I like what they stand for," Carpenter says. "I like what they do. I like to listen to them talk and laugh. I like to listen to their tales. I like to be around them. I just like them."
Ultimately what he left behind when he retired was the belief, shared by a number of senior officers who knew him, that the Army had lost a leader virtually without peer. "He is, in my view, the finest soldier-leader that America has produced since the Korean War," says Hack-worth, now a writer on military affairs. "And the fact that he didn't get a fourth star tells me about the sickness we have in the Army. He was the Lonesome End throughout his military career, and the reason he didn't get a fourth star was that he didn't schmooze with the brass. Carpenter is the kind of guy who cared about the guys down below and didn't really give a rat's ass about the guys at the top. He's a national treasure. The big, quiet American. Gary Cooper. We just don't make those kind anymore."
During his entire career Carpenter had only one tour in the Pentagon, from 1976 to '78, as the senior military assistant to Clifford Alexander, Secretary of the Army under Jimmy Carter. The bureaucratic wheel-spinning, the egos and the infighting, left him cold. The Pentagon is where fast-track officers routinely stop on their way up, but Carpenter wanted no part of it.
When the job of director for operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was due to come open in early '88, one of Carpenter's mentors, Gen. Robert RisCassi, ordered him to go and be interviewed. Carpenter was a two-star general at the time, and this was a three-star job. So Carpenter walked into the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. William Crowe, whose celebrated collection of hats lined the shelves of one wall. Carpenter had a reputation for saying precisely what was on his mind, and Crowe learned this quickly enough. "I don't want the job," he told Crowe right off. "I'm not interested in working in Washington. I'm not interested in a promotion if it means coming to Washington. If you say I have to come, I'll come, but I won't be a happy camper."
"Thank you very much," the admiral said. Then, gesturing toward those shelves, he asked, "How do you like my hat collection?" End of interview.
Carpenter had been just as blunt in refusing to get a master's degree, another accustomed step for officers on the ascent. In 1970, fresh out of Command and General Staff College, at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, Carpenter had received a call from an aide to Sam Walker, who at the time was a brigadier general and the commandant at West Point. "We're sending you to Purdue for a year to get your master's," said the aide. "Then you're coming to West Point to teach."
To Carpenter the cloistered world of West Point had about as much to do with the real Army as did the Pentagon. "I'm not going to West Point," said Carpenter, then a young major. "And you can send me to Purdue, but at the end of the year I won't have a master's degree, because I'm not going to class."
Carpenter saw himself as a soldier, not a scholar. He never did go to Purdue, and he never got a master's. In 1975, when as a lieutenant colonel he took command of a battalion in Korea, he found a unit in chaos and a new brigade commander, Col. Andrew Cooley, who told him simply, "Take charge and straighten it out."
This was the new volunteer Army, and the straightening took some doing. "No vehicles worked," Carpenter recalls. "There were fights in the officers' club every night. There was a whole generation of lieutenants who thought that it was O.K. to throw their buddies through plate-glass windows. Half the platoon leaders were shacked up in town."
Soldiers were running around with little silver patches on their coveralls. "What do those mean?" Carpenter asked a soldier.
"Each bullet is a case of VD," replied the soldier.
By the time Carpenter left a year later, he had brought order and discipline to the ranks, and Cooley ultimately saw a rare gift at work during tactical maneuvers—the athlete's sense of timing and anticipation, of seeing the whole held and what everybody was doing on it. "It all blended together in a natural way," says Cooley, now a retired two-star. Upon Carpenter's departure Cooley wrote on his efficiency report: "He has the potential to be one of the great battle captains in history."
The Lonesome End finally became a general in 1982. He could have moved up from full colonel to one-star general earlier. That, however, would have required him to give up his brigade command, a post normally held for two years but which he clung to for 33 months. He chose to stay at the lower rank.
Indeed, Carpenter's life as an American soldier stands in vivid contrast to that of his more celebrated teammate, Dawkins, whose career seemed preordained to lead him straight to the White House by way of the desk of the Army Chief of Staff. Dawkins was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, received a doctorate in international relations from Princeton and served three tours in the Pentagon, six years in all, including one as a White House Fellow. While Carpenter spent his career shunning life in the limelight, Dawkins was not so inclined.
Says Cooley, who served with both men, "Bill was always the quiet man who didn't blow his own horn. Dawkins was just the opposite. Here was Bill, who went through the system as a leader, taking all the assignments and not doing the stuff that Dawkins did—the advanced degrees and all—and I think there was a difference in how they eventually came out."
Dawkins left the Army as a one-star general in 1983, joined the Wall Street investment-banking firm of Lehman Brothers and had a brief dalliance with politics when, as a Republican, he lost the race for a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey in 1988.
Meanwhile Carpenter went on soldiering. And nothing he ever did in his three decades in the Army compares with his work at Fort Drum, 25 miles south of the Canadian border, outside Watertown, N.Y. As a major general, with two stars, Carpenter oversaw the $1.3 billion construction of a state-of-the-art military post, the largest Army building project since World War II, and at the same time built from scratch a reactivated 10th Mountain Division. The division brought 30,000 soldiers and their dependents into the area around Fort Drum, nearly doubling the population. Most of the citizenry had never seen a general, but everyone knew who Carpenter was on the day he first showed up in Watertown, in late 1984, to advise a packed room of businessmen on how to deal with the federal government.
"Everyone knew about the Lonesome End and the hero of Dak To," says Terry Roche. "He walked in the back of the room with his fatigue uniform on, and this silence fell across the room. Everybody turned around. I'll never forget it. There was such an aura about him."
What he built at Fort Drum, not surprisingly, was a soldier's fort—a vast city of homes and buildings and barracks that were designed not only for the soldier but also by the soldier. Maj. Gen. Jack Keane, one of Carpenter's brigade commanders, recalls that he entered a room one day where architects and engineers were standing over designs for the barracks, and he started studying them, looking for things to improve. He could find nothing. "Who has seen these barracks?" Keane asked a young architect.
"Sir," the architect replied, "we've had soldiers of all ranks looking at these designs. General Carpenter sends all the people down here who have to live in them, and they tell us what to fix."
When it came time to design a youth center, Carpenter told the architects to sit down with teenagers and build it around their ideas. "The people who had the most to say about family housing were not engineers," Keane says. "He said, 'Let the wives tell us how to build it.' That's his thumbprint on the place."
That and the division he and his staff built from nothing. "It ended up the best division in the Army," says Hackworth. "No doubt about it—in terms of the quality, of the depth, of the brains and leaders he collected."
Carpenter left Fort Drum in April 1988, and a month later he was the assistant chief of staff for operations in the U.S.-Republic of Korea combined command. In September 1989 he finally got that third star as a lieutenant general and assumed command of the combined field army, potentially one of the hottest combat posts in the U.S. Army. With 240,000 troops under him, most of them forces of the Republic of Korea, Carpenter's mission was to guard the main invasion routes leading south across the DMZ toward Seoul. After four years in Korea, Carpenter resigned on Aug. 31, 1992.
For nearly two decades he had invested his life in helping to build the all-volunteer Army that triumphed in Desert Storm, and he did not want to be around when the budget ax began to fall. "Why should I sit and preside over the demise of something that I struggled for 20 years to crank up?" he says. "I left with a pretty good taste in my mouth. It was time to go. It felt right."
It is late morning of a day in August, and Carpenter is bearing north and east along the shore of Kintla Lake in Montana, sitting in the back of his canoe and digging his paddle into the water with deep, powerful strokes. The lake lies in a bowl of rock in the far northwest corner of Glacier National Park—above the rushing north fork of the Flathead River, up along a winding dirt road that cuts through charred forests, up at the end of the last twisting elbow of road that curls around the campsite at the waters edge.
"You should come up here in June," Carpenter says, "when the snow is melting and waterfalls are all over that mountain. I come up here by myself on occasion. You can go out in a place like this for a week and not see anybody. If I were living back east, the last thing I'd do on Memorial Day is say, 'Let's go for a drive.' But Toni and I did that this year. We drove up to the Yaak Valley, at the Idaho-Canadian border, and were gone all day. We saw 17 cars. We had lunch at the Dirty Shame Saloon. Can you beat that?"
Not by any measure known to Carpenter. The fact that he left the Army with three stars instead of four troubles him not at all. It is clearly a point that distracts him even less these days than the deer that sneak onto his property to nibble at the flowering crab apple bush that he planted. Far weightier than any other issue bearing on his life are the railroad tics he has been struggling to lay for a walkway leading to the backyard deck, a wraparound porch with a commanding view of a stand of larch pines and several cords of wood he has been cutting and stacking for the winter.
Bill and Toni are home at last. They live in a two-story log house whose design he sketched for the builder on the back of an envelope. "If I had it to do over again," he says, "I'd have retired after military school, bought two acres out here somewhere and lived off the land. And not worked for anybody."
In the year since his retirement he has settled into a life of ease. The couple's three boys are on their own. Bill Jr., 31, is a high school football coach in Colville, Wash.; Ken, 29, a former end at the Air Force Academy, is an F-15 fighter pilot; and Steve, 28, sells outdoor equipment in Southern California.
The 56-year-old Carpenter rises every morning at 5:30 and spends his days drifting casually between working on his house and backpacking through the endless woods or canoeing some pristine lake or river. "I always said I wasn't going to hang around the military when I retired," he says. "I was thinking of all those ex-military guys with their suits and briefcases, trying to get the Army to buy something."
Carpenter holds tightly to his new freedom. He is cultivating a beard, and he is letting his subscriptions to military publications expire. Here is a man who never made a sentimental journey to any of his old posts, though this year he has returned twice to South Korea to help an American firm, Titan Applications Group, evaluate the Korean high command in computer-simulated exercises. The money is excellent, and he is selling not hardware but a singular expertise, the consoling point in a venture for which he seems almost apologetic: "No one knows the personalities of the Korean high command better than I do."
In a few years, as that command turns over and his expertise grows obsolete, he will retire as a consultant, too, and do something far earthier if he needs the extra work. His unaffected humility, his utter lack of pretense, is his fourth star. "I'd drive a delivery truck," he says. "Or work in a hardware store. Or pump gas. What I'd really like to do is go to work for my builder. I can do almost anything. I can put in bathrooms. I can lay tile. I can wallpaper. I can paint. I'm finishing my basement right now. I'd go to work for my builder. In a heartbeat."
As for now, far richer in space and time than he has ever been, Carpenter is making his last stand way out there in the wild, way up along the nation's northern sideline, about as far away as he can get from the world's work. Toni is holding a large painted sign with mountains in purple and lettering that says LONESOME END. Carpenter shakes his head. "It should be an apostrophe—Lonesome's End," he says. "I'm not hanging the sign on me. I'm going to hang it on the house."
Toni tips her head. She had it right. "No," she says. "Lonesome End. That's what we're calling our place. I thought of it. What else could ours be other than the Lonesome End?"