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.