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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."