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.
in a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge June 24, 1797
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."