WHEELING, W.Va. (WTRF)- Bill Carpenter of Rayland, Ohio turned 17 on October 3, 1965 and just two days later he enlisted.
It will be a day he will never forget.
On October 5, 1965 he joined the United States Army as a Private.
He says he couldn’t wait to serve his country following in his older brother, Tom’s, footsteps.
Bill Carpenter says, “It’s just a family thing. When the war comes it’s your turn to go.”
Tom was already serving in the Armed services and Bill wanted to do the same.
“My brother joined Special Forces when he was 15 and he lied about his age and joined the Army, ” Carpenter says, “He is my all-time hero and always will be. He just turned 80 years old. That’s the reason I did a lot of the things I did. I want to be like my big brother and he and I were actually over there together for a while.”
Promoted at the age of 18, this sergeant was honored to be part of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army.
Sergeant Bill Carpenter had to prove himself and with hard work and perseverence he became part of Tiger Force, a reconnaissance commando platoon.
“To me it was an honor, continues Carpenter, “It was a lot of hardships, but for me to get to do what I did it was more of an honor for me than if I would’ve got into Harvard Medical School,” he says.
He takes us back in time to May 15, 1967, just west of Duc Pho, South Vietnam.
Carpenter can recall with great detail the battle called “The Mother’s Day Massacre.”
According to Carpenter, “The enemy had been in that area, so they already had everything, what you call preregistered. If you tried to run, an artillery piece was going to fire into there or they had a machine gun over there. So, we couldn’t run. We just had to stay and fight.”
The Vietnam Veteran says, ” We were bringing airstrikes within 50 yards of us and that’s pretty close bringing a 500 pound bomb to you and so it was a day you’ll never forget.”
He says he fought that day for his mom.
Carpenter says his biggest fear was not the battle itself, believe it or not, but the idea of his mom receiving the news of his death on Mother’s Day.
So, he fought harder.
“You’ve got to do things that you never thought possible,” he says, “You just gotta work through the fear because if you don’t you will die and cannot let fear overcome you when you’re in a battle like that. You’ve got to continue with the battle.”
Tiger Force was typically comprised of six to ten men per team, but that day, according to Carpenter, dozens of men went in search of Americans being held captive in prisoner of war camps.
According to Carpenter, “There were approximately 44 of us. We were hit by 800 North Vietnamese soldiers. A call immediately went out: for a resupply of ammo, pick up the dead and wounded.”
The prisoners were never found, but in essence, these particular members of Tiger Force were rescued themselves.
Five of the men perished.
Carpenter says, “Had it not been for Chuck’s bravery that day probably none of us would be here.”
Carpenter credits one man, the Commander of the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, Chuck Kettles.
According to Carpenter, Major Kettles saved his life and the lives of the other men.
The Major made several trips during the 10-hour battle providing gun support.
Realizing eight men were still on the ground, he went in for one final mission.
“We had prepared to shoot ourselves if it would’ve come down to that because I wasn’t going to be taken prisoner,” adds Carpenter.
Carpenter was one of those men.
He says, “He came in and got the rest of us out of there and the helicopter with him. The helicopter he was in was shot to pieces.”
A heroic Kettles got the eight safely to the hospital.
Then after the helicopter was in back in the air it was struck with 37 bullets and a heavy mortar round.
According to Carpenter, “The chopper he was in was just bouncing up and down going down this river bed. Finally, he was able to get enough lift where the helicopter could fly and just as it cleared the fence back at the hospital, probably about 20 minutes from the battle area, it seized up and just got out off the ground probably about the last 10 to 15 feet. Had it not been for Chuck Kettles we would’ve all surely died that day.”
Like Kettles, Carpenter wasn’t injured, but just days later on May 25th, 1967, Carpenter was hit with shrapnel from a landmine.
He wasn’t certain if he would ever see again.
He says laying in bandages for those 11 days, in total darkness, were some of the most difficult days of his life.
Once the bandaging was finally removed, this soldier remembers it taking several hours more for his sight to return.
Looking out of his hospital room window, he remembers vividly a flagpole and on that flagpole was an American flag.
He was so grateful to see it.
“Anyone who receives a medal of honor receives it for valor above and beyond the call of duty. Well, he didn’t do it just once. He did it the entire day. He flew in and out of there a number different times and on the last time coming out we told him not to come because you’ll never make it, ” recalls Carpenter.
Carpenter says it took another five decades before Commander Kettles, now a Lieutenant Colonial, before receiving “The Medal Of Honor” he so richly deserved.
On July 18, 2016, it was bestowed upon him for his bravery on that dreaded day in May.
Carpenter remembers eagerly watching the ceremony on television with his very own eyes.
This Memorial Day Carpenter sets his sights on the holiday’s true meaning.
He says, “Memorial day is a special day because a lot of people think of Memorial day as being the when the swimming pool opens or when it’s time for picnics and roasting hotdogs and things of that type they seem to forget what it’s really about. It’s a reflection of remembering those are not here any longer.”
He stays in touch with those who fought alongside him in Vietnam and also with those who worked alongside him during his 22-year military career.
“I got a couple purple hearts,” he says humbly, “I’ve got a an Army Commendation Medal, I got an Air Medal, I got a Bronze Star, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Paratrooper Wings, a Combat Infantryman Badge. Some different metals, there are some other ones. They don’t mean anything to me. I come home alive. That’s the best medal I could have had.”
Carpenter says he had reoccurring dreams of being on the battlefield. Some of his dreams included being on brink of being killed. That was until his return visit to the same riverbank where he fought.
Along the river he met a Vietnamese woman, she spoke to him in broken English, saying, “Are you a GI during the war, the war wasn’t any good, what do you think about?”
And in his broken Vietnamese, he replied, “ Yes, I am a man of the hills, making reference to the Ohio Valley. I once watched this river during the war and would have much rather fished together and have been friends.”
She replied, “Wait here, Stay here.”
A short time later she returned with two fishing poles and together they fished.
She invited him to come back the next day and her village had a feast for him and he was the guest of honor.
“They were hugging me and crying and say we’re sorry we killed Americans on the 15th of May, speaking in broken English, and I said I understand I killed a lot of you on that day and I’m not happy about it,” states Carpenter, “It’s a sad time. You don’t like to think about it. There are no winners in war.”
Carpenter says there are many missions he cannot talk about and ones he prefers not to discuss.
“You build up friendships with people in situations like that where you’re actually closer to them than blood relatives,” according to Carpenter.
The missions, Carpenter says, are meant to be kept secret.
He respects the oath he took all of those years ago to be the very best soldier.
He says people who know him call him Secret Squirrel and he says that nickname has stuck with him.
The phrase, Secret Squirrel, in case you’re wondering, was adopted in 1965 by the military and termed for classified missions.
It was that same year, in 1965, that Sergeant Bill Carpenter, made up his mind to fight for our freedom, for us, Americans like you and me.
So, the next time you run into this Rayland, Ohio Veteran thank him for his service, he will absolutely appreciate it.
Fortunately, he’ll have something to say to you too.
“That’s what I do now when somebody sees me out in the restaurant or wherever somebody thanks me for my service. That’s how I reply, thank you for caring,” he says.