A Culpable Innocence

Chapter 12: TET—Year of the Monkey (pg. 174)


During his lunch break, Regis climbed the water tower. He had taken off his fatigues and stripped down to his boots and shorts. When he got to the top, he did not recline as planned, for the asphalt top would have been too hot on his bare back. Instead, he sat on the edge and hugged his knees to his chest, absorbing the heat of the sun bearing down on his uncovered head and shoulders. The horizon stretched out in all directions from his perch, the highest point on the highest hill in the local landscape. The more distant hills came to life with a fresh vividness. Their sun baked treetops aligned in a rolling pattern that mirrored the rise and fall of the earth beneath them as they reached towards the sun. They did not shrink from the heat, as Regis must, after too much exposure. They embraced it. For a time, Regis tried to embrace that heat as well. He could feel the pores of his skin releasing life-giving water into the air. In the valleys at the base of the surrounding hills, Regis perceived a slight mist that added translucence to the unending green that marched up the foothills in ever deepening hues. They too were giving up their moisture in an ongoing weather cycle that connected with endless other life cycles, of which Regis was a very small part. His head began to throb with the rhythmic pounding of blood through his temples. His body was succumbing to a countdown in its own cycle of life and death. His death, he knew, was inevitable. If not Charlie, then nature would claim its purpose with him. There was nothing for him to do except to accept it. With his brain blasted by the heat, eyes bloated with the kaleidoscope of endless shades of green against a piercing blue sky, and the sound of nature’s silent voice humming like a seashell in his ear, Regis was overcome with the sheer beauty that rampaged at the gates of his senses. An alternate reality, ever-present but previously ignored, had broken down the barriers of his consciousness. He slid to the side of the tower, clasped the ladder rungs and slowly—with a savoring deliberation—descended. He felt unfamiliarly at peace, both with himself and with everything.

Tuesday morning’s sun arrived like any other in the Central Highlands, bright and hot, with nary a breeze to disturb the general stillness. But if calm prevailed around Tropo Hill, it did not exist within its small population of Signal Corpsmen. Most of them were out of their bunks before the CQ’s wakeup call. Breakfast was undertaken in the usual cacophony of many conversations, but without the periodic guffaws and explosions of laughter that characterized a deeper human need than food and polite conversation. Much of the talk that morning, both over breakfast and later at Headquarters and in the COM building, involved an ongoing debate about a possible Tet offensive. Some felt it would not happen and quoted a Stars and Stripes’ article about the truce and general ceasefire agreement. Others said it could happen at any time after the start of the Tet holiday and not necessarily at midnight. Many resisted this opinion since it just extended anxiety about a possible attack indefinitely. Most on Tropo Hill believed there would be an attack that night, but that it would take place far north of Pleiku along the strip of the DMZ that separated North and South Vietnam.

Of course, those who were privy to the daily briefings had more specific opinions. MACV had intelligence that indicated three full NVA Division Headquarters had set up just north of Khe Sanh. They commanded seven regiments with as many as 15,000 troops. MACV was convinced that the NVA would attempt to make Khe Sanh a second Dien Bien Phu and that VC and NVA would simultaneously attack the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s main source of rice. If they could defeat the U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh and drive the U.S. Army out of the Delta, they would hold South Vietnam in a pincer with the Central Highlands and coastal cities in the middle. It would be a grand plan for defeating an occupying army, except for one thing. MACV had prepared for just such an attack and had the resources to deliver a devastating blow to all enemy forces. Artillery placements throughout South Vietnam, the Navy’s big guns offshore, and close air support were poised to annihilate any army willing to mass in an open confrontation with U.S. forces. And those forces were readied and concentrated in the very areas where military intelligence identified enemy troop movements.

Within Regis’ Operations neither the sergeant nor his captain believed that Tropo Hill would see any action. Albeit a worthy target, neither the NVA nor the VC had ever shown much interest in the Signal Corps installations. The common belief at STRATCOM was that the VC wanted to preserve the integrity of the communications network built by the Americans for eventual use in a post war reconstruction. This belief was fortified by another that claimed enemy ignorance of the strategic value of the STRATCOM network. There were not many at MACV or the Regional Communications Group­ who knew that the Pentagon in Washington directly controlled most of the B52 bombing raids by means of this network. Tropo Hill was the most critical link in that network because it was the largest troposcatter site, providing long range communications that could circumnavigate the world.

Regis, however, had made his own assessment of their situation: he concluded that the Vietnamese were very likely underestimated by his chain of command. Unlike the officers and NCOs that commanded him, he had sat across the dinner table with Nguyen Ba Linh. If General Thanh and Giap were cut of the same mold as his friend Linh, then they might very well have anticipated the American expectations regarding the nature of their offensive. Tropo Hill, Regis concluded, was no safer than any other place in Vietnam, even including Khe Sanh.

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