WASHINGTON -- The hot steam
rising from the jungle in the A Shau Valley melted with the clouds,
obscuring the steep hills bordering the valley.
remote valley in northeast Vietnam, near the Laos border, ran the Ho
Chi Minh trail -- a logistics route used by North Vietnamese troops
to move men, weapons and supplies to the south.
In this lush,
green valley were 16 Americans, members of the newly formed Green
Berets. With them were some 400 Vietnamese troops, many of whom had
a habit of switching sides when it suited them. Their mission in
this valley was to stop the supplies and men from moving south, a
task that bombing from the air had failed to accomplish.
These Green Berets were considered some of the U.S. Army's most
elite fighters. That claim would soon be tested to the extreme.
CAMP A SHAU BATTLE
Then-Sgt. 1st Class Bennie G. Adkins
(image below) ... who eventually retired from the Army as a command
sergeant major, was among the 16 Americans with Detachment A-102,
5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces at Camp A Shau.
The men of Camp A Shau had an inkling of what
was to come, when two North Vietnamese soldiers came into the camp
to give themselves up. They reported that "we'd be attacked by a
division-size unit," Adkins related. "And that's what happened" two
At about 3:50 a.m., March 9, 1966, the camp was
attacked by two reinforced North Vietnamese Army regiments and Viet
Cong, just as the defectors had said two days earlier. A 10-minute
mortar barrage was followed by wave after wave of enemy frontal
assaults on the camp. The enemy directed plunging fire down on the
camp from the steep hills nearby.
After a mortar barrage, the
enemy shot up a green-star cluster. Adkins said that was their
signal to assault the camp. After the attack was beaten back, the
second attack proceeded in the same manner, with a mortar barrage,
green-star cluster, and assault wave. By the time the third mortar
barrage began, the Green Berets were getting wise to the tactic and
shot their own green-star cluster up before the mortar barrage was
supposed to end.
This bewildered the enemy, who were not yet
prepared to breech the perimeter. In the confusion, the U.S.
Soldiers killed about an entire company of NVA. Adkins credits his
fellow Soldiers with being resourceful and said this was just one of
many examples of their initiative.
Adkins, who manned a
mortar, "received several direct hits from enemy mortars" and was
wounded, according to his award documentation. Despite his wounds,
he ran through exploding enemy fire to drag other wounded comrades
More than a few of the "friendly" Vietnamese saw
the futility of fighting on against all odds. As fighting
intensified, an entire company of the South Vietnamese Civil
Irregular Defense Group defected to the enemy, which came as no
surprise, Adkins related.
The cloud cover broke just enough
that day for a MedEvac helicopter to land and evacuate Master Sgt.
Gibson, who had been wounded. Later in the day two more helicopters
flew in, the first being shot down and the second landing. Under
enemy fire, Adkins loaded casualties on the helicopter. Despite
being wounded himself, the thought of getting on the helicopter
never crossed his mind.
By this time, many of the Soldiers
had run out of ammunition and were preparing for close combat. Later
in the day the clouds broke and ammunition and supplies were air
dropped outside the camp perimeter. Adkins successfully evaded the
enemy to retrieve the much-needed supplies.
continued throughout the day and into the night. At 4 a.m., March
10, the NVA launched their main attack. The enemy threw two hand
grenades on Adkins' position. He picked them up and tossed them
back, with the second one exploding in an air burst, killing a group
of enemy fighters. "After the second one, they lost their desire to
throw hand grenades," he said.
By 6:30 a.m., Adkins was the
only man left firing a mortar, despite being wounded again, the
document continues. When the last mortar round that he had was
fired, Adkins poured "effective recoilless rifle fire upon enemy
positions." Despite additional wounds, Adkins "fought off waves of
attacking Viet Cong, eliminating numerous insurgents."
daylight broke, there was just enough of a break in the cloud cover
for two propeller-driven Air Force A-1E Skyraider aircraft to
provide close-air support.
One of the pilots, Maj. Dafford W.
Myers, was hit by enemy fire and crashed his plane on Camp A Shau's
runway. He managed an egress and headed for a ditch. Adkins said he
fired mortars all around Myers' position to protect the pilot from
capture. Adkins and another Special Forces Soldier, Master Sgt.
Victor Underwood, was injured during that battle to protect the
The pilot of the second A-1E, Maj. Bernard
Fisher, landed in extreme enemy fire and evacuated Myers. Fisher
received the Medal of Honor for that action.
ordered to evacuate the camp by their far-away headquarters, Adkins
and a small group of Soldiers fought their way out to the extraction
point, carrying their wounded. Upon reaching the landing zone, they
found out that the last rescue helicopter had departed, so the group
evaded the enemy but in the darkness, they found they were
surrounded and bloody.
Adkins then explain the incredible
thing that happened next:
"The North Vietnamese soldiers had
us surrounded on a little hilltop. Everything started getting quiet
and all we could see were some eyes going around us.
tiger stalked us that night," he continued. "We were all bloody" and
the tiger probably was attracted to that. "The North Vietnamese were
more afraid of the tiger than of us, so they backed off some and we
were gone. The tiger was on our side."
On March 12, the
survivors of Camp A Shau were finally rescued by helicopter.
During the 38-hour battle, it is estimated, according to the
documents, that Adkins killed as many as 175 of the enemy, while
sustaining 18 wounds to his own body.
Looking back on the
battle, Adkins said it was the toughest he can recall. "It was just
not my time to die," despite being "blown from mortar pits on
Asked how he could keep going with 18
wounds, he replied "you just do. Quitting isn't an option. That's
what you train for. In the jungle environment, we became better than
some of the North Vietnamese soldiers."
When Adkins was
finally evacuated, he was flown to a U.S. hospital ship off the
coast, where he was treated for his wounds.
His wife Mary
said she heard about the battle on network TV. "Something just told
me he was involved," she said.
"Two days later I got a
telegram that he was lost and they hadn't found him," she said. "And
then in about another day or two I got another telegram that said he
was found but they didn't know what condition he was in. And, the
next one I got they said he was in the hospital and he was doing
Incredibly, Adkins fully recovered and did a third
tour in Vietnam, in 1971, his first being in 1963. A lot of what he
did on that third tour is still classified, he said, so he was not
able to discuss it.
Unlike some other Vietnam veterans,
Adkins never returned to visit the country. But not out of
animosity. "I harbor no bitter feelings toward the enemy, especially
those who put it all on the line. They were doing as they were
directed to do just as we were," he said.
"It's a very humbling experience when you get a call from the
president of the United States saying he's approved you getting the
Medal of Honor," Adkins said.
"I want to let the world know
that the Medal of Honor is a symbol for those service members who
paid the ultimate sacrifice," he added, meaning for his fallen
"The medal doesn't really belong to me. I'm just a
keeper of it for those other 16 in the battle, especially the five
who didn't make it," Adkins said. The five are:
Phillip Stahl was wounded early in the battle, Adkins recalled. He
had been "tagged" to be MedEvac'd earlier but he elected to stay.
"He did on a machine gun."
Sgt. Owen McCann left his
communications bunker to repel the enemy. He was shot and killed.
Staff Sgt. Billie Hall, a Special Forces medic, "got both legs
blown off, but continued to instruct indigenous people (South
Vietnamese forces) how to tend to the wounded until he died," Adkins
said. "He was recommended for the Medal of Honor but it was
downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. I feel he should have
gotten the Medal of Honor."
Sgt. Jimmy Taylor was severely
wounded. He was carried away from Camp A Shau to be evacuated but
died in the jungle, Adkins said.
And the fifth, Sgt. 1st
Class Raymond Allen, was killed in one of the early mortar attacks.
The other survivors fought heroically, as well, as did most of
the Vietnamese allies, Adkins added.
BEFORE THE WAR
Adkins was born on a farm in Waurika, Oklahoma, in 1934, where a lot
of physical activity was required, he recalled. When he wasn't
farming, he was hunting. "Growing up on a farm taught you to work
hard, be self-reliant and make many decisions yourself."
early experience would later shape his career as a Soldier, but
Adkins said he had no desire to join the military.
1956, Adkins was drafted into the Army -- and soon made good. Within
the first 20 months, he was promoted to sergeant and came to see the
Army as an opportunity for a "good life as a professional Soldier."
When the Green Berets were formed during the Kennedy
administration, Adkins said he volunteered to serve in the first
unit. When the president made a visit to the new Special Forces unit
in 1962, Adkins was a member of the color guard that greeted the
But if life in the Army was "good," Adkins also
found that he had to earn every bit of that good life. Special
Forces training was tough, he said. They hiked across mountainous
terrain for days on long field exercises. But, he said it prepared
him well for combat.
During those formative years, Adkins
said he learned a lot from more experienced Soldiers who became his
mentors. That wisdom would later prove valuable as well.
Following the Adkins' epic Battle of Camp A Shau, Hollywood came
calling. They wanted to make a movie about the Green Berets,
starring John Wayne, and they needed technical advice about tactics
and equipment, Adkins said.
"I gave them information on
devices we used like the Fulton extraction," he said, "which gives
you a nice little ride."
The Fulton Surface-To-Air Recovery
System was used to quickly extract Soldiers from the battlefield by
means of a balloon and harness. A fixed-wing aircraft would fly low
and catch the harness, lifting the Soldier off the ground at an
extremely fast rate of acceleration. The movie was released in 1968.
Adkins continued to excel in the Army, rising to highest
enlisted rank of command sergeant major, before retirement in 1978.
ADVICE TO TODAY'S SOLDIERS
Transition to civilian life
was "a very traumatic experience for me -- but only for a short
time," Adkins said. The key to a smooth transition is to get quickly
engaged in some type of activity -- college or work, for example.
Adkins did both.
In 1979, he completed his Bachelor's
degree and in 1982, he earned his Master's in Education and then a
second Master's in Management in 1988, all from Troy State
While going to school, Adkins established the
Adkins Accounting Service, Inc., in Auburn, Alabama, serving as its
CEO for 22 years. He also taught night classes at Alabama's Southern
Union Junior College for 10 years, and at Auburn University for six.
All of this he accomplished while raising a family. He has been
married to his wife Mary, for 59 years, and they have five children.
He recommends Soldiers stay in contact with those they served
with. Adkins still maintains contact with Soldiers he served with in
Special Forces, including those at Camp A Shau.
post-traumatic stress disorder, Adkins said anyone returning from
combat has PTSD "to some degree."
He advises seeking
counseling. He said he hasn't experienced full-blown PTSD because
he's kept his mind and body occupied with school, business and
friendships and family life.
Other advice for Soldiers: "The
military can be a fine life for you, but learn all you can and
become as proficient as you can. Perfect your skills to the
Asked how he'd like to be remembered, he replied:
"I was a Soldier. I did the best that I could. I raised a great
family, became a teacher and a businessman. What else can you ask
He added that the freedoms Americans enjoy today "are
worth fighting for."
By Army David Vergun
Army News Service
Bennie G. Adkins >
Medal of Honor Ceremony |
Medal of Honor Citation
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