Camp A Shau, Vietnam — March 1966
Sgt. 1st Class Bennie Adkins had two unlikely saviors during 86 hours of hell in the mountains of central Vietnam: a North Vietnamese soldier and a tiger.
He credits both with saving his life, though neither meant to.
But it was Adkins himself who did most of the saving 49 years ago, fighting through punishing mortar fire and multiple injuries to stave off a vicious attack on his small Special Forces base and keep many of his men alive in the jungles of Vietnam under the bleakest of circumstances.
After hearing Adkins, now 81, tell his full story, which includes forays into a minefield and well over 100 North Vietnamese soldiers killed, the hardest part to believe might be the plans the Army had for the man who would go on to earn the Medal of Honor when he was drafted in 1956: They made him a typist.
“I have no knowledge of (why),” he said. “The best I could determine is that I could type a little.”
Early on the morning of March 9, 1966, the soldiers of Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces heard chanting coming from the jungle outside Camp A Shau, a war cry that Adkins said usually preceded an attack. Indeed, hundreds of North Vietnamese were soon descending on the camp, which was simultaneously pounded with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The situation quickly worsened when South Vietnamese soldiers with the Civilian Irregular Defense Group supposedly allied with the U.S. defected and joined the attack.
“Our job was nothing more than collecting intelligence and to interdict the enemy’s movements and evidently we were doing it well enough that they decided to move us out at tremendous cost to them,” Adkins said.
Adkins, who was an intelligence sergeant at the time, rushed through “intense enemy fire” to man a mortar position to repel the attack, according to his official citation from the Army. Despite being wounded by shrapnel he ran through mortar fire to reach wounded soldiers at the center of camp and drag them to safety.
Then, a badly needed supply drop landed outside the base and he negotiated a minefield to get to it.
At one point, Adkins said, he carried a wounded soldier to a waiting helicopter only to find an allied South Vietnamese soldier with no wounds on the helicopter, wanting to escape the battle. When Adkins moved to get him off the helicopter the soldier locked and loaded his rifle and leveled it at Adkins only to be shot dead by a North Vietnamese round that came from outside the base.
“It was not my day to go,” Adkins said with a smile.
That was day one and, unfortunately for the men of Camp A Shau, it was merely the beginning.
Early the next morning, the North Vietnamese launched their main attack. Adkins laid down mortar fire until he ran out of shells, then started laying down rifle fire as the attacking soldiers started breaching the base perimeter.
“Despite receiving additional wounds from enemy rounds exploding on his position, Adkins fought off relentless waves of attacking North Vietnamese soldiers,” according to Adkins’ Medal of Honor citation.
Running out of ammo, Adkins and several comrades went to the base communication bunker, all the while felling North Vietnamese soldiers with his rifle. When their ammo was critically low, he once again ran through enemy fire to retrieve more. When those remaining in the camp got the order to evacuate, Adkins and a handful of others destroyed sensitive equipment and dug their way out of the back of the bunker fighting their way out of the camp.
Before that escape, Adkins is estimated to have killed between 135 and 175 North Vietnamese soldiers, according to the Army citation.
“We were not going to be prisoners of war, whatever we had to do,” Adkins said.
At that point, Adkins and the survivors with him were on their own. His efforts to rescue a wounded comrade toward the end of the battle meant they had missed the last evacuation helicopter. So they took to the jungle, where they spent 48 hours evading the North Vietnamese and other dangers.
Toward the end of their ordeal, surrounded by soldiers hunting them, Adkins heard a growl coming from the jungle and then spotted yellow eyes — a tiger he thinks was tracking his bloodied crew. That did the trick and, like that, Adkins and his comrades were alone in the jungle.
“The North Vietnamese were more afraid of the tiger than they were of us,” Adkins said.
Finally, on March 12, a helicopter was able to reach the men and rescue them nearly four days after the initial battle.
Somehow, Adkins’ story was lost in “the fog of war,” as President Barack Obama put it in September when Adkins was finally recognized with the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor, nearly 50 years after his feats.
“I have to be honest, in a battle and daring escape that lasted four days, Bennie performed so many acts of bravery we actually don’t have time to talk about all of them,” Obama said.
Adkins, who lives in Opelika, Ala., stood stoically as Obama placed medal around his neck.
“It was humbling,” he said.
After the battle at Camp A Shau, Adkins stayed in the Army 12 more years, logging one more tour in Vietnam and retiring as a command sergeant major in 1978. Adkins would go on to be a businessman and a teacher.
Despite being retired, Adkins keeps up a busy schedule. An animated storyteller who loves to crack jokes, Adkins travels the country speaking about his experiences at a range of venues, from an 85,000-seat stadium to a kindergarten class (he preferred the kindergarten class).
“My fourth career is traveling and trying to instill patriotism in our young people,” he said.