WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 12, 2014) — The hot steam rising from the jungle in the A Shau Valley melted with the clouds, obscuring the steep hills bordering the valley.
Through this 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, 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 days later.
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 to safety.
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.
Fighting 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.”
As 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 downed airman.
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.
After being 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.
“Well, a 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 several occasions.”
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 fine.”
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 comrades.
“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:
Spc. 5 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.”
That early experience would later shape his career as a Soldier, but Adkins said he had no desire to join the military.
But, in 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 president.
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 University.
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.
On 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 ultimate.”
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 for?”
He added that the freedoms Americans enjoy today “are worth fighting for.”
On Sept. 15, President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor to Adkins. During the same White House ceremony Sept. 15, Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat will posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam. Soldiers and family members of both Medal of Honor recipients will attend.
By David Vergun