COLUMBUS, Ga. – Forty-eight years after surviving 18 wounds during a bloody battle in the A Shau Valley of South Vietnam, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins will receive the Medal of Honor at the White House on Sept. 15.
President Barack Obama will present the nation’s highest military honor to the Opelika, Alabama man, who distinguished himself during 38 hours of close-combat fighting and two days of evading the North Vietnamese Army March 9-12, 1966.
With his wife Mary by his side, the 80-year-old Adkins described the honor as very humbling during a news conference Thursday at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.
“Basically, it’s a very humbling experience to be recommended for the Medal of Honor,” he said. “What I attribute this to is not my actions but the actions of the other 16 Americans with us in the battle at Camp A Ashau and especially the five Americans that paid the ultimate price.”
At Camp A Shau, Adkins rescued injured or killed soldiers from the battlefield while under intense fire, maneuvered through a mine field to retrieve much-needed supplies dropped near the camp and braved a possible attack from a tiger while evading enemy forces after abandoning the camp. It is estimated that he killed 135 to 175 of the total 500 to 800 enemy casualties while the camp had 200 soldiers killed and 100 wounded.
Adkins said all soldiers serving with the Army’s Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces, 1st Special Forces received some type of recognition for valor during the battle. He received a call from the president in June about getting the honor but couldn’t talk about until notified by the White House staff.
“What I attribute this medal award to after 48 years is the continuing support of my commander and other members on the ground that witnessed the activities,” he said.
Adkins served three tours in Vietnam between February 1963 and December 1971 but noted his second tour as the toughest. “This is the toughest battle I personally saw but I’m sure there were others,” he said.
At age 22, Adkins was drafted into the Army in 1956 and completed basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, before he was assigned as a garrison typist in Giessen, Germany. Adkins also had an assignment at Fort Benning before realizing he wanted to serve in the field with an elite unit.
He volunteered for Special Forces after completing Airborne School in 1961. His first tour in Vietnam was six months in 1963 before his second yearlong tour started in September 1965.
Adkins and 16 other Special Forces soldiers served with six Vietnamese Special Forces and 359 Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Two defectors from the North Vietnamese Army warned of an attack.
The camp, located near the border of Laos and about 30 miles from Hue in the Thua Thien Province, was a key infiltration point for North Vietnamese Army and supplies. The camp came under a full scale attack on March 9 with mortars and machine guns.
Adkins avoided enemy fire to man a mortar although the position took a direct hit, wounding him and killing several others. While exposed to sniper and mortar fire, he still was able to drag the seriously injured to safety and recover the bodies of dead soldiers.
During an attempt to evacuate wounded soldiers, one of two helicopters was shot down. Adkins faced heavy machine gun fire as he loaded the wounded onto the helicopter.
By early March 10, the enemy attacked the camp in waves with its main assault on the south and east walls. Manning a mortar pit, Adkins was blown into the air after the pit took a hit as he directed fire against the enemy. Adkins was the only soldier left firing in the camp that morning.
After firing all the mortar rounds, Adkins manned a recoilless rifle and fired at the south wall where he inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and stalled the attempt to overrun the camp. He sustained another wound when the gun took a direct hit.
Out of ammunition, Adkins was left with only an M-16 rifle to resist the enemy of company size fighters. The soldiers repelled the enemy on several attempts but by noon on March 10, the North Vietnamese Army controlled the camp except for an American communications bunker held by Adkins and others at the north wall.
By 5 p.m., Adkins and the other defenders were ordered to abandon the camp. “After a period of time, we found that we were better in the jungle,” he said. “So, the jungle was an asset to us rather than a detriment. This did not bother us.”
The soldiers missed their first helicopter pickup and the next one that landed was destroyed by machine gun fire before taking off. Adkins and the fleeing soldiers successfully evaded the enemy by traveling at night with little rest.
During the night, the soldiers were trapped between a roaming tiger and the enemy soldiers. They could see its eyes during the night.
“They had us surrounded on a little hilltop and everything kinda started getting quiet and we looked around all at once and we saw eyes going around us,” he said. “That was a tiger stalking us that night. We were all bloody. The North Vietnamese soldiers were more afraid of the tiger than they were us. They backed off some and we were gone.”
A helicopter picked them up on March 12.
When the battle story made front page news the next day in 1966, Adkins’ wife Mary said she saw a report on television. Adkins’ name wasn’t mentioned but she had a feeling it might have been her husband in Special Forces. “I never knew where he was when he left the house,” she said. “I’d never see him or hear from him.”
Adkins retired from the Army in 1978 after 22 years of service. He attended Troy University where he received a bachelor’s degree and two masters degree. He started Adkins Accounting Service in Auburn and also taught night classes at Southern Union Junior College for 10 years and at Auburn University for six.
Four of seven soldiers who served with Adkins will be at the ceremony at the White House. “I’m looking forward to it and I’m a little apprehensive,” he said.