When calling up images of the Vietnam War, you cannot help but be overrun with mental pictures of young men – nothing more than boys – dropping into the humid jungles only to be killed with horrific speed and, yes, vivid media-type shots of anti-war protesters. It’s the war bound to bring up harsh flashbacks of celebrities such as Jane Fonda openly participating in those long-ago protests; the war guaranteed to remind those in the military community of the utter lack of public support given to those returning soldiers. However, there is more to the Vietnam War than those bleak memories, more to it than despair and devastation. Just as with every conflict our nation has engaged in, the Vietnam War was rife with heroic acts on the part of those young men. This week we look back at one of our nation’s Vietnam War heroes with the acknowledgement that there are countless others going without specific mention.
The Battle of A Shau took place in the spring of 1966 or, more specifically, over a span of two days: March 9th and 10th. The site of the battle was the strategically valuable A Shau Special Forces Camp; it was important due to its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Laos. If the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) could gain control of the area, they could use the valley as an infiltration route; we don’t need to tell you why that would be a terrible turn of events.
On March 5, 1966, a pair of NVA defectors turned up in the camp with vital information: four battalions from the NVA’s 325th Division were organizing an attack. In response to the information, night patrols went out hoping to obtain visual confirmation, but they were unable to locate enemy forces in the area. Air Commandos flying reconnaissance in the general area did spot significant NVA build-up complete with anti-aircraft emplacements and responded by bombing the crap out of the NVA.
As the morning of March 7th dawned, American reinforcements had arrived in the form of seven U.S. Special Forces personnel and a MIKE Force Command (Mobile Strike Force Command; American SF operators serving with indigenous “soldiers” for the purpose of creating and training a QRF). On March 8th, the entire camp was put on general alert and the soldiers took up defensive positions. As the wet heat of day gave way to the eerie ticking of night, the NVA launched their first attack. The first attack was forced back, but the NVA saw the coming bad weather as a tactical gift: it would delay or at least hinder the delivery of American air support and resupply efforts. Because the NVA were, unfortunately, no dummies, they moved forward with their second attack.
The second, fateful attack began early the morning of March 9th and would stretch across hours and, in fact, into the next day, bringing untold horrors with it. Early mortar bombardments carried out by the NVA severely damaged communications and utterly destroyed more than one defensive position in the camp, and help from above was to meet a terrible fate as well. At 1300 hours a Spooky 70 (AC-47D) piloted by the 4th Air Commando Squadron swept in to circle the camp and blast away the NVA creeping ever-closer, but was shot down by enemy fire. All six crew members survived the crash itself, but three were subsequently murdered by the NVA while three lived and were later rescued by USAF HH-43.
As the battle raged on, resupply drops of ammunition failed when they landed outside of the camp’s perimeter, making them impossible to retrieve due to the terrible weather conditions. The men were on their own, and among them was Green Beret SFC Bennie Adkins.
When the mortars began whistling in, Adkins was in his tent and he wasted no time rushing to defend the camp. Grabbing his M-16 and a crate of 81mm mortars, he raced to his mortar pit, diving in like he was taking home plate back home in Oklahoma. Years later, Adkins would admit it was almost entirely impossible to tell where the NVA’s mortar fire was coming from beyond the fact that it seemed to be coming from, well, everywhere, so he responded in kind. Adkins began blasting away the surrounding jungle with his own heavy mortar fire, and it didn’t take long for the NVA to zero in on his location. The resulting 105mm mortar practically annihilating his position was a personal gift from some NVA he’d managed to piss off, and it blew him head-over-tea kettle right out of the pit, even knocking his helmet from his head. Adkins didn’t hesitate, despite the undoubtedly loud ringing in his hears and the concussion he’d probably received; he simply jammed his helmet back on, dove back into what remained of his pit, and resumed the fight.
The battle had been on for hours with the NVA making occasional appearances from the jungle to plant Bangalore bombs against the camp walls, and it was one of those bombs that resulted in Adkins taking even greater action. Word reached Adkins that one of those bombs had seriously wounded some American soldiers, leaving them out in the open, pinned down by enemy fire and probably only minutes from certain death. Without hesitation, Adkins burst from his smoking pit armed with his M-16 and made a beeline for the downed soldiers. It wasn’t an easy task by any means; Adkins had to dodge mortar fire, the constant susurrus of machine gun fire, and the crack of enemy rifles, but he finally reached his brother soldiers. Once he was there he kept on moving, somehow dragging the men to relative safety and medical treatment. At this point they were badly in need of medevac, not only for the men Adkins had just saved but for countless others.
Hours passed before it was possible for the wounded to be medevaced, and when the time finally came, it was Adkins who played a key role carrying the injured soldiers to the waiting helicopters. But even medevac wasn’t without danger, because as the wounded were being rushed to far better treatment than they could possibly receive in the jungle adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a bunch of South Vietnamese soldiers decided it was a fantastic time to switch alliances. Apparently they figured all was about to be lost anyway and hoped turning on the Americans they’d spent heaven knows how long training and fighting alongside would make them look good to the NVA, who were bound to be pissy at anyone who shot at them. A group of traitorous South Vietnamese had piled into a truck and charged a helicopter, guns blazing, and it was SFC Bennie Adkins who faced the onslaught head-on. Adkins somehow diverted the attack and, with the help of others, wiped out the internal threat, allowing the helicopters carrying the wounded to depart unscathed. But it wasn’t over, not by a long shot.
The selfless actions of Adkins knew no limits. Following the safe evacuation of the wounded, the battle heated right back up; and as day bled back into night on the 9th, he carried out more acts of heroism than can be written. Two moments in particular stand out: yet another death-defying sprint beyond the camp perimeter to rescue another wounded soldier from a trench, and a treacherous race through an unmarked minefield to retrieve a crate of ammunition that had been dropped outside the camp walls.
March 10th dawned with the fateful knowledge the men were unlikely to hold the camp, and yet they continued to fight. Adkins continued to man his pit even after being blown from it by yet another enemy mortar – the man seemed to thrive on having his bell rung – and when he ran out of mortars he found a bazooka. Not much more time passed before the NVA burst from the jungle, secure in their ability to overrun the camp, and Adkins switched to his M-16. He didn’t give up his position easily; he was shot and hit by shrapnel from a grenade, and even then he refused to budge. It was around 1400 hours on the 10th when the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were left with no choice but to fall back to the camp’s interior; as they did, American aircrafts soared overhead, dropping napalm on the enemy. But to Bennie Adkins, falling back didn’t mean stopping fighting, so he attempted a counter-attack. Adkins charged into the communications tent, which was now being infiltrated by NVA fighters, and engaged in close-quarters combat. He and the other men fought tirelessly, but then word came to get the heck out of A Shau.
It was the second day of battle, around 1700 hours, when survivors began to be evacuated out of the camp. Although Adkins should have been among those evacuated, he volunteered to cover their escape. He proceeded to fight tooth and nail, using whatever weapon was at hand, to allow both American and South Vietnamese soldiers to escape. He was low on ammunition and surely experiencing serious fatigue, and yet he fought. A moment came where he was helping a wounded soldier to the airstrip only to find it empty; the helicopters were gone, and they weren’t coming back. Bennie Adkins, seven Special Forces operators, and a dozen South Vietnamese soldiers were all that was left – and they were quite literally left; left behind.
Lack of sleep and scary little ammunition be damned, Bennie Adkins and the others had no choice but to run head-long into the jungle. For 48 hours they eluded the NVA, faced off with an apparently man-eating tiger, and, finally, reached a location where Adkins was able to contact rescue.
That’s it, you’d think he was done – and you’d be wrong. Adkins did another tour in Vietnam after that, making it three in all, and retired as a Command Sergeant Major. Today he’s been married for 59 years, having spent those years founding and running an accounting firm, and he waited until last year to be honored for his actions in 1966. It wasn’t until September 15, 2014, Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in March of 1966, and even then he made it clear he did not feel the medal was his alone. “I’m just a keeper of the medal for those other 16 [American troops] who were in battle, especially the five who didn’t make it. I can tell you every man who was there and the five who lost their lives. I can tell you how that happened. It diminishes, but it does not go away.”
Did we mention Bennie Adkins was injured at least eighteen times during battle through a combination of bullet and shrapnel wounds? Or that he’s credited with killing something like 175 enemy soldiers during that single battle? Well, he was, and he did. Bennie Adkins was – is – just one of the many American Heroes of the Vietnam War we’d do well to remember. Saying he rose to the occasion would be an understatement of monumental proportions; suffice to say he’s a true American hero, and leave it at that.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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