This Day in History: Bennie Adkins, the Battle of A Shau, and his Medal of Honor
On this day in 1966, a Green Beret engages in a multi-day battle in Vietnam. The Army estimates that Bennie Adkins took out anywhere from 135 to 175 enemy forces during the course of the conflict.
You never would have known that Adkins himself had sustained multiple injuries. He just kept going! And he refused to leave until every other soldier had been evacuated.
Adkins was drafted into the Army, but he volunteered to serve in the Special Forces. “I wanted to be the best that I could possibly be,” he explained.
He would more than live up to that statement during the Battle of A Shau, a conflict that began when the Vietnamese attacked an American camp on March 9, 1966.
When the Vietnamese began firing, then-Sergeant First Class Adkins sprang into action. He manned a mortar position, even as he was taking hits. He risked his life to drag wounded soldiers to safety. He exposed himself to enemy fire so he could help a badly wounded soldier to an airstrip for evacuation. He was taking risk after risk, exposing himself again and again.
“It was just not my time that day,” Adkins would say. “I was blown from the mortar pit on several occasions, and I was fortunate enough to go outside the camp amongst the enemy and get one of our wounded MedEvaced out. I also made a trip into the minefield to recover some supplies that were air dropped to us. The bottom line is that it was just not my day to go.”
The events of March 9 were just the beginning. The North Vietnamese began their main assault the next morning. Within two hours, Adkins was the only one left firing his mortar. Grenades were still coming in and Adkins was already suffering from shrapnel wounds. At one point, he caught a grenade with his bare hands. “I sent it right back from where it come from,” he reported.
The Americans were finally ordered to evacuate camp after a 38-hour battle. But Adkins went back for a wounded soldier, thus missing the last evacuation helicopter. He and a small group were left to fend for themselves in the jungle. For the next 48 hours, Adkins would lead the remaining men as they evaded the enemy.
You won’t believe what scared—and saved—them in the end. A tiger began stalking the group of survivors! They were bleeding and leaving a trail, and the tiger was intrigued. (He was a tiger, after all.) Fortunately, the Vietnamese were pretty afraid of that man-eating tiger. They backed off, and it made room for the Americans to get into an evacuation helicopter.
Adkins was initially awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the first week of March 1966, but that award was later upgraded to a Medal of Honor when many Vietnam-era awards were being reviewed.
The press greeted Adkins after he received his Medal during a September 2014 ceremony. “What I would like to do,” he said, “is to be sure that you know that this Medal of Honor belongs to the other 16 Special Forces soldiers with me [that day].”
He didn’t think he was a hero. Not really.
“What I did is not heroic,” he told another interviewer. “I was just an average soldier. That was my job. I try to tell the young folks: Whatever you want to do, be the best that you can be at it.”
Brad Lendon, Despite wounds, Medal of Honor recipient killed up to 175 enemies, saved comrades (CNN website; Sept. 15, 2014)
Dan Lamothe, Medal of Honor recipient Bennie Adkins shares his unusual path to the Army (Wash. Post; Oct. 14, 2014)
Medal of Honor citation (Bennie G. Adkins; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor: Command Sergeant Major Bennie G. Adkins (U.S. Army website)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Bennie Adkins; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor recipient Bennie Adkins talks to the press (Medal of Honor ceremony; Sept. 15, 2014)