The warrior is slain.
Once one of the most feared men in Vietnam, he now rests in Arlington National Cemetery with other men of valor.
You watched “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper.” Now read the tale of Bennie Adkins.
I give you the condensed version.*
I met Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Bennie Adkins five years ago at a gathering of about 30 senior citizens when I received an assignment to do a story about him for Lake Martin Living magazine. After a 43-year-old paperwork snafu, he had finally been awarded the Medal of Honor for Valor in Vietnam. His story was about to go public, and I had the privilege to be one of the first to hear and write it.
I knew nothing about him or of the story he would tell that day. Nothing about his appearance gave me any indication of what he had done so long ago. Although at 83 he still stood ramrod straight like a soldier, his demeanor was that of a kindly old grandfather. He was diminutive, the kind of man you would expect to see surrounded by his grandchildren at the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
As he began to tell his story, I realized the sort of man I had been privileged to meet.
Adkins enlisted in in the Army in 1956. He was initially assigned a desk job as a clerk typist, but he knew that job did not suit his personality. He applied for and was accepted into the Special Forces. After two years of intensive training, he was ordered to Vietnam.
After some plain clothes Intelligence work in his first tour, Atkins was assigned to replace a wounded man in Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group in the treacherous A Shau Province. The little camp was behind enemy lines in a jungle so dense that it was only accessible by air. His assignment, along with 16 other American soldiers, was to train 420 south Vietnamese civilians to fight the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC).
He thought it would be an easy job, but he soon found out his “trainees” were a collection of convicts – thieves and criminals from prisons in Saigon who had been released and pressed into service.
The first 100 days at A Shau were uneventful – just occasional sniper fire from a passing VC patrol. But that changed when a captured soldier revealed that an NVA Division (4,000 men) were planning to attack the little camp as soon as the weather prohibited U.S. air support.
That attack began in the early morning hours of March 9, 1966. What followed was 36 hours of relentless fighting.
It was the stuff of which movies are made. Adkins fighting, carrying wounded men to the rear, and returning to the front to fight again. Back and forth all those hours, wounded and bleeding, through exploding shells and rifle fire.
Air support forces made several attempts to defend the camp, but a gunship and an Evac. helicopter were shot down before they could land.
The situation went from bad to worse when many of the trainees decided to “switch sides” during the battle. Adkins and the six remaining Americans then faced fire from inside the camp as well as out.
When it became apparent that the battle was lost and the camp would be overrun, orders arrived to destroy all documents and abandon the post.
The Army sent 18 helicopters to evacuate the survivors. Ten were shot down. When the remaining ships arrived, Adkins ran back and forth between the battlefield and the helicopters, continuing to fight while retrieving comrades. When he arrived with the final American soldier, he found that they had missed the last flight out.
Only two Americans and five indigenous soldiers remained. Out of options, the group retreated into the jungle and spent 48 agonizing hours evading NVA troops.
Adkins recalled that the first night in the jungle was the hardest of the entire ordeal. The seven survivors were surrounded, forced to huddle in silence and wait for help.
He spent years wondering why the enemy forces did not just rush them and “finish the job.” After the war he learned the reason: a tiger was also stalking his little band of bloody men, and the NVA troops were afraid of the tiger.
CSM Adkins and his men were finally rescued by helicopter 72 hours after the battle began. All were wounded. Adkins bore 18 separate bullet and shrapnel wounds.
He eventually recovered and did another tour. After that war he accepted missions in other locations around the world. Most are still classified.
CSM Adkins finally retired from the Army in 1978. He came home to Opelika, Alabama and went to college. Earned several degrees and opened an accounting business. Taught some classes at Southern Union Community College and Auburn University.
He dressed in plain clothes, but he was always a warrior.
Recently, the President of the United States remarked that “we now face a war with an invisible enemy.”
CSM Adkins met that enemy on a hospital battlefield in east Alabama.
I marvel at the irony. The warrior who could not be killed by 4,000 men died from a little virus that many still claim is “not as bad as the flu.”
Rest in Peace, CSM Adkins. You earned your stripes.
*I claim no rights to this story. For a full (and better) account of the life of CSM Bennie Adkins, read “A Tiger Among Us: A Story of Valor in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.”