Four days ago, on September 15, 2014, an 80 year-old retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major named Bennie G. Adkins traveled to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from the President.
His acceptance of America’s highest award for military heroism was a long-overdue formality coming over 48 years after he performed some of the most intense acts of over-the-top hardcore military badassitude you’ll likely ever read about, then somehow survived to tell the tale.
It’s the story of a Green Beret Special Forces soldier with a Steven Segal-like immunity to bullets, an 81mm mortar, plenty of ammunition, and a badass escape that involves, of all things, a friggin’ man-eating tiger stalking him through the bloody jungles of South Vietnam.
In the three months leading up to March 9, 1966, the men garrisoning the U.S. Special Forces base in the A Shau Valley knew that some seriously nefarious machinations were in the jungles beyond their walls. Reconnaissance had reported an increasing buildup of troops and radio chatter in the previous weeks, and it was only a matter of time before things got ugly.
32 year-old First Sergeant Bennie Adkins of the 5th Special Forces Group was one of 17 elite American Green Berets sent to assist the South Vietnamese in their struggle to defeat the communist forces of the North. This particular base, a triangle-shaped hilltop fortress in the jungles of the A Shau, was set up to interdict enemy troops carrying supplies through Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – by advising South Vietnamese civilian militia on how to raid into enemy territory, the Americans could attack the Viet Cong supply pipeline without formally spreading the war into places like Laos and Cambodia. Not a bad plan, until the NVA figured out what was going on and prepared to storm the facility to destroy every last human being inside it.
The Green Berets requested reinforcements, but never received them. Instead, they were almost completely surrounded by enemy forces. At 4am on March 9, 1966, the 17 Americans and 410 South Vietnamese heard the first rumblings of what was about to become a four-hour artillery barrage from heavy mortars raining death down into their base.
Amid the whistling shells and earth-churning explosions that quickly enveloped the base stood Sergeant First Class Adkins. Adkins had been a typical Oklahoma farm boy back in 1956 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, but after being stationed in Germany as a clerk-typist keyboard jockey for a few years he decided screw this and volunteered for the Special Forces instead because what’s the point of half-assing it. Already on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, Adkins knew what was up. He grabbed his M-16 and a crate of high-explosive 81mm mortar rounds, raced from his tent, charged through cascading pillars of dirt and flame, and dove into his mortar pit like he was going down a Slip ‘n Slide after falling off a motorcycle.
Despite having no idea really where the hell the NVA artillery positions were located (best guess: FUCKING EVERYWHERE), Adkins grabbed a shell and dropped it into the mortar and started indiscriminately pasting everything around him with airborne death-bombs raining from the sky like the Biblical Plague of Shrapnel. When an enemy tube zeroed in on his position, Adkins was blown from the pit by the massive concussive blast of a friggin’ 105mm heavy mortar, but the shrapnel burning in his back and the NFL-quality concussion failed to even dim this guy’s senses or urge to kill in the slightest. He just threw his helmet back on, somersaulted back into the pit, and got right back to the business of taking a high-explosive fireball-generating artillery shell the size of a large newborn baby and hurtling it at high speeds towards swarms of unsuspecting enemies over two miles away from him.
For three long, nightmarish hours the artillery flew in both directions, blasting apart structures, minefields and barbed wire fences and snapping palm trees (and warriors) into splinters. One a couple occasions, hard-as-hell enemy troops launched probing attacks at the base defenses, fading back into the jungles only after clearing a U.S. minefield or planting a Bangalore bomb against the fort’s walls. At one point, word came to Sgt. Adkins that one of these attacks had wounded a couple American soldiers, and these guys were now pinned down in the open with mortar fire zeroing in on them.
Without hesitation, Adkins grabbed his shit and leapt out of the pit, racing to the front of the battle to save his buddies and kill anyone who was fucking with them. Adkins found his dudes in bad shape, but braved mortar explosions, sweeping machine guns, and the occasional crack of Dragunov sniper rifle fire to grab his wounded brothers-in-arms and drag them either to safe firing positions or the medical tent.
By the afternoon things had chilled out a little in terms of everyone being blown up and killed all the time, and the Americans were able to call in some evac aircraft to land at the tiny airstrip on the base and get the wounded out. Despite occasional potshots from snipers zipping past his head every so often (no big deal compared to the hell he’d just survived), Adkins started carrying wounded troops firefighter-style on his back to the Airstrip.
Then, suddenly, right as the men were starting to be loaded on the aircraft, some seriously fucked-up shit went down.
With the abrupt sound of gunfire, everyone turned to see a fucking two-ton truck loaded with a dozen or so previously-South Vietnamese aligned infantrymen barreling towards them, guns blazing. Apparently, while most of the South Viet troops were hardcore warriors fighting communist oppression, these clowns figured this base was as good as done for so they might as well defect and try to avoid being executed by the victorious NVA troops who were sure to be kicking balls around the camp any minute now.
Well….. uh fuck that. Sgt. Adkins opened fire, then ran across the open to draw the truck away from the airstrip so the evac planes could get out of there. Within minutes the attack had been thwarted and the planes were in the air.
In the afternoon and evening of the 9th, Adkins made two daring sprints beyond the relative safety of the base walls – once to pull a wounded man out from a trench, and once to retrieve a crate full of ammunition and food that had accidentally been air-dropped into the middle of a goddamn unmarked minefield. These are both truly heroic actions in and of themselves, yet in the narrative of Sgt. Bennie Adkins at the Battle of the A Shau Valley they both get lumped into a single sentence.
The first day had just been the artillery barrage, and the main infantry assault came from the North Vietnamese at dawn the next morning, as an almost-endless horde of determined, unstoppable NVA troops came storming out of the dark jungles from every direction with one thought on their mind – take this base and wipe it off the map.
Once again, Bennie Adkins, working on basically Kiefer Sutherlundian amounts of restful sleep, sprung into action.
Amid chaos, destruction, blistering machine gun fire and death-screams of comrades and enemies alike, First Sergeant Bennie Adkins launched round after round from his mortar. Even as other South Vietnamese heavy weapon positions were smashed by artillery or overrun by the NVA troops now storming over the camp walls, Adkins manned his post, firing even after being blown out of the pit and wounded a second time. When his mortar shells ran out, Adkins switched to a fucking bazooka and started launching high explosives all over the place like Arnold at the end of Commando. When the enemy came within sight of his mortar pit, he pulled his M-16 and laid down a stream of full-auto death from his assault rifle, took a bullet and some shrapnel from a grenade, then killed another group of enemies by throwing their own grenade back at them.
Around 2pm, after almost a full eight-hour shift of non-stop asskicking, the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops fell back to the interior of the base while U.S. aircraft streaked overhead unleashing loads of white-hot napalm into the attacking troops. Adkins busted into the communications tent, killing guys in close-quarters combat despite having already received over 18 bullet and shrapnel wounds in his body. He and some survivors attempted a counterattack, but it was no good – there were too damn many of these guys. The order came to get the fuck out of there.
Around 5pm, after nearly two days of battle, Sgt. Adkins, injured, dehydrated, wounded badly, and low on ammunition, personally volunteered to hold back the attacking NVA forces while the American and South Vietnamese survivors made a break for the airstrip to be evaced by helicopters. As his men went, Adkins laid down gunfire from machine guns, bazookas, and assault rifles, killing anyone in his path, buying as much time as possible before grabbing a wounded buddy and carrying him towards the helicopters.
The bad news? By the time he got to the evac helicopters, they were already gone. All that was left of the base defenders were himself, the seven combat-ready Special Forces soldiers, and a couple dozen suriviving South Vietnamese.
They immediately made a break for the jungles to try and evade the enemy and escape with their lives.
Sgt. Bennie Adkins, working on two days with no sleep and wounded 18 times in various parts of his body, proceeded to elude the NVA for 48 hours through the dense jungles of Vietnam. He survived a run-in with a man-eating tiger, dodged NVA patrols, and somehow made it back to a position where he could contact rescue and get out of there alive. He is personally credited with killing 145 enemy soldiers in his 86-hour battle.
He would serve one more tour in Vietnam, and retire a Command Sergeant Major – the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Army. He made it home alive, has been married for 59 years, founded and ran an accounting firm, and became the 80th living Medal of Honor recipient on September 15, 2014. When asked about his medal, he said, “I'm just a keeper of the medal for those other 16 (U.S. troops) who were in the 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”