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Bennie Adkins, who received Medal of Honor for Vietnam War battle, dies at 86 of coronavirus

Apr 19. 2020
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By  The Washington Post · Adam Bernstein · NATIONAL, OBITUARIES 

Bennie Adkins, a farmer's son eager to see the world beyond Oklahoma, had quit college twice and was facing a future either as a fry cook or tilling the land. It was peacetime, he recalled, and he was happy to be drafted in 1956 because it broadened his prospects.

He was initially assigned as a clerk to a garrison unit in West Germany. The job, he recalled, was total boredom, except for the day when he fingerprinted a newly arrived soldier named Elvis Presley. But even that was a letdown. "To be honest," he wrote in a memoir, "I was not really a fan of Elvis's music."

When he re-enlisted, Adkins sought a unit that was "a little more active." He volunteered for Special Forces training in 1961, and he was deployed to Vietnam as a Green Beret three times over the next decade.

Adkins' second tour, which took him to the steep, jungle-covered hills of the A Shau Valley in 1966, proved particularly harrowing, with punishing enemy fire and an encounter with a hungry tiger. Forty-eight years later, he received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, for what the citation described as "extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty."

"During the 38-hour battle and 48-hours of escape and evasion," the citation read, "Adkins fought with mortars, machine guns, recoilless rifles, small arms and hand grenades, killing an estimated 135 to 175 of the enemy and sustaining 18 different wounds."

He died April 17 at 86 after being hospitalized in Opelika, Alabama, with the novel coronavirus, according to the Bennie Adkins Foundation, which raises money to fund scholarships for Special Forces members transitioning to civilian life.

Adkins, then a sergeant first class, was among a smattering of U.S. Special Forces troops sent in March 1966 to train 400 South Vietnamese soldiers and civilian irregulars at an outpost in the A Shau Valley, in the northern part of South Vietnam near the border with Laos. 

Communist forces used the valley as a conduit to move men, weapons and supplies from North Vietnam. The U.S.-South Vietnamese compound - which flooded often - was not located or built in a way that matched its strategic importance. 

"I can tell you that none of us were happy to be in that camp," Adkins observed in "A Tiger Among Us," his 2018 memoir written with Katie Lamar Jackson. "It was about thirty miles from another friendly camp, was bordered by high mountains on the east and west, and was surrounded by a triple-canopy jungle. We were like fish in a barrel."

From interrogated prisoners, Adkins learned that a full-on attack was coming. 

Two days later, about 2 a.m. March 9, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces pounced with overwhelming strength - a 10 to 1 advantage, by some estimates. Barrage after barrage of mortar rounds killed some American and many South Vietnamese troops at the camp.

An airstrip near the compound was overrun, and the enemy penetrated the outpost's perimeter. Adkins was in a mortar pit that enemy troops bombarded with grenades. One ripped off the leg of a member of the mortar crew and wounded Adkins.

Adkins remembered catching another grenade and tossing it back. "It was pure luck that I caught it and sent it back to them," he said in an oral history with the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project. "Playing baseball did help, since I was a high school catcher."

According to Adkins, a company of South Vietnamese irregulars defected when the battle looked bleakest and began firing on their former comrades from inside the camp. "This was not 'friendly fire' they might have done accidentally," he wrote. "It was treachery."

Adkins and members of his team - acting under orders - managed to destroy valuable equipment and classified documents, move the wounded to medevac helicopters and fight their way out to an extraction point. With mortar fire, he also provided vital cover for an American pilot who had crash-landed his plane on the airfield after strafing the enemy and who was eventually pulled to safety by other soldiers.

At one point, Adkins and a member of the South Vietnamese mortar crew left the camp to retrieve ammunition and other supplies that had been airdropped in a minefield. (The mines had been largely destroyed by artillery fire early in the enemy assault.)

"The indigenous soldier was hit real hard," he recalled in the oral history. "I put him on my back, and we went back into the compound from the minefield. When I got back into the compound, he had been riddled with bullets from the North Vietnamese. He being on my back saved my life."

Despite his own wounds, Adkins carried another casualty to the extraction point only to learn that the last helicopter had taken off. Over the next 48 hours, while perilously low on ammunition, he and a small group found their way to a hilltop - hoping a helicopter would reach them before the enemy did.

Their radio's antenna had been shot off, and Adkins improvised a new one using his 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun. "I was able to stand in water, utilize my weapon as an antenna and communicate with the Special Forces support soldier that was in an aircraft that had every frequency of the radios that we had, and they were able to locate us," he said in the oral history.

Meanwhile, the Viet Cong and a tiger were tracking Sgt. Adkins and his comrades (he said their blood had left a trail). The growls and "the glint of two large eyes in the dark," Adkins later told the Tuscaloosa News in Alabama, seemed to scare off the enemy. "They must have heard it or seen it, too, and the only thing I can figure is the enemy was more afraid of this tiger than they were of us."

Once the weather broke, a helicopter landed in a clearing the men had cut in the jungle and carried them to safety. 

Adkins was awarded many decorations, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to him at the White House in 2014 after a review of military valor awards that led to a number of upgrades.

"I harbor no bitter feelings toward the enemy, especially those who put it all on the line," he said in an official Army release in 2014. "They were doing as they were directed to do just as we were."

Bennie Gene Adkins was born in Waurika, Oklahoma, on Feb. 1, 1934, the fourth of seven siblings. In high school, he was president of Future Farmers of America, and he was active in sports and the student council. But mostly he focused on his farm chores. 

He graduated from high school in 1952 and worked at odd jobs before his Army induction.

He retired from the military in 1978 at the rank of command sergeant major, and he subsequently completed bachelor's and master's degrees in education and management from Troy State University in Alabama. He owned and operated an accounting firm in Auburn, Alabama, for more than 20 years.

His wife of 62 years, Mary Arington Adkins, died in 2019. Survivors include three children, Mary Ann Adkins Blake, Michael Adkins and W. Keith Adkins; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When he received the Medal of Honor, Adkins described himself as "a keeper" of the award for the 16 American troops who served with him 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."

 

 

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