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A Tiger among Us
A Story of Valor in Vietnam's A Shau Valley
Foreword by Chuck Hagel
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Adaptable. Cunning. Ferocious. Fearless. The Indochinese tiger is just one of the formidable predators roaming Vietnam’s jungle. In 1966 a small band of US Special Forces soldiers–most especially Bennie Adkins–spent four grueling days facing down the “tiger” among them.
While the rain and mist of an early March moved over the valley, then-Sergeant First Class Bennie Adkins and sixteen other Green Berets found themselves holed up in an undermanned and unfortified position at Camp A Shau, a small training and reconnaissance camp located right next to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, North Vietnam’s major supply route. And with the rain came the North Vietnamese Army in force.
Surrounded 10-to-1, the Green Berets endured constant mortar and rifle fire, direct assaults, treasonous allies, and volatile jungle weather. But there was one among them who battled ferociously, like a tiger, and when they finally evacuated, he carried the wounded to safety. Forty-eight years later, Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins’s valor was recognized when he received this nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor.
Filled with the sights, smells, and sounds of a raging battle fought in the middle of a tropical forest, A Tiger among Us is a riveting tale of bravery, valor, skill, and resilience.
It’s important to tell stories about bravery and valor in the face of battle, but it is equally important to tell stories about resilience in life—a soldier’s story before and, if they are lucky enough to survive a conflict, after a battle. It’s those stories that paint a picture of the courage and resourcefulness it takes to live through a battle and then go on to a life well lived. The complete picture.
Bennie G. Adkins’s story exemplifies that very thing. When he left the rural Oklahoma farm of his childhood to join the army, he didn’t set out to become a hero. He just saw more opportunity in the military than on the farm. And when, out of boredom, he volunteered for the special forces and made it through the grueling training required to wear a green beret, he didn’t plan to find himself in a remote valley in Vietnam fighting a grueling thirty-eight-hour battle for his life and the lives of others. He was to serve three nonconsecutive tours in Vietnam. He was sent back to Vietnam to carry out the stealthy, hush-hush work of Studies and Observation Group maneuvers; he didn’t plan on being so effective at his job that the enemy put a price on his head. But he did all of those things.
But after his tours in Vietnam, his story continued. Adkins returned stateside to spend another seven years in the military, reaching the rank of command sergeant major before retiring to start a new life as a successful businessman and teacher. Sergeant majors are a force unto themselves. I used to say that generals are important but sergeants major are essential—and they scare the hell out of me! Bennie probably didn’t know that it would take bravery and toughness to make that new life for himself and his family during a time when Vietnam veterans were far from respected. But he did just that for another twenty-two years, during which time he and his wife, Mary, fearlessly moved on with life.
Though he was nominated for the Medal of Honor just after the 1966 battle in which he fought so tirelessly and valiantly, and he was awarded a host of other military honors for his exemplary service during his military career, the true measure of his valor was not fully recognized until almost fifty years later. Thanks to the hard work and tenacity of a number of his military peers who believed in Adkins’s worth and his heroic actions, in 2014 he finally stood on a stage at the White House as the Medal of Honor was placed around his neck by the president of the United States.
Adkins will tell you that he wears that medal proudly today, not for himself, though his actions in that battle and beyond are legendary, but for the sixteen other men who fought with him in that horrendous battle. I say he also wears it to show that battles are fought on many fronts, and in doing so he illustrates that being brave and resilient in life is truly a soldier’s story.
It’s a story worth reading and a life worth remembering. For all of us in life, regardless of our station, circumstances, or position, our most important responsibility is to be a good role model for others to follow. Parents especially are charged with this responsibility. Bennie Adkins has been an exceptional role model to all in every phase of his life. The highest compliment.
Former Secretary of Defense and Senator from Nebraska
It’s been more than fifty years since sixteen other Green Berets and I fought at the 1966 Battle of A Shau, and a lot of things, good and bad, have happened in my life since then.
That battle and other events that occurred during my three tours of duty in Vietnam (from 1963 to 1971) are certainly experiences I will never forget, but until 2014 I had pretty much put them behind me and moved on with my life.
Then, on June 11, 2014, I got a phone call from US President Barack Obama saying he had approved the awarding of a Medal of Honor to me in recognition of my activities at A Shau nearly five decades before.
That phone call changed my life. I went from being an eighty-year-old semi-retired businessman in Opelika, Alabama, to a member of a small but elite group of Americans who have been chosen to wear the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest medal for valor in combat that can be awarded to members of the armed forces.
As of the writing of this book, only about thirty-five hundred Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor since it was first established in 1861, and only seventy-two of us are alive today to wear it.
The Medal of Honor is awarded by the president of the United States in the name of the US Congress, and there are three versions of it: one for the army, another for the navy, and a third for the air force. I wear the army Medal of Honor, which consists of a gold five-pointed star, each ray of which is tipped with a green oak leaf, and all of them are interlaced with a wreath of green and gold. In the middle of the star is the profile of the Roman goddess of war, Minerva, wearing a battle helmet, and she is surrounded by the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Attached above the star is a gold bar inscribed with the word VALOR, and on top of that is an eagle with its wings spread wide.
The medal hangs from a light-blue silk ribbon connected to a shield of the same color decorated with thirteen white stars representing the thirteen original colonies. Those same thirteen stars are also emblazoned on the Medal of Honor flag, which has been presented to Medal of Honor recipients since 2001.
I received the Medal of Honor on September 15, 2014, during a ceremony at the White House, and I received the Medal of Honor flag the following day when I was inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. I was humbled to receive both.
When I wear the medal out in public, many people either recognize it or stop and ask about it, so I have a chance to explain what it is, how I came to wear it, and why I am so proud to wear it.
Here’s what I say every chance I get:
“I was awarded the Medal of Honor for my actions during a battle in the Vietnam War, but I wear it in honor of others. I wear it for the more than fifty million men and women who have served our country in both times of war and peace. I wear it to remind us all of their sacrifices and how so few of them have worked so hard to keep so many of us safe throughout our nation’s history. [Today, our military represents just one percent of our nation’s entire population.] I also wear it to honor the 2.7 million Americans who fought in Vietnam, especially the more than fifty-eight thousand who died there, twelve hundred of which never came home.”
But most important of all, I tell them that I am honored and humbled to wear the Medal of Honor not for myself, but for the sixteen other men who fought with me during the Battle of A Shau in March 1966, five of whom paid the ultimate price.
This book tells the story of that battle and of my experiences before, during, and after the fighting there, so it is told from my point of view. But I realize there were things I might not remember or things that happened to me that were different from what happened to the sixteen other US Special Forces soldiers who fought with me.
Because I wanted this book to be as accurate and truthful as possible, my co-author and I worked hard to gather stories from the other men who were there. By the time we started this book in 2015, I knew of only six A Shau veterans who were still alive—myself, Davis Blair, Victor Underwood, John Bradford, Wayne Murray, and George Pointon. Since that time one of those brave men, Wayne Murray, has passed away, but we were lucky that all five of these men were willing to share their stories with us, and let us offer at least a glimpse of those stories in this book’s pages. We have also been lucky to have access to old records and after-action reports, most of which were provided to us by Vic Underwood and Dave Blair.
I also wanted this book to properly reflect on the US Army Special Forces. For those readers unfamiliar with the Special Forces, here’s a little background.
The very first official US Army Special Forces unit, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), was formed in June 1952 and given the primary mission of training, equipping, advising, and assisting foreign forces. Prior to that, Special Forces soldiers from the United States and other countries had honed their skills while working in Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and a number of other theaters of war and conflict across the world. Through the years, US Special Forces soldiers have operated in places such as Vietnam, El Salvador, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Middle East, the Philippines, and Africa, to name a few. Their experiences laid the foundation for our modern Special Forces program.
Today, there are some nine thousand Special Forces troops who serve in one of five active-duty and two National Guard groups. As they did in my day, these Special Forces units are designed around a twelve-man team of two commanding officers and ten enlisted men. Two of those enlisted men are experts in weapons, two in engineering, two in communications, two in operations and intelligence, and two in medicine. Because two men on each team have shared expertise, this means a Special Forces team can be split into two groups of six with each group retaining the full complement of skills and knowledge, allowing for a multiplier effect.
Exceptional training and this unique division of skills have been the trademarks of Special Forces soldiers for more than sixty years, and it is that training and our ability to work as a team that, I believe, kept me alive to be able to humbly wear the Medal of Honor.
I’ll tell more about how Special Forces works and my experience as a Special Forces soldier in this book, and also more about my experience in the Battle of A Shau and in life, but while the story in this book focuses on my life and my experiences, it, like the Medal of Honor I wear, does not belong to me and me alone. It belongs to the sixteen Special Forces soldiers who fought with me at A Shau. It also belongs to the other people who have stood beside me all of these years, my family.
I hope we have done them all justice.
Bennie G. Adkins, CSM (US Army, Ret.), Medal of Honor recipient
NO LONGER TRAPPED LIKE ANIMALS in our small, dilapidated Special Forces training camp, we were now being hunted like animals in the jungle of Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.
Of the seventeen Special Forces soldiers stationed at Camp A Shau in the early spring of 1966, only thirteen of us were still alive, and only eleven of us—all badly wounded from thirty-eight hours of battling a force of North Vietnamese soldiers that outnumbered us ten to one—were still on the ground and fighting.
We knew the battle was unwinnable, but we were Green Berets. We didn’t give up. And not a one of us intended to be taken prisoner. We’d made up our minds about that in the early hours of the battle, and we each had our own plan to make sure we were not taken alive. My plan was to take a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) officer prisoner and hold him hostage while I escaped into Laos.
We were, however, doing everything we could to stay alive and defend our camp, so when the call came in late on the afternoon of March 10, 1966, from our higher-ups to abandon the camp, we reluctantly followed orders.
Following those orders, however, was not as easy as walking out of the camp and getting on one of the US Marine helicopters sent in to evacuate us. The enemy was all over our camp. We were completely overrun. We were fighting them off almost hand to hand, fighting through a wall of them to get to the helicopters.
When I finally made it out of the camp, the evacuation landing zone was an absolute fiasco. A large number of the South Vietnamese special forces troops—our friendlies—had decided they had priority to get on the helicopters before anyone else, and they were mobbing the helicopters and shooting each other. The NVA was also shooting at us. It was a horrible mess.
At that time I was with a small group of two Americans, one of whom was mortally wounded and on a stretcher, and five or six Chinese Nung (a Vietnamese ethnic group). I knew we couldn’t make it if we went toward the fighting, so I made the decision to head into the jungle north of the camp toward higher ground, and away from the action.
Our group made it away undetected, but shortly after that our fatally wounded fellow American died, and all I could do was cache his body, then keep moving. The NVA didn’t know to look for us—they were busy fighting the rest of what was left of our troops—so we were able to make our way without much trouble for a while, moving toward the northwest where we hoped to get across the Vietnam-Laos border.
We spent that first night in the jungle lying low in the dark, but the next morning we were moving again, and we knew there were support people flying overhead. I managed to use a little FM radio I had brought with me out of the camp to communicate with a nearby fixed-wing aircraft, and they sent in two helicopters to get us.
For a landing zone, we picked a fairly open area with small trees and cut the trees, pushing them over on each other to make a landing pad just big enough for one helicopter to come in at a time. As the first helicopter came down, though, some of the NVA—they must have heard the helicopter and come to see what was happening—shot it down on the pad.
Two of the helicopter’s four-member Marine crew were injured in the crash, so the second helicopter, which couldn’t land, dropped ropes. We hooked the two wounded crewmen onto the ropes and they were lifted out. But that’s all the second helicopter could handle, so with two of the remaining Marine crew members now in our ranks, we were left on the ground to fend for ourselves.
By this time it was getting late and the weather, so foggy it seemed like we were in a constant drizzle, was getting worse. We knew there was no chance another helicopter could come in for us that afternoon, so our only choice was to keep moving.
We continued pushing our way through the jungle, stopping every three or four hours to exchange fire with the NVA, who were now following us, then moving on again. As night came and ended our second day in the jungle, we found a little area on high ground and decided that was where we would spend the night.
That night as we sat still and quiet, I could hear the usual bugs and monkeys of the jungle. I could also hear the North Vietnamese soldiers talking to one another all around us. They were close, but they couldn’t seem to find us.
We thought we were secure for the moment until I noticed another noise. Something was moving through the brush. Something large.
I began to hear a little growl or two and then I saw it—a pair of yellow eyes reflecting the little light that filtered through the jungle’s darkness. That’s when I realized we were now the prey of not just the NVA, but also of a four-hundred-pound Indochinese tiger drawn to us by the smell of our blood and crud.
DE OPPRESSO LIBER AND THE ART OF BEING UNCONVENTIONAL
WE’VE GOT A LOT OF NICKNAMES—“Quiet Professionals,” “Soldier-Diplomats,” “Snake-eaters,” “Sneaky Petes,” “Green Beanies”—and a lot of different words have been used to describe us: rogue, independent, arrogant, undisciplined, renegade, prima donnas, crazy.
Maybe we are all of those things at times and, yes, you do have to be a little crazy to be a Green Beret. But in my view, the word that best describes us is unconventional.
That’s because everything about us is unconventional. The way we dress, the way we wear our hair, the weapons we use, the things we eat, the way we train, and even the way we think are often unorthodox. I guess we didn’t seem like a highly disciplined military unit, which may be one reason the regular army folks didn’t appreciate us, but that’s not so. Green Berets were, and still are, highly disciplined and highly trained.
We had to be in order to do our jobs—jobs that included things like reconnaissance, direct action, counterterrorism, hostage rescue, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance, and our trademark job, conducting and providing training to foreign forces in the use of unconventional warfare.
To do all of those jobs, we had to know how to fight, but we also had to know how to get in and out of places and situations undetected, not a shot fired. And we had to know how to build relationships with people of all cultures and nations.
Most of all, we had to believe that, whatever the job, we had each other’s backs. And we had to be committed to our motto, De oppresso liber, “To free the oppressed.”
But I didn’t know any of that back in 1961 when I signed up to become a member of the US Army Special Forces. I was just bored.
MY NAME IS BENNIE GENE ADKINS and this is the story of how I, a conventional Oklahoma farm boy more accustomed to picking cotton than picking up a gun, became a Green Beret. It’s also the story of how, as a member of America’s elite unconventional warfare team, I ended up in a remote South Vietnamese jungle being stalked by North Vietnamese soldiers and a hungry tiger.
My story begins in Waurika, Oklahoma, on February 1, 1934, when I was born into a large and loving family of six boys and one girl. I was right in the middle of the litter, and we lived out in the country in a one-story house that had four bedrooms, and, for most of my growing-up years, no inside bathroom.
A lot of people would say we were super poor, but we didn’t realize it. We always had an abundance of food because we had a garden and we kept hogs, chickens, and even a few sheep sometimes. And we always had eight or ten Jersey cows that we hand-milked twice a day, every day, so we had plenty of milk to drink and sell. We also grew corn, small grains, and hay to feed the cows, and cotton was our primary cash crop, the short-staple kind that you harvest by picking the whole burr off the plant, not just the boll.
My brothers, sister, and I grew up picking that cotton, milking those cows, and doing whatever else was needed to keep the farm going day to day, year to year. We and our parents were the primary farm labor, so we all had to get up early in the morning and do chores before the school bus came, and it came early because we lived almost eight miles outside of town at the back end of the bus route.
I liked school okay and I excelled a little there. I took a lot of agriculture electives and served as president of our school’s Future Farmers of America club for three years, and was president of my freshman, sophomore, and junior classes, too. I also played some sports—football, basketball, baseball, and boxing—but those took too much time away from my farm chores, which I had to do in the afternoons as well as in the mornings.
There’s a story that goes with that, though. My mother decided I had probably worked enough with the boxing—she was worried I might get hurt, I think—and told me I was not to box anymore. But being about fifteen or sixteen years old, I entered a local tournament anyway. As it would happen, I won the tournament and my picture appeared on the front page of the paper. You might have guessed it, that put an end to my boxing career. And after that I didn’t pursue any sports real heavily, though there came a time a few years later when some of my sports experience was pretty useful to me.
When I got ready to graduate from Waurika High School in 1952, I was thinking I’d go into agriculture. It’s what I knew the most about. But I also knew that finding land was tough. Our family farmed more than three hundred acres, all of it rented, and at the time some big, rich ranchers were purchasing all the farmland at a higher price than I could have afforded. Farming did not look promising to me, and I decided I wanted a different life, a better life, so I elected to attempt some college life.
I first went over to Southeastern State Teachers College in Durant, Oklahoma, more than one hundred miles from Waurika, and I fared okay there—not great, but okay. But it was too far from my family, so I changed to Cameron Junior College in Lawton, Oklahoma, just about sixty miles from home.
I guess I wasn’t really ready for college. My high school had not prepared me well for college classes, since we didn’t have chemistry and other college-prep courses, and, to be honest, I was more interested in the pretty girls than in my schoolbooks. The bottom line is, I didn’t do too well academically and my dad decided maybe he was wasting his money on me in college, so I dropped out and began working at any odd jobs I could find—as a fry cook in some of the fast-food places and that type of work, about all that was available for young people in the Waurika area at that time.
Of course, by dropping out of school, that moved me to the top of the draft list, but when my draft number came up it didn’t bother me too much because it was peacetime and, thinking about my other choices of being a fry cook or a farmer, the military looked like a pretty good opportunity. So when, on December 5, 1956, I was inducted into the US Army and sent to basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, I was not unhappy about the situation.
I was a green recruit and it showed, especially compared to some of the others in my basic training group who were coming back into the service and had more experience. But I did do well with the physical part of basic training. I guess the sports I’d played in school and the hard work on the farm helped me with that.
After basic training, I did my military occupational specialty (MOS) training to become an administrative clerk-typist, and then the military decided to send me overseas where I was assigned to a US Army Europe (USAREUR) subpost in Giessen, Germany. Arriving there as a young private, I got a security clearance and went to work in the security and plans section (S2/S3) of the subpost, where I stayed until near the end of my first two years of enlistment.
Giessen was a quiet post, not much action, except I did get to meet Elvis Presley when I was there. I actually fingerprinted him. To be honest, I was not really a fan of Elvis’s music, but I always respected him because he served his country. More than Elvis, though, I got to know his father who had come to Germany to spend time with Elvis and who liked to go down to the commissary and sit around. He might have enjoyed a chew of tobacco while he was there, too.
I did well enough when I was there to be promoted early to sergeant, which in peacetime was super fortunate, and since I’d been promoted I decided to reenlist for a six-year period. I also decided I wanted to become more involved in operations work, so I requested a transfer and was sent to the 2nd Division of the 9th Infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia. This was a basic training unit and I worked in the battalion’s S2 (intelligence) section for a while, then changed to a combat support company and worked with the basic trainees on an infiltration range.
On that range, the trainees had to crawl under wire and get some experience with having live ammunition fired over their heads. This was fired high over their heads and the machine gun was braced so it couldn’t fire lower, but they didn’t know that. My job was to operate that course, which I crawled three or four times a day with the trainees to be sure the explosives were set the way they needed to be.
After a period of time, though, this was boring to me, and I knew it was not what I really wanted to do. I had heard about an organization called the Army Special Forces and that sounded more interesting. Looking back on it, if I had really known what I was getting into I might not have volunteered, but once I got started I had too much pride to quit. And I can tell you that, without Special Forces, I would not have made a military career.
That’s because at the time in most of the military, commissioned officers looked down on enlisted men, even if they were as well trained and capable as the officers themselves. By this time, I had figured out that I was not suited to work for someone who might be less competent than I was, but Special Forces was not that way. In Special Forces if you weren’t competent you didn’t last long, and you were respected as an individual for what you could do, not for your rank.
It wasn’t easy to become a Special Forces soldier. I was tested mentally and physically, and it was such a difficult program that even today only about 3 percent of the people who apply make it through. What made it even harder in my time was that the selection process they used to evaluate us was not done by a committee; it was done by the older, more experienced Special Forces people who were going out and training with us recruits. They worked with us on a daily basis and they knew what we could or couldn’t do.
To join Special Forces you had to be a triple volunteer: you had to volunteer for the regular army, you had to volunteer to be a paratrooper, and you had to volunteer for Special Forces.
Of course, I had already “volunteered” for the army thanks to the draft, and I had volunteered for and completed Airborne School at Benning, where I was fortunate to come out of jump school ranked number three in a class of fifty or sixty soldiers. To me, parachuting was just a way of getting to the battle, just like some people commute a long way to work.
So I volunteered a third time to join the Army Special Forces in 1961, and was soon accepted into what is now known as the Special Forces Qualification Course (or informally the “Q Course,” but during my time it was all so new it didn’t have an official name) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was there I began to learn the individual and team skills that set Special Forces soldiers apart from other branches of the military.
My class members and I started every morning in garrison with thirty to forty minutes of calisthenics—the Daily Dozen of push-ups, squats, toe touches, jumping jacks, lunges, leg lifts, and the like. Then we would go for a four-mile run (some of the men liked to think they could do a little better and would occasionally go five or six miles) in formation and in combat boots. We’d try to make the four miles in thirty-two minutes, about an eight-minute mile, which was moving along at a pretty good clip.
After that we would shower and dress for the day’s training, which might happen in a classroom where we learned about things like military history and tactics, psychological and guerilla warfare, planning, logistics, foreign languages and cultures, and that sort of thing. Or we might be outside refreshing our skills or learning new ones, such as the use of various weapons and explosives (including atomic weapons), map and compass reading, and marksmanship.
"A Tiger among Us tells the riveting, real life story of an American hero in Vietnam who repeatedly risked his life to help save his fellow warriors. His selfless bravery in the face of overwhelming odds in 1966--and his long, honorable career in the US Army--reflects the best of America's military tradition. This is a story every American should read."--General Tommy R. Franks (US Army, Ret.), former commander of US Central Command
"Of the millions of men and women who have fought America's wars, only some 3,500 received our country's highest award for gallantry, the Medal of Honor. There's just one way to earn it--the hard way. Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins tells us what it takes. A Tiger among Us puts you right in the middle of desperate close combat in the heart of the Vietnam War's deadly A Shau Valley. What does it really mean to battle a relentless enemy 'above and beyond the call of duty'? Bennie Adkins knows. Read this book and you will, too."--Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger (US Army, Ret.), author of Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided
"In his magnificent memoir A Tiger among Us, Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins proves that he is as talented a writer as he is an intrepid warrior. He has penned a gripping, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour account of one of the most intense Special Forces battles of the Vietnam War. This is a powerful, riveting story about valor, comradeship, and self-sacrifice in the deadly A Shau Valley. A must-read for all soldiers, scholars, and students of leadership!"--Colonel Thomas R. Yarborough (USAF, Ret.), author of A Shau Valor and Da Nang Diary
- "The heart of Adkins's memoir is a blow-by-blow account of a vicious, four-day battle in 1966 in the densely forested and notoriously dangerous A Shau Valley...[it] will be of interest to those seeking tales of the hell combatants went through in Vietnam."—Publishers Weekly
- "[A Tiger Among Us] conveys the hell that Adkins and his comrades went through fifty-two years ago in a little-known, brutal engagement in the Vietnam War."—The VVA Veteran
- "A powerful memoir about valor, selfless service and self-sacrifice."—ARMY
- On Sale
- May 15, 2018
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Da Capo Press