The title cries out to be interpreted in two ways: “A Tiger Among Us: A Story of Valor in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.” And I will take the bait.
Yes, there is a tiger among us and that tiger is Command Master Sgt. Bennie Adkins of Opelika, Alabama, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Adkins, originally a farm boy from Waurika, Oklahoma, was taken into the Army in 1956.
He served first in Germany where he was the soldier who fingerprinted Elvis Presley and also got to know Elvis’ father. Re-enlisting, Adkins volunteered for the new Army Special Forces unit known to us as the Green Berets. There is a chapter on the training of Green Berets and it is pretty much what you think: exhausting, extensive, as thorough as possible.
His life was a series of adventures after that.
In 1961, Adkins was “sitting at ready” on a submarine off the coast of Cuba. But he did not go ashore. Over time he was deployed to Laos, Cambodia and a variety of other places, mostly unnamed.
In 1963, however, he found himself in Vietnam, advising and training South Vietnamese military units. He had grave doubts about the loyalties of many of the Vietnamese he was training. “You couldn’t always tell what side they were on.”
This would become a bigger problem on his second tour in Vietnam, in 1965, in a compound in the A Shau Valley.
“I can tell you that none of us were happy to be in that camp … thirty miles from another friendly camp … bordered by high mountains on the east and west, and … surrounded by a triple-canopy jungle. We were like fish in a barrel.”
Inside the camp were 210 Vietnamese soldiers, 41 civilian laborers, six Vietnamese Special Forces and nine Green Berets, there to train and assist.
Predictably, on March 9, 1966, just before dawn, the camp was attacked, and the chapters on the battle of A Shau are compelling.
Adkins and Katie Lamar Jackson of Auburn have reproduced the action and the men’s emotions amazingly well, almost minute-to-minute, as our side fought, fell back, counter-attacked and were slowly shot to pieces.
The North Vietnamese launched assaults with overwhelming numbers. Soon the airstrip was taken and resupply became impossible. Most of the Vietnamese soldiers fought valiantly alongside the Green Berets.
I was surprised to learn some of the Vietnamese soldiers did not. Some hid as best they could or ran.
Adkins had been suspicious of their commitment and loyalty, but it was worse than he thought. While attempting to retake the airstrip, Adkins realized he and his men were being fired upon from inside their camp, by the 141 Company of South Vietnamese Forces, who had switched sides in the middle of the battle.
“This was not ‘friendly fire’ they might have done accidentally. It was treachery.”
The battle was lost; the camp could not be held, and Adkins and the other Americans were ordered to make their way out of the camp into the jungle and try to make it to Laos.
They were in the thick jungle, all wounded, and in desperate shape, surrounded by North Vietnamese, when they began hearing an unusual noise and then “a little growl or two, and then I saw the glint of two large eyes in the dark.” There was a tiger among them.
This tiger was a miracle.
Adkins tells us: “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. They backed off and we were gone again.”
There is a listing of Sgt. Adkins’ decorations at the close of the book. He has them all: Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal and more. For his valor at A Shau he was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor. That recommendation, which describes his heroism in battle, is included in the book. He should have received the medal in 1965, but there was confusion, bureaucratic delay and incompetence, and decades passed. His advocates never gave up, and the medal was finally awarded by President Obama on Sept. 15, 2014.
Sgt. Adkins wears it proudly, not for himself, he insists, “but for the other sixteen American Special Forces who were at A Shau with me.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.