History in Focus: A hero in difficult times
History in Focus
The Vietnam era is usually remembered as a time of political unrest, anger, and division. Despite this narrative, the courage and lack of self-preservation of Moffat County’s William E. Adams earned him the Medal of Honor…but cost him his life. The legacy of his actions in the waning days of the Vietnam War are important for us to consider in our own lives.
His close friends remembered him as active and energetic, yet clean-cut, focused, and filled with purpose. Bill was fascinated by the idea of taking to the skies and learning to fly, so his family sent him to Wentworth Military Prep Academy in Lexington, Missouri, graduating in 1959.
He matriculated at CSU, entered the Army ROTC program, and graduated with his officer’s commission in 1962. (Craig Empire Courier, 3/31/71) In 1961, he and Sandra married and soon had two children, John and Jeanne.
Over the next several years, he rose to the rank of Major and became a helicopter pilot. He served his first tour in Vietnam from 1966-68. He was later assigned to the 227th Assault Helicopter Company as part of the 1st Aviation Brigade and piloted a Bell UH-1 Iroquois nicknamed the “Huey”. In 1970 Adams was ordered back to Vietnam for his second tour.
By this time America was increasingly divided over the length of the war, perceived Cold War threats, mounting casualties, and apparent lack of progress. As support for the war diminished, Adams remained focused on his duties to the soldiers under his command.
On May 25, 1971, according to friends, Adams had already completed two missions but volunteered to fly a third into a firebase in the Kontum province along the border of Laos and Cambodia. His mission was to rescue three severely wounded soldiers. Facing anti-aircraft fire, rocket propelled grenades, and small arms fire he somehow landed at the firebase unscathed.
While American gunships pounded the nearby enemy, Bill calmly waited for the wounded to be loaded and then took off into the clear skies. Enemy anti-aircraft rounds finally found their target and seriously damaged his Huey. Incredibly, Adams regained control and attempted an emergency landing. Suddenly, the chopper exploded in mid-air and plummeted to the ground, and all on board were lost (Medal of Honor Citation).
After a few anguished weeks, his wife and children back in Craig received confirmation of his death, and he was buried at Fort Logan Cemetery. Three years later, Adams was awarded the Medal of Honor. Sandra and the children traveled to Washington D.C. to accept the award from Vice President Gerald Ford on August 8th.
It was Ford’s last official act as Vice President. The next day he was sworn in as President replacing the disgraced Richard Nixon (The Daily Press, 8/13/74). The juxtaposition of William’s award and Nixon’s resignation due to the Watergate scandal clearly symbolize the severe and painful contrasts of the era.
His legacy is important to remember. In 1978, Adams Hall at Fort Sill, Oklahoma was named in his honor. Unfortunately, a 2009 campaign to rename the retooled Craig Intermediate School in his honor fell short, instead leaving us with the nice but generic “Sandrock Elementary.”
In 2010, through the efforts of the local VFW Post, Highway 13 in Moffat County was renamed the “Major William Adams Medal of Honor Highway.” In 2012 the VA Medical Center, now located in the Centennial Mall, was dedicated in his name. The bust of Adams commissioned by his now defunct high school alma mater was donated to the clinic and is quietly on display in the waiting room,
Over 50 years since Bill’s death I’m sure the vacuum of his missing presence is always difficult for family and friends. Perhaps the best way to memorialize Adams and his selfless actions is to remember that no matter our time or place in history we can always strive to live for each other and offer the best of ourselves to each other.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to John and Doris Zimmerman for their insight and memories of Bill Adams, and, as always, to Dan Davidson for access to the archives of the Museum of Northwest Colorado.
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