How the actions of one man influenced a generation: William E. Adams

Medal of Honor recipient Major William E. Adams

How the actions of one man influenced a generation

Have you ever come across something or someone who touched your life in a meaningful way? It might have been a phrase or a word. Perhaps it might be just the way a person lived their life. William E. Adams is one of these people. The way he lived and the actions he took influenced a generation of people.

William E Adams

Major William E. Adams photo credit, Colonel John D. Adams (son)

William E. Adams: Early Years

Character, virtues, and vices are progressively fixed through practice, modeling, and reinforcement. That happened early for William E. Adams as a cadet at Wentworth Military Academy. The discipline of cadet life was formative in profound ways during his four years as a high school student. Balancing classes, homework, physical activities and the daily rigor of cadet life developed a discipline and a camaraderie that only cadet could understand. He learned powerful leadership lessons early as a teen at Wentworth Military Academy that served him as an adult and in his Army career. Adams graduated from the academy in 1959 and went on to complete his education at Colorado State University and earn his commission as a U.S. Army Officer.

Military Career

Adams entered the Army as a Field Artillery officer and soon earned the respect of the men he led. Richard Griess wrote, “He was my boss in S3 [operations section] while serving in the 3/73 Field Artillery at Fort Irwin, California. Major Adams instilled esprit de corp within his unit by example. Born leader, selfless and a compliment to humanity.”

As the intensity of the Vietnam War increased, the demand for pilots increased as well. Airmobile operations were new to the Army, and the speed of quickly putting troops on the ground was immediately recognized with the helicopter. Adams met the demand by completing pilot training and was soon flying the UH-1 Iroquois helicopter a.k.a. “Huey.”

William E Adams

Major William E. Adams photo credit, Colonel John D. Adams (son)

Service in Vietnam

By 1967, Adams was getting ready for his deployment to Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Donald E. Long, recalls, “Bill and I were both assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company in Ft. Benning, GA. The unit was formed there for deployment to Vietnam. Bill and I were selected to be on the ‘packing and crating’ detail. We were both Captains at the time…Bill was as hard a worker as I had ever seen up to that point… I was also impressed with his quiet and gentle manner of leadership.” Adams successfully completed the tour and returned a short time later.

By 1970, Adams was back in South Vietnam supporting combat operations as the company commander A Company 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion 1st Cavalry with callsign “Chickenman 6.” One soldier who served as a door gunner shared, “He was a strong commander and a gentle leader. I was 19 years old and looked to him for not only military guidance but direction in life as well.”

William E Adams

Photo credit, Congressional Medal of Honor Society (

Tragedy Strikes

Firebase 5 was a small firebase in Kontum Province, Vietnam. On May 25, 1971, enemy forces attacked Firebase 5. Before the attack, the enemy shot down the aircraft piloted by Captain Larry Dewey from the 92nd Aviation Company. The crash killed all crewmembers with the exception of the crew chief, John W. Littleton. Littleton escaped capture and reunited with U.S. forces at Firebase 5.

Casualties at Firebase 5 mounted. Adams volunteered to fly a lightly armed helicopter in an attempt to evacuate three wounded soldiers and Littleton from the firebase. He was fully aware of the lethality of the antiaircraft weapons positioned around the base. The clear weather would afford the enemy gunners unobstructed view of all routes into the base.

As he approached, the enemy gunners opened fire with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms. Adams continued his approach determined to accomplish the mission. While under fire, he calmly directed the attacks of supporting gunships while maintaining control of the helicopter he was flying.

Calm, Skillful Leadership

Once he landed the aircraft at Firebase 5, the enemy fire continued. Adams calmly waited until the soldiers placed the wounded on board. As his aircraft departed, it was struck and seriously damaged by enemy fire and began descending. He immediately regained control of the crippled aircraft and attempted a controlled landing. Despite his efforts, the helicopter exploded, overturned, and plummeted to the earth killing all on board.

Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Long wrote, “I was totally shocked to learn of his death but not surprised at all at the actions he took to save others. That was Bill. Due to his leadership abilities and his manner, we other officers had discussed the fact that we felt he would be a General someday.”

Honoring William E. Adams

As recognition for his actions, the nation awarded William E. Adams the Medal of Honor. His alma mater, Wentworth Military Academy later recognized him with a memorial. The Vietnam Memorial was a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter prominently displayed at the academy. The memorial is a testament to Adam’s leadership and sacrifice. His actions influenced a generation of cadets at the academy in many ways, notably mine.

Vietnam Memorial Wentworth Military Academy

Vietnam Memorial, Wentworth Military Academy, May 2017 photo by Mitch Schmidtke

Personal Reflections

Wentworth Military Academy (WMA) is also my alma mater. While I graduated a full 30 years after Major Adams, the cadet life and the leadership lessons I learned there are indelible. They served me well with my 28 years of military service and in business. WMA has a long line of a tradition of leadership dating back to 1880. Major Adam’s life became a part of the culture, history, and traditions of the academy.

I vividly remember walking by the memorials, plaques, and memorabilia that served as reminders of those cadets who walked the same halls and paths. With each assembly in the chapel, we would recognize the sacrifices of the cadets who came before us with a prayer and a hymn.

With each day of remembrance, we would gather around a specific memorial to recognize the cadets we lost. At the same time, the memorial served to commemorate key events with a photo. Our yearbooks are filled with the photos celebrating the highs of a victory with the backdrop of sacrifice.

This experience influenced me by living up to the legacy of those who came before me.

Unfortunately after 137 years, Wentworth Military Academy shuttered its doors. The school is no longer creating leaders. It’s memorials no longer rally cadets around it. The academy relocated the Vietnam Memorial that displayed the UH-1 Iroquois helicopter. What is left is generations of lessons that the academy shared with its culture, history, and traditions.

Mitch Schmidtke Vietnam Memorial, Wentworth Military Academy

Cadet Mitch Schmidtke with Ranger Challenge Team, 1988 Vietnam Memorial, Wentworth Military Academy photo by WMA

Lessons Today

The story of William E. Adams helps reminds us to preserve the principles, ideals, and the notions of goodness and greatness. His story inspires us that the most common of those among us can act in uncommon ways. Aristotle said that “We become brave by doing brave acts.” This story is a reminder that being brave is not stored and can be called up at will. We must figure out the right thing to do, conquer our fear and muster the will to do it.

To read the full citation for Major William E. Adams, go to

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