Do you have questions about relatives who served in the U.S. military? Where they served? The roles they played? Do you, or they, get a bit nervous when the subject of stolen valor comes up, wondering if those war stories you’ve heard from your dad or grandfather are actually true?
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “stolen valor,” it means that there are persons who make claims of military service that are not true. These are not alternative fact: they are lies. They were safe at home or drinking beer at a college pub and not at the Battle of the Bulge or the My Lai Massacre.
I’d like to tell you about an uncle, my mother’s brother, who served 20 years in the U.S. Army Air Corps/U.S. Air Force and 20 years in civil service at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia: William Adams, no middle name or as military records indicate “(O)”, (1919-1991).
When I think of him, I see him “home on leave” at his mother’s house, my grandmother’s house, on the Cumberland River in Harlan County, Kentucky. He’s sitting at the round oak table in the kitchen, smoking Camel cigarettes and drinking cup after cup of coffee with lots of sugar and cream. And he’s talking between sips or drags, always talking. About what? Special schools he was attending or one of his daughters or his wife. He certainly never talked about his military maneuvers in World War II or Korea or his work at Robins.
I knew from my mother’s accounts that their father, William Stephen Adams, was a stern task masker, preaching hell, fire and brimstone at every opportunity, ruling the household with an iron fist, never pleased with anything his children did, never pleased with the meals his wife put on the table each evening. There was always something missing, and one of the children was sent to fetch it – even if it meant running to the store.
William was the youngest and the only son in this household with three sisters, and his bed sheets were often wet in the morning – until his father died at age 38 and William, then age 10, was freed from his tyranny. The father’s death meant the family was forced to move from Benham – which was owned by the International Harvester Company – to one of two houses his father had built as rental properties in Cumberland.
My uncle’s story continued with an argument with a high school teacher, and William was then a high school dropout. So it was off to work at Black Motor Company, then Sears and then on to enlistment in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He became an airplane mechanic at Chanute Field and then applied for flying school. His records indicate over and over that he was not a high school graduate, a limitation. In spite of that, he became a fighter pilot stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was sleeping in that Sunday morning, and records show that only five pilots got their planes up. He wasn’t one of them, but he was a survivor, so it was off to England where his mission was to pilot B-17s in the war against the Axis.
He was warned by his commander that fatalities with those missions were high, but he survived – again. Military records show that he had 230 hours of B-17 flying time.
After one such mission, his engines were failing and he commanded the crew to bail, which they did. He landed the plane safely at his base at ETOUSAAF, England. Another time a plane crashed and caught fire. He and another airman risked their lives to pull the men from the wreckage.
Then, it was on to Korea as a bomber pilot there. Performance reviews of a man with a long list of medals that are Greek to me with “Oak Leaf Cluster” and “Service Star” categories, indicate that he was excellent in all respects except one commander thought he was “verbose” and “too friendly.”
I’m proud he was my uncle, pleased that he survived to spend 20 years of civil service, never tiring of airplanes and working on a team at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Robins to give advice on the F-15 Eagle – from a pilot’s perspective. And I’ll bet they had trouble getting a word in edgewise in that work.
Yes, he talked a lot, but he supported and defended “the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and at retirement was Major William Adams. Not bad for a high school dropout. As Veterans Day approaches and my thoughts return to him, I’m proud to tell a small bit of his service.
PS: If you want military information on a close family member, contact the National Personnel Records Center, 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, Mo 63138-1002 www.archives.gov. Adams’ youngest daughter, Laurel Kitchens, retrieved her father’s record and shared them with me.