Newsman, journalist, and a true influencer, Tom Brokaw was the first to coin the phrase. He called them, quite simply, “The Greatest Generation.”
That term, according to Brokaw, was generally defined by those born from 1901 to 1927. They were the World War II generation characterized by an unwavering sense of personal responsibility, humility, a strong work ethic, and a faithful commitment to the task at hand. Brokaw never had the pleasure of meeting Charles Adams, but I did. Brokaw had nailed him perfectly.
I met him about a week and a half ago when I was sent on assignment to the shoreline area of Connecticut by a magazine for which I also write (yes, there are other publications, but there’s only one Westerly Sun!).
Mr. Adams is now 97 years old. He lives in the same home he lived in with his late wife for more than 50 years. He walks slowly and purposefully, yet without aid of walker or cane. His sense of recall is nothing short of amazing, his sense of tongue-in-cheek humor is delightful, and still there is a sense of wonder about him, for he cannot imagine why I should want to interview him. He felt he just did “what I was supposed to do, what I was trained to do.”
But he did it during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, surely the hat trick of military service. He calls his involvement “what had to be done.” Originally from Missouri, I asked how he wound up in Connecticut. “We had a big war. I came back. I met a girl from Hartford.” A man of few words, but his message gets across every time.
Before the “big war,” Adams graduated high school in Missouri and decided to enlist in the Navy, but his father had other ideas. He already had one son in the Navy on the USS Colorado, and said, “One son is enough.” Charles waited a bit and tried again. Again, his father gave the same sharp retort, so he got a job in a defense factory building B-25s (medium bombers). Eventually, his father acquiesced, and Charles Adams enlisted in the naval aviation cadet program in November. He was ready to go, but they weren’t ready to have him just yet. So reluctantly, he continued working until the following March, when he was ultimately called for active duty.
Charles Adams was now on his way, first to Liberty Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, followed by three months in Lawrence, Kansas, where every day he spent a half day at ground school and a half day flying the Piper Cub. Then it was on to Delmonte Naval Training Base in Monterey, California, for more ground school and back-breaking physical training. “They strapped a 60-pound backpack on me and I had to repeatedly step up and down on a chair.” This for a young man who only weighed 135 pounds. “But I had to do it because if you couldn’t make it, they sent you to Great Lakes as a “round hat” (sailor), and I did NOT want that! I wanted to fly planes.”
Charles Adams did indeed go on to fly planes, however, there is not enough space here to detail all he did throughout his entire career. As a carrier control approach officer in ’Nam he brought planes back to the carrier, often at night and in bad weather. Good that he had learned instrument flying. He also flew an open-cockpit two-seater, trained in the SNJ Texan, and finally in October of 1944 he got his wings and was commissioned as a Naval ensign. Charles was immediately sent to Ft. Lauderdale for operational training to fly a torpedo bomber. There were many deployments, both domestic and international, and he eventually retired as Commander Adams. He admits, “I never talked about my experiences. Why? If you weren’t there, you can’t really understand.”
When it was time for me to take my leave, I thanked him for his time. I knew this was not just another interview, for I had received something very special. I had the privilege of running headlong into a piece of history not found in any textbook, a piece of a man who simply did what he was told and ultimately achieved what he had wanted since childhood. He flew planes. To him, that was everything. As I left, we shook hands, his firm and resolute.
To me, that was everything.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 20 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at email@example.com or 401-539-7762.