• John and Marilyn Adams talk about their son, Thomas, as John holds a painting of him. Photo by Chris Stone
  • Marilyn Adams points to Thomas in a family photograph. Photo by Chris Stone
  • Marilyn Adams listens as her husband, John, talks about their son. Photo by Chris Stone
  • Marilyn Adams shows a cup from the Naval unit her son belonged to. Photo by Chris Stone
  • Grossmont High School students play football on Lt. Thomas M. Adams Field. Photo by Chris Stone
  • Marilyn Adams points to Thomas in a family photograph. Photo by Chris Stone
  • The Adams family fly an American flag and a Navy flag in their backyard. Photo by Chris Stone
  • Marilyn Adams said her son loved to put puzzles together. Photo by Chris Stone
  • John Adams gestures as he talks about the straight line from their house to Thomas' grave at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Photo by Chris Stone
  • Mount Helix can be seen from Thomas Adams headstone at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Photo by Chris Stone
  • John and Marilyn Adams
  • Thomas Adams headstone faces San Diego Bay at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Photo by Chris Stone

Tom Adams loved Legos, soccer, Monty Python and games of strategy. The Grossmont High School valedictorian wanted to fly, but changed his military goals from Air Force to Navy.

“He figured he’d go to the Air Force Academy,” said his father, John Adams, of the scenic Grossmont area of La Mesa. “But when his eyes went bad on him, that was when he told his grandfather, who was ex-Navy: ‘Granddaddy, you know the Air Force motto of aim high? Well, my eyes went zork on me, so I’m aiming low — I want to be a submariner.’”

Submarines never saw him, but at the Naval Academy he discovered he was eligible for naval aviation. After graduating in 1997, he became a sailor with eyes on the skies.

While posted at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, he phoned his parents at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time on Sept. 11, 2001. (It was 10:30 p.m. Sept. 12 in Japan.)

“You’d better turn the television on,” he said. “The world is forever changed.”

In 2011, John Adams recounted that chat for my story in La Mesa Patch, saying: “He called us four times that day.”

His wife, Marilyn, was working with a water district consultant at Kettner and West Laurel downtown under the flight path to Lindbergh Field on 9/11.

Tom phoned her, warning her to go home because “you’re right by an airport.”

She replied: “Tom, in this building the plumbing is more hazardous than the terrorists.”

According to a Los Angeles Times database, San Diego County lost 82 service members in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that grew out of the 9/11 attacks, including 36 listing San Diego as their hometown. Nine were from Oceanside and eight from Chula Vista.

La Mesa lost one — Lt. Thomas Mullen Adams on March 22, 2003. It was the third day of the war to topple Saddam Hussein. Adams was 27 and the first U.S. Navy officer to die in the conflict.

This is his story.

Intelligence and humor

Tom was a precocious child. He built Legos for hours as a “little teeny kid,” his mother says. His father marveled at his vocabulary.

One day, young Tom ruefully reported that a wing fell off a Lego airplane: “Hey, Dad, I think my airplane had structural failure.”

His uncle Richard Adams told Military Times: “Even when he was in elementary school he could describe in remarkable detail the performance and history” of ships and planes.

John and Marilyn weren’t surprised by Tom’s intelligence — or sense of humor. He became a disciple of Monty Python, the absurdist comedy troupe. He memorized entire sketches, including his favorite featuring a dead “Norwegian Blue” parrot.

At Grossmont High, he was a National Merit Scholar who won medals in math and science and in the National Science Olympiad. He earned a pin from the Future Business Leaders of America and a trophy for a first-place essay in the San Diego County Academic Decathlon.

“He was a kind young man with a brilliant mind,” said Grossmont science teacher Sue Emerson. “At graduation, he brought tears to my eyes when he presented me with a porcelain cup filled with beautiful flowers and thanked me for being his teacher.”

Connie Baer, who with sister Lynn oversees the Grossmont High School Museum on campus, taught Advanced Placement English with Tom in her class his junior year.

“Tom was a dedicated student and a joyous spirit,” she said. “He loved to learn, but he also had the gift of enjoying each moment of life. He shared that enjoyment with his classmates, creating a wonderful class atmosphere.”

Government teacher Bruce Davidson says his most vivid memory of Tom was in the mid-1990s when the 1993 graduate paid a visit to campus.

“As he approached, I was wondering who this poster boy for the military service was,” he said. “It soon became evident that this was our Tommy, looking so sharp and so proud to be wearing his military uniform. I’m sure my face showed equal pride, for Tommy was without a doubt one of our best and brightest to ever grace our GHS campus.”

Tom’s academy epiphany

At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, he played Ultimate Frisbee. Then he made the ultimate betrayal of the Surface Warfare Club, where he was president — joining what his club mates called “the dark side.”

“I’ve had an epiphany,” he told his dad. “I want to go Naval Aviation.”

He learned about “E2s” and the mission of the Hawkeye — the Navy’s all-weather, carrier-based tactical battle management airborne early-warning, command-and-control aircraft.

Or as Tom called them: “Twin turboprops* being abducted by aliens.”

“His recreation was role-playing games,” said John Adams, 75, related to the second and sixth U.S. presidents. “When he realized what the E2 was: eyes over the horizon, … they say that if you get into that one, that satisfies the God Complex.”

Tom was just as interested in satisfying his rebel bent. A recreational soccer player as a kid — when his mother had to yell “Max” to get his attention — Tom organized games in Japan between the air wing and the floating Navy.

At a port call in Singapore, he bought uniforms for the air wing.

“One of the smartest things that he figured out was … the power of the enlisted,” his dad said. Tom was annoyed by the ban on commissioned and “noncom” officers fraternizing. “But he found out that if you’re on a playing field, no rank. So that’s why he just loved getting everybody out there to play association football.”

He served at bases in Japan and Virginia, earning two National Defense Service Medals and three Sea Service Deployment Ribbons along with other awards and decorations, his Union-Tribune obituary reported.

849 Squadron exchange officer

In October 2002, Adams was assigned as an exchange officer with the British Royal Navy’s 849 Squadron. He would become part of a team that flew off the HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier named for a ship sunk off Gibraltar during World War II (and three others, including one that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588).

Tom’s colleagues treasured the British warship for another reason — American sailors were “so excited that British vessels had a pub on board. How enlightened,” his dad said.

Said mom: “There were a bunch of guys trying to get to the Ark Royal to see if this was really true.”

Tom was a flight officer on a Sea King Mk 7 AEW (for airborne early warning) — a British version of the American Sikorsky S-61 helicopter.

At 4:25 a.m. March 22, 2003 — only 24 hours after the British joined Operation Iraqi Freedom — Tom and three others were on one of two Sea Kings code-named Red Rat 34 and 35. Five miles from the Ark Royal in the shipping critical Northern Arabian Gulf, one was inbound and the other outbound with Adams.

How CNN's website reported the death of Lt. Thomas Adams.
How CNN’s website reported the death of Lt. Thomas Adams.

“There just wasn’t enough vertical separation,” his dad said. They thought they had visuals on each other but didn’t. “They turned out to be at the same altitude.”

They collided.

“At a stroke, we lost seven of our finest, most dedicated young airmen, causing a shock wave which — although we perhaps even underestimated its effect at the time — reverberated through every ship of the Task Group, and indeed through the whole of the deployed British contingent in the area,” wrote Adm. Alan Massey, captain of the Ark Royal.

Massey singled out “the extreme bravery and selflessness” of U.S. Navy divers off the tugboat USS Catawba “who spent day after day in dangerously exposed waters, with the war still in full flow, to seek and recover our lost airmen from the sea.”

He added: “Unforced, unsung and undemonstrative, their incredible commitment was a huge and indispensable boost to our crew, and will always hold our grateful admiration. Just as Lt. Tom Adams USN was utterly dedicated to his task as an exchange observer in 849, so this team underlined the great strength of the military bond between our countries.”

A Sea King from British Royal Navy Helicopter Squadron 849 — the kind that collided in 2003 — prepares to lift from the deck of the U.S. Navy carrier USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf
A Sea King from British Royal Navy Helicopter Squadron 849 — the kind that collided in 2003 — prepares to lift from the deck of the U.S. Navy carrier USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf. Photo via wikiwand.com.

Also killed were Lieutenants Philip Green, 30, of Caythorpe, Lincolnshire; Antony King, 35, of Helston, Cornwall; Marc Lawrence, 26, of Westgate on Sea, Kent; Philip West, 32, of Budock Water, Cornwall; James Williams, 28, of Falmouth, Cornwall; and Andrew Wilson, 36, of Exeter, Devon.

An inquest into the worst accident involving British service personnel in the Iraq war was held, with results released in January 2007.

A Royal Navy air traffic controller didn’t warn the pilots they were on a collision course because he thought they could see each other.

Lt. Cmdr. Alistair Dale, the controller, told the inquest that the Ark Royal’s radar often showed aircraft to be closer than they really were. “Although it looks like they are flying towards each other, they can miss each other by a considerable margin,” he said.

A Ministry of Defence board of inquiry said the disaster could have been prevented had the pilots been equipped with night-vision goggles, “though it was impossible to be sure exactly what had gone wrong,” reported The Guardian newspaper. The “black boxes” were destroyed in the crash.

“No absolute evidence” was found to explain why the Sea Kings collided, so the inquest concluded that “the cause of the accident is indeterminable.”

Sir Richard Curtis, an assistant deputy coroner quoted by The Guardian, said: “No one is suggesting, or is likely to suggest, that the collision of the aircraft that led to the death was due to any mechanical failure.”

Tom Adams’ mother, 74, saw the crash in plainer terms: “It was such a Monty Python stupid thing.”

She said one thing that made the loss less painful was that nobody was shooting at Tom.

“It wasn’t on purpose,” Marilyn Adams said. “You see these guys being shot down with missiles. I think if that had been the cause, I would have been a whole lot more upset about it. Because somebody was trying, on purpose, to kill my kid. And I do not do well when people do mean things to my kid.”

John and Marilyn have a daughter, Cari, born four years after Tom. They were visiting her in Europe when they learned of Tom’s death — contacted by neighbors visited by Navy chaplains.

Tom would have been 46 today.

Memorials and memories

The Royal Navy took the Adamses under their caring wing, with liaison officers looking them up whenever they come to San Diego.

In 2013, John and Marilyn attended the dedication of an 849 squadron memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum (the UK version of Arlington) north of Birmingham. The memorial had originally been in Basra, Iraq, and was reassembled at the Arboretum.

Grossmont High School named its football field at Jack Mashin Stadium after Adams, with his name still on the electric scoreboard.

The 849 Naval Air Squadron was decommissioned on April 21, 2020.

Adams was buried in a southernmost site at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery thanks to a storm that toppled a tree, making room for a plot overlooking San Diego Bay. It points straight at where he grew up.

On a clear day, the Adamses can see the white headstones from their home of 44 years. At the bottom of Tom’s is an inscription: “He’s just pining.” A reference to the dead parrot sketch.

YouTube video

When they visit his gravesite, they’ll put pennies on the marker — which they call “patting the boy on the head.”

What would Lt. Thomas M. Adams have made of the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan?

His dad said it’s very difficult to say.

“He definitely believed in the mission,” John Adams said. “He would probably see some of the Monty Python ironies in things, particularly what happened just before the 20th anniversary. … My one guess would be that the West just has such a difficult time understanding that part of the world. And it’s hard to change its course when there are such intrinsically different philosophical approaches to life.”

John Adams cites “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari.

“That book sort of helps explain the … warring factions [and what] our technology can change, but human nature hasn’t budged one iota,” he said. 

How to sum up Tom’s legacy?

John, a mostly retired architect, said Tom enjoyed a mix of vocation and avocation, which means “you’ll never work a day in your life.”

At a rare-for-his-age internship with a naval research lab in D.C., Tom called home and said: “Dad! You know those board games that I played? … They’re PAYING me to do this.”

Tom later said that in a computer program he used on aircraft, he was only “three screens away” from whatever piece of information he needed. “It was the first time it was actually used in combat,” John said.

On this year’s 9/11, John and Marilyn may repeat what they did 20 years ago — go for a respite walk at Dog Beach.

“TV was so awful” that day, Marilyn said Thursday. “It was the best thing to do.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly referred to “Twin turtle props being abducted by aliens.”