General Who Loved to Fly Could Have Wings Clipped : Marines: El Toro commander was living his life's dream. Questionable flights bring career crashing down.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a lanky teen-ager in South Florida growing up within earshot of Homestead Air Force Base, Tommy Adams used to bag groceries after school to pay for private flying lessons. He'd tell his high school sweetheart endlessly about how he, too, would someday sit in the cockpit of the F-8 Crusaders that swept majestically through the local skies.

After he married his girlfriend at age 23, he even took her out to a military runway one night when she was nine months pregnant to watch a tricky carrier-landing test by the moonlight.

"He was so enthralled with it himself, he wanted me to be able to see it," recalls Lynne Williams Adams, who was divorced from Adams last year after 26 years of marriage.

If the Marine Corps was Wayne Thomas Adams' life, flying was his passion.

It was flying that helped him win the position of power and the general's star on his collar that he had so long sought. And ironically, it was flying--and his possible abuses of it--that has thrust his entire career into jeopardy. Last week, the Marine Corps removed the 51-year-old general from command over the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro and three other western air bases and reassigned him to Virginia.

His absence has already been conspicuous. Community leaders gathered at the El Toro air station on Thursday, the day after Adams' reassignment, to talk up plans for one of the base's shining moments--a May 18 parade to formally welcome home the returning Gulf War warriors.

Adams was to have been there. But instead he was in Washington, finishing a week of intense interviews with Marine Corps Inspector Gen. Hollis Davison and his staff over whether Adams "misused his authority" by using a military C-12 Beechcraft for personal trips.

The probe was sparked by a Times investigation last month, which detailed five flights taken by Adams that appear to raise questions over his use of military planes for personal purposes.

It was the same issue--the questionable use of base planes--that led Adams to remove two of his top aides in January. One of those aides, Col. James E. Sabow, killed himself with a shotgun five days after Adams suspended him for using a base plane to ferry stereo speakers and other items to his son in Washington state.

To some, Adams has come to symbolize the hypocrisy of the military.

"I just can't see how he could take those flights and condemn the other two colonels," said Sally Sabow, the colonel's widow. "To me, it is a total lack of honesty, lack of character."

To others "the Bear"--as Adams is known--is an ethical, understated man who has simply gotten caught up in a swiftly changing tide of military ethics over what is allowed in an age of greater public scrutiny.

"These things have always happened in all the services--but now the perception has changed," said Gen. J. K. Davis, a former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps who is retired in Orange County.

"I still think that he's a hell of a fine Marine," Davis added, "and he wouldn't have gotten selected for general in the first place if he wasn't."

The military is still investigating whether Adams violated a ban on personal trips by using base planes on flights to Florida, where he signed papers last October for his divorce from Lynne Adams; to Big Bear, where he says he combined a military inspection of a Marine lodge with a weekend trip with his fiancee a few weeks before; to Washington state, where he flew and met his fiancee last December, and other trips detailed by The Times.

In the meantime, Marine Corps officials are downplaying the significance of Adams' removal from his El Toro command and his reassignment to unspecified duties in Quantico, Va., cautioning the public against reading too much into it.

Adams himself defended his flights as "accepted practice" in an April interview--he said he was getting in valuable flight time at the controls of an aircraft as required--but has declined to discuss any aspect of the case since then. Those who know him see the Marine Corps move as a clear rebuke to the general and an attempt to quiet the scandal.

"I'm sure he's devastated," Adams' 29-year-old son, Jeff, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, said soon after the reassignment was announced. "I know he loved the Marine Corps and he's an honest person who prides himself on doing a good job."

Retired Army Col. Don Schwab, who worked with then-Lt. Col. Adams at the U.S. Central Command in Florida in the early to mid-1980s, recalls his friend as "sort of our superstar--the kind of guy you wanted around when you really had a tough job."

Schwab and Adams have maintained their friendship through the years, getting together occasionally for dinner and golfing. The retired colonel was interviewed by the inspector general's office recently about one such visit--a weekend stop Adams made in Pennsylvania at Schwab's home as part of a cross-country flight-training mission in a C-12 Beechcraft.

During their visits, Schwab said, the two officers would sometime reflect on their days together at Central Command in Tampa.

It was during this time that Adams got one of his biggest assignments.

As Schwab recalls it, Adams was assigned to the Middle East in early 1983 to work with the Egyptian military in coordinating strategy for responding to Libya's reported muscle-flexing in the region.

The assignment was a plum, Schwab said, and Adams carried it out admirably.

"He was mature and people had great confidence in his ability and his judgment," Schwab said. "He stood out among the best of his contemporaries."

But there was still another goal ahead: the general's star.

To hear some close to Adams tell it, this was the dream that drove him through the Marion Military Institute in Alabama, the Naval War College, jet training in Texas, air-controller duties in Vietnam and stints at air bases around the country.

In letters home to then-wife, Lynne, from an assignment in Okinawa in 1988, Col. Adams wrote repeatedly about the upcoming military "boards" used to pick promotions from colonel to general and about his chances for getting the nod.

But "if it doesn't happen," Adams wrote in one letter, he would hope to get an assignment at the air station at Puget Sound, Wash., and "take it easy for a couple of years and catch salmon."

Adams needn't have worried. He was picked as general in November, 1988, after 27 years in the military. Among the colonels he passed for the honor were Sabow and Joseph Underwood, the former chief of staff at El Toro whom he fired in January for allegedly using base planes for golfing jaunts.

In September, 1990, amid the traditional military fanfare, Adams took over the command at Marine Corps Air Bases Western Area, overseeing about 4,600 military and civilian personnel at air stations at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma, Ariz.

According to officers at El Toro, Adams' low-key style of leadership appears to have contrasted sharply with that of Underwood, who was chief of staff on base from 1987 until Adams fired him in January.

The self-described "mayor" of El Toro, Underwood acknowledges that he made enemies on base; one of them, in fact, likely contacted the Pentagon fraud "hot line" late last year and triggered the investigation that eventually enveloped both him and Sabow.

Adams, in contrast, appears to have been generally well-liked at the base among officers and enlisted people, operating in a less combative manner and usually speaking in a low, soft, even-toned voice.

"He seemed a very supportive commander and aboveboard, very reasonable," said one official at the base. "He seemed to try to come in and take care of some of the things that were going on that were questionable."

Noting her ex-husband's low-key approach, Lynne Adams said: "He'll grit his teeth before he'll fly into a rage."

But, she added, Adams did not hesitate to voice pride in his authority and position, bragging to her that he could "fly as good as those younger guys" and telling a reporter that "I own all those planes" under his command.

It is because of Adams' reputation as a "straight shooter" that the disclosures in The Times about his use of military aircraft on at least five different occasions came as such a jolt to the base, particularly following the Underwood-Sabow scandal, personnel there say.

Nearly as troublesome to some was Adams' recent banishing of Underwood from the bases at El Toro and Tustin, saying that the retired colonel's presence on the golf course, the officers club and other base installations posed a threat to order and discipline.

"That kind of thing just doesn't happen," one officer said.

In an institution where loyalty is sacred, Adams' action was the buzz of the base in part because he and Underwood had been not only co-workers, but also neighbors, close friends and golfing and flying partners.

Nonetheless, Underwood was melancholy after hearing about Adams' reassignment.

"The whole thing's a tragedy--Col. Jim Sabow's dead, and it's been all downhill from there," he said.

It will now be up to the inspector general's office, and ultimately the Marine Corps commandant, to decide whether Adams is cleared of wrongdoing or must face a reprimand, fines, court-martial, retirement or other possible disciplinary action.

In an interview last month, Adams was referring to Underwood when he described the seriousness of any kind of reprimand to a career Marine. But he might well have been describing his own feelings when he noted: "In our business, that's the end of the world."

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