Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, Adams was appointed to the United States Naval Academy from the state's second Congressional district in 1931, and graduated in 1935 with an appointment to the rank of Ensign.
Adams was then assigned to sea duty on battleships, serving aboard the West Virginia in June and July of 1935, immediately reassigned to the Tennessee until January 2, 1938. He was then accepted to flight school at NAS Pensacola, where he earned his flight wings on January 17, 1939.
Soon promoted to Lieutenant (j.g.), Adams was then assigned to aircraft carrier duty, first aboard the USS Saratoga for one month (April-May 1939) and then with the Fifth Bomb Squadron (VB 5) aboard the Yorktown, from May 13, 1939 to the end of his career. While with Yorktown Adams flew Northrop BT-1s, later transitioning with the rest of the squadron to the Douglas SBD "Dauntless" aircraft, flying escort for North Atlantic convoys until U.S. entry to the war.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yorktown was sent to the Pacific theater, and Adams took part in raids in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. He led raids on land and sea targets in and around Jaluit on February 1, 1942, against shipping off New Guinea on March 10, and on the island of Tulagi on May 4. He participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 7 and 8. During this period Adams was twice awarded the Navy Cross.
The attack on Pearl Harbor had been helped enormously by a group of six Japanese aircraft carriers, and these became a primary focus of U.S. naval efforts in the ensuing Pacific campaign. Four of these ships were part of a battle group involved in the Battle of Midway; three were put out of action in that battle on June 4, 1942. A fourth, the Hiryu, was left undamaged during the fight. At about 2:40 P.M. local time on June 5, Adams and his wingman, Lt. Harlan Dickson, spotted the Hiryu and her battle group (two battleships, three heavy cruisers and four destroyers). Under fire from a Zero fighter, Adams radioed the ships' location (31°15' N., 179°05' W., moving north at approximately 20 knots). Because of this, the U.S. battle group was able to put the Hiryu out of action, and major damage was inflicted on the rest of the battle group.
On June 6, Adams spotted the Japanese destroyer Tanikaze and went in to attack; his plane disappeared in the clouds and was never seen again, presumed downed by anti-aircraft fire from the destroyer. Also killed in the attack was Adams's radioman Joseph Karrol.
Adams was posthumously awarded a third Navy Cross for the mission in which he located the Hiryu. The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Adams (DM-27), which saw duty in the latter part of World War II, was named in his honor.