The two McCains - John Sidney, Sr., and John
Sidney, Jr., served both in the clamor of battle and the long days of keeping
the peace. They sacrificed just as the crews of this ship will sacrifice, in
peace and war. For that is the lot, and the privilege of the sailor. To
Who these two men are is often obscured by the stars that studded their
shoulder boards, and by the lofty commands they held at the ends of their
careers. And this too short treatise is to present them not as Admirals and
military luminaries, but rather I think how they would be remembered-as human
beings. Leaders who were made, not born.
They were men who worked hard, studied their fellow man, made mistakes,
learned, and tried again. Most importantly, these two men always told the
truth - especially to themselves-because they knew that's the only thing you
can count on. As far as I can find out, they never quit, and they never laid
down a responsibility, or tried to transfer blame to another pair of
Doing this was no easier for those two men than they are for the rest of us.
They just learned and accepted the reality that there is no way around doing
you job. No magic, no special internal muses...just hard work and keeping an
eye on those twin saboteurs of doing a job right- fear and irresponsibility.
It is an accident that the McCains even went to sea. Because in their
Mississippi family, the eldest son always took over the family land,
"Teoc", and the second son went into the army. In fact, a McCain
served on George Washington's staff. Another served in the Civil War, was
badly wounded, and came home to Teoc to die. Yet another was a three-star
general in World War I- the Adjutant General of the Army. Still another was
one of the last battle cavalry officers and served with "Black
Jack" Pershing on his raid into Mexico trying to catch the elusive
"Cucaracha", Pancho Villa, and also became a general.
Trouble was, John Sidney McCain, Sr. was the third son. The second, Bill, was
already at West Point, so "Sidney", as most of his friends called
him, went to "Ole Miss", presumably to become a doctor, or lawyer
or something useful. Still, he itched to put on the West Point gray. Bill
approved and suggested he go up to the big city, Jackson, to take some
entrance exams they were offering for the U.S. Naval Academy as practice for
the rigorous West Point tests.
He did so well on the tests he got an appointment to Annapolis, and decided
to go to the sea in ships. It changed McCain history. Since then, at least
five McCains and blood kin have gone to Annapolis, and several others have
joined the enlisted ranks. Nary an Army man in all that time.
John Sidney McCain, Sr. graduated in 1906 and joined a different Navy. A
service of iron dreadnoughts belching black coal smoke, of swinging hammocks,
and of underslung bows still evolving away from the ancient tactic of
stabbing other ships beneath the waterline.
He was ordered out to the old Asiatic Station of song and legend, to serve on
many classic ships now long gone to scrap yard and history- the battleship
OHIO, the cruiser BALTIMORE, the destroyer CHAUNCEY, and the gunboat PANAY,
whose "accidental" sinking by Japanese aircraft two decades later
was to be one of the malevolent tidal events that inexorably pulled the
United States towards the maelstrom of the Second World War.
Young McCain served on the battleship CONNECTICUT in Teddy Roosevelt's Great
White Fleet, 16 battleships sent around the globe in 1907 to show the world
the power of this muscular new nation in the Western Hemisphere. He escorted
convoys through the teeth of the German "Unterwasserboots" in The
Great War. More battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and gunboats- learning the
ways of the sea, and the men who sail on it in ships of iron.
Almost unnoticeable in this formidable list of men-of-war assignments is a
duty which became instrumental in forming his ideas of leadership. That duty
was as Director of Machinist Mates School in Charleston, South Carolina, in
1912-1914. It is likely that it was here, as well as on those hard steel
decks, that he understood that the career enlisted man is the heart of any
Navy. A fact that must never be forgotten if an officer is to truly
"lead". His son, John S. McCain Jr.-second part of this story- was
later to put that into a phrase that has become a One Commandment Bible of
In the 1930's with the rapid expansion of the naval arm-the marriage of ship
and warplane-the Navy had a bit of a dilemma. Plenty of naval officers were
trained as pilots, but few trained for sea command. The Navy Department
decided to look for experienced commanders who might be willing to go to the
naval flight school in Pensacola. One of those asked was Sidney McCain, now a
Captain- a more serious rank in the small and parochial Navy before World War
So Captain McCain went down to Florida with a bunch of kids to learn how to
strafe and dive bomb, and land on a pitching carrier deck- at the age of 50.
Still a record. And in September, 1936, at the age of 52, some admiral or
captain pinned the golden wings above his left breast pocket, 52!
Now an aviator, he commanded two naval air stations and the carrier RANGER,
and in February 1941- the Second World War already mauling Europe- he was
made Rear Admiral and put in command of the new combined scouting forces and
fleet wings on the West Coast. When the Japanese made their terrible
miscalculation in attacking Pearl Harbor, his command was the umbrella
against the expected attack on the mainland.
May 1942, he took over command of all land-based naval aircraft in the South
Pacific. His planes fought the battle of Guadalcanal and helped dent the
Japanese effort to "finish off" the Americans in the Pacific.
After a stint back in Washington as Chief of Naval Aeronautics, where he got
a third star, it was back to the war in later summer, 1944, as Commander of
the Second Fast Carrier Force Pacific and Task Group 38.1. Three months
later, he took over Task Force 38, Halsey's cavalry.
McCain, say the various accounts, became a sort of Jeb Stuart/George Patton
of the ocean, dashing from flash point to flash point, attacking, attacking,
and attacking. He was awarded the Navy Cross for putting his forces between
the battered cruisers HOUSTON and CANBERRA, and a hornet's nest of Japanese
fighters trying to finish off the crippled ships.
In October, he was ordered to take his worn down men and planes for a rest,
when a Japanese armada launched a thrust at the American invasion force in
the Philippines. Halsey had been drawn Northward by a feint, and the landing
troops were protected by only a light force under Admiral Sprague. McCain
raced back to help, but his carriers were too far away for his beloved pilots
to make it back to the carriers after the strike. He pressed onward, hoping
for another hundred miles, but the reports from the beach told of increasing
peril and cries for help.
Admiral McCain went down to his cabin to think a few moments. Then came up
and said, "Turn into the wind". The order that precedes an aircraft
launch. His aircraft and Sprague's heroic actions caught the Japanese force
flatfooted, and the invasion was saved. Most of his planes either landed safely
ashore or on other carriers. But, it's one of those decisions that take life
from a man. Before final notes, it is important to say that Sidney
McCain was a colorful man. For reasons undetermined, he wore his officer's
hat without the grommet-the plastic frame that keeps the cap a taut disk.
Hence photos show him with a shapeless khaki lump on his head. He never
smoked factory-made cigarettes. He always carried rolling papers and a bag of
Bull Durham in his breast pocket. It is said he could roll a cigarette with
one hand. He was also a man of intense loyalty and honor. Once, someone came
up to him and said a friend had called McCain an S.O.B. He said simply:
"I don't believe it", and left it at that.
Photos of him show a calm, nearly gaunt, somewhat stern-looking man, but with
very, very warm eyes With a touch of basset sadness, as if they had been on
watch too long, seen too many things.
By pure chance, when I was a newspaper reporter in San Diego, I once ran into
a pilot who had flown under him. After some jovial small talk, I asked about
my grandfather, the man. He paused, trying to distill his thoughts. Finally,
he said "I think he was the finest man I ever met. We would have done
anything for him."
Admiral McCain stood on the deck of the USS MISSOURI as Douglas MacArthur
signed the instruments of surrender with Japan. In that famous photo, he is
the one in the front row, looking slightly down. I have seen it in a hundred
Then he got special permission to fly straight home for a rest, and made the
day-and-a-half island hopping flight in the back of a Navy pursuit plane. My
grandmother met him at the Coronado air station, and at the welcome home
party, he sat down and quietly died. He had been home for the war for less
than half a day.
Under John Sidney McCain's 1906 Naval Academy yearbook photo is a quote from
Milton that ascribes to him "That power that erring men call
chance". His classmates were later to write after his death in a book
about the class of this taking of chances:
"It cost him his life later, but his work was done, and victory, which
he lived to see, had come to his country."
His son, the second Navy McCain, was made of the same stuff. But his story is
also clear proof that regardless of how simple it looks in terms of
"blood lines" and "pedigree," leaders are made, not born.
Known throughout his life as "Jack"- he disliked the nickname
"Junior"-he was born far away from the sea he was to spend so many
years on. His mother was traveling across country while the senior McCain was
at sea, and stopped to visit her sister in Council Bluffs, Iowa. There, in a
frigid January, 1911, was born the second half of the first Four Star
father-and-son set in naval history.
Moving around as military families do, Jack McCain remembered being assigned
to shovel coal into the family furnace at 5 a.m. He remembers getting in
trouble at school for telling his little friends he saw a bear on the way to
class, but being defended by my grandmother who said, "All little boys must
have an imagination. Don't worry, he'll know about honesty and the
Her prescience was lathe-accurate. For anyone will tell you that John Sidney
McCain, Jr., like his father, was the most honest man you will ever meet. His
word had the constancy on Newtonian laws of physical motion.
In fact, in his Naval Academy yearbook notation, after referring to his
"weakness for the fairer sex" and a penchant for being in trouble,
it notes of the 20-year-old, new Ensign:
'An officer and a gentleman' is the title to which he pays absolute
allegiance. Sooner could Gibraltar be loosed from its base than could
"Mac" be loosed from the principles which he has adopted to govern
He went to Annapolis very young-too young, he was later to say. At 16, in
1927, he entered the harsh world of the Plebe. It gave him a dislike of
hazing he carried with him the rest of his career. He thought it a poor
substitute for leadership. Loaded with demerits and mediocre grades, he
staggered through four years and became an ensign in 1931, in a country in
As proof of the made-not-born postulate, his first steps were anything but
omens of stellar things to come. His first official entry in his service
records is the Navy Department denying his request to go to the Naval Optical
School in Washington after graduation. It seems he and a classmate pal knew
there were a lot more pretty girls in Washington than on a battleship and
tried a rather pitiful finesse with the application to lens-making school.
The sages in the Navy gave the request no serious thought, because less than
ten days later he was ordered to the battleship OKLAHOMA. Learning to command
rather than to grind glass.
Unable to get into flight school because of a heart murmur, which is now
medically understood to be benign, Jack McCain applied to submarine school.
The sub school doctors had more generous stethoscopes, apparently, and after
two formative years on the massive OKLAHOMA, he went off to New London to
learn about the still-evolving theories of warfare under the sea...of sonar
pings and "bearing- mark" and "Fire One!"... and how to
crash dive without sinking your boat. He served upon a couple of wheezing old
World War I subs- the peacetime, depression Navy was cut to the bone- then
taught math and physics to bored midshipmen at the Naval Academy. He was
later to say the experience was very important to his future role as one of
the Navy's foremost speechmakers. "If you can keep a bone-weary plebe
awake, it's easy to get you message across to anyone who's had a night's
After the Japanese Zeroes crossed the Pali that terrible Sunday, Jack McCain
went to war under the seas, commanding three different submarines, and sank
several Japanese ships, including the submarine's most dangerous foe, a
On rare occasions, he spoke of the time, early in the war, of firing four
torpedoes at a sleepy Japanese battleship, unaware of the menace below, and
hitting her three times without a single explosion. Then having to dive and
stand against prolonged depth-charging, while cursing an unknown pre-war
For these and other exploits, he was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze
Star and a small pile of commendations.
After the surrender, he sailed his sub into Tokyo Harbor. There is a
photograph of him and his father, in khakis, on the bridge of a submarine
tender. Leaning on the gray railing are the young, wiry, dark-haired sub
skipper and the older, also wiry, but terribly weary, carrier admiral. A few hours
later, Admiral McCain was to leave for the United States and his quiet death,
his son never to see him again. So the nearly chance meeting was a blessing
Jack McCain was always grateful for.
In the post-war, Jack McCain went through a series of duties- submarine
division commander, executive officer of a heavy cruiser in Korea, and a
variety of other commands. He rose from Commander to Four-Star Admiral. At
flag rank, his commands included Commander Amphibious Forces Atlantic,
Military Representative to the United Nations, Commander Naval Forces Europe.
Finally, from 1968 to 1972, his last post, as Commander of all U.S. military
forces in the Pacific at the height of the Vietnam War- CINCPAC.
More important than the litany of commands and promotions was Jack McCain the
thinker, the speaker, and the naval leader.
For from the time he had so frivolously asked to be a naval lens-maker, he
had slowly matured, thinking about responsibility, about leadership, and
about seapower. He began writing and talking about it. He learned the power
of the image and the metaphor.