USS John S McCain
Fortune Favors The Brave

About our Namesake - John S. McCain

     There is something about the naval service that the civilian simply doesn't understand. That the men who go down to the sea in ships man the far distant pickets during peace-watching, listening for those perturbations in the political environment that may mean a future threat to the homeland. They are the first to hear the crackling of peace.

     And when the clouds of war roll out of the horizon, it is they in their iron watch towers who bear and blunt the first shocks of malevolence.

     In the meantime, they watch and wait, peering into the distance  —  usually unnoticed, often unappreciated in the times of peace. Not until the drums of war roll throughout the land do they get their due. But these men and women care less about this, because their reward is not the accolades, but the service itself.

     This great, gray, sleek ship... the men who bend back and mind to serve her...and the spirits of the two men for whom it is named...will be the newest spike in the floating steel veil that protects the land. And as we look at the pristine vessel it looks rather like some great predatory cat, doesn't it? Crouched down, ears laid back in stalk  —  we know that its presence and its implied menace will more likely mean peace than war. But some day this ship may have to be in a fight. There will be the loud clang of "BATTLE STATIONS!!! ALL HANDS TO BATTLE STATIONS!!!," and smoke, and missiles, and noise and that fierce coordinated focus that only comes to men in a battle.

The McCains

     The two McCain's - 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 serve.

     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, as 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 shoulders.

     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 McCain's 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 McCain's 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 under slung 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 pulled the United States inexorably toward 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 "Unterseeboots" 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 form'dable 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 naval leadership.

John S McCain Sr.
     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 II.

     So Captain McCain went down to Florida with a bunch of kids to learn how to strafe and dive bomb, and to land on a pitching carrier deck  —  at the age of 50. That record holds. And in September, 1936, at the age of fifty two, some admiral or captain pinned the golden wings above McCain's 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.

     In May 1942, he took 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.

John S McCain Sr       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 interposing his forces to shield a pair of battered cruisers (HOUSTON and CANBERRA) from a hornet's nest of Japanese fighters trying to finish off those 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. 

     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." That order 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. Someone once came up to him and said a friend had called McCain an S.O.B. McCain replied 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 remarkably warm eyes, with a touch of basset sadness, as if they had been on watch too long, had 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 books.

     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.

Admiral McCain   
     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 upon which he would sail so many years. 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.

John S McCain Jr

     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 truth."

     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 of 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 getting into trouble, it notes of the newly-commissioned, 20-year-old 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 his actions.  

    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 an opposition to 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 deep depression.

    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. He learned to command instead of grinding of glass.

     Unable to get into flight school because of a heart murmur, which is now medically regarded as benign, Jack McCain applied to submarine school. The sub school doctors had less sensitive 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 permanently sinking your boat. He served upon a couple of wheezing old World War I subs  —  the peacetime, depression Navy had been cut to the bone  —  then taught bored midshipmen math and physics at the Naval Academy. He was later to say the experience was 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 your message across to anyone who's had a night's sleep."

     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 destroyer.

     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 torpedo contractor.

     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 for which Jack McCain was always grateful.

     After the 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.

     "What is Seapower?" he wrote, early on. "In primitive times when two tribes inhabited opposite sides of a large lake and took to barter by canoe, they were exercising elementary seapower."

     A bit later: "A ballistic missile submarine is a missile silo that moves!" He became philosophical:

    "Life is run by poker players, not the systems analysts."

     And this: "It's one of the most forgotten, then relearned foreign policy axioms in history. If you keep backing away because you're afraid of what might happen to you  —  and you keep backing away and backing away  —  what you were afraid of in the first place is going to happen to you, as certain as I am standing here saying it."

     He became one of the best-known military speakers in the country, then the world, on the subject of sea power. And more. On the basic, simple axioms of command and strategy and leadership that seem to elude so many.

     At the end of every speech after he had shown dozens of slides of U.S. Military technology  —  sleek aircraft, festooned detection systems, angry-looking missiles  — there appeared a picture of a lone American soldier slogging purposefully through a rice paddy, his eyes dead ahead of an unseen objective. He would point at this soldier.

"In the final analysis, it's that boy with the gun on his shoulder who wins the war. He sits on a piece of territory and says to the enemy, 'this is mine!' "

Throughout any speech I ever heard him make to officers or men, he make a simple, direct fundamental statement.

"The 20-year-old bluejacket is the backbone of the navy." And he advised the 1970 graduating class at the Naval Academy:

"When you step aboard ship and stand in front of your first division of bluejackets, they will evaluate you accurately and without delay. In fact, there is no more exacting method of determining an officer's worth.

"Furthermore, you can't fool bluejackets. They are quick to recognize the phony. If you lose the respect of these men, you are finished. You can never make it back."

     McCain, as was even observed of him back at the Naval Academy, had a counterpoint to his fun-loving side. It was to sit and read. Poe, Kipling, Mahan, Wilde, Durant, Carlyle, Sandburg, Dante. And he often cited poetry to make a point. Especially from Lewis Carroll.

     This about the nature of fair-weather sailors: When the tide's out, he is gay as a lark And speaks in contemptuous tones of the shark But when the tide's in, and the harks are around, His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.

     Then he would laugh. A laugh all who heard instantly recognized. It was a warm and generous. It rang with the vagaries and realities of life, and a touch of humility.

     For Dad  —  as paradoxical as it may seem for a man who attained four-stars and great respect and recognition  —  was at heart a very humble man. He knew nothing came easy, and he knew you had to work every day  —  not to keep a job or honors  —  but to keep your common sense and perspective on life.

     At the same time, he had no patience for men who hedged the truth or who wouldn't accept responsibility for mistakes. He once told me:

     "Some officers get it backwards. They don't understand that we are responsible for our men, not the other way around. That's what forges trust and loyalty." That code was not lost on his men.

     About two years before he died in 1981, he received a letter from a Mr. Dennis Radigan of New York. Mr. Radigan reminded the admiral that he had served under him as an enlisted man 21 years before on the heavy cruiser ALBANY and the Petty Officer Radigan had stolen some food while drunk one night and was subsequently brought up to Captain's Mast. The Executive Officer, says Radigan, recommended he be broken in rate.

     Dad chewed the man out, asked him some questions, and apparently saw something, because he gave him only 14 days restriction  —  this, during a 15 day cruise. Mr. Radigan writes:

     "At that critical time in my life, you made a judgment and put your faith in me. While you chewed me out good, you gave me your understanding and wisdom. I cannot convey how important that event was."

   Mr. Radigan goes on to say that he finished his tour, went to college, and was a telephone company executive with 600 men under him, and a wife and children.

     "You taught me to have some faith in human nature, to at least try to understand a man and give them a chance if they deserve it."

     Now it's important to know that Lieutenant and Commander and Captain and Admiral Jack McCain could be a severe disciplinarian. When a man deserved it he went to the brig for what Dad called his "Special Naval Orientation Course"  —  3 days bread-and-water. And he would tell him:

John S McCain 4 Star

     "What you make of yourself from now on is your choice, son.  This is a chance to take a serious look at your future. Take advantage of it." But he could see something in men and bring out the best in them.

     That's why he became one of the great speech makers. He was always completely sincere, and he rarely read a speech, except to glance at his notes.

     Most important, he talked directly to each of his listeners  —  whether anxious young seamen just reporting aboard, muddy soldiers formed up in a Vietnamese rice paddy, or a convention hall of newspaper editors.

It's in this that both McCain's, Senior and Junior, converge so absolutely: in their love and respect for their men. And not "for the men who serve under them," for I truly think they rather thought the opposite  —  that it was they who served their men.

If the two warriors could gaze upon this great new man-of-war  —  and perhaps they do so now  —  they would feel honored. Honored, yes, yet humbled, too. For they were always not a little embarrassed at honors given to them. They just wanted to get the job done.

     A final thing ... in the week after my Father died in 1981, I was terribly busy with the funeral arrangements. And one day an image appeared to me. Not a dream, because I was driving from one appointment to another. I recall it now, as I think of how best to try to let you 'see' and 'hear' these men, rather than just as a dry list of commands, promotions, jobs, awards.

     There was a soldier  —  a warrior, I should say. He was lying on his side in the mist of some ancient battlefield  —  whether Roman, or Greek, or Carthaginian, I cannot say. But he was propping himself up on a scarred sword and raising a battered shield, and he was saying, "Come home, Admiral... come home...”

It was very comforting, this image of Dad being called home to be with his comrades through the millennia. But now  —  if you'll forgive what may seem overly dramatic  —  perhaps he and his father have been called back "to serve" a bit longer.

     For I think the men who serve in USS JOHN S. MCCAIN can be absolutely certain of one thing. The spirits of "Sidney" and "Jack" McCain will always sail with you  —  on the lonely watches in the night, and in the din of battle. If you listen, you may even hear them. They'll be aboard. They are now.

 USS John S McCain
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