USS John S McCain
Fortune Favors The Brave
 
John S. McCain: A Name Rich in Naval Heritage

​​​​​The name of a ship establishes its identity and culture. John Paul Jones, Belleau Wood, Michael Murphy: These names give the Sailors who serve aboard the ships christened in their honor an example to follow and conjure images of salty seas, raging battles and victory for all those who hear them. The name John Sidney McCain is one that will forever be inextricably linked to the U.S. Navy.

A McCain family tradition required nicknames to distinguish the generations, but Slew, Jack and Johnny McCain shared more than a name. While their paths were uniquely their own, they all shared a commitment to something greater than themselves and a zeal to overcome any challenge that would propel them beyond what many may have thought possible. Indeed, their contributions meant they would also share their name with two of the Navy’s finest vessels.

Slew is considered by many to be a pioneer of naval aviation despite graduating from flight training at the age of 52. Jack served as a decorated submarine commander.

John, too, served as an aviator who displayed tremendous courage and character while in close conflict with the enemy.

The destroyer leader Big John (a nickname used in the ship’s 1972 cruise book) was a cutting-edge, Mitcher-class destroyer.

The guided-missile destroyer Big Bad John has sailed on the waters of the western Pacific for more than 20 years serving in combat and deterrence patrols.

Slew was born in Mississippi in 1884 as the son of a plantation owner. After spending time at the University of Mississippi he left in 1902 and, after considering the United States Military Academy at West Point, ultimately chose the United States Naval Academy. That choice launched more than a century of service.

Slew’s classmates included William Halsey and Chester Nimitz, so while he graduated 79th of 116 officers he was also regarded as a natural, inspirational leader which certainly spoke more about the man than his class score. His earliest assignments included sailing gunboats in the Philippines with Nimitz and joining the Great White Fleet from 1907 to 1909.

 

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In 1911, while Slew was aboard the armored cruiser USS Washington (ACR 11) off the Atlantic Coast, Jack joined the McCain family, the Navy family, and the itinerant lifestyle of a son of a Sailor.

Slew advanced in rank serving as executive officer and engineering officer aboard a string of cruisers in the Pacific before transferring with the armored cruiser USS San Diego (ACR 6) to the Atlantic Fleet during World War I to perform convoy escort operations in submarine-infested waters.

After the war, he served aboard battleships and ammunition ships for nearly a decade before Jack, at the age of 16, entered the United States Naval Academy in 1927.

According to biographers John G. Hubbell, Michael Leahy, and Robert Timberg, after four contentious years “marked by mediocre grades and numerous demerits,” Jack graduated 423rd out of 441 new officers.

When Jack was serving aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB 370) on his first assignment as an ensign, Slew earned command of his first ship: the cargo ship USS Sirius (AK 15).

Jack applied for flight school to become a naval aviator, but, due to a heart murmur was not accepted. Instead he applied, and was accepted, to the Submarine School at Naval Submarine Base New London, Connecticut. Academically, he finished an inauspicious 28th of 29 graduates. However, according to an article by Libby Quaid of the Associated Press, early fitness reports praised his tact, loyalty and “highly satisfactory” accomplishment of his duties.

Then, in 1935, at the age of 51, Slew applied and was accepted for flight training to join the naval aviation community. He graduated in 1936 and took command the naval air station in the Panama Canal Zone. At the time, Jack was serving as the executive officer of the S-class submarine USS S-45 (SS 156) based in Panama and the two were among the first to welcome Johnny into the family and the Navy when he was born on Aug. 29, 1936. This was one of few times all three would be at the same place at the same time.

Slew took command of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV 4) in 1937 before being promoted to rear admiral lower half and commanding the scouting force of the Atlantic Fleet, while Jack went back to Connecticut to command USS R-13 (SS 90) before returning to the Naval Academy to teach electrical engineering.

With the outset of World War II Slew was appointed as Commander, Aircraft, South Pacific, while Jack took command of the Gato-class submarine USS Gunnel (SS 253) through sea trials and commissioning and as part of the invasion of North Africa.

Gunnel was then sent to the Pacific Theater for patrols off of China, Japan and Vietnam.

While in command of Gunnel, Jack was commended for his bravery under fire and aggressive fighting spirit. According the Peter Padfield in his book “War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Conflict in World War II,” where a lack of adherence to doctrine and regulation and his aggressiveness led to demerits at the Naval Academy, those traits and his ability to improvise were demanded by the nature of the conflict in the Pacific.

In August 1944 Slew took command of a carrier task group under 5th Fleet participating in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Battle of Okinawa and raids on the Japanese mainland.

On Sept. 2, 1945, Slew and Jack met one more time aboard a ship moored in Tokyo bay.

Slew was in the front rank of American officers that day aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB 63) as the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed, formalizing the end of the war. Four days later, at home in Coronado, California, he died.

After the war, Jack served in the Bureau of Naval Personnel before taking command of Submarine Division 71 and sailing the flagship Balao-class submarine USS Carp (SS 338). Next he served as executive officer aboard the heavy cruiser USS Saint Paul (CA 73) as the Korean War began. He was promoted to captain and served at the Pentagon, directed the Undersea Warfare Research and Development and commanded Submarine Squadron 6 aboard the Tench-class submarine USS Sea Leopard (SS 483).

On October 12, 1953, Johnny was present at the Boston Naval Shipyard as the Mitscher-class destroyer leader USS John S. McCain (DL 3), Big John, was commissioned in honor of John Sidney “Slew” McCain and within a year Johnny entered the Naval Academy.

While Big John was testing new equipment and tactics, sailing through the Panama Canal, deploying to the Far East, and taking part in fleet maneuvers and anti-submarine training, Johnny was carrying on a dubious family tradition by earning more than 100 demerits and finishing 894th out of 899 graduates. He also carried on the tradition of courage, honor and sacrifice. Otto Helwig, a champion Navy heavyweight boxer said of Johnny’s conduct in the ring “I don’t think the odds mattered to him. He was not the most skilled, but he was the most feared…He never gave up.”

Still, while Jack was commanding the Crescent City-class attack transport USS Monrovia (AP 64), directing the Progress Analysis Group, and commanding the Oregon City-class heavy cruiser USS Albany (CA 123), he spent a considerable amount of time visiting Johnny at the academy to admonish his son. Micheal Leahy wrote in the Washington Post that “few fathers and sons could have been more alike as adolescents.”

Jack was promoted to rear admiral and assigned to the Office of the Secretary of the Navy where he advocated on behalf of the Navy to Congress. The same year, Johnny graduated from the academy and started flight school while Big John began an eight-year stretch deploying seven times to the western Pacific, the South China Sea, Gulf of Tonkin, Formosa, the Philippines, and South Vietnam.

In 1960 Jack took command of Amphibious Group 2 and led Amphibious Training aboard USS Taconic and USS Mount McKinley, while Johnny completed flight school and reported to his first assignment operating in the Caribbean and, later, the Mediterranean Seas.

In 1962 Jack served as the first Chief of Naval Information leading the Navy’s communication efforts with media outlets reporting from Washington. He was being promoted to vice admiral in July 1963 and took command of Amphibious Forces, Atlantic Fleet, were he led Operation Steel Pike off the coast of Spain—the largest amphibious landing ever conducted in peacetime and later led Task Force 124 in the invasion of the Dominican Republic to quiet civil unrest.

In 1966, Big John decommissioned and began a three-year conversion to a guided-missile destroyer.

The next year, Jack was promoted to full admiral and named Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe. This marked the first and only time a father and son both achieved the rank of four-star admiral.

By this time, Johnny knew he would need to gain combat experience and requested transfer to the western Pacific to fly missions over Vietnam. In 1967 he reported to USS Forrestal (CV 59) in Gulf of Tonkin then, following the July 29, 1967, fire that killed 134 Sailors, he volunteered for transfer to USS Oriskany (CV 34). During his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam, his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi. He was pulled from Truc Bach Lake with two broken arms and a broken leg and transported to Hoa Lo Prison where he spent the next five-and-a-half years enduring torture including two-years of solitary confinement.

The next spring, Jack turned over command of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and took over as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command overseeing all U.S. forces in the the Vietnam Theater. A year later he travelled from his post overseeing U.S. forces in the Pacific to give the keynote speech as Big John was recommissioned back into naval service as guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 36).

In January of 1971, Big John, the flagship of DESRON 23 departed for its first deployment since recommissioning and conducted operations in the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Northern Pacific as well as a brief stint in the Tonkin Gulf. The following year, Big John deployed again to the western Pacific specifically to support operations in Vietnam joining the battle for Quang Tri and drawing hostile fire the first day on station. Over the next seven months the ship fired 16,645 rounds while operating off the Quang Tri Coast of Vietnam.

Jack reluctantly left the war in Vietnam a month before Big John to serve as special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, before retiring eight days before Big John would pass under the Coronado Bridge and moor at San Diego Naval Station for post-deployment stand down, leave, upkeep and overhaul. Four months later, on March 14, 1973, Johnny was released. He began treatment for his injuries and studied at the National War College and less than two years later, his flight status was reinstated. He reported to an A-7 Corsair II training squadron where he served as an instructor, executive officer, and in 1976, he was named commanding officer of VA-174, the largest aviation squadron in the Navy, where he improved aircraft readiness and eliminated mishaps.

Big John was in the middle of its last deployment, operating in western Pacific near the Philippines, but Jack was present in July 1977 when Johnny turned over command of his squadron.

Big John was decommissioned in 1978 after nearly 25 years of service. While Johnny continued to serve, first at Naval Air Systems Command, then at the Senate Liaison Office where he would eventually be promoted to captain and become the director.

Johnny soon decided his time in the Navy was coming to an end. His limited arm movement forever prevented him from raising his arms above shoulder height and he suffered from an occasional limp. He failed a flight physical required for command of a carrier. He reportedly told then Secretary of the Navy John Lehman that he could do more good in Congress.

Jack died of a heart attack on March 22, 1981, on a military aircraft en route from Europe with his wife at his side. On March 27, Johnny attended his father’s funeral wearing his uniform for the last time before being discharged from naval service.

He would continue his service to his country first as a Representative and later as a Senator from Arizona, but, for the first time in nearly 80 years the name John S. McCain was not represented in the United States Navy.

After more than a decade, that changed.

The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56), Big Bad John, was christened in 1992 in honor of the first father-son pair of four-star admirals: Slew and Jack. However, according to the ship’s first commanding officer, Johnny’s service in Vietnam was impossible to disregard.

“A little known bit of ‘history’ is that as PCO, I was offered several designs of the ship’s seal by the Army heraldry office,” said retired Capt. Jake Ross. “The artist discussed, recommended the inclusion of the chain in the talons of the eagle. It would represent both breaking the tyranny of war - and freedom from prison. This last point we decided was a subtle way to recognize Sen. McCain’s wartime service.”

When the ship was commissioned in 1994, Johnny was there. He visited Big Bad John frequently, most recently during a port visit to Cam Ranh International Port in Vietnam on June 2, 2017. The ship had visited ports in Vietnam several times before over the years in honor of the McCain legacy.

On July 12, 2018, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer inducted U.S. Sen. John S. McCain III into the official namesake of Big Bad John in a ceremony on board the ship at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, 64 years to the day after the first USS John S. McCain, which honored only Slew, was launched.

“Today, we add the story of Sen. John S. McCain to the spirit of the mighty vessel which already carries the legacy of his father and grandfather,” said Spencer. “As a warrior and a statesman who has always put country first, Sen. John McCain never asked for this honor, and he would never seek it. But we would be remiss if we did not etch his name alongside his illustrious forebears, because this country would not be the same were it not for the courageous service of all three of these great men."

Johnny, who had been battling brain cancer for more than a year, was not in attendance, but Spencer said the senator was given a document announcing the addition of his name and a photograph of the destroyer flying its “Big Bad John” ship flag. “He was very taken by that and, as you know, he never would have asked for this. It was a true joy to add his name to this for what he’s done for our country and its national defense.”

“I am deeply honored to be added to the name of the naval destroyer USS John S. McCain,” the senator said in a statement. “My father and grandfather dedicated their entire lives to their naval service. The greatest honor of my life was to serve in the company of heroes, and I look back with incredible gratitude for my formative years in the Navy. I hope the generations of sailors who will serve aboard the USS McCain will find the same fulfillment that my family does in serving a cause greater than oneself.”

Johnny died Aug. 25, 2018.

“This country would not be the same without the services of all three of these great men,” Spencer said at the christening ceremony. “Three distinguished officers, three truly remarkable Americans, they sail along with every man and woman on this ship. Their legacy lives on in all of you and in the enduring spirit of the John S. McCain.”Surface Warfare Magazine

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