Vice Admiral John Sidney
McCain, July 1994
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 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 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. 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 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 naval
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 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
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 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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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. 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 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 Jack McCain was always
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. "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 Seapower. 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
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 makes.
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
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
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:
"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
It is here that both McCains, Senior and Junior, meet so absolutely.
Their love and respect for their men. An 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 can- they would be
honored. Honored, but humbled. For they were always not a little
embarrassed at honors given to them. They just wanted to get the job
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.