Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Tags
Related Content
Topic
Document Type
  • Biography
Wars & Conflicts
  • nhhc-wars-conflicts:vietnam-conflict
File Formats
  • Image (gif, jpg, tiff)
Location of Archival Materials

John S. McCain III: A Brief Navy Biography 

Family Heritage: John Sidney McCain III was born on 29 August 1936 in Coco Solo, near Colón, in the Panama Canal Zone. His father and grandfather were naval officers and graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy. John III’s entire naval career was shaped and influenced by these two great men. Their example helped him survive air combat as well as torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, is an homage to their memory.


Midshipman John S. McCain Sr., 1906

Midshipman John S. McCain Sr., 1906


Midshipman John S. McCain Jr., 1931

Midshipman John S. McCain Jr., 1931


Midshipman John S. McCain III, 1958

Midshipman John S. McCain III, 1958

 

Grandfather: Admiral John S. “Slew” McCain Sr. was born in 1884 and graduated from USNA in 1906. He served as the engineering officer on San Diego (ACR-6) during World War I until May 1918.[1] Designated a naval aviator in 1936, he went on to command Aircraft, South Pacific and South Pacific Force, during the 1942 Solomon Islands Campaign. Later in the war, he commanded TF-38 (part of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet) during the drive into the Philippines, the capture of Okinawa, and the surrender of Japan. For this command, he received the Navy Cross. John S. McCain died four days after VJ Day of war-related stress. He was a vice admiral on death but was posthumously promoted to admiral in 1945 by a joint resolution of Congress.

Father: Admiral John S. “Jack” McCain Jr. was born in 1911 and graduated from USNA in 1931. During World War II, he commanded the submarine Gunnel (SS-253), which performed reconnaissance in North Africa prior to the landings there. He later took the boat to the Pacific where he sank a Japanese destroyer and damaged additional enemy shipping. He also commanded Dentuda (SS-335), which saw action late in the war. During the Cold War, he served in a number of shore and fleet assignments, including command of Albany (CA-123) from 1957–1958; Commander Amphibious Force Atlantic, 1963–1965; and Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe (CINCUSNAVEUR), 1967–1968. In July 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, he became Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), a position he held until he retired in 1972. Jack McCain died in 1981.

Education: John S. McCain III graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA, in 1954 and then “entered his father’s business.”[2] McCain enjoyed “every minute” of his USNA experience except the academic portions of the academy and the harsh treatment he often received from some of the upperclassmen and officers there. He graduated 894 out of a class of 900. “I got by, just barely at times, but I got by.”[3] Many years later he would draw heavily on his academy experiences to help him survive the rigors of the Hanoi Hilton.[4]

Early Navy Career as a Naval Aviator: McCain entered flight school in 1958. While still in flight training on 12 March 1960, he crashed an AD-6 into Corpus Christi Bay. The engine quit while he was practicing landings. Although he barely managed to exit the plane after ditching it in the bay, he suffered no serious injuries. Following graduation from flight training in 1960, McCain served in VA-65 until 1963. In December 1961, “I knocked down some power lines while flying too low [in an A-1] over southern Spain. My daredevil clowning had cut off electricity to a great many Spanish homes and created a small international incident.”[5] In 1962, his unit deployed to the Caribbean on Enterprise (CVN-65) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In November 1965, McCain had a third accident in a T-2 jet trainer as an instructor pilot with VT-7. He suffered an engine flame-out and ejected from the aircraft. The Naval Aviation Safety Center was unable to determine the cause of the accident. 1965 was also the year McCain married his first wife, Carol Shepp, a divorced mother with two sons.

Service in Vietnam with VA-46: McCain joined VA-46 in April 1967 and deployed to Southeast Asia in the summer of that year─the apogee of President Lyndon Johnson's Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam. As an A-4 Skyhawk pilot, McCain flew some of the most dangerous missions of the war in an older aircraft poorly equipped to defend itself against the multilayered air defense system the North Vietnamese developed by the mid-1960s. In 1967, the communist regime fielded over twenty SA-2 missile battalions, more than 1,500 large caliber antiaircraft artillery, and many thousands of medium and small caliber weapons. The United States would not develop effective countermeasures to offset this system until late in the war. A-4s, as a consequence, suffered the highest loss rate of any Navy plane in Vietnam.[6] More than 195 were downed compared to 75 F-4s, the next highest number. McCain’s unit, the Saints, suffered a casualty rate of 30 percent during the year he served—one third of the pilots were either killed or captured.[7]

Forrestal Fire: McCain not only had to fly into the teeth of some of the most sophisticated air defenses on the planet at the time, he also confronted shipboard hazards. On 29 July 1967, stray voltage from a mobile engine starter triggered a Zuni rocket to launch from an F-4 waiting for takeoff on the deck of Forrestal (CV-59). The rocket struck the belly fuel tank of McCain’s aircraft, killing Airman Thomas D. Ott, McCain’s parachute rigger.[8] McCain managed to jump out of his cockpit ten feet into a fire. He rolled through the fire and then a bomb exploded, blowing him ten feet and killing a large number of Sailors. Eventually, McCain managed to make his way to sick bay to have his burns and shrapnel wounds treated. It took damage control parties 24 hours to fully control the blaze. By that time, the fire and ordnance explosions had killed 134 Sailors, injured 161, and destroyed 21 aircraft. The event occurred just prior to what would have been McCain's sixth combat mission. Determined to complete a full combat tour, McCain and a few others from his unit volunteered to transfer to VA-163 on Oriskany (CV-34), which had also recently suffered a terrible fire.

Shootdown, 26 October 1967: Of the more than 9,000 SA-2 Guideline missiles fired between 1965 and 1972, fewer than two percent brought down aircraft. McCain belongs to this small club, but his shootdown was not the result of poor airmanship. Rather, it resulted from a willingness of McCain to take a calculated risk to destroy an important target: the Hanoi thermal power plant. The day before, he pleaded with the squadron operations officer to put him on the roster for the large Alpha strike scheduled the next day. Four Navy squadrons participated in the raid. It was McCain’s twenty-third mission and his first attack on Hanoi. The strike force was tracked by North Vietnamese radars as it went feet dry[9], and soon McCain could see smoke plumes from SA-2 launches. The SA-2 was developed to take down slow flying bombers flying between 3,000 and 50,000 feet. With enough warning, an A-4 could outmaneuver these missiles. At the time of his shootdown, McCain’s aircraft was at 3,500 feet.[10] He had received a good warning tone, indicating that a missile was tracking him, but he felt he had time to drop his bombs on the target next to a small lake and then outmaneuver the missile. He managed to release his bombload just before the missile impacted. “If I had started jinking I would have never had time, nor, probably, the nerve to go back in once I had lost the SAM.” [11]

Prisoner of War, 26 October 1967–14 March 1973: The missile shattered one of the wings of McCain’s A-4, forcing him to bailout upside down at high speed. The force of the ejection broke his right leg, his right arm in three places, his left arm, tore his helmet off, and knocked him unconscious. He nearly died when he descended into a lake in the middle of Hanoi. He somehow regained consciousness, kicked himself twice to the surface, and floated back down. Finally, after activating his life preserver, he made it to the surface only to be attacked and bayoneted by an angry mob of civilians. No one reached the Hoa Lo prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton) in worse condition than McCain. Dumped in an empty cell, he was interrogated for four days before his captors brought him to a hospital after learning that his father was a four-star admiral and CINCUSNAVEUR.[12] By that time he was feverish, unable to hold down food (guards had to feed him by hand because of his injuries), semiconscious, and his right knee had swollen to the size of a football.[13] Although McCain received blood and plasma, he was not washed for six weeks. For two straight hours, a doctor tried to set the bones in his right arm without anesthetics. Finally the attendant settled for wrapping him a body cast. Eventually the Vietnamese operated on his bad leg and outfitted him with another cast. He was then transported to another jail known as the Plantation and put in a cell with two Air Force majors: George “Bud” Day and Norris Overly.

Plantation, Solitary Confinement, and Torture: At the time of his shootdown, McCain was 31 years old, but to Day he looked like a “white haired skeleton.” His head and body were covered in grime. Food particles clung to his face and hair, and he could not wash or relieve himself without assistance. Overly thought he appeared “damn near dead.” The two majors provided nursing home-type care for McCain until early 1968, when Overly and then Day were transferred out of the cell. McCain would spend the next two years in solitary confinement. On top of that, he was tortured regularly beginning in July 1968—the same month his father became CINCPAC. His torturer, known as Cat, singled him out for what was probably the harshest sustained persecution of any prisoner at the Plantation. For over a year, he was trussed with ropes and/or beaten for two to three hour stretches at a time until, like many other POWs from this period, he signed a confession of criminal wrongdoing and apology—permissible under the revised code of conduct.[14] This statement was all the Vietnamese ever got from McCain. He did not meet with delegations for propaganda purposes, did not divulge classified information, and refused to take an early release despite being recommended for one by the POW chain of command due to his severe injuries. McCain had amazing resilience. Time and again, he endured abuse only to bounce back again to focus on cheering up his fellow POWs with cryptic communications using the tap code. He also became a principle officer in POW resistance operations at the Plantation. Despite occasional disagreements over politics, none of the twenty POWs interviewed over the years would disagree with this statement: “McCain kept the faith with his squadron mates in the 4th Allied POW Wing, his father, and the U.S. Navy; his service in Hanoi was nothing short of heroic and exemplary.”[15]

Release and Postwar Naval Career: McCain’s wounds never completely healed in Vietnam, and he could never again raise his arms above his head. Following his release on 14 March 1973, he spent nearly five months recuperating and receiving medical treatment. He then attended the National War College and became the commanding officer of VA-174, which received a meritorious unit commendation under his leadership. Unfortunately, his first marriage did not survive Vietnam, an outcome he blames entirely on himself. He met his current wife, Cindy, a former schoolteacher from Arizona, in 1979 while serving with the Navy’s Office of Legislative Liaison in the Senate. In this legislative affairs role, McCain excelled. He played a key behind-the-scenes role in securing congressional support for a new supercarrier, despite White House opposition. Because of his injuries his likelihood of promotion to flag officer was low, so he opted instead to retire from the Navy in 1981 at the rank of captain. His decorations include the Silver Star Medal, the Legion of Merit with Combat 'V' and one gold star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal with Combat 'V' and two gold stars, and the Purple Heart Medal with one gold star.

After retirement, he was elected to the House in 1983 and the Senate in 1987. He ran unsuccessfully for President in 2008. Senator McCain passed away on 25 August 2018.  

                Prepared by John Sherwood, Ph.D., Naval History & Heritage Command, October 2017

_________________________________ 

 

[1] Note: He transferred off the ship prior to its mining on 19 July 1918. NHHC is currently re-examining the cause of its sinking.

[2] John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 109.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] Ibid., 152. 

[5] Ibid., 159.

[6] John Darrell Sherwood, Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War (New York: NYU Press, 2004), 29-32.

[7] John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 182-183.

[8] Note: His body was never recovered.

[9] Note: Aviator slang for flying over land.

[10] Dr. Joseph Arena, OSD Historian; Dr. Glen Asner, OSD Deputy Chief Historian; Dr. Erin Mahan, OSD Chief Historian; Dr. John Sherwood, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command, “The Origins of Offset, 1945–1979,” Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, October 2016, 50.

[11] John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 182-183.

[12] His father received a call from Admiral Thomas Moorer, then CNO, who told him: “Jack, we don’t think he survived.” John’s mother in turn called his wife, telling her to expect the worst. See John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 192.

[13] Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley, Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia (Washington, DC: Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1998), 360.

[14] The Vietnam War-era Code of Conduct arose out of the Korean War experience. In Korea, there had been a breakdown in morale, primarily among enlisted POWs, and widespread collaboration had occurred. The code called for POWs to make every effort to escape, to accept no special favors from the enemy and, when questioned, only to give one’s name, rank, serial number, and date of birth—the big four and nothing more. This code became untenable in Hanoi, where camp authorities ignored the Geneva Convention and subjected POWs to severe torture and depravity. POW leadership developed policies known as Plums to expand (and in some cases substitute for) the code. Plums required a pilot to take physical abuse and torture before acceding to specific demands but did not expect a man to die or seriously jeopardize his health and safety. However, there would be no early releases, no appearances for propaganda, and any flexibility or freelancing would be subordinated to the need for unity and discipline.

[15] Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley, Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia (Washington, DC: Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1998), 361–364; John Sherwood, interviews with Vietnam-era POWs, NHHC.

 

 

Published:Tue Sep 18 15:03:58 EDT 2018