McCain: A Tale of Two Admirals

September 14, 2008 at 2:55 am

USS John S. McCain

USS John S. McCain

USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) is a US Navy Arleigh Burke Class AEGIS destroyer. It is jointly named after Admirals John Sidney McCain and John S. McCain jr.
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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 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. 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 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 leadership.

     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 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.

Read the entire Tale of Two Admirals (written by Senator John S. McCain III) at the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) website.

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Entry filed under: American Military History, Military Biography, Modern Military History, Naval History. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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